Why the U.S. Must Tackle the Saudi Menace of Jihadism

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Brahma Chellaney, China-US Focus

At a time when the conflict within Islam has sharpened between Sunnis and Shias and between fundamentalists and reformers, the House of Saud — the world’s No. 1 promoter of radical Islamic extremism — is increasingly playing the sectarian card, even at the risk of deepening the schisms.

If Saudi Arabia is to be stopped from continuing to export jihad, the U.S. will have to make necessary adjustments in its policy. By wielding only carrots and no stick, the U.S. allows the double-talking Saudi royals to run with the foxes and hunt with the hounds — at grave cost to the security of many countries.

Indeed, the present U.S. policy approach gives the House of Saud the strategic space to keep all options open and cozy up to China, already Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and biggest importer of oil. China’s relationship with Saudi Arabia extends beyond trade and investment to arms, including the covert transfer of Chinese DF-21 and DF-3 medium-range ballistic missiles. Following the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, China agreed during President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia to build that country’s first nuclear power plant.

Jihadism and sectarianism are institutionalized in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world named after its founder, commonly known as Ibn Saud. Saud, who ruled for 20 years until his death, brought the central part of the Arabian Peninsula under his control with British assistance in 1932, establishing a desert kingdom hewing to Wahhabism, a messianic radicalism from the 18th century that until recent decades was considered a fringe form of Islam.

Jihadism and sectarianism are institutionalized in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world named after its founder, commonly known as Ibn Saud. Saud, who ruled for 20 years until his death, brought the central part of the Arabian Peninsula under his control with British assistance in 1932, establishing a desert kingdom hewing to Wahhabism, a messianic radicalism from the 18th century that until recent decades was considered a fringe form of Islam.

Oil wealth helped transform the once-barren state, the world’s largest country without a river.

Since the oil-price boom of the 1970s that dramatically increased its wealth, Saudi Arabia has spent more than $200 billion on its global jihad project, including funding Wahhabi madrassas, mosques and books. Wahhabism legitimizes violent jihad with its call for a war on “infidels.”

Saudi funding has helped spread radical Sunni extremism across Africa and Asia and opened a new threat to European nations with significant Muslim minorities. Indeed, Wahhabism’s export is making the tolerant and heterodox Islamic traditions in many South and Southeast Asian countries extinct.

Yet the rest of the world — in thrall to Saudi money and reliant on Saudi oil — has largely turned a blind eye to the kingdom’s jihadist agenda.

Make no mistake: Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi fanaticism is the root from which Islamist terrorist groups ranging from the Islamic State to al-Qaeda draw their ideological sustenance. As U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden said in a 2014 Harvard speech, Saudi and other “allies’ policies wound up helping to arm and build allies of al-Qaida and eventually the terrorist Islamic State.”

Saudi Arabia has faced little international pressure even on human rights, despite having one of the world’s most tyrannical regimes.

How the kingdom buys up world leaders is apparent from the Malaysian attorney general’s recent disclosure that the $681 million deposited in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal bank account was a “personal donation” from the Saudi royals and that $620 of it was returned. Saudi Arabia has given between $10 million and $25 million to the Clinton Foundation, which last year also received a separate donation from a charitable foundation established by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Saudi Arabia is today engaged in war crimes in Yemen, where it is waging an air war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. A United Nations panel of experts said in October that the Saudi-led coalition had committed “grave violations” of the Geneva Conventions by targeting civilian sites in Yemen. Still, the Saudi military is failing in its war in Yemen; the rebels remain in control of Sanaa, the capital.

With its own future more uncertain than ever, the House of Saudi is increasingly playing the sectarian card in order to shore up support among the Sunni majority at home and to rally other Islamist rulers in the region to its side.

Having militarily crushed the Arab Spring uprising in Sunni-led but Shia-majority Bahrain, Saudi Arabia early this year executed its own Arab Spring leader who had led anti-regime Shia protests in 2011.  By executing Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr — a Shia cleric and scholar who had become the symbol of the Arab Spring protests in its oil-rich, mainly Shia Eastern Province — Saudi Arabia ignored U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s warning that the action would stoke major tensions with Iran.

Before the execution, the kingdom formed an alliance of Sunni states purportedly to fight terrorism. The coalition included all the main sponsors of international terror, including Qatar, Pakistan and, of course, Saudi Arabia. It was like arsonists pretending to be fire wardens.

When the coalition quickly became the butt of international ridicule, King Salman of Saudi Arabia resorted on a mass scale to what his country is notorious for as the global leader in beheadings. He ordered the execution on terrorism charges of 47 people on a single day, including Nimr al-Nimr. Most were beheaded in a style associated with the Islamic State.

The royals seem to mistakenly believe that widening the sectarian fault lines across the Islamic world will keep them in power. The crash in oil prices is already compounding the royals’ challenges at home. Discontent is growing quietly, even as King Salman pursues aggressive activism in his foreign policy.

By drawing legitimacy from jihadism and by being beholden to sectarianism, the royals could be digging their own graves. After all, fueling jihadism and sectarianism threatens to empower extremists at home and devour the royalty.

Against this background, it has become imperative for the U.S. to stop looking the other way as Saudi Arabia exports radical Islamic extremism. Unlike the ties between Saudi Arabia and China — two major autocracies — oil can no longer provide the glue for the Saudi-U.S. relationship, which is largely bereft of shared strategic interests or values. Moreover, America’s oil production at home is surging.

The U.S.-led war on terror must target not just the effect but the cause of terrorism, especially the central role Saudi Arabia plays through its religious-industrial complex in spreading jihadism. For example, proselytizing efforts by Saudi Arabia — and, to a lesser extent, by Qatar and some other oil sheikdoms — have helped train thousands of imams or teachers in Wahhabism to deliver radical sermons at petrodollar-funded mosques in many countries.

The war on Islamist terror cannot be won without closing the wellspring that feeds it — Wahhabi fanaticism. Wahhabism is the ultimate source of the hatred that triggered the September 11, 2001, strikes in the U.S., the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the Paris terror in November. Shutting that wellspring demands that America drop Saudi Arabia as an ally and treat it as a core part of the problem.

The world’s chief ideological sponsor of jihadism must be held to account for spawning the kinds of dangerous extremists that are imperiling regional and international security.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

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