Saudi Arabia and the War on Terrorism

By Bahgat, Gawdat | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Saudi Arabia and the War on Terrorism


Bahgat, Gawdat, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


IN 1945 THE FIRST MEETING BETWEEN a U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a Saudi king, Abdel Aziz al-Saud, the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia, was held aboard an American warship in the Suez Canal. The two leaders laid down the foundations for a solid alliance between their two nations. The United States is the world's largest oil consumer and importer, while Saudi Arabia is the world's leading oil producer and exporter. Meanwhile, given its vast hydrocarbon resources, large size and small population, the kingdom has been threatened by more populous and powerful neighbors (e.g., Egypt, Iran and Iraq). As a superpower, the United States has the political will and the means to protect Saudi Arabia and its oil fields. In short, since the mid-1940s the unofficial alliance between Washington and Riyadh has been based on oil for security. For more than half a century the two sides were satisfied with their partnership. Saudi Arabia has, for the most part, played a leading role as a moderate power to calm the oil markets, producing more when prices are too high and less when there is a glut. In return, the United States has demonstrated its determination to defend the kingdom from real or potential threats by regional rivals. Furthermore, Washington has shown very little, if any, interest in pressuring the Saudi rulers to reform their economic and political systems.

Based on this understanding the United States has emerged as Saudi Arabia's biggest trading partner and the Saudis have been among the biggest buyers of U.S.-made weaponry. The Saudis have also been major U.S. creditors, buying billions in Treasury bonds and enthusiastic investors in U.S. industry.

This solid five-decade partnership was severely challenged by the 11 September terrorist attacks, in which approximately three thousands people were killed. Osama bin Laden, the main figure behind these attacks was born in Saudi Arabia and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi citizens. In addition, Saudi private money was used to finance the 11 September terrorist attacks as Gawdat Bahgat is Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Department of Political Science, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania. well as other attacks against U.S. citizens and interests. Accordingly, since 11 September 2001 the U.S.-Saudi partnership has come under intense scrutiny and the relations between Washington and Riyadh have reached the lowest point ever.

This study seeks to examine Riyadh's stand on the war on terrorism, particularly with regard to channeling Saudi private money to terrorist organizations. The wave of American criticism to the Saudi domestic and foreign policies will be discussed. Finally an assessment of the current U.S. Saudi relations and policy options in the foreseeable future will be provided.

STRAINS IN U.S.-SAUDI RELATIONS

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formally proclaimed in 1932 by Abdel Aziz al-Saud. The al-Saud family forged an alliance with the religious movement, Wahhabism in the mid eighteenth century. The followers of this reformist movement are called Muwahhidum, better known in the West as Wahhabis. The doctrine of this movement emphasizes the necessity of behaving in conformity with the laws of the Qur'an and the practices of the Prophet, as interpreted by the early scholars of Islam. The ultimate goal of the Muslim community, according to Wahhabism, is to become the living embodiment of God's laws on earth. Bid'ah (innovation) defined as any doctrine or action that does not confirm with the Qur'an or the Prophet's traditions, is an important concern for the Wahhabis. The movement strongly rejects any innovation. Finally, Wahhabism calls for obedience to a just Muslim ruler, because the community of believers can fulfill its goal only by submitting an oath of allegiance to a Muslim ruler, who, in consultation with Ulema (religious scholars) and those who hold political power is the hallmark of a true Islamic government. …

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