Between US and Saudi Arabia, a Growing Clash of Values

By Luck, Taylor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 2016 | Go to article overview

Between US and Saudi Arabia, a Growing Clash of Values


Luck, Taylor, The Christian Science Monitor


When the United States Congress voted to override a presidential veto and clear the way for US citizens to sue foreign states for supporting terrorism, it highlighted a major weakness in US-Saudi relations: two allies shifting in opposite directions.

The passage of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), as well as mounting concerns over Saudi Arabia's increased targeting of civilians in Yemen, portray Washington and Riyadh as allies of convenience whose fundamental values clash.

Many members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are increasingly accusing Saudi Arabia of being an incubator for terror and a human-rights violator. Indeed, Saudi Arabia faces an image problem. Though it has been attacked by the Islamic State six times in the past year and a half, Saudi Arabia's links to hard-line Wahhabi Islam and prominent citizens' support for groups such as Al Qaeda make it a target.

To Saudi eyes, the US is unjustly punishing a key ally. Not only does Saudi Arabia say it is reforming its ties to that extreme interpretation of Islam, but it also sees itself as a pillar in the fight against groups such as the so-called Islamic State.

To experts, the country is attempting a difficult balancing act.

"Saudi Arabia is already doing a lot to curb extremism and fight terrorism, while maintaining its Wahhabi-based legitimacy," says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and director of Brookings Intelligence Project. "But it is difficult to sell this case to the outside world because it is a nuanced argument - Saudi Arabia is being seen as both the arsonist and the firefighter."

How the relationship has cooledFrom the Saudi perspective, it has been cracking down on ultraconservative preachers and hate speech after becoming a target of Al Qaeda in 2002. That has involved removing and retraining hundreds of clerics and teachers in mosques and schools across the country. More than 1,600 suspected Islamic State supporters have been arrested across the country during the past two years. Since 2003, Riyadh has dismissed more than 3,500 imams for "extremist" views.

Saudi intelligence-sharing has also prevented "multiple" attacks in the US, including an Al Qaeda-planned cargo plane bomb plot in 2010, both Saudi officials and US intelligence analysts say. And Riyadh has closed loopholes allowing individuals to fund Al Qaeda or the Islamic State - forcing jihadists to funnel money through neighboring Kuwait.

But it is believed that private Saudi citizens have financed jihadist militias in Syria. Ultraconservative clerics and imams still preach intolerance, while a ban on women's driving and women's inability to travel without the permission of male relatives make Saudi Arabia an "extremist" state, say critics.

With the rise of threats from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), many Americans are looking to pin the jihadist cult on a tangible actor - and have settled on Saudi Arabia.

"I think that [with] the rise of ISIS and some of the lone-wolf terror attacks we are seeing in the West, people [in the United States] and elsewhere are trying to come up with an answer," says Fahad Nazar, a former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington and an analyst at JTG Inc, a Virginia-based consulting firm. "For some, it seems like Saudi Arabia is a convenient answer as they believe ... Saudi Arabia's export of ideology over the years is a part of it."

When JASTA was debated in the House, lawmakers took turns berating Saudi Arabia. …

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