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Saudi Arabia’s Decade of Denial

LONDON – Saudi Arabia may not have been directly implicated in the conspiracy that killed more than 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, but it has been consumed in a conspiracy of silence ever since. The Kingdom remains in sullen denial of the fact that the terrorists’ ideology – their inspiration to behave as they did – was created and nurtured within its borders.

That stance appears to have been contagious, because the United States, too, has done everything possible to change the subject whenever the Saudi role in the 9/11 attacks is raised. The US has found it much safer, it seems, to focus on mortal threats that remain more notional than real – be it Saddam Hussein or Iran’s Shia mullahs.

From the moment the Twin Towers fell in New York, the US sought to define for the world how to view the terrorist attack. President George W. Bush declared that, “you are either with us, or against us,” and quickly began to classify entire nations in these Manichean terms.

Muslim leaders everywhere worried that they would be stigmatized, perhaps nowhere more so than in Saudi Arabia, whose regime feared that its decades of friendship with the US might end.

But those fears were misplaced, because the Bush administration was determined to minimize the Saudi role in the 9/11 atrocity. True, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, and the attack’s author, Osama bin Laden, was born and bred in the Kingdom. But the Bush administration chose to ignore and bury the evidence of any state involvement. The long-term bilateral relationship, based on the Kingdom’s custodianship of the holy oil fields, was not to be disrupted.

Nevertheless, Saudi legitimacy came under fire. The Kingdom’s prestige among fellow Islamic regimes suffered, because Al Qaeda was widely perceived as a product of Saudi Arabia’s official Wahhabi ideology, and was known to receive much of its financial support from within the country. In an effort at damage control, the regime became preoccupied with confronting its domestic enemies while simultaneously labeling the terrorists “foreign,” “ignorant of Islam,” and, yes, even “Zionist.”

This scheme had some success in portraying homegrown jihadis as members of external, rootless, trans-national groups. Saudi terrorists were described as al fi’a al dhallah (“the group that has gone astray”). To distract attention further, the Saudis also began to denounce the country’s Shia minority ever more vociferously as a “fifth column” of Iran’s terror-sponsoring regime.

But, despite heightened vigilance, domestic Saudi terror cells became active within the Kingdom following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The following year, Osama bin Laden described the ruling al-Saud family’s control of oil revenues as “the biggest theft in history.” On Bin Laden’s orders, oil installations, the oil city of Khobar, the interior ministry, and the police headquarters in Riyadh were all attacked.

The worldwide attention and criticism that the 9/11 attacks brought to Wahhabism put the Saudi royals on the defensive about the religious creed that had long legitimized their regime. In particular, the concept of al-walaa’ wa al-bara’ (“loyalty to the system and hostility to outsiders”), a central component of the Saudi educational curriculum, was savaged because it included a duty to engage in jihad to protect the moral order. Following American requests, references to the concept were removed from textbooks in 2004. But that is about as far as “reform” of the Saudi educational system and its curriculum of fanaticism went.

Another failure was the Kingdom’s effort to win over the hearts and minds of captured terrorists. In the mid-2000’s, it was praised for creating a model system for reintegrating Saudis who had been detained at the US prison at Guantánamo Bay. But the supposed cure – more knowledge of Wahhabism – proved only to promote the disease: the men who created Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were graduates of the Saudis’ rehabilitation program.

Not even the marginalization of Al Qaeda by the Arab Spring offered respite to the Kingdom. True democracy, of course, cannot coexist with Al Qaeda; but it also cannot coexist with an obscurantist monarchy enthralled to a fundamentalist ideology. Bin Laden’s death came at the very moment when much of the Muslim world was expressing through public protests that it had no desire to see regimes built upon his Wahhabi-inspired brand of fanaticism.

Yet Saudi Arabia took no solace from this, because the regimes toppled by the Arab Spring had been bulwarks of its regional security policy. In a further denial of reality, the Kingdom has recoiled from the new regimes as if they were apostates.

Here, once again, Saudi confusion has mimicked American confusion, or vice versa. The US has either hesitated to embrace the Arab Spring revolutions (Egypt was a particularly striking case) or has given silent assent to their suppression, as in Bahrain. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s unilateral military intervention in Bahrain to suppress the revolt there – albeit carried out under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s “security” pact – was tacitly supported by America.

Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda has been marginalized, but not by Saudi Arabia, which nurtured the terrorists, or by the US, which waged wars against Bin Laden and his acolytes. Instead, it has been eviscerated by the courage and dignity of ordinary Arabs from Damascus to Sana to Tripoli. Perhaps if the Saudi royal family could grasp that simple fact, it would no longer need to deny the true sources of the Kingdom’s insecurity.