The Saudi Connection

As the hunt for terrorists continues, many clues point to our trusted ally.


“Either you are with us,” the president declared in his September 20 speech, “or you are with the terrorists.” This seemingly clear divide immediately started a debate among both Bush’s advisors and D.C.’s chattering classes over whether this meant smart bombers should be dialing in coordinates for Saddam Hussein’s hangouts.

Yet just as interesting is what Bush’s ultimatum means for our supposed allies in the region, particularly our largest Arab ally, Saudi Arabia. As intelligence experts and investigative reporters dig for the sources of the September 11 attacks, it’s becoming clear that the Saudis have long been both with us, as a formal ally, and with the terrorists, as a passive source of support. And even as the war on terrorism has advanced on its multiple frontsâ€"freezing the terrorists’ assets, determining the identities and connections of the actual bombers, bombing military infrastructure in Afghanistanâ€"credible reports claim that Saudi officials aren’t being especially helpful.

“We’re getting zero cooperation now,” Vincent M. Cannistraro, a former CIA chief of counterterrorism who once worked in Saudi Arabia, told the Los Angeles Times. “There is a whole pile of Saudi businessmen who have been providing regular contributions to Al Qaeda.”

Indeed, the Saudis have proved much of the money, manpower, and ideology for Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network. Bin Laden is, after all a former Saudi, one who got exiled rather than beheaded for his crimes against non-Muslim humanity. Officials believe that nine of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that the muscle men of the hijacking teams were actually trained on Saudi, not Afghani, soil.

The regime’s response is to complain that Arabs are being targeted. “There were 400 people aboard the four planes,” Saudi Arabia’s interior minister, Prince Nayef, complained to the Saudi Press Agency. “We find it strange that the focus is on Arabs, and Saudis in particular.”

The Saudis are certainly in a tough spot. For decades, they’ve been dependent on the U.S. for a security guarantee, a relationship they were eager to use when their kingdom appeared to be threatened by a belligerent Saddam Hussein. Yet to secure themselves externally, the royal family upsets its more conservative subjects, who can’t stand the thought of a non-Muslim military in their holy land. Unelected and often corrupt, the regime permits neither economic nor political freedom. It maintains its hold on power through a welfare state that asks little of its subjects. “It was the inverse slogan of the American revolution,” writes Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria. “No taxation, but no representation.” To appease the religious zealots, it funds them and looks the other way, so long as they don’t commit crimes against Saudis or on Saudi soil. “The Saudi regime has played a dangerous game,” writes Zakaria. “It deflects attention from its shoddy record at home by funding religious schools (madrasas) and centers that spread a rigid, puritanical brand of Islamâ€"Wahhabism.”

“Saudi Arabia has to walk a tightrope,” says David Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University and the author of 1979: The Year that Shaped the Modern Middle East (2001). It’s a tightrope from which they might just fall. Like any regime, their main interest is staying in power, and staying alive. “In a western democracy, you lose touch with your people, you lose elections,” the Saudi ambassador to Washington told The Economist. “In a monarchy, you lose your head.”

That’s fair enough. But U.S. politicians aren’t immune from public opinion either. The Saudi act is not one that plays well under the klieg lights of non-state-controlled media. The New York Times has already called for a reevaluation of U.S. policy toward the country. There’s rumbling on the Hill as well. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Florida), chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, has expressed concern that Saudi news accounts called for the U.S. to limit its anti-terrorism efforts to bin Laden. “If that is the expectation of the Saudi government,” Graham told the Los Angeles Times, “we haven’t adequately communicated what our definition of victory is.”

For now, it’s clear the U.S. wants continued access to Saudi air facilities and Saudi oil, and will do what it takes to keep the ailing King Fahd and his 7,000 princes in the U.S. camp. But with a hole in the Pentagon, the Twin Towers a postcard memory, and anthrax spreading through the U.S. mail, there may soon come a time when Bush demands some change from the Saudis.

As National Interest editor Adam Garfinkle recently wrote in a paper for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “Without a sea-change in Saudi internal practices, it will be impossible to ‘drain the swamp’ and really put an end to the kind of terrorism we suffered last month.” And that, after all, is the imperative for our survival.