Saudi Arabia's impunity goes back decades

Yemen is dying as 14 million men, women and children face famine. The Middle East’s poorest country is buckling under the strain of blockade by land, air and sea as the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The world’s worst humanitarian crisis has mutated into a horrifying man-made disaster. The levels of mass-starvation could be the worst in ‘100 years’ if the crisis is allowed to drag on into January 2019 as Yemen has overtaken Syria and the Rohingya conflicts as the worst humanitarian crisis worldwide.

Seventeen years ago, a wealthy businessman named Osama Bin Laden from Saudi Arabia and his followers, often in coordination with American, Pakistani and Saudi intelligence services during the Soviet-Afghan War launched a series of devastating attacks on the United States soil. Within hours of the attacks it was reported that Prince Bandar bin Sultan swiftly contacted President George W. Bush to remove leading Saudi officials from the United States. The president at the request of the Saudi Ambassador allowed a chartered plane from Lexington, Kentucky, back to the Middle East with one-hundred and forty four people who had not been prescreened, interviewed or in any meaningful manner debriefed of what they knew about the situation. The CIA and FBI did not authorise these flights, it was the White House. At the time, most aviation in the U.S was grounded, but by the time Bandar took off these restrictions had been lifted as landmark buildings burned across the United States.

Thousands were killed and wounded and thousands more continue to die after sustaining cancer from inhaling the poisonous fumes released by the collapse of the World Trade Centre. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children followed in subsequent invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and the drone and aerial campaigns in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Pakistan launched by key figures in the White House and Pentagon to in name of degrading and destroying the threat of jihādism in its various forms. It is clear that the culture of protection of Saudi officials ran up and down the ranks of federal government. In many ways the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States parallels that which Washington holds with Israel where immensely powerful economic, military and strategic ties dictate diplomatic relations between the countries. 

Saudi Arabia's official relationship with the United States' began as early as May, 1931 when the U.S extended full diplomatic recognition to the kingdom, seventeen years before President Harry Truman recognised Israel in 1948. Truman's predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt had been courting the al-Saud family throughout the closing stages of Second World War. As Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan collapsed, the United States' slowly increased its interest in strengthening business and military ties with Saudi Arabia as the value of its oil reserves became increasingly apparent to policymakers and the Cold War with Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union loomed large. Saudi Arabia sought military security in the Middle East, a region suffering from a multitude of security concerns and its interests converged with those of the United States. Equally,  Wahabbism, a revivalist and fundamentalist form of Islam born in the 18th century nurtured by Muhammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was opposed to the atheist creed of the Soviet Union and containing that influence was high on their policy agenda of the al-Saud family. 

As it is clear in the ‘28 Pages’, the Saudi government was the source of financial, logistical, support, provision which allowed the hijackers to launch an attack against the United States. Human rights activists have riled against Saudi Arabia's flagrant disregard for basic human rights, its suppression of women's rights, democracy and the Shiite minorities. However these concerns, while abhorrent, are not new phenomenons and have regularly been disregarded by the considerations of Western governments single-minded focus on geo-strategic political and economic "balance" in the Middle East, much like the United States' alliance with Israel which remains largely unquestioned in the halls of power, despite the occasionally rhetorical criticism by spokespersons. 

However it is Saudi Arabia's current conduct in foreign policy and the grave instability it has helped create across important parts of the region which is making many policymakers' uncomfortable. Saudi Arabia has overplayed its hand in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and been directly linked with funding explicitly sectarian organisations including ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra (recently rebranded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) and Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula. During the occupation of Iraq, Saudi Arabia monarchy would have staunchly opposed the democratic project of the Bush administration. According to the Combating Terrorism Centre at Point in December 2007 analysis of 700 records of foreign fighters who entered Iraq during the Iraqi insurgency against the U.S occupation, 41% were from Saudi Arabia while another US ally Jordan was the backbone of economic power of the insurgency in the "Sunni-Triangle" where Saudi Arabia and Jordan had historical tribal and economic ties to the Al-Anbar province. 

Furthermore Clinton wrote in 2009 that private donors are a key source of funding for Al-Qa'ida and neo-Salafi/Wahabbist movements according to leaked U.S diplomatic cables: “It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority…Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”. Five years later and two months after Baghdadi's declaration of a caliphate in June 2014, Hilary Clinton wrote in an email:

"While this military/para-military operation is moving forward, we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the government of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistical support to ISIS and other radical Sunni groups in the region."

The proxy conflict with Iran has fanned the flames of a Shiite-Sunni civil war across the Middle East, catalysed by the Arab Revolutions. Nevertheless, the unquestioned alliance with Saudi Arabia is beginning to crack.  Washington under Obama played a distancing act while funnelling billions of dollars worth of armaments into Saudi Arabia as a counter-balance and deterrent to the expansion of Iranian military and economic power.  The Obama administration behaved in a similar manner with the Israelis on the Iranian nuclear issue. It is not a coincidence that the United States pledged to increase military support for Israel a day after the Iranian nuclear deal (14th July, 2015) and the lifting of sanctions against Iran. This deal was ratified by an unprecedented military package worth $38 billion on 13th September, 2016. 

Saudi Arabia's growing instability will have serious consequences for global oil markets and security across the Middle East. The Saudi Arabian government ultimately bears far greater responsibility for the events of September 11 then Saddam Hussein. It is undisputed that Saddam Hussein was a horrifying figure. He committed genocide against Iraqi Kurds, killed and tortured Iraqi civilians with relative impunity, and launched disastrous wars of aggression against Iran and Kuwait which had a lasting impact upon Iraq's politics, society and economy. 

However, invading Saudi Arabia, the 'world's largest exporter of oil, the site of Islam's holiest sites, and creating a country awash, in almost equal measure, in advanced American weapons and angry Wahhabis' instead of Iraq would not have been a solution to the atrocities of September 11. The occupation and invasion of Iraq and subsequent birth of ISIS have demonstrated the folly of attempting to use direct military force without a viable political, national, socio-economic and cultural strategy aligned with historical and contextual factors shaping the country in question. According to Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer charged with leading Afghan and U.S forces who struck back at Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the wake of September 11, the war against Al-Qa'ida could have been over in months. As Michael Hirsh writes:

"With a Delta Force officer standing by his side, Berntsen drafted a message to his superiors back in Washington that he told me ended with the line: "Let's kill this baby in the crib." Berntsen wanted to send in troops - fewer than 1000 Army Rangers - who could've closed the noose, but George Bush, on the advice of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, turned him down...Other opportunities presented themselves in the months that followed...But rather than send troops into Afghanistan to eliminate Al-Qa'ida, the Bush administration began to massively shift men and resources to Iraq, where Al-Qa'ida did not exist."

It is highly unlikely that defeating insurgent groups like Al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan would have ended the conflict, Al-Qa'ida's militant religious doctrine, and the religious revivalism and questions of identity gripping the Muslim and Arab world. The processes underway, particularly the Salafi-jihādist movement (one of the significant socio-religious movements of our time) began decades before the September 11 attacks, as did the Shiite resurgence. War and insecurity prompted by the 'Global War on Terror' has strengthened the Salafi-jihādist movement and ideology, even if there are a multiplicity of political, economic and social factors at play that transcend the narrative of a Shiite-Sunni civil war, religious and "terrorist" violence. 

As Fawaz Gerges argues "Instead of using September 11 as a catalyst to endear America to the people of the Middle East and to renew American leadership, Bush and the neoconservatives monstrously miscalculated: they tried their hand at imperialism, and they did so with the intention of transplanting America's version of democracy and free-market capitalism to the region.” This vision was driven by the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz, who were key members and advocates of the Project for the New American Century. On September 11, according to his memoir Against All Enemies, Richard A. Clarke the White House counter-terrorism czar, recalls that during a meeting of the National Security Council at the White House on the morning of September 12, Wolfowitz repeatedly called for striking Iraq instead of Al-Qa'ida. His focus on Iraq, notes Clarke, surprised Bush, who, at that moment believed Al-Qa'ida to be the most pressing threat to the country. Iraq, not Saudi Arabia, bore the brunt of the U.S military. Yemen is the latest country to suffer as a result of this deadly, at times treacherous, alliance.