January 25, 2020
Philip C Johnson, Ph.D.
Saudi Arabia has always been a bit of a conundrum. Hosting Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, she holds considerable influence over the religious lives of 1.8 billion Muslims. Saudi’s significant regional rival is another Muslim nation – the Islamic Republic of Iran (a Shiite Muslim nation), while Saudi’s biggest supplier of military aid is the United Sates – a decidedly Western, non-Muslim country. Quite an interesting mix.
Politics and the Middle East have always made for interesting bedfellows. And the relationship between the the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is no exception. Even with billions of dollars of military aid and plenty of intelligence sharing, tensions and inconsistencies are rarely far from the surface. Going all the way back to 9/11, it must be acknowledged that 15 of the 19 hijackers that attacked the U.S. were Saudis. Osama bin Laden was Saudi. Last month, Mohammed Alshamrani, a 21-year-old second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force and a student naval flight officer, opened fire in a classroom building at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, killing three U.S. sailors. And just a couple of days ago, according to a U.N. report, it was discovered that the Crowned Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), allegedly hacked Jeff Bezos’s cell phone, stealing data. This would be the same Jeff Bezos who owns Amazon and the Washington Post – the newspaper that Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi wrote for until he was assassinated by Saudi operatives in October of 2018 at the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, allegedly with the support of the Crowned Prince.
That’s a rough record for anyone, let alone one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East and our counterpoint to an aggressive Iran. Based on my time in the Kingdom last week, it does not look like transparency or reform is forthcoming. While I met some incredibly gracious, helpful people in Riyadh, It was a challenge getting anyone to talk. The people I spoke with were afraid. Scared for their safety and the safety of their families.
Here’s an example of a typical conversation I had: I was out at a place called “Riyadh Boulevard” – a sort of outdoors hangout with food trucks, cafes, pop-up stores and people strolling around. While passing a booth, one man called to me and asked if he could share some information with me.
“Of course,” I said – thinking that I was all about information – and finding it very hard to come by. He went on and said, “I want to tell you about a number. It’s 990. If you see anything that looks like it’s terror related, this is the dedicated line for reporting terror or getting help in a terrorist situation.”
Me: “Oh, like 911 for emergencies in the U.S?
Him: “No, not for emergencies – just for terrorism. (Interesting distinction…) Now, please know that the chances of terrorism happening is very small – in fact, it’s not going to happen. But just in case something does – or you see something or experience something, this number can help you.”
Me: So, the Saudis don’t do terrorism or support radicalism?
Him: “No, not much.”
Me: “So last month, when a Saudi military officer murdered three American navy men on my country’s soil, that was not terrorism? That was completely unexpected?”
Him: “Sir, I would love to give you my personal view on that issue, but I am ex-Saudi intelligence and am currently working on our 990-awareness-program. So I cannot comment.”
Me: “Can I have your phone number and we can meet up after work to talk about it?”
Him: “Sir, I am forbidden from giving out my number at work. However, I can offer you this commemorative water bottle with the number “990” on it. (You cannot make this stuff up!)
Me.: “OK, just look at me – and blink twice if you agree with the following statement: “The terrorist action that occurred in Pensacola last month at the hands of a Saudi national against the United States was NOT surprising and NOT unexpected by you.”
Him: Two large blinks of his eyes followed by, “Please sir, use our service 990 if you encounter anything that makes you uncomfortable.”
Understanding the challenge of getting people to talk, I began the
process of getting additional insights using random conversations, deeply imbedded contacts and what little money I could use to help people make decisions about what they would share with me. Note, all names have been changed due to the extreme risk of sharing information and speaking to a foreign journalist. Here are some highlights of what I got:
Saudi Arabia’s view of the presence of Western and U.S. influence inside the country:
Kamalnath Hirani, a young store manager and foreign worker, considered the presence of the USA a blessing for the people like him. He believes that the presence of the USA in the orthodox state of Saudi, creates an indirect pressure to treat the non-Muslim population with a bit more respect. Yet he complained that non-Muslims are still treated as second class citizens. Even now, they are penalized if found practicing their religious prayers or festivals.
Syyed Usman Ali works as the manager of a jewelry store in Hafr Al-Batin. Syyed expressed his extreme concern towards the issue of Western influence in Saudi. He said he is worried that the influence of the Western world will ruin the principles and ideologies of Islam in the country. He further added,”In my view the government should do something to tackle this problem.”
Mohammad Anas is a highly decorated officer in the army of Saudi Arabia. Before agreeing to talk, Anas requested for his rank and working position be kept secret. Regarding his opinion on the presence of the U.S. in Saudi, Anas supported the presence of the U.S. and Western countries in Saudi and said, “The presence and friendship of the USA is like a boon to Saudi. Because of the USA, Saudi has one of the most upgraded and highest weapons technology in the world. All of this helps to protect Saudi from threats like Iran and its terrorist groups.” Mohammad further stated that, “Because of the USA, Saudi has the chance of being a world-level military power.”
BOTTOM LINE: It is well understood that Saudi Arabia NEEDS the U.S. to remain a significant power in the Middle East. It is also obvious that some – including many in the religious community resent Western influence and the perception that pure Islam is making dangerous compromises by allowing infidels to exist on Islamic lands.
Saudi’s view of the recent conflict between the U.S. and Iran, including the killing of Iranian General Soleimani and the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane by Iran:
Sheikh Maulana Shahraukh is an Islamic scholar from Mecca, the holiest city in Saudi Arabia. On being asked his opinion on the matter of the recent Iranian conflict, he criticized the USA for escalating tensions in the region and further added, “Though General Soleimani was an enemy of peace in the region, the USA and Iran both should understand that whatever the problem is, it can only be solved by dialogue.” He refused to answer any of our additional questions.
Mumtaz Ali is the driver of a bank manager in Tabuk. His reflection of the recent conflict with Iran was as follows: “Iran seems to be full of rage and hatred for USA, and it is totally natural. But Iran should try not to indulge in any kind of aggression as it will harm common workers like himself in Iran. He further added, that the crash of the Ukrainian passenger flight is something to be criticized, because it was something which Iran actually did. “It’s the pure massacre not only of the passengers in the plane but that of humanity too.”
Mohommad Hassan is a teacher of political science in the famous university of Yanbu. Responding to the killing of Iranian General Soleimani, he replied, “Soleimani’s death was a golden chance to change Iran’s economic condition. Iran could have used the death of the popular General to rally support from European nations to apply pressure to the U.S. to improve Iran’s position. But due to a lack of great leadership in Iran, they failed to negotiate such a deal.” He further added, “The crash of the Ukrainian passenger plane may increase Iran’s problems in long run.”
Faheem Khan owns a food shop in Yanbu. He claimed that Iran’s threats of war are baseless. He noted that there is a great disparity between the defense capabilities of the U.S. and Iran. Faheem further said, “If war were to happen, this may lead to the removal of Iran from the world map.” Upon being pressed to provide additional insights, Faheem offered this nugget: “The whole ‘crisis’ is just a publicity stunt by both the countries. Everything will ultimately end up on a conference table via dialogue.” He further criticized Iran for the attack on Ukrainian passenger plane.
BOTTOM LINE: Iran is Saudi’s biggest regional enemy. While it’s difficult for Muslims to publicly take the side of America against other Muslims, it is clear that Saudi is thankful for the very serious setbacks that the U.S. has provided to Iran in recent weeks. I was personally thanked -off the record – by a number of Saudi citizens for the efforts of President Trump.
Saudi’s response to a series of challenges in 2019, including the still-lingering issue of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, human rights abuses, and a Saudi-led terror attack on American soil:
Dr. Asim has been treating the Saudi royal family for years. He currently lives outside of the country but the doctor often visits Saudi Arabia as one of the consultant to the “House of Saud.” He was met by my team in Riyadh as he was on a trip to meet the royal family. Though he didn’t speak much, he showed extreme empathy towards the family of the murdered journalist, Khashoggi and towards the families of sailors killed in the U.S. But he refused to comment further or indicate who was ultimately responsible for these atrocities.
“His Majesty Prince Habib,” first refused our request to answer questions, but after assurances of obscuring his identity, he offered a few insights. The Prince replied that he had heard that people in the West are spreading rumors, that the death of the journalist Khashoggi was politically motivated. And they are blaming His Highness the Crown Prince. Prince Habib condemned all the rumors by saying, “No member from the House of Saud was involved in such a brutal crime. In fact the five culprits responsible have been sentenced with capital punishment.” When requested to give his opinion on the death of the sailors in Florida, he showed extreme empathy towards the families of sailors. But he declined to elaborate or to answer the rest of our questions or to comment on the motivation of the terrorist attack.
Mustafa is a daily wage worker who has worked in Saudi for years but now has come back to India. Mustafa directly accused, His Majesty the Crown Prince for Khashoggi’s murder. He further added, “Khashoggi was someone who was involved in directly criticizing the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman’s unfair policies on multiple international forums. So it’s nothing unknown to anyone regarding who is the actual murdered behind the curtain.” He further expressed concern for the human rights condition of the daily wage workers in Saudi. Foreign workers are baited to come work in Saudi with high wages, but then they are treated as second class citizens or even as “slaves.” He further criticized Saudi for prohibiting its residents from practicing religions other than Islam.
BOTTOM LINE: Those associated with the Royal Family will continue to tow the line that the Royals are not and have not been a part of the most egregious activities that have involved targeted assassinations and the support/export of radical Islam. The United Nations reports that there is clear evidence linking the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia with the murder of journalist Khashoggi. And the average Saudi resident, if given the chance to speak anonymously, does not trust the Royal Family nor their leadership.
So, can the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia be trusted as we begin a new decade of cooperation? Probably not. As 2020 gets started, I think that we have every reason to tread carefully with our relationship with Saudi Arabia. The actions of the Saudi leadership consistently show that, as always, nations ultimately act in their own interests. Geopolitics is complicated, making choices for alliances is tricky – and it seems that in this particular relationship, the U.S. has often looked the other way on numerous issues – including the 9/11 hijackers, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the terrorist event in Pensacola, human rights violations, a record number of assassinations in 2019 and exporting radical Islam. The U.S. government shakes its head in disapproval, but the alliance continues in the interest of other regional concerns. While the Saudi leadership might not be confused about their goals and interests – locals – as long as they can remain anonymous, share a variety of views – some of which are dangerously at odds with the government’s position.
One of my final encounters was with a charming young man who seemed willing to discuss his thoughts. He was all of 18 years old and more than excited to speak to a foreigner. When we spoke about history he asked me about Osama bin Laden. “Was he a good guy or a bad guy? I can never remember,” he said.
Hmmm, I looked at him and said, “He was a bad guy, and don’t forget that.”
I’m sure there are more than a few people in his life, school and mosque who would have a different view of bid Laden, but thank goodness I was there to set the record straight. Just doing my job of gathering information and adjusting a few misconceptions. 🙂 Who would have thought that in 2020 we’d already be reevaluating bin Laden’s virtue. Perhaps Hitler was simply misunderstood as well. And why would any of that be surprising when living in a post-truth world.