(Editor's Note: In 2014, journalist Anthony C. LoBaido traveled to Saudi Arabia and other nations in the region. During this time, he explored Arabic and Islamic culture and art, studied Shariah law, Sufism, as well as the Arabic language and calligraphy. This is the first installment of his new series "Arabiana." In Part I, LoBaido investigates Saudi Arabia's alleged links to terrorism, planned procurement of nuclear weapons from Pakistan, the Wahhabi branch of Islam, and Saudi Arabia's treatment of Christians, amongst other issues. Part II of his series touches upon Saudi Arabia’s quest for nuclear weapons via Pakistan. In Part III, LoBaido examines Saudi Arabia’s multidimensional interests in Yemen, the ongoing war gripping that beleaguered nation, as well as Saudi Arabia’s (and the UAE’s) grand design to connect Arabia and North Africa with a land bridge – the Bridge of Horns – spanning Yemen and Djibouti.
DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia is in the news – from the bombing of the Shia Houthis in Yemen to a not-so-delicate dance with ISIS to Riyadh's quest to fund nuclear weapons research, development and procurement with Pakistan.
Freedom House claims Saudi Arabia is one of the least free nations on Earth. In this country of 30 million people (60 percent of whom are under the age of 30), there are no political parties, no elections, precious few rights for women and summary, public executions.
As such, some are openly beginning to question if the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is truly an ally of the United States. Consider that close relations date back to President Franklin Roosevelt. Also consider how the use of the Saudi-centric petrodollar ensures a global demand for U.S. currency, while allowing the U.S. to ostensibly export its inflation. Some wonder if, like North Korea, Saudi Arabia ranks amongst the world's greatest persecutors of Christians. One might forgive observers for seeing Saudi Arabia as "North Korea with sand and oil" – a nation led by an almost "god-like leader" who holds exceptional sway over the citizenry.
Saudi Arabia is now being re-examined as an outpost of terrorism – ranging from the breeding ground of the agents of Sept. 11, to assisting the de facto rise of Da'ish or "ISIS" in a Sunni versus Shiite fight to the death. Yet others believe ISIS is engaged in a terminal battle with Saudi Arabia, since all of the Gulf monarchies stand in the way of ISIS' agenda of establishing a universal caliphate.
Recently the U.S. had to shut down the embassy in Riyadh, and it issued a warning on March 13, 2015, that Western oil company workers were in danger of being kidnapped by terrorist groups. (Several attacks with guns and knives have occurred against foreigners.)
Critics claim Saudi Arabia's new King Salman has been a long-time financier of jihadist groups, and that his reach extends to "Charlie Wilson's War," "Black Hawk Down" and beyond. These allegations continue to proliferate, although his defenders claim King Salman is merely a nice, harmless man who could easily be anyone's amiable grandfather. His most zealous supporters believe critics should simply leave him, all of the Saudi princes, and the entire nation out of the debate about global terrorism, global terror financial networks and leadership decapitation.
Yet the critics feel there's something not quite right – something going on inside Saudi Arabia that isn't quite kosher.
Former British Intelligence agent Alastair Crooke writes (quoting French scholar Giles Kepel), "With the advent of the oil bonanza … Saudi goals were to 'reach out and spread Wahhabism across the Muslim world' ... to 'Wahhabize' Islam, thereby reducing the 'multitude of voices within the religion' to a 'single creed' – a movement which would transcend national divisions. Billions of dollars were – and continue to be – invested in this manifestation of soft power."
"Wahhabism was forcefully changed from a movement of revolutionary jihad and theological takfiri purification, to a movement of conservative social, political, theological, and religious da'wa (Islamic call) and to justifying the institution that upholds loyalty to the royal Saudi family and the King's absolute power (emphasis added).
"ISIS … forcefully denies the Saudis' claim of authority to rule. [Yet] ... Today, ISIS' undermining of the legitimacy of the King's legitimacy is not seen to be problematic, but rather a return to the true origins of the Saudi-Wahhab project" (emphasis added).
With regard to Prince Bandar, the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Steve Clemons of the Atlantic writes, "ISIS, in fact, may have been a major part of Bandar's covert-ops strategy in Syria."
Recently, Patrick Buchanan, a noted writer who served both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and almost won the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, wrote, "The Shiite majority in Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is berthed, will one day dominate that Gulf state. And the Shiites in oil-rich northeast Saudi Arabia will one day rise up against Riyadh" (emphasis added).
Buchanan also wrote, "John Kerry said he might talk with Syria's Bashar Assad, and was denounced by the Saudis. The State Department backed off. But who are the Saudis to be telling us to whom we may talk when coping with the Islamic State?"
Mr. Buchanan succinctly addresses Saudi Arabia's complex relations with ISIS as he states:
"As Joe Biden said at Harvard a while back, the Turks, the Saudis and the Emiratis provided much of the money and arms that initially fueled the Nusra Front (al-Qaida) and ISIS in Syria. Biden was forced to apologize for having told the truth (emphasis added). But if Assad falls, then the Nusra Front or ISIS comes to power, a strategic disaster for the United States, followed by a slaughter of Christians that could drag America back into yet another land war.
"If NATO's Turkey, Israel, and the Gulf Arabs prefer Sunni Islamists in Damascus to an Alawite regime with which we have coexisted for 40 years, then President Obama is right to move us away from our old allies. U.S. national interests come first. Yet, a choice between Hezbollah and the Nusra Front, ISIS and the Shiite militias, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Houthi rebels, is a Hobbesian trap that is a conclusive argument for keeping U.S. troops out of this war of all against all in the Middle East."
In the company of men
Saudi Arabia isn't overly concerned about how its human rights record is perceived by the United Nations or other supranational and non-state actors like Open Doors and Amnesty International. The ability to put the gorgeous princess Ameera in front of the cameras to talk about Saudi Arabia puts forward a more positive portrait of the nation as perception is reality:
Saudi Arabia can be viewed as an actual nation-state or as an artificially created state midwifed by men like the fabled Lawrence of Arabia, British diplomat Harry St. John Philby and Stanford University graduate Max Steineke. The latter was a prominent geologist with Saudi Aramco.
Crooke writes, "Philby's vision was not confined to state-building in the conventional way, but rather was one of transforming the wider Islamic ummah (or community of believers) into a Wahhabist instrument that would entrench the al-Saud as Arabia's leaders. And for this to happen, Aziz needed to win British acquiescence (and much later, American endorsement)."
There are those who believe Saudi Aramco is the machine that keeps Saudi Arabia humming. (The wealth of the company has been estimated between $10 and $36 trillion.) If that's the case, could we not at least on some level think of Saudi Arabia as a "company" rather than as a "country"? Big oil and transnational corporations are often derided in leftist American culture as comic-book variety boogeymen. Yet they are also a source of wealth creation, soft power, stability and the spreading of American and transnational culture. Critics will disagree.
It can be fairly argued that without Saudi Aramco, postmodern Saudi Arabia would not have attained its geostrategic importance in the fields of energy, finance and military cooperation. And without the crafty intelligence of those who run Saudi Aramco, and protect its brand and image, the company would not have risen to, and maintained the status of, a Goliath rivaling the British East India Company that turned India in the crown jewel of the British Empire.
Saudi Aramco has been described as a shadowy entity not unlike an intelligence agency. It has been called "The Stanford of companies." You may have even heard the rumor that Saudi Aramco owns and operates two private airports inside the United States – the only private organization allowed by the FAA to do so.
How should those who hold truth as precious view America's relations with Saudi Arabia? Perhaps the situation can be likened to a gigantic multidimensional jigsaw puzzle where multiple realities are all simultaneously coexisting. There's always that looping cul de sac that leads one to ask what's at the core of Saudi Arabia's national character.
One cannot help but to be reminded of the HBO series, "True Detective," in which actor Matthew McConaughey, while in the midst of investigating a series of ritual, Satanic murders in the swamps of Louisiana says, "All your love, all your hate, all your memories, all your pain – it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room … and like a lot of dreams, there's a monster at the end of it."
If you're asking who these people are exactly at their inner core, then filling in the vast holographic spaces of the Empty Quarter is no easy task. Saudi Arabians are basically moral and decent people who just happened to be born into their culture, just as people in the Congo or Sweden have been. Saudi Arabia's citizens are not "all on board" with jihadist ideals. For the most part, they are kind human beings who are also concerned about global problems and the future of their children. That said, the hunt for something deep and dark inside of Saudi Arabia must have a starting point – and an ending point.
Fundamentalism is not purely an Islamic phenomenon. It can also be found in places ranging from India to Indiana. Consider, for example, the emergence of a "Christian Taliban" inside the Ukraine as an illustration of how fundamentalism is on the rise in many places around the world. Globalization, the decay of family life, the loss of traditional values, drugs (legal and illegal) and unrelenting mass-media stimulation all make daily life less and less "normalized" compared to previous generations. This new zeitgeist influences men, women, teens and even very small children.