Re-evaluating U.S.-Saudi Relations

President Barack Obama has promised to end the War in Iraq, achieve the goal of Israel and Palestine “living side by side in peace and security,” and use diplomatic means to combat the Iranian threat. But one crucial area of Middle Eastern policy that his administration overlooks is our strained relations with Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been untouchable by the media and government administrations in the past, mostly due to America’s gripping addiction to oil. In exchange for cheap Saudi crude, the United States has traditionally acted as the Kingdom’s safeguard against both its foreign and domestic enemies.

But America’s alliance has been quite the love-hate relationship. The vast number of U.S. intelligence reports that link funds originating in Saudi Arabia to terrorist organizations like al-Qaida can baffle the mind.

While there has been no proof of the Saudi government directly financing terrorism, the convoluted net of Middle Eastern charities with indirect donations to terrorist groups has been cast on both prominent Saudi citizens and members of the royal family.

Part of a charitable donation made by Princess  Haifa bint Faisal, the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States, was received by a friend of the 9/11 hijackers. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States — also known as the 9/11 Commission — identified Saudi Arabia as the primary source of money for al-Qaida both before and after the Sept. 11 attacks. It suggested that Saudi nationals were both witting and unwitting donors and local Imams diverted religious donations from Saudi mosques to fund al-Qaida.

Though it is probable that the Saudi government never had a direct hand in financing al-Qaida, their efforts to eliminate this network of funds within the Kingdom have been rather lackluster. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, it was only after the 2003 terror attacks in Riyadh that killed 35 people and injured 200 others that Prince Nayaf, the interior minister, admitted that al-Qaida even existed in Saudi Arabia.

In the two years following the 9/11 attacks, Saudi cooperation in destroying terrorist financing networks within the Kingdom was “ambivalent and selective,” according to the 9/11 Commission.

But al-Qaida is not the only group with questionable links to Saudi Arabia. Beginning in the early ‘90s, Saudi Arabia supported the Taliban government of Afghanistan, according to a 2008 article in Newsweek.

The most alarming aspect of U.S.-Saudi Relations, however, is the current socio-economic environment in the Kingdom.

The CIA World Factbook estimates the unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia to be around 25 percent, almost four times the current U.S. unemployment rate. The U.S. State Department reported that 42.3 percent of the Saudi population of 24 million is under the age of 14. The Council on Foreign Relations recently disclosed that one-third of all workers in Saudi Arabia are foreigners.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia appears to be a land of persecution. On Jan. 14, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information reported that the Saudi government arrested Hamoud Bin Saleh due to his opinions, among them an announcement on his blog that he converted from Islam to Christianity. The young Saudi remains at the Eleisha political prison in Riyadh.

The Saudi government even has an established religious police: the mutaween, or Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. In 2002, members of the mutaween would not allow Saudi schoolgirls to leave a burning building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress, according to the BBC. In 2008, one employee of the mutaween cut out his daughter’s tongue and burned her to death upon learning of her recent conversion to Christianity, according to the Gulf News.

It is in this type of fetid social environment, where personal freedoms are repressed and ideological dissent is slaughtered, that al-Qaida maintains an active recruiting force. It is no accident that Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 total 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals.

All things considered, America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia should be more abrasive than the desert sands just outside Riyadh, but our continued craze for oil puts us in a predicament.

Obama’s administration must focus on Saudi Arabia if it wishes to make the War on Terror increasingly effective. While military force is not a reasonable option, the aggressive diplomacy championed by Obama must be vigorously applied from Washington to Riyadh.

If America continues to make decisions based on its oil fixation and not on reason, history may be doomed to repeat itself.

Brendan Collett is a sophomore majoring in public relations and psychology.