U.S. President Barack Obama sought to cement ties with Saudi Arabia as he came to pay his respects on Tuesday after the death of King Abdullah, a trip that underscores the importance of a U.S.-Saudi alliance that extends beyond oil interests to regional security, Reuters reports:
U.S. criticism of Saudi Arabia over its human rights record has normally been low-key and may remain so. Obama said in an interview with CNN that the United States had to balance its pressure on Saudi Arabia and other allies over human rights with its immediate concerns about terrorism and regional stability.
“With all the other countries we work with, what I have found effective is to apply steady, consistent pressure, even as we are getting business done that needs to get done,” he said.
Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister of Saudi Arabia, arrived at a meeting of security chiefs from across the Arab world in Marrakesh, Morocco, last March to deliver a call to arms, The New York Times reports: It was time, he declared, for a concerted effort to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Arab officials:
Several were stunned at his audacity. Brotherhood-style Islamists are an accepted part of politics in much of the Arab world, including Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Morocco itself, to say nothing of their warm welcome in Qatar, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to anger the powerful Saudi prince.
“He is the strongest prince,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University who studies Saudi Arabia. “He is the most powerful guy in the system. He is the pivot,” he told The Times:
Many took his appointment [as the new deputy crown prince] as an attempt to underscore the dynasty’s stability, laying out its rulers for decades to come…. Unlike King Abdullah or King Salman, who studied at the court, Prince Mohammed was educated in the West and graduated from Lewis & Clark, a liberal arts college in Portland, Ore…..Because of his Western education, Prince Mohammed is believed to favor liberalization on matters like education and opportunities for women. But he has made few public statements on social issues, and experts say his security mind-set makes him unlikely to push for changes that might endanger his family’s legitimacy as the guardians of the kingdom’s ultraconservative version of Islam.
The attacks in Paris earlier this month serve as a tragic example of Wahhabism’s influence. The Charlie Hebdo attackers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, were radicalized in France by Wahhabi tenet-holding al-Qaida operatives and preachers ….
The Saudi export of Wahhabism and jihad began in earnest in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. … it allocated $4 billion each year for the next three decades to build approximately 1,500 mosques and 2,000 madrasas (or religious schools), employ 4,000 preachers, enlist thousands of students andprint millions of textbooks to globalize the Wahhabi creed. Wahhabi institutions sprung up in Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbors, along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, in Afghanistan itself and across Central Asia and the Balkans.
The Saudi-funded Wahhabi expansion included North America and Europe, too. A charitable foundation established by the late King Fahd provides some of the funding for foreign mosques and other Islamic institutions, and is also a major funding source for Wahhabi publications, as the foundation’s website boasts. Disseminated widely, these publications spread an “ideology of hatred that can incite violence,” according to Freedom House.
But over the last decade, the country’s rulers have sought to moderate the sermons of some of the kingdom’s most radical clergy. More modern-thinking clerics have been promoted to senior state positions and some scholars from other branches of Sunni Islam brought onto the top clerical council, reports suggest.
“The Wahhabis do not have the same grip over power in Saudi Arabia as they used to over the past centuries,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, a Cairo-based political analyst. “The power of politics has overtaken the influence of religion on governing the kingdom, and King Abdullah should be the one taking the credit.”
The more that King Abdullah’s health declined, the higher the number of people being threatened and imprisoned by the Ministry of Interior grew, a Saudi observer writes for Politico:
Initially, the threats, while harsh and unwarranted, were against activists who were truly outspoken in their demands for political rights and freedoms. In 2012, for instance, Mohammed Al Bajadi was tried and sentenced in a secret court on charges of disobedience of the rulers, speaking to foreign media, demonstrating and owning prohibited books on democracy. In 2013, Mohammed Al Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years in prison for documenting political prisoners and calling for a constitutional monarchy. Mikhlif Al Shammari was sentenced in the same year, for promoting anti-sectarianism. Raif Badawi (left) established a web forum called The Saudi Liberal Network that facilitated the discussion and criticism of the radical Islam taught in Saudi schools. In return, he was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes. His lawyer, Abulkhair, was sentenced to 15 years for establishing an independent human rights organization. The list goes on and on.
Under Abdullah, the kingdom’s regional dominance has receded, says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress.But the diminished clout he leaves to his successors is not entirely a consequence of the late king’s actions, he writes for The Atlantic:
The Middle East as a whole is fragmenting as more countries and non-state groups like ISIS compete for power. In addition, technological and demographic changes, such as the rise of a new generation in the Middle East’s current youth bulge (15- to 29-year-olds constituted about one-third of the region’s population as of 2008), have limited the ability of traditional institutions to enforce conformity or influence events. These dynamics are not unique to Saudi Arabia, but they are perhaps nowhere more clear than in the kingdom, which has the highest number of active Twitter users in the Arab world, and where a liberal blogger was recently sentenced to a prison term and 1,000 lashes for criticizing the authorities.
Human rights activists might be ready to turn the page on tributes to Saudi Arabia’s deceased leader. But the U.S.’s top military officer said he’d like to see a few hundred pages more, in the form of an essay contest honoring King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz and his close security ties to the U.S., The Wall Street Journal reports:
Human rights activists and others have pointed to some of the more unsavory aspects of his rule, including limiting free expression, a harsh justice system where beheadings are a common punishment and serious limits on women’s rights. In the last weeks of King Abdullah’s reign, a Saudi blogger began undergoing a sentence of 1,000 lashes for writing articles critical of Saudi Arabia’s clerics on a liberal blog.
The Saudi regime is eager to stress continuity and stability to both its allies and its citizens, say analysts
“They have told the people of Saudi Arabia that everything is going to be stable for the next 30 years, so don’t worry about the transition,” said James B. Smith, a former United States ambassador to Riyadh. “And it is a strategic message to everyone else who wants to try to second-guess the whole transition idea.”
“None of these people are ideological,” Professor Haykel said. “There is no commitment to anything beyond their interests.”
Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks portray Prince Mohammed as personally motivated to fight militant Islam and in tight cooperation with the United States.
But Adam Coogle, who monitors Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch, said that while law enforcement under Prince Mohammed’s father had often been arbitrary, Prince Mohammed had professionalized and formalized it, The Times adds.
“He is the architect of the crackdown on and jailing of these activists with ludicrously harsh sentences,” said. “This is all on his watch.”
Neil MacFarquhar, with The Times’s reporters Helene Cooper and Rod Nordland, wrote a news analysis about Saudi Arabian-American relations in the wake of King Abdullah’s death. MacFarquhar provides a short list of books or articles for those who’d like a larger context for understanding the situation, history and consequences:
“Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change.” A brand-new primer on the many facets of Saudi Arabia from religion to oil to women’s rights, with individual essays by some of the best academics in the field.
“Awakening Islam,” by Stephen Lacroix, who helped edit the primer above, examines the Islamic revival movement within Saudi Arabia that gave birth to the global jihadists…