TOPICS > Politics

The Saudi Dilemma

November 6, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on all this, we go to Adel al-Jubeir, a foreign policy advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah, who effectively runs the government in Saudi Arabia. Fawaz Gerges is a professor of Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College. He’s the author of an upcoming book The Islamists and the West. And Larry Johnson was deputy director of the State Department’s counter-terrorism office in the first Bush administration, and worked in counter-terrorism at the CIA before that.

Welcome, gentlemen. First to you, Adel al-Jubeir. What’s your response to this editorial criticism about Saudi’s efforts in the war against terrorism?

ADEL AL-JUBEIR, Adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah: We were very surprised frankly because that’s a far cry from the reality and from the truth as we see it. We see criticism being leveled at us in the media and anonymous officials that’s not reflected in the reality of the cooperation nor in the clear public statements by senior American officials from the president on down.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you want to give us an idea of the cooperation?

ADEL AL-JUBEIR: It’s very simple. When your president says everything we’ve asked the Saudis to do, Saudis have done, you cannot be more clear than this.

We are accused of not freezing assets. We have frozen assets. We’re accused of supporting terrorism. We do not support terrorism. We’re accused of whisking the bin Laden family out of the U.S. without giving the FBI a chance to question them when, in fact, they were whisked out of the U.S. after we obtained the FBI’s approval and after the FBI interviewed each one of them.

The laundry list goes on. Each single one of them is very simple to rebut.

MARGARET WARNER: Larry Johnson, you’re talking to people in the government. Are you hearing something different?

LARRY JOHNSON, Former State Department Official: We’re back at a situation sort of like depending on what the definition of cooperation is.

The White House is being very legalistic. Mr. Adel al-Jubeir’s presence here, you have to understand this is the Michael Jordan of Saudi Arabian diplomacy. You know, they didn’t send us an amateur. They sent us a great professional.

But the reality is the Saudis have drug their feet in helping identify these hijackers. They’ve drug their feet in allowing U.S. investigators access to the families of those hijackers. The finance minister is saying, okay we’ll freeze the assets, but unless we have proof that it’s tied to terrorism we’re going to unfreeze them.

There is cooperation but what we’re looking for in this –and the Saudi government has got to understand this– that the American people… We’re not going to play the games that we have over the last 20 years.

There are almost 5,000 Americans dead in this attack. And it has been aided and abetted in part– not by the Saudi government, but by the Saudi government’s inability to take action.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s stay on the cooperation. Professor Gerges, your view of this.

FAWAZ GERGES, Sarah Lawrence College: Well, it remains to the professor to balance the two differing perspective.

Let me say that initially, the Royal Family kept silence and practiced inaction as the most effective mechanism of avoiding to make hard decisions on this particular crisis. Now the situation is entirely different.

I think the Royal Family now appreciates the enormity of the crisis and its inherent danger, not only to American vital interests in the region but also to the stability and viability of the conservative kingdom.

In this particular sense, let me mention some of the steps and initiatives taken by the Royal Family in the last two weeks.

Yes, the authorities in Saudi Arabia have helped the American authorities identify the identity of the fifteen hijackers who came from Saudi Arabia. This is number one. The authorities in Saudi Arabia arrested many of bin Laden’s alleged associates and fans in the kingdom in the last two weeks.

Third, the authorities in the kingdom have removed some of the hard-core religious authorities and prevented them from delivering their pro Osama bin Laden sermons, and yes the authorities in Saudi Arabia have frozen many bank accounts with links to terrorist organizations, but let me stress the most important element here.

In the last few days, what’s really impressive is that some influential members of the Royal Family have become very outspoken and critical not only of the destructive message of Osama bin Laden but also of Islamic extremism and militancy. It’s really very refreshing to read the Arab press in the last few days and to read some commentators from Saudi Arabia writing in the Arab press criticizing the hard-core religious authorities who basically are xenophobic and who call also these… These commentators call for tolerance and acceptance of the other.

There is some movement on the ground although initially the royal family was a bit ambivalent I think know it appreciates the danger and the enormity of the crisis.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. al-Jubeir, would you at least concede what the professor said that there’s been an evolution in the approach the Royal Family has taken?

ADEL AL-JUBEIR: I don’t think there has been an evolution. I think there’s been an evolution in our expressing our views. I want to go back to the comments that were made earlier about Saudi Arabia’s definition of cooperation as legalistic. I have met with your ambassador in Saudi Arabia. I have met with senior officials in your government over the last week.

I have not heard one single person telling me we need to do something that we haven’t done. How come that all these charges are leveled at us by people outside the government and by anonymous officials? I’d love to sit down and meet with those officials who think we need to do something we haven’t done so we can do it. I can’t find them.

LARRY JOHNSON: It’s one of the unfortunate problems of the diplomacy aim. The Bush Administration clearly… It’s a stylized dance and has always been with the government of Saudi Arabia. I think most Americans are still… We’re at a watershed movement.

We want to think of Saudi Arabia as our friend and still have friendly feelings, but it’s not just this incident. We go back to Khobar Towers. There was a lack of cooperation.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about the bombing of the barracks in 1996.

LARRY JOHNSON: In 1996 the bombing of the Khobar Towers. There was foot dragging. There wasn’t an aggressive point. What we need from your government… Because I know you were sent over here after… There was a meeting in your government last week, and when you all got together… Because you realize you have a problem in the United States.

So the message you need to carry back to them is this is not just the United States throwing a fit. Saudi Arabia has got to be proactive and aggressive in going after these terrorists linkages because I’ll grant you that even in the United States in the past the United States allowed Irish Catholics to raise money to send to the IRA, but there are Saudi citizens, prominent Saudi citizens, who have been sending money that have financed the armed Islamic group. If we’re going to get into a courtroom that’s the wrong attitude.

ADEL AL-JUBEIR: We have to. We have received….

MARGARET WARNER: Just one second, professor. I want to get you in here.

ADEL AL-JUBEIR: We have received 300 leads. We have investigated every single lead in the past year and a half. We have not been able to establish a direct link. For people to say that Saudis support terrorism or that Saudi money has gone to al-Qaida — why on earth would we want to support groups whose objective is to destroy us? We can be a lot of things but foolish we’re not.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, professor, respond on that point. Is it true as many, as Larry Johnson just said that in fact a lot of Saudi businessmen have funneled money to a lot of the terrorist network?

FAWAZ GERGES: Well, unfortunately in the last 20 years the government of Saudi Arabia and some members of the Royal Family have channeled hundreds of millions of dollars to various Islamist causes throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

Some of the money unfortunately reached some terrible and shadowy organizations, including bin Laden’s al-Qaida. In fact, the weight of evidence seems to suggest that even up until this fall, some very powerful elements of the bin Laden family and other people in the kingdom kept the money flowing to the al-Qaida organization and Osama bin Laden.

But let’s look at this particular point from a different angle. I don’t think this is really conspiratorial. I don’t think Saudi Arabia is trying to help Osama bin Laden who are trying to topple the kingdom.

LARRY JOHNSON: I agree with that.

FAWAZ GERGES: I think this is part of using religion as a legitimize mechanism. Unfortunately I think the authorities in Saudi Arabia and the Royal Family has not been very strict in trying to somehow have transparency and accountability in where the money goes and to whom it goes and so on and so forth.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain briefly, and please briefly because I need to get back to my two guests here, what do you mean about using Islam as a legitimizing device?

FAWAZ GERGES: Well, I have just returned from the Middle East after spending two years researching relations between Islamist movements and the West.

It seems to me really you cannot understand the rise in popularity of the Islamist movement in the Arab world without understanding the critical part played by the kingdom in helping, supporting, and pampering some of the Islamist leaders throughout the Arab and Muslim world. In fact….

MARGARET WARNER: But why? That’s what I’m trying to get at. Why?

FAWAZ GERGES: The question of why, remember, there’s a social contract between the Royal Family on the one hand and the population on the other.

The contract stipulates that the kingdom, the Royal Family preserves and maintains the authentic nature of Islam in Saudi Arabia as the custodian and the guardian of the most sacred places in Islam and on the other hand, I mean, of course the population gives obedience to the Royal Family.

In this particular sense the kingdom feels that somehow, I mean the Royal Family feels that by helping Islamist causes in the world, in the Arab and Muslim world in many ways it really reinforces the image of the Royal Family as being custodian and guardian of the most sacred places in the kingdom.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that?

LARRY JOHNSON: Saudi Arabia needs to go from being passive; when they’re given specific requests they’ll follow through on it. It was a lot like my niece when she lived with us I told her to come straight home from the movies. It was en route. It was on the way home — very legalistic.

They need to go past legalistic being active and progressive, offering leads saying have you thought about this, have you considered this?… here are some other angles. They have accessed information they have not shared freely.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Go back, would you, to the professor’s point about why Saudi Arabia or individuals in Saudi Arabia and the government perhaps looks the other way, has been funding these organizations?

ADEL AL-JUBEIR: Well I think the premise is incorrect. We have not been looking the other way.

Since the early 1990s we have talked to the big philanthropists in Saudi Arabia. Remember most people who give charity give charity out of kindness. The objective is not to have it go somewhere where people harm people.

So we went to the big philanthropists and we said you have to be careful where your money goes because there are people out there who try to abuse Islam for evil purposes. We have set up a vetting mechanisms.

We have offered services of the government to try to rate or to give them background on different Islamic organizations around the world so that the money goes to proper Islamic organizations. Have we succeeded 100 per cent? Of course not. You can give money to Save the Children in Afghanistan and people can accuse you of supporting the children of the Taliban leaders and ipso facto supporting the Taliban. That’s not a valid charge.

MARGARET WARNER: A quick follow up. Does it surprise you that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi and why?

ADEL AL-JUBEIR: It’s shocking to us. It’s shocking to us. We’re ashamed of it. We don’t like to be associated with people like this.

At the end of the day these were individuals, we had several thousand Saudis who fought in Afghanistan and who continued with bin Laden either in Sudan or who went to Bosnia. Most of them are honorable people. A large percentage of them are evil people. And we see their actions or their evilness reflected in this act. These people are misfits. They’re criminals. They’re not a part of us. We reject them.

Can you tell me that Timothy McVeigh represents America? Can you tell me that Jim Jones represents Christianity? Of course they don’t. Does the KKK represent mainstream America? Of course it’s not.

We all have our deviants and our extremists. What you have seen is the people who committed these murders unfortunately a large number of them were Saudis.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor, your view on that question: Whether bin Laden’s message as a special resonance in Saudi Arabia or are they just deviance?

FAWAZ GERGES: I want to stress two critical points here. The first point is that Saudi Arabia today is not Iran of the late 1970s, that… I mean, most of the nonsense talk about social revolution or upheaval in Saudi Arabia, I think it’s basically false. But I think there are some worrisome signs emanating….

MARGARET WARNER: Some worrisome signs?

FAWAZ GERGES: Yes, emanating from the kingdom. I think social and religious upheaval exists deeper under the surface in the kingdom.

Bin Laden’s message resonates the most unfortunately in the imagination of many younger people in the kingdom and also among some of the hard-core religious elements as well.

Fifteen of the hijackers came from the kingdom. And this particular piece of evidence tallies was the shifting pattern on the part of Osama bin Laden. The last time, by the way, last summer Osama bin Laden was seen in public during his son’s wedding almost hundreds of foot soldiers surrounding Osama bin Laden seemed to come from the Gulf particularly from Saudi Arabia. And the question here, what’s going on in the kingdom?

It’s not just, by the way, that we are ashamed of the 15 hijackers. There seems to me serious social and religious social upheavals under the surface in the kingdom itself.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor, I’m sorry, we have to leave it there. Thank you all three very much.