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October 7th, 2004
The Saudi Question
Interview: Senator Joseph R. Biden

October 7, 2004: Senator Joseph Biden (D – Delaware,) the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, discusses Saudi Arabia with host Carol Marin.

Carol Marin: Senator Biden thank you for joining us on WIDE ANGLE.

Joseph Biden: Happy to be with you.

Carol Marin: Is the situation so dire that the administration of Saudi Arabia, the monarchy, is likely to be destabilized, is likely to be overthrown?

Joseph Biden: Let me say what I mean. The question is how urgent. It is dire in the sense that there’s no underpinning, there’s no legitimacy, to this royal families continued political domination. They made a Faustian bargain with the religious organization who are made up of extremely conservative Sunnis, referred to as Wahhabis, who have had as their habit and continue to have as their habit exporting extremism in the Madrasas, the schools they build all around the world, and in the way in which they educate the Saudi youth. And the way they keep any notion of modernity — as it relates to spreading to the population at large — at bay. And so it is an incendiary bomb that is likely to explode. Whether it occurs in a year, in a month, ten years, I don’t know. But I would be dumbfounded — if my granddaughter, who is now ten years old — when she is thirty five years old and a professor at some university — whether or not the royal family is still in charge.

Carol Marin: In the category of the disaffected, the large category of the disaffected, there seem to be two groups: those who are looking for reform and those who are looking for jihad. Which do we address first?

Joseph Biden: I think we address them simultaneously. Here’s the way I look at it. If you think about what happens in all societies where any dissent is totally suppressed, they will find the only outlet available to them. And the only outlet available is the mosque. It’s the only institution in all of Saudi Arabia where there is not a limit or a governor on what is said. And so when the only outlet for you, for your disaffection, is the mosque that is in this case radical in its attitudes — then that is the diet you are going to be fed on. And you’re likely to ingest it because of your anger, your frustration and your alienation. There are educated people in Saudi Arabia, usually educated abroad, who are part of the reform movement in Saudi Arabia. But to the extent that they talk about constitutional monarchy they get locked up. To the extent they talk about any other outlet, any other political dissent, they get locked up. And so in that environment what happens is the Ulema, the religious leadership, dominates. And so if you took all of the shackles off and then for example had an election tomorrow, you would elect, in my view, an extremely radical, nihilistic leadership in Saudi Arabia. And I know that sounds like I’m being extreme but almost every expert I speak to agrees with me that that would be the outcome.

Carol Marin: Saudis, we talk to protest and say look there’s really a difference between religious fundamentalism and a terrorist-kind of mindset. And you Americans, you confuse that.

Joseph Biden: Shows me when they build all these 7,000 Madrasas on the Pakistani-Afghani border and teach ‘kill Americans’ in those Madrasas. That is the litany where you don’t learn to read or to write and add and subtract. What you learn is rote and what you learn is an extreme version of the threat posed to your religion by the rest of the world. I mean go into any of these Madrasas — I wish we could get one of the cameras into one of these Madrasas.

Carol Marin: Where, of course, our camera was not.

Joseph Biden: Right. No, it’s not. And I’m not being critical I mean that’s not going be the case. So it’s not coincidental that most of the hijackers and bombers were Saudi citizens. Look, I mean it is a little bit like if the only drum beat you get is sort of an extreme version of being oppressed — with the rest of the world as your enemy. It’s not surprising you generate these aberrations. I’m not saying everyone who’s a Wahhabi is someone who’s going to get in a plane, hijack it, and smash it into a building. But I am saying the environment in which that education takes place and the denial of � look there’s vast unemployment in Saudi Arabia. You’ve referenced it in your piece. Now why is that? That’s a very wealthy country. Why are they importing six million workers? Not just to shine your shoes when you go into the hotels but to run the oil fields. Isn’t that kind of strange? Because they don’t have a qualified education system those folks who are unemployed are not running Aramco. They’re not running the oil wells. They’re not running the system. They are not the mathematicians. They are not the scientists. They are not the chemists because their education system doesn’t provide that.

Carol Marin: If Saudi Arabia is on the verge, or potentially able to implode; is it also equally able to explode in our direction?

Joseph Biden: It’s already exploding in our direction. And that’s why we have to get over this notion — it’s a little bit like having a gas station on the corner. You don’t like the proprietor very much but he keeps pumping the gas. And now you find out in the backroom they’re cutting heroin and cocaine and they’re distributing it to all the drug dealers in the region. Obviously that gas station now becomes your problem. It gives you gas but it’s a problem. Saudi Arabia is becoming our problem as well as our ally.

Carol Marin: What’s our solution?

Joseph Biden: Our solution is to put pressure on the Saudis. Not for radical transformation but a beginning of a gradual transformation of democratization and opening up. For example we should say to them, not only control the wealthy folks who register to build Madrasas in other countries, and don’t build them independently; give it to the government of Pakistan. Give it to the government of Kurdistan. Let them decide how they’re going to use that money to build. We should be saying to them set up an education system where you actually teach people higher mathematics. You actually teach people language. You actually teach people reading and writing at a level that they’re going to be able to have the good jobs. We should say to them you have to stop having the state owned papers spew out this anti-Semitism. You’ve got to have the state owned papers stop spewing out this absolute garbage that you allow and you think you’re buying off in this Faustian bargain you’ve made with the Wahhabis.

Carol Marin: Well in this bargain we must feel we’re getting something that we need.

Joseph Biden: Well, I don’t feel we’re getting something anymore. And I realize I’m an odd man out. Five years ago I started saying this. Oh no, no, no don’t offend our Saudi friends. And then along comes George and whoa, whoa, this is the family don’t do that. We’ve got to get them all out of the country immediately after. I mean this is crazy. Look the rest of the Middle East — remember why Bin Laden decided to look at us. Bin Laden didn’t start off al Qaeda to take down the United States. It was to take down the royal family. And then what happened? We had a Gulf War. The royal family said, and we concluded, that we should put the Prince Sultan Base in here. We should base Americans there. And then we became viewed as the sole barrier between the radicals and the royal family. And keeping the royal family in power, now we’re viewed as their protectors. We’re the reason why this oligarchy exists. We’re the reason why there’s no democratization. That’s how it’s viewed in the Middle East. We’re doing the same thing to a much lesser extent in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak’s an old and personal friend. There is no reform taking place. We should be saying at least allow local elections. We’re not asking you to give up power. We’re not asking you to step down that’s a process but at least have municipal elections.

Carol Marin: You met with Crown Prince Abdullah in 2002?

Joseph Biden: Yes, I met with Turki several times. I’ve met with the vast majority of the leadership. I’ve been a senator 31 years. I know these folks for the last 31 years. They’re individually very decent people. Prince Bandar is one the most appealing and engaging people in the whole diplomatic core here in the United States of America. That doesn’t mask the problem. They are my problem now, in part. They better straighten up.

Carol Marin: In the rank order of your problems now where are they on the list?

Joseph Biden: Well, obviously al Qaeda is number one on the list. The organized terrorist organizations that are targeting us and presenting an existential threat to us is number one on the list. But they’re up there in the sense that as long as we’re perceived as being their protectors. We go out there and talk about democratization. The president makes a speech about democratization. Isn’t it kind of interesting when the G-8 had a meeting and that was the subject, neither the Saudis or the Egyptians showed up? Name me the two major powers in terms of population and or influence in the Arab world. They didn’t come to the meeting. Ok. And so we should just start to be honest about this and say ‘look it’s not only in our interest, it’s in your interest.’ Prince Turki understands this. You saw what he said. He’s in a battle within. I’m taking him at his word. In my meetings with him in the past, he realizes there has to be some liberalization. You got others in the royal family saying no. No camel’s nose under the tent, no pun intended. Get their nose under — they’re going to be in here the whole way. We’re going to be gone. We’re going to be gone. There has to be a transition toward democratization. Let me put it another way. There are certain tides that begin to role in history. You know what this reminds me of? I use to get criticized a lot back in the seventies when I said we must do something about apartheid in Africa. We’re on the wrong side of history. We’re on the wrong side of history. And if we do not convince them through gentle prodding and support to begin democratization they will be radicalized and we’ll all suffer.

Carol Marin: You have no doubt in your own mind that they are still on some level, or many levels, funding al Qaeda or fostering al Qaeda?

Joseph Biden: None, none, none whatsoever. Not the royal family sitting. The leadership you spoke to isn’t there saying,’ Hey man let’s get some more money to al Qaeda and let’s foster terror because now they’ve gotten a piece of it.’ They’ve been bitten by it. They’ve been stung. And they realize they’re the target. If I can make another analogy — I remember meeting with the president of Colombia in 1978 and I kept talking about drugs. And you covered this in your program , WIDE ANGLE, about drug trafficking in Colombia. I had a meeting in the late 70’s with the president of Colombia and he gave me a lecture on how it’s not Colombia’s problem, the drug trafficking, it’s just going through Colombia, it’s America’s. And I said look understand something if you don’t deal with it you’re going to become a narco state. No, no, no. What’s a narco state now? Colombia. The royal family has to understand if they do not stand up to a.) the radical fundamentalist terrorist on the one hand, and, two, begin to enfranchise economically and politically and socially the fifty percent of the population under the age of 30 that is dispossessed, they are going to reap the whirlwind.

Carol Marin: There are those who think inside that country certainly that they have seen some change that there has been a light that’s dawned. That the denial from 9-11 that they really didn’t have any participation –

Joseph Biden: Well, think about that, that’s only a couple years. Assume that change took place — it’s in the last 6 months. 9-11 was how long ago — several years?

Carol Marin: So when it was about us it was different. Now that it’s about them?

Joseph Biden: There you go. And if they don’t move more rapidly it’s really going be about them. But in the meantime we can’t continue to play. We can’t in our private talks with them continue to do this thing with ‘No, look you got to make your own peace with them. I understand.’ I used to get this line, ‘We have to support Arafat and we have to support Hamas, we have to do this because quite frankly if we don’t they’re going to be in our country.’

Carol Marin: That’s the Saudis talking to you?

Joseph Biden: That’s the Saudis talking. I mean it wasn’t official but this is the message you got.

Carol Marin: This is what they were really thinking?

Joseph Biden: Yes and what they’re really thinking in terms of the Madrasas and the Wahhabis. You go in and take care of uncle Mohamed, who is worth a quarter of a billion dollars and he keeps giving vast amounts of money to build these radical Madrasas in other parts of the world. You got to go and nail it down. We can no longer say ‘Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay for you to fund and build organizations that are spewing hate about America.’ It’s no longer okay that you, the royal family, supposedly in charge, run newspapers that say as they did last year that at Purim, which is a Jewish holiday, that in order to get the pastries needed at Purim everybody knows that the Jews need the blood of Arab children to make it. That’s the front page of their papers. And they can’t look at me and say ‘Oh we don’t control the paper.’ There is no freedom of press there. Carol Marin: Do the Saudis say to you in the meetings, ‘look you want to tell us what to do but you don’t do it.”

Joseph Biden: ‘I don’t care what you do, just understand — I’m not going to help you if you don’t move. You got this straight? It’s real simple.’ This is what I say to them. I say ‘I’m not telling you what to do. You don’t want to do this, no problem. I’m not going to protect you. You got that part, right? You do what you want, I don’t care. Fine with me. But don’t look to me.’

Carol Marin: Do they ever say to you: ‘do you talk like this to Israel?’

Joseph Biden: Absolutely. And Israel is a democracy for god’s sake. It’s not even remotely, remotely, remotely, remotely comparable. No matter all the mistakes Israel made. It’s not even remotely comparable. It’s such a wacko comparison. It’s such a ridiculous comparison.

Carol Marin: But they make it? Do they not?

Joseph Biden: Sure they do because they make a lot of ridiculous statements. Like they talk about they’re open. They talk they have freedom of the press. Can you imagine an Israeli newspaper running a news story saying everybody knows that the Arabs in order for them to celebrate their holidays have to sacrifice Israeli children? Give me a break. It’s such a silly comparison. I say ‘you’re crazy. I don’t want to hear it. You disagree with Israel’s policy, I disagree with Israel’s policy. I got that part. And I tell Israel the same thing where I disagree with them but don’t even remotely compare your government to Israel’s government.’

Carol Marin: At the end of the day is the overriding concern that we have in this country their oil?

Joseph Biden: Bingo bango. Put it another way. Can you imagine us wasting any time if there were no oil?

Joseph Biden: So that’s why John Kerry, excuse the political advertisement, is right about the need to develop energy security.

Carol Marin: We need an alternative?

Joseph Biden: We need an alternative. We’re not going be able to be energy independent. That’s ridiculous but we can have energy security and a lot less dependence, a lot less dependence, but what they don’t understand and I predict here — the American people, if in fact this continues to be a ground upon which terror moves and spreads, radicalism continues to be exported, if that is the place in which that occurs — America will play twice the amount for gas they’re paying for now and not defend them. So if there’s an answer it doesn’t have to be either-or. There has to be beginning moves like what’s happening in Bahrain. They’re actually having municipal elections. They’re actually enfranchising people. They’re actually allowing political parties. They’re actually allowing elections, for example, to the advisory commission to the leadership. The idea is they can do this. We’re not asking them, look there’s an old expression you never ask another man or woman to act against their own self-interest. So even thought it would be a good idea if there’s a constitutional democracy, I’m not asking them to give up all that money and power. They’re never going to do it. But I am saying you better start to spread it. You better start to share it. And by the way I’m not going to make you do it but if you don’t do it, don’t look to us. And you know, they look to us. The truth of the matter is they look to us for their ultimate security.

Carol Marin: For that group that wants hope but is disorganized, what are the building blocks of reform, the concrete blocks by which the Saudis…

Joseph Biden: The family has to recognize let’s throw our lot with them and begin to ease our connections with this other. And the way you do that is you begin to reform the education system so that you can provide the jobs that pay fifty, a hundred, two hundred thousand dollars to Saudis instead of importing people from all over the globe to run your oil fields.

Carol Marin: What else?

Joseph Biden: Secondly, you teach people. You allow for political expression at the local level. You allow you let the local municipality decide on were the water line is going to go, whether or not they’re going to build a road or not build a road. Give people some vehicle. Allow for elections to the advisory body to the royal family. And it still only remains advisory but engage people. Give them some piece of the action. Give them some reason to believe that their economic and their political circumstance can in fact change. If you don’t give people hope when people don’t have hope they go underground. When they go underground they become part of those who have solutions that are not anywhere, anywhere, remotely approaching peaceful.

Carol Marin: So reading, writing, arithmetic?

Joseph Biden: Reading, writing, arithmetic, jobs. Making sure that there is political outlet. I don’t know why — don’t get this. Allow people to vote, vote for the local councilmen.

Carol Marin: Get a little practice in voting.

Joseph Biden: Vote, not practice. Get the ability to change. Hey look if you can’t even change which way the highway goes in your neighborhood, you’re completely helpless. You’re completely helpless.

Carol Marin: But what you seem to be saying is since they don’t know how to do it quite yet, you’ve got to get them started on some road, of some voting, some voicing –

Joseph Biden: No, it’s not they don’t know how to do it right. It’s that you’re not going to be able to get the royal family to do what they should do. I don’t know why I’m not getting through here. I mustn’t be very articulate. The best of all worlds would be to wave a wand and say, ‘look reform the whole system.’ You all — the royal family — have a meeting and say you know we need a constitutional democracy. And invite a constitutional convention and rewrite a constitution. That’s never going to happen. There’s never been a government in charge that’s ever willingly to totally give up the absolute control they have. So in the meantime you got to say to them, ‘Look, you’ve got to give them something.’ You’ve got to at least let them decide whether or not you’re going to build a power plant in their back yard. Whether you’re going put the gas station on their corner. Whether or not you’re going to be able to build a road, which way the road goes. What is the stuff in the neighborhood you live in that matters the most? When the county decides which way the sewers going to go. Whether you’re going to get a sewer hookup or you’re not going to get a sewer hookup. Why is that so difficult for people to understand? It doesn’t require the king to say ‘I give up my seven 747’s that have gold-laden faucets in them.’ It doesn’t require that. I’m not asking him to do that. I’m just saying, give them a little bit of control. Because if you don’t give them hope, they’re going south on you man. They’re going to continue to be radicalized. You are going to be the first target. And therefore it’s in our interest for you to begin this process. Put it another way, if tomorrow they said ‘We’ll have a general election,’ that would be very bad, you know why? The only organized entity in all of Saudi Arabia besides the royal family is the Wahhabi Sunni religion and the mosque that connect that country. They will win. And they will not in any way represent anything remotely in the interest of the United States of America.

Carol Marin: In Iraq and in Afghanistan we are trying to do some of these same things though they’re different places.

Joseph Biden: No we’re not doing anything like that in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Carol Marin: You don’t think we’re trying to bring democracy on any level?

Joseph Biden: Yes. We’re trying to bring democracy on a wholesale level. We have fundamentally changed the government. We used force and taken the oligarchy in both places out of power. That’s a fundamentally different thing. I’m not saying that here. I mean look these terms are really important, at least for me.

Carol Marin: No. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying but the goals, I’m not talking about the means, right now.

Joseph Biden: My goal is not democracy. That’s a distant hope. Just like when the president said we’re going to deliver democracy to Baghdad and Iraq. Two years ago I want on record saying it will never happen. All I’m looking for is a gradual translation that avoids a combustion that is dangerous to the region and us.

Carol Marin: You’re looking for something sensible.

Joseph Biden: Right, and there is no easy way to move from the oligarchy in Saudi Arabia to democracy. It’s got to be a process. What we have already done in Iraq and Afghanistan for two dissimilar as well as similar reasons is we have totally dismantled the entire ruling structure. And we’re trying to put one back together now. And we see how incredibly difficult it is. I’m not looking to totally dismantle the ruling structure in Saudi Arabia because we’ll have the same difficult cubed that we have in those two countries. It’s beyond our capacity. What is not beyond our capacity is to say we are no longer going to empower you to do us harm by continuing to sell you planes while you and your family give money to people who run Madrasas who say ‘Go kill Americans.’ We’re not going to do that anymore. So it’s like they say to doctors the Hippocratic oath, ‘Do no harm.’ First thing we’re going to say to you is just ‘Do no harm to us.’ And the stuff you’re doing is causing us harm. Secondly, we’re saying to you for you own sake and our sake begin the process to try to accomplish survival here. Begin to modernize. Begin to educate your people so they can have jobs. So they can have hope. Begin to give women some additional outlet so they can have hope. Begin the process of politicization — allowing at a local level political parties. Give people a stake in their communities and they will be more inclined to support you rather than extremists. That’s all we’re saying.

Carol Marin: Last question. Is there any doubt in your mind that the November election is a foreign policy election?

Joseph Biden: None whatsoever.

Carol Marin: It’s not about the economy in the United States.

Joseph Biden: Oh, it is about the economy. Look all these other things matter. As my dad said, ‘If everything’s equally important than nothings important to you.’ Let me put it this way, if we get the next four years as badly wrong as we got the last four years in foreign policy, it’ll take a generation to correct it. If we get the next four years as badly wrong as we’ve gotten the economy, we can correct it in four years. We can have a horrible tax policy that does great damage to our economy, and over a matter of a couple years, internally, at our own doing, we can change it. We can put in place a social policy that’s mistaken on education and change it in one congress. We cannot continue the erosion of American influence, confidence in American judgment and American wisdom, and think you’re going to turn it around in four years or six years or eight years. We can do that on welfare reform. We can do that on tax policy. We can do that on education policy. We can’t do that on foreign policy. It’s like turning around a super tanker or stopping a super tanker. It takes miles. It takes miles. So in that sense there’s never been an election since the end of World War II that has as much of a consequence for America’s place in the world as this election that is coming. It’s the single most important election that has occurred in your lifetime or mine whether you’re for Bush or for Kerry, a radically different view of the world.

Carol Marin: Senator Biden thank you very much for joining us on WIDE ANGLE.

Joseph Biden: Thank you.

  • Abdullah

    I think that the way you’re saying this .. “the saudi question” .. reminds me of the holocaust .. please choose your words carefully, PBS..

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