Flickr/Mopaw Foundation. All rights reserved.As the United States prepared for war in response to the 9/11 attacks, the late Fouad Ajami issued a prescient warning: “There will be chameleons good at posing as America’s friends but never turning up when needed.” Saudi Arabia’s absence from the war on ISIS would appear to be the latest example of this frustrating quality. But describing the Saudi royal family as “chameleons” is insufficient for explaining why their behavior is so hard to grasp. A better metaphor can be found in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel about a split personality, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
In Stevenson’s novel, Dr Jekyll is torn between decency and irresistible evil, a problem he tries to resolve with a drug that transforms him back and forth at will into the murderous Mr Hyde. Unfortunately, Dr Jekyll starts running out of the drug he needs to make the switch, and Mr Hyde eventually takes over completely. Finally, investigators uncover a corpse with Hyde’s hideous features, dressed in Jekyll’s clothing, an apparent victim of suicide. Let us see how far this metaphor can take us in making sense of the House of Saud. Then we can turn to considering what one may hope is a crucial difference between Stevenson’s tragic tale and the reality of the Saudi Kingdom.
Let’s call the international relations version of Stevenson’s novel: “Dr Saud and Mr Jihad.” Our protagonist, Dr Saud, rules over a land containing more oil than anywhere else on earth. He is seen as a friend of the United States, which joins him in hoping that his great wealth will contribute to peace and prosperity for both their peoples. Dr Saud wants to live the good life, and loves the amazing attractions of the modern west. He also enjoys his role as the guardian of the holiest places in Islam. Hostile neighbours periodically threaten to deprive Dr Saud of these pleasures: first the Soviet communists, then the ayatollahs of Iran, then Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Fortunately, the powerful United States had offered to stand guard over his kingdom; when those enemies lusted after Dr Saud’s oil, America sent its awesome military to protect him.
But something cast a shadow over Dr Saud’s seemingly enviable life: his charming personality masked dark, hard-to-manage obsessions. He shuddered with revulsion whenever he thought about the Shi’a or Jews or women driving cars, or the very idea of societies based on freedom, pluralism, and tolerance. When angry feelings arose, his thoughts became clouded by visions of domination, of spilling blood, of dragging the west to its knees. A voice in his head, alternately seductive and menacing, told him that his murderous desires were divinely inspired. He knew he could not fully resist that insistent voice, but he also realised that if he yielded completely, his killing spree would culminate in his own death. When Dr Saud first became aware of this quandary, he sought, and seemed to discover, a wonderful solution: a drug that could secretly transform him into a separable “Mr Jihad,” thereby enabling him to indulge his vices while preserving the reputation, and sense of decency, that the world expected from Dr Saud.
Before that moment, Dr Saud had hoped, like the rest of us, that he could get through life with just one intact personality. His discovery of the need to split into two identities dates back to the month of October in the year 1973. It started innocently enough, as Dr Saud simply joined his Arab neighbours in a war that he hoped would destroy the tiny nearby Jewish state that so infuriated him. When that idea was thwarted, as the United States stepped in to resupply the beleaguered Israelis, Dr Saud found himself drawn to a much bigger idea: he would bring the entire west crashing down simply by cutting off its oil supply! He initially saw no need to disguise these dark thoughts; the United States seemed like a lamb ready for slaughter, reeling from its impending defeat in Vietnam, its pathetic president driven to distraction by scandals and impending resignation. Dr Saud’s oil embargo would force that pitiful, helpless giant to choose between utter collapse and leaving its little Jewish friend to his tender mercies. But to his great surprise, the Americans quickly prepared for war against his kingdom! As ships approached his shores with enough firepower to obliterate him, he found himself instantly, ignominiously, backing down. “I am your faithful ally!” Dr Saud found himself declaring as he ended his embargo.
By convincing the west that he had suffered only a momentary lapse, Dr Saud got exactly what he now realised he needed: a drug that could divide his persona — and his actual physical appearance. The drug was called “petrodollars,” which he began to acquire in vast quantities now that the governments of the west saw him as their friend. At first, the drug seemed to work beautifully, enabling him to appear more and more western, while relegating Mr Jihad’s dark activities to the shadows. But the drug had an unforeseen side effect: the more he succumbed to the attractions of the west, the stronger and angrier Mr Jihad became. One night, in November of 1979, while Dr Saud was sleeping, he changed involuntarily into Mr Jihad, who, calling himself “Al Ikhwan,” proceeded to seize his own Grand Mosque in Mecca, and announced that he had banished Dr Saud from the kingdom! When a shaken Dr Saud regained control over himself, he decided on a temporary solution: he would allow himself to become Mr Jihad only when travelling outside the kingdom. That way, he thought, he could continue to charm the west as Dr Saud, while unleashing mayhem everywhere else as Mr Jihad.
The rulers’ recurrent “solution” has been to kill the extremist challengers, then try to restore legitimacy by mimicking their medieval ideology; that choice has become increasingly untenable.
For more than two decades, until September of 2001, the plan worked wonderfully. When the menacing Ayatollah Khomeini took over Iran from a dying friend of the Americans, Dr Saud was ready to offer his services as the one remaining ‘pillar’ of U.S. security in the Persian Gulf. “The Soviets have invaded Afghanistan? I will help you drive them out! Mr Reagan, you need help funding your secret war against that Soviet ally in Nicaragua; I am happy to give you the money! Are you worried about the price of oil? I will use it to buy enough weapons to enrich your big corporations and employ your people by the thousands! Are you seeking to make Israel secure? I will break with my intransigent Arab neighbours and make reasonable sounding proposals for ending their conflict with the Palestinians! Do you need sound advice about my complicated region? I will pay for lots of Middle East programs at your universities and think tanks!” Dr Saud was in his element, and it was gratifying both to him and to his western friends. In parties at his embassies and in myriad get-togethers, he proved himself a wonderful host and a charming guest: sophisticated, warm, winning, and of course very, very generous.
Afghanistan was a big success. The Americans could see that Dr Saud knew Mr Jihad, but they had no idea that they were two parts of the same person. They thought that Dr Saud was helping Mr Jihad just this one time – as part of their shared desire to destroy the communists! As Zbigniew Brzezinski, the American National Security Advisor, explained his thoughts at the time: “What was more important in the world view of history? … A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
It was working. Or so Dr Saud thought. The Americans saw only “a few stirred up Muslims”. Little did they notice that Dr Saud’s alter ego, Mr Jihad, was spending billions building madrassas and mosques all over the world, filling the heads of countless Muslim children with bloodlust against the west, the Shi’a, the Christians, and the Jews, and then, as they grew up, arming them to the teeth in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. And as all of this groundwork was being laid, Dr Saud accepted applause for his help in defeating the godless communists. Even as Mr Jihad radicalised Pakistan and gave Afghanistan to the Taliban, the Americans hardly made a peep as his madrassa graduates killed women who dared teach their daughters to read, massacred Shi’a by the thousands, and prepared an even nastier surprise for America than the oil embargo.
When 9/11 finally happened, it appeared for a moment that the west might be shocked into recognising that Dr Saud and Mr Jihad were two sides of the same person. After all, Dr Saud seemed to have trouble condemning the murder of thousands of Americans by mostly Saudi jihadists, and sometimes even found himself sputtering that the Israelis were behind the attacks. Luckily, the Americans were so oblivious that they invaded his neighbour Iraq, where Mr Jihad wasn’t even allowed to visit!
Then, suddenly, Dr Saud confronted a terrifying danger. In 2003, Mr Jihad, who had for some time been calling himself “Al Qaeda,” suddenly tried again to take over the kingdom! Dr Saud realised to his horror that he was losing his ability to keep his dark side away from his borders. Fortunately, Dr Saud still had many petrodollars, and managed again to regain control over Mr Jihad.
But things were about to get worse. When the United States occupied Iraq, Dr Saud remained disconcertingly quiet while Mr Jihad launched a murderous campaign against American soldiers and Shia civilians. “What can I do?” thought Dr Saud. “The Americans are trying to confront me, right on my border, with a double curse: an Arab democracy and a voting Shi’a majority.” Then, when the Americans left, all hell broke loose. The hated Iranians were on the march, empowering the horrible Shi’a wherever they lived: in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and even in the oilfields of the kingdom! Only Mr Jihad, it was clear, had the strength and brutal temperament to ward off that threat.
Dr Saud still tried to maintain appearances, changing back from Mr Jihad in order to greet visiting American officials, then quickly switching back to Mr Jihad in order to wage war upon ruthless war, calling himself by different names in different places. In the summer of 2014, Dr Saud found himself in the stressful position of accepting the American request that he (Dr Saud) would bomb himself (as Mr Jihad’s new nom de guerre: “The Islamic State”) in Iraq! Didn’t anyone understand that Mr Jihad was killing the Shi’a there and saving the kingdom? Didn’t anyone understand that if he kept bombing his own dark side, Mr Jihad might get angry enough to try yet again to take over Dr Saud completely?
In the midst of that vexing predicament, a terrible new complication now arose. The petrodollar drug, essential for transforming back and forth, was running low. The fewer dollars Dr Saud had at his disposal, the harder it was becoming to keep control over Mr Jihad. Mr Jihad continued to work Dr Saud’s will against the Shia, but he was starting, as in 1979 and in 2003, to claim that it was he, and not Dr Saud, who was the real ruler of the kingdom! And this time, as the “Islamic State,” Mr Jihad was controlling his own territory not far from the Saudi border. And now, when Dr Saud looked in the mirror, he realised that his own features were slowly distorting into the terrifying face of his alter ego.
The downward spiral in and around Saudi Arabia has intolerable consequences, in the form of increasing terrorism and surging flows of refugees, both of which feed anti-liberal movements in Europe and the US.
For the first time, the Americans were noticing the extent to which Dr Saud and Mr Jihad seemed suspiciously connected. Why wouldn’t Dr Saud bomb Mr Jihad in Iraq? Weren’t those two appearing at the same times and places in Syria? Why was Dr Saud dropping bombs on Yemen, strengthening Al Qaeda there and bringing misery to Yemen’s people? More and more Americans struggled to make sense of what they saw: “Has something gone wrong with our friend’s mind?” they asked themselves. “Look, Dr Saud is doing more and more beheadings! Wasn’t it only the evil Mr Jihad who cuts off the heads of Shia clerics? Wait a minute. Doesn’t Dr Saud sound eerily like Mr Jihad when he fulminates about the Shia, democracy, women’s rights, tolerance, and free speech?” As the Americans listened, they heard bloodcurdling screams of “Off with their heads!” coming from Syria, Iraq, and the kingdom itself. And they all seemed to have the same voice!
Meanwhile, Dr Saud, fast running out of petrodollars, watched as Mr Jihad piled up bodies inside and outside the kingdom. As he anxiously considered another expensive injection to regain control over his alter ego, the voice of Mr Jihad inside his head became almost ear shattering: “Do you think you can keep silencing your democracy bloggers and Shia protestors without me spilling their blood? Do you see the American and Iranian infidels making deals with each other? Don’t stop bombing Yemen! These sectarian wars drive people into my arms, and my Al Qaeda bomb makers there are preparing quite a surprise for the Americans! I need more of your petrodollars! Don’t you see how much killing I have to do in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Kenya, Mali, Indonesia, Istanbul, Paris, California, Brussels and New York! Don’t you dare stop helping me!” Dr Saud feverishly wrote out more checks, queasy about all the murders, worried about the strange looks from the Americans, and terrified more than ever by the thought of being taken over by Mr Jihad. Unless something changed soon, that sad fate seemed certain.
Is this tragic story a fair account of the House of Saud? One can certainly make the case that violent extremism is in the regime’s DNA. After all, the dynasty’s founder, Mohammed Ibn Saud, agreed as far back as 1733 to impose Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s harsh religious views on the people they conquered. Since Ibn Saud’s descendent Abdul Aziz created the modern Saudi state in 1923, right up to today’s rule by his son King Salman, that pact with the Wahhabists has imposed a Hobson’s Choice on the House of Saud: deviations from Wahhabism feed internal challenges by violent zealots, while succumbing to Wahhabism feeds conflict with the rest of the world. The rulers’ recurrent “solution” has been to kill the extremist challengers, then try to restore legitimacy by mimicking their medieval ideology. Unfortunately, that choice has become increasingly untenable: the logic of co-optation by emulation now locks them into a region-wide sectarian war against the Iran-backed Shia, in which their only effective Sunni “boots on the ground” belong to the Islamic State and various Al Qaeda affiliates. That means empowering the very groups that ultimately aim to overthrow their dynasty.
Even worse, once the “Arab Spring” announced the arrival of mass uprisings against all forms of dictatorship, the House of Saud has faced a worsening domestic threat, as they struggle to suppress—or to buy off—millions of Saudis who resent the power of one family to govern their lives. If there were only enough petrodollars, perhaps they could use them to keeping buying time. But to complete the worst-case scenario, oil revenue has been slashed by long-term changes in world energy markets.
For the west, the downward spiral in and around Saudi Arabia has intolerable consequences, in the form of increasing terrorism and surging flows of refugees, both of which feed anti-liberal movements in Europe and the United States. The original Saudi sickness is metastasising to the point of threatening the very foundations of the west’s post-World War II project of a peaceful, liberal world order. Simply put, the psychosis of “Dr Saud and Mr Jihad” is not just killing the patient; it has become too dangerous for the rest of us. It has to be dealt with.
If there is hope for a solution, it begins with the observation that that split societies are not the same as split personalities. Saudi Arabia is obviously not one powerful person with severe psychiatric problems. It is a society which, like all societies, is divided into factions, an almost endless set of conflicting group preferences rooted in class, religion, tribe, race, ethnicity, down to disagreements over myriad issues ranging from environmental protection to mass transportation. To prevent this ubiquitous source of human conflict (whose vexing universality is described so brilliantly in James Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10) from trapping societies between despotism and anarchy, political theorists developed a coping mechanism known as “liberalism.” This “treatment” (for there is no complete cure) combines majority rule, minority rights, individual liberty, the rule of law, and a culture of tolerance, all sustained by mass education. Liberalism became the most formidable ideology on earth because most people would prefer not to be bullied, and because liberals have combined to fight off the most formidable assaults—fascist, communist, or clerical—on that fundamental human aspiration to freedom.
What restorative regimen must the House of Saud now follow? First, an “intervention” is needed. That could be an intervention in the sense of a painful meeting in which close friends and family explain to a loved one that they have no choice but to get help. Alternatively, it might entail something along the lines of a confidential threat that the U.S. military, at some imminent date, will halt all shipments of Saudi oil. Whatever it takes, the children and grandchildren of Abdul Aziz need to be told that the clerical and educational transmission of Wahhabism, domestically and internationally, must be promptly shut down – if the family wishes to live on with their wealth and any degree of authority.
The sad legacy of US foreign policy is to have enabled two warring variants of clerical fascism to feed on each other, poison an entire region, and threaten liberal societies worldwide.
Next, the 15,000 members of the House of Saud should be handed some assigned readings on historical rationales for constitutional monarchies, whose blend of stability, tradition, and transitions toward liberal governance offer the only way for kingdoms to durably outlast the arrival of mass politics. If the devil, as always, is in the details, there is good reason for optimism that stability can be preserved during a transition to the modern state that most ordinary Saudis almost certainly would prefer – if given a secure chance to get there.
One might remember that between the mindless U.S. invasion of Iraq and its equally mindless withdrawal, General Petraeus had demonstrated — as he orchestrated the “Sunni Awakening” that crushed Al-Qaeda in Iraq (the forerunner of the Islamic State) — that given reasonable hope of success, people will fight off violent bullies of every stripe, from megalomaniacs to religious butchers like Abu Musab al Zarqawi. If liberalism loses faith in this bet that it has placed on the basic aspirations of humanity, no “war on terror” will ever succeed.
There are more than a few westerners who believe that Arabs, or Persians and Arabs, or Muslims in general, or the tribes of the Persian Gulf, or some subgrouping of the human species, are inherently immune to the fundamental appeal of tolerance that undergirds liberal society. Here, one might turn one’s gaze just to the north and east of Saudi Arabia, to its far smaller but very vibrant neighbour, the United Arab Emirates. That country has a considerable distance to travel in substantiating its rhetorical hints and small gestures of transition toward constitutional monarchy. But it is worth recounting an instructive story told about the country’s dynamic founder, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan. In the early 1970s, an Emirati citizen encountered Sheik Zayed, shovel in hand, hard at work on the corniche that now traverses the modern shoreline of Abu Dhabi. Clearly upset, the man blurts out to his beloved ruler: “Sheik Zayed, do you see that new hotel across the road? They are serving alcohol! What should I do?” Sheik Zayed smiled and said: “Don’t go there.” That appeal to common sense and decency has enduring power, but requires, at critical junctures, a vigilant source of enforcement.
If the case of “Dr Saud and Mr Jihad” is indeed strange, so too is the mind-boggling U.S. failure to recognise the masquerade, as its post-9/11 policies veered from the 2003 Iraq invasion that opened the door to Al Qaeda in Iraq, to the reckless withdrawal that resurrected it as the Islamic State, to today’s exhausting global game of “whack-a-mole” against proliferating targets as big as Mosul and as tiny as the troubled minds of “lone wolves.” How, from September 11, 2001 until today, has the Saudi role as the original and continuing source of extremist Sunni ideology, including its global export, been allowed to continue without serious scrutiny?
This is not the place for a diagnosis of the “strange case of Uncle Sam” in the Persian Gulf, let alone for a therapeutic regimen for restoring the courage of his liberal convictions. Surely, the place to begin that process is to recognise and face the problem. Are we clear that Saudi Arabia is the source of the ideology that animates Al Qaeda and the Islamic State? That the export of violent Sunni extremism, whose targets evolved to include the United States, has been a strategic objective of the three Saudi Kings who have ruled since the 1970s: King Fahd, King Abdullah, and now, King Salman?
Or does that assertion, in your view, go too far? Surely it is glaringly at odds with the views of the U.S. delegation, headed by President Obama and First Lady Michelle, that flew to Riyadh on January 26, 2015, to mark the passing of King Abdullah and to greet the ascension of King Salman. Newspaper accounts document the lavish praise heaped on the Saudi ruling family by what may have been the most star-studded assemblage of U.S. foreign policy heavyweights ever to make a foreign trip together (including CIA Director John Brennan, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator John McCain, former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and James Baker, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and many others). Suffice it to say that President Obama set the tone by paying tribute to “the closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries.”
To return to the analogy with Jekyll and Hyde, one might have hoped that the American delegation, having heaped praise on “Dr Saud,” would have paid attention to King Salman’s very public subsequent appearance as “Mr Jihad.” Just one month after the high-level U.S. visit, the King appeared at a luxury hotel in Riyadh to bestow one of his country’s highest honours, the King Faisal International Prize for “Service to Islam,” on Dr Zakir Naik, a Muslim televangelist from India, personally handing him a large gold medal and $200,000. Dr Naik’s public lectures and interviews include calls to kill apostates and homosexuals, explanations of the 9/11 attacks as an “inside job” by President George W. Bush, and assertions that the Jews rule America. Most telling is Dr Naik’s depiction of Osama Bin Laden: “If he is terrorising America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him. Every Muslim should be a terrorist.” King Salman’s high praise and televised transfer of cash to the leading Indian proselytiser of jihadist violence was timely, coming just four months after Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the formation of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, which would "raise the flag of jihad" across south Asia.
Thus, switches between the two sides of the “split personality” now occur in broad daylight. To rely on such a schizophrenic regime to somehow “balance” Iran is to indulge in an anachronistic geopolitical fantasy. The sad legacy of US foreign policy, rooted in the Cold War, is to have unwittingly enabled two warring variants of clerical fascism to feed on each other, poison an entire region, and threaten liberal societies worldwide. The first step away from our current drift into unending dangers is to stop imagining that there is some sort of “partnership” between the United States and a supposedly well-intentioned “Dr Saud.”