May 4, 2003 | The Weekly Standard

North of the Border

By Stephen Schwartz

WHILE WESTERN MEDIA and politicians peddle their alarums in the aftermath of Iraq's liberation, focusing on Syria and Iran, attention should also be paid to Saudi Arabia. Throughout the military campaign, the royal regime publicly sought to maintain its alliance with the United States without reining in the venomous rhetoric of its religious bureaucracy opposing Western influence in the Islamic world. Behind the scenes, the regime viewed the Iraq war as an opportunity to expand its ideological influence through outreach by its official missionary networks dedicated to the global spread of Wahhabism, the ultra-strict, separatist form of Islam that is the official sect in the country. And where Wahhabism goes, terrorism is seldom far behind.

Indeed, we should not overlook the Saudi-Wahhabi hand in promoting suspicion and rumor against the Iraqi Shias. The Wahhabis hate Shia Muslims more than they hate anyone else in the world, Jews and Christians included. The Saudi monarchy fears Shias more than it fears anyone else in the world, Osama bin Laden included. This anxiety has very little to do with alleged Shia sympathies for Iranian radicalism–and much to do with domestic Saudi politics.

Saudi Arabia has a large and discontented Shia minority concentrated in the oil-bearing Eastern Province and southern region and notably represented in the technical elite. The Shias of Arabia, although systematically undercounted by the Saudi regime, are believed to constitute at least 10 percent of the population, or 2 million. They have suffered a long history of discrimination–Shias are generally barred from government and media employment–and cruel treatment under Wahhabi dominance.

Unsurprisingly, with the fall of Saddam's statue in Baghdad, a group of 13 Saudi Shia clerics came forward to celebrate the defeat of the Iraqi dictatorship. Their statement could be read as implicit criticism of the Saudi government for its mistreatment of its Shia subjects. The rulers, however, show no sign of softening their hostility toward the Shias, which Western public relations firms, academics, and media help them hide.

Thus, as the fighting in Iraq wound down, the Saudi daily al-Riyadh announced that an 18-member Saudi delegation was headed to Washington to burnish the regime's image. The team was set up and paid for by the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) with the support of the Saudi intelligence service. Saudi intelligence officers, including a few brought out of retirement, were ordered to work on the effort. Saudi subjects residing and studying in the United States were also hired by SAGIA to assist.

Meanwhile, the Washington-based public relations firm Qorvis Communications continued to benefit from its contract with the Saudis, last month reporting a 52 percent increase in its annual fee income, to $10.7 million in 2002. And the Saudi monarchy's largesse continued to flow to think tanks like the Middle East Institute in Washington and the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, as well as the National Council on U.S. Arab Relations, an advocacy group.

Complacency on the part of U.S. diplomats further benefits the Saudi cause. In a recent incident, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan gave an interview to the Future of Islam, a monthly publication of the Riyadh-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), which was involved in the financing of al Qaeda and the dissemination of extremist literature in the United States and throughout the Muslim world. Ambassador Jordan, however, has declined to meet with Saudi democratic activists.

In the same April issue, the Future of Islam published a cover interview with Saudi cleric Ayed al-Qarni, an adviser to prince Abdel-Aziz bin Fahd, youngest son of the elderly and ailing King Fahd. Al-Qarni is also the author of a poem he recorded for repeated broadcast on Saudi-subsidized television and radio during the war, which says in part: “Slaughter the enemy infidels and say there is but one God.” In the interview, he stated that he prays for the destruction of America, the main source of global suffering, several times a day. He also urged Saudi subjects to go fight in Iraq and contribute money to help defend Saddam.

Al-Qarni was not alone in his call to arms. In the first week of April, another Wahhabi cleric, Naser Al-Omar, preached in favor of suicide attacks on coalition forces in Iraq. In an interview with the Saudi government-backed Al-Majd Television, established in Dubai at the end of 2002, Al-Omar said, “We should hope for more [terror bombings] to kill more of the enemies of God, the Jews and Christians.” He praised terror as a means to keep the Jews and Christians in a state of fear in many countries. At the beginning of the Iraq operation, he was among the signers of a fatwa calling for the defense of Saddam's Iraq, which was distributed in Saudi government offices and hospitals.

Significantly, Al-Omar has been a prominent advocate of increased Saudi repression of Shias. In 1995, he called for the arrest of their religious leaders, confiscation of their mosques and other religious facilities, and their forcible conversion to Wahhabism. The recent incitement to terrorist “martyrdom” did not go unheeded. Dozens of Saudis joined the hundreds of “volunteers” who went to Iraq to confront the coalition, and a number have been killed, with their photographs printed in Saudi media. In addition, Saudis played a major role in the Wahhabi terror group Ansar al-Islam, which attacked Iraqi Kurds until it was destroyed by coalition forces. The commander of Arab volunteers in northern Iraq, a Saudi subject from Dammam named Yassin al-Sihli, was killed by Kurdish troops.

Spurious claims by Western experts that Saddam's Baathist state was so secular as to be anathema to Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda's Saudi backers, and other Wahhabis were never taken seriously in the Muslim world, where the Wahhabis were understood to be natural allies of the Butcher of Baghdad in his campaign against Shias. Furthermore, in the long decay of Saddam's regime, the Iraqi Baathists repeatedly tried to salvage their image by claiming an Islamic mantle, with such gambits as the inscription of the Islamic slogan “Allahu akbar” (God is great!) on the national flag. In turn, the Saudis valued Saddam as a bulwark against Iran.

Most recently, the Wahhabi-Saudi religious bureaucracy has made clear that it would seek to influence the religious life of a new Iraq. Already, Wahhabi clerics boast of their large mosque in Sulaymaniyah. Anti-Wahhabi Muslims have warned for the past year that the Saudis would attempt to worm their way into the U.S.-directed rebuilding, with the intention of “Talibanizing” Iraq's Sunni Muslims. True to form, the Saudis have announced another of their notorious telethons to raise money for the relief of Iraq, which–as in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Palestinian Authority–will doubtless be spent mainly on Wahhabi colonization and the fomenting of terror.

Even now, Wahhabi agents are working underground to incite Iraqi Shias against cooperation with the temporary occupation authorities. As New York Shia leader Agha Jafri put it, “The Arab street is the Wahhabi street, and when the Arabs demonstrate against the United States in Iraq, the Wahhabis are never far from the scene.”

Whatever course we follow in dealing with Syria, Iran, or any other perceived threat, we should attend to Saudi Arabia's mischief north of its long and porous border with Iraq. Saudi organizations should be prevented from aggravating rivalries between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias–and demands for change by Shias inside Saudi Arabia should be greeted with support, rather than fear and trembling, by the West.

Stephen Schwartz is director of the Islam and Democracy Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.