Ten Years After 9/11: Managing U.S.-Saudi Relations

Discussion in 'West Asia & Africa' started by ejazr, Sep 20, 2011.

  1. ejazr

    ejazr Stars and Ambassadors Stars and Ambassadors

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    This event was organized by the Carnegie Endowment and gives an interesting overview of what experts both in Saudi and the US think about the US-Saudi relationship and where its going. I have put the summary below. You can follow the link to listen to the entire event.

    Ten Years After 9/11: Managing U.S.-Saudi Relations - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

    A decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks inaugurated a new era of U.S.-Saudi relations, it is time to reexamine how the bilateral relationship has changed over time and what it might look like in the future—particularly in areas such as counterterrorism cooperation and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

    To examine this question, the Carnegie Endowment hosted two panel discussions. The first featured a discussion of the potential challenges facing the U.S.-Saudi relationship with Mustafa Alani, director of the Security and Defence Studies Department at the Gulf Research Center, and Gregory Gause, a professor at University of Vermont, and Carnegie’s Christopher Boucek . Christian Koch, director of the International Studies Research Program at the Gulf Research Center, moderated the discussion.

    The second panel featured a discussion of U.S.-Saudi relations in the wake of the Arab Spring with Chas Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Sager, the chairman and founder of the Gulf Research Center, and Carnegie’s Marina Ottaway. Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher moderated.

    U.S. – Saudi Relations

    Strong Cooperation: Alani and Boucek emphasized that the United States and Saudi Arabia cooperate extensively in the areas of counterterrorism, law enforcement, and security.

    Challenges to Relations: Gause observed that U.S.–Saudi relations have not changed substantially since 9/11 and noted that the relationship had previously survived a number of major global events, such as the 1973 oil embargo and the Iranian Revolution. However, a number of potential challenges for the relationship remain, including disagreement over how to react to the Arab Spring, rising sectarianism, and rising oil prices as a result of a possible economic crisis in Saudi Arabia.

    Limited Cooperation: While the U.S.–Saudi relationship was previously based on a shared worldview and common economic interests, it now exists primarily because neither country sees an alternative, Gause and Freeman said. The current relationship is a transactional one with cooperation focused on specific issues.

    Domestic Focus: The increased weakness of the U.S.–Saudi relationship is also the result of both governments’ focus on domestic issues, Freeman said.

    Areas for Cooperation: While the Obama administration’s position on the Arab-Israeli conflict has been a disappointment for Saudi Arabia, Sager stated, it still relies on the United States for security and would be willing to cooperate on other issues such as Afghanistan and Yemen.

    Counterterrorism

    Successful Efforts: Alani and Boucek commended Saudi Arabia for its counterterrorism efforts, stating that they have largely succeeded in dismantling terrorist networks within Saudi Arabia. Both also noted that Saudi Arabia has taken important steps to prevent terror financing by giving the state greater oversight over financial channels and charities.

    Broad Areas of Cooperation: Alani, Boucek, and Freeman all highlighted that U.S.–Saudi counterterrorism cooperation is not limited to direct attacks on terrorist cells and detention of terrorists, but also involves a major rehabilitation program for terrorists and the use of religion to combat extremist ideology.

    Short-Term Stability: The strength of U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism cooperation indicates that both countries are focused foremost on short-term stability in the region, Ottaway noted.

    The Arab Spring

    U.S. Concern: Ottaway noted that the United States is very conflicted about the Arab Spring because it recognizes that reform is necessary for long-term stability, but is also concerned that the region will become increasingly unstable in the short term if reforms are initiated.

    Reform Needed: The United States must communicate to the Saudi government that stability requires political and economic reform, particularly in Bahrain, Freeman stressed.

    Saudi Role in the Region: Gause stated that these divergent positions on the Arab Spring could become a source of tension in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. He added, however, that accusations that Saudi Arabia is leading a counterrevolution in the region overstate Saudi influence and ambition.

    Resistance to Reform: Alani emphasized that it is difficult for the Saudi government to impose democratic reforms because a large portion of Saudi society is very resistant to reform. The government, he added, must take this section of society into consideration when discussing reforms.

    Palestine’s UN bid for statehood

    Cooler Relations: Freeman observed that the quality of the U.S.–Saudi relationship decreased after the Saudi regime realized the United States was unable to control Israel and guarantee Saudi regional interests. While Palestine’s UN bid for statehood will not end U.S.–Saudi cooperation on other issues, it could lead to a further chilling of relations, he argued. Gause agreed that the U.S. refusal to support the Palestinian bid for statehood is unlikely to be a serious barrier to U.S.-Saudi relations.

    Arab Peace Initiative: The Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for two-state solution, began as King Abdullah’s own initiative and thus Saudi Arabia is committed to its political and economic costs, Alani added.

    Domestic Pressures: Boucek and Freeman emphasized that domestic pressures in Saudi Arabia may require the Saudi regime to take a harder stance in support of Palestine and against the U.S. position on Palestine.

    Iran

    Saudi Concern: Saudi Arabia is concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its history of regional interference, and its increasing influence, particularly in Iraq, Alani stated.

    Challenging Iran’s Influence:
    Gause stressed that Saudi Arabia’s encouragement of sectarianism as a way to challenge Iran’s influence in the region could result in increased radicalization in the Gulf. He also stated that Saudi Arabia wants to resolve its problem with Iran in a way that will have no negative impact on the Arab world, which is an unrealistic goal.

    Assad’s Fall: The potential fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria will weaken Iran and its regional alliance with Syria, Hezbollah, and Iraq, Sager argued.

    Salafism

    Complicated Relationships: Gause emphasized that the Saudi relationship with Salafi groups at home and abroad is complicated. Saudi Arabia has funded some of these groups, but has not been able to maintain control over them.

    Three Groups: Alani argued that there are three types of Salafi groups—preaching Salafis, who have no political or military ambitions; Jihadi Salafis, who support Jihad as a defensive strategy like the Taliban; and Takfiri Salafis, who are best exemplified by al-Qaeda—and that Saudi Arabia has supported the preaching Salafis. He stated that while the Saudi government lost some control over the groups, its new financing laws and greater institutionalization of religion have helped the state to regain control.

    Redefining Salafism: The Saudi regime, particularly King Abdullah, is seeking to redefine Salafism in order to regain control over it and encourage a view of Islam that embraces diversity and science, Freeman observed.
     
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  3. ejazr

    ejazr Stars and Ambassadors Stars and Ambassadors

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    An interesting interview on Saudi Arabia and Terrorism. I have only put a few interesting Q&As here. You can read the entire interview in the link below.

    Terrorism Out of Saudi Arabia - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

    Fifteen of the nineteen al-Qaeda hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia. In the decade since 9/11, Riyadh has been credited as an invaluable partner to Washington in fighting global terror and as one of the world’s best success stories for how to defeat domestic terrorist activities through law enforcement, security and intelligence measures, education, and rehabilitation. Still, some Saudi nationals remain an important source of funding for terrorist networks despite Riyadh’s efforts to crack down on illicit financing.

    In a Q&A, Christopher Boucek assesses the threat of terrorism coming out of Saudi Arabia ten years after 9/11. Boucek argues that Washington and Riyadh have enjoyed a successful relationship in combating global terror and Saudi Arabia is remarkably effective in containing the terrorist threat—but if the country loses focus on this priority, terrorism could come back with a vengeance.

    What is Saudi Arabia’s connection to global terror?

    Saudi Arabia is an important location for funding global terrorist activity and it also serves as the spiritual home of al-Qaeda. Since 2003, when terrorism came back to Saudi Arabia—most notably with the May bombings of residential compounds housing foreigners in Riyadh—and the Saudi authorities started taking the problem seriously, the country has made huge efforts to crack down on terrorism. Right now, there are no major terrorist operatives or cells openly operating in Saudi Arabia—but funding remains the big problem today.

    To what extent are Saudis funding terror and what has the government done to limit financing?

    With the Hajj attracting millions of Muslims every year to Mecca, there are ample opportunities to make connections and fundraise with people from all over the world. It is relatively easy to get money for many things in Saudi Arabia—and there is certainly money to be had. And terrorist groups can receive cash (or other convertible instruments) from individuals and groups even today, because there are still people who believe in the actions of these groups.

    The government has done quite a bit to crack down on fundraising. Laws have been implemented to curtail sending charitable money abroad outside government channels. People are not allowed to fundraise in mosques or on the streets, although such fundraising likely persists to some degree. There have also been educational and advertising campaigns letting people know that such money is often used for illicit activities—this has helped increase awareness about the methods terror groups use to raise funds.

    A fatwa was also issued saying that raising money for terrorism is the same as being a terrorist. And many prominent religious officials have condemned terrorism and worked hard to undermine support for terrorism and counter the intellectual or ideological justifications for terrorist activities.

    But the real problem is that we are talking about mostly small amounts of money and often cash, so it is incredibly difficult to regulate and prevent. Saudi Arabia is good at cracking down on terrorism, but the financing is incredibly hard to control. There are people who give money that gets diverted to other purposes and groups that use similar methods to collect cash.

    And it’s important to remember that terrorist groups do not need large amounts of money to operate. Global terror is a cheap business to be in, so cutting funds to the point that it prevents terrorist acts is an uphill battle.

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    How successful is Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism program? Is terrorism and terrorism financing a priority for the Saudi government?

    Saudi Arabia has made combating terrorism a major priority. Terrorism is one of the biggest threats that Riyadh faces. Before 2003, the effectiveness of Riyadh’s counterterrorism activities was questionable at best. But in response to the rising levels of violence in the country in 2003 through 2006, the government did a good job of clamping down.

    There are not too many countries that have successfully dismantled and muzzled terrorism like Saudi Arabia has done. The government dedicated a great deal of money to the issue and employed both hard-security methods and softer tactics. This included arrests, better intelligence, amnesties, and counter-radicalization programs, as well as efforts by the governing and religious establishments to mobilize the population against terrorist activities.

    Every six to eight months, the Ministry of the Interior will announce a series of arrests and accuse the suspects of targeting members of the royal family, foreigners, energy infrastructure, and moderate clerics, but release limited details. This helps communicate to the public that homegrown terrorism is still a serious, ongoing threat despite the lack of a successful, high-profile attack in recent years.

    Early on, however, Saudi Arabia realized that it did not want to make the same mistakes that Egypt and Syria made when too many people were arrested. Massive, unaccountable arrests run the risk that family members will be radicalized. Riyadh realized that it needed to reduce the impact of arrests and prove to the population that it was working to take care of them. The government and religious authorities worked to drive a wedge between extremists and the public by proving that extremists are not acting in the population’s best interests and funded disengagement and rehabilitation programs. Riyadh put all kinds of resources and money into this and has enjoyed some success, but the sheer amount of financial backing, resources, and top-level focus makes the programs hard to emulate in different countries.

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    How effectively has Saudi Arabia partnered with the United States to combat terrorism since 9/11?

    This is one of the better relationships in the world on counterterrorism. The cooperation between Washington and Riyadh is strong and on the issue of terrorism the Saudis and Americans basically see eye to eye. There is also a regular exchange of information to help both countries prevent attacks.

    This was not the case for the first few years after 9/11, as Saudi Arabia did not fully appreciate the problem. But when violence started in Saudi Arabia in 2003, the relationship with the United States on terrorism improved markedly and quickly grew strong. Now there are programs to improve the security of Saudi’s energy infrastructure, training, officials share databases, photos, fingerprints, etc., and there is a great deal of cooperation on Yemen where there are Saudis hiding out and operating with AQAP.

    The relationship today shows how two governments can cooperate. If every country was willing to cooperate like Saudi Arabia, the world would be a much safer place. There are two things that are needed to fight terrorism—political will and capacity. Saudi Arabia has demonstrated both. Other countries haven’t. Saudi Arabia recognized that it was at risk of terrorism and then focused a great deal of attention on the problem.
     

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