Saudi Arabia, the home office of oil and a key American ally in the Middle East, is being bashed with abandon. In right-wing circles, there is a palpable hankering for the overthrow of the ruling House of Saud or, at the least, for treating the kingdom as a pariah state — maybe not part of the axis of evil but more problem than solution. Just what and who will replace the ruling family is not mentioned. It just could be an anti-American regime, something like Iran’s.
In the United States, Saudi-bashing has reached a ludicrous stage. A casual newspaper reader would be forgiven for concluding that somehow Princess Haifa al-Faisal, the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, passed money to two of the 9/11 terrorists. But her link to them turns out to be so tenuous, so virtually nonexistent, that it amounts to a parody of guilt by association.
For the record, here’s what happened. It appears that Princess Haifa contributed money to a Saudi woman in California who said she needed funds for medical services. Some of that money may have been passed to a Saudi man who, in turn, may have helped two of the 9/11 terrorists rent an apartment in San Diego. Put the local grocery store on the list too. It may have extended the two Saudis some credit.
Yet from Congress and the media came an outcry that set the Saudis back on their heels. It seemed not to matter that for Princess Haifa to have knowingly aided the terrorists, she would be committing suicide by checkbook. The 15 terrorists of Saudi nationality were the sworn enemies of her family. (Her father was the late king.) Prince Bandar himself could be the poster boy for everything the terrorists hate — a cosmopolitan, cigar-smoking, sybaritic downhill skier who, for a time, effectively moved the Saudi embassy to Aspen. Ain’t no way Bandar is going to give a nickel to anyone who’s going to take away his Cohibas.
The current anti-Saudi frenzy is just the latest example of Congress and the federal bureaucracy doing their irresponsible thing — and the media merely taking it all down. It happened not too long ago with China. You will remember how serious it was — a downright threat to the American way of life — that Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign had gotten some money from people in China. You would think Clinton had sold the Washington Monument to Beijing.
You will remember, too, that dangerous, pernicious spy, Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos, the top-secret weapons lab. He had given America’s most valuable nuclear secrets — the “crown jewels,” they were called — to the Chinese. Yet in the end, Lee was never tried for espionage — and, on second thought, maybe China did not have the crown jewels after all. Sorry.
As with China, it’s downright impossible to say anything nice about Saudi Arabia. It’s an authoritarian regime. Its human rights record is abysmal. It has no freedom of religion. It treats women abominably. It punishes criminals with amputations and beheadings. It sanctions anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Zionism. The government is sometimes cooperative, sometimes not, in assisting the United States in fighting terrorism. Some wealthy — as well as ordinary — Saudis have helped fund Islamic radical organizations, including al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden himself is a Saudi.
But it is what it is: a feudal society feeling its way into modernity. Its government is the product of its culture — not something imposed from elsewhere. If it is reformed too fast — and it is reforming a bit — it could go the way of Iran (remember the shah?) or Iraq (remember the king?). Whatever happens, it’s not going to be a democracy. There are, with the exception of the so-called Zionist entity, none of those in the Middle East. Reform, as Louis XVI found out, can cost you your head.
The current impatience with Saudi Arabia, the compulsion to somehow hold it accountable for terrorism worldwide and, in particular, for the events of Sept. 11, 2001, emits the ugly scent of intolerance — both cultural and religious. The Saudis have much to answer for, but in the vitriol of the criticism and the refusal to make distinctions (Princess Haifa, for crying out loud!), so do some others.