The Saudi Connection
While Washington’s eyes are trained on the political, military and humane complexities surrounding Ukraine and Syria, President Obama faces another foreign affairs challenge, the growing and potentially dangerous tensions between the White House and America’s longtime ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia.
Obama’s visit this weekend to what is essentially the sacred home of Islam has been seriously complicated by his perfectly reasonable quest for a better relationship with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest rival in the region.
The big question arising out of this situation is just this: Can the United States work out a satisfactory deal with Iran over its nuclear ambitions while simultaneously maintaining its vital alliance with the Saudi political leaders who, by the way, fear that Obama is misreading the tense situation in the Middle East and thus putting their own interests at risk.
Last week an editorial in The Christian Science Monitor suggested that the American president ask his Saudi hosts to answer some key questions, and perhaps the most interesting one it cited is: What is the best type of government for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims — theocracy, secular dictatorship, monarchy, or democracy?
“Solving that question would go a long way to ending many of the region’s big conflicts,” the editorial declared. “Mr. Obama visits the region as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have targeted the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, Turkey’s Islamic ruling party is drifting toward authoritarianism, Iran appears to be softening its Islamic Revolution, and political violence in both Syria and Iraq has attracted violent offshoots of Al Qaeda.”
Look around the Muslim world, one that is so different than the western world we all readily recognize: Iran is a theocracy, Egypt a secular dictatorship and Saudi Arabia a monarchy, while Turkey and Tunisia are democracies. Unfortunately for those who prefer democracy, Turkey’s present political leadership is showing a very clear tendency to disregard some aspects of democracy that are vital to its survival.
Within the Muslim world there are bitter conflicts that must be monitored closely by the United States, for while they may not all have an immediate negative impact on our country, there’s always the potential of diplomatic, economic and even military damage to American interests.
Saudi Arabia’s political leadership recently declared war on all Muslim groups that advocate political Islam and ordered any Saudis fighting in Syria to return home within two weeks.
Any American president in the 21st century will always have a full slate of foreign affairs issues, but Obama’s appears to be overflowing right now, with Syria’s truly terrible humanitarian crisis commanding the most attention.
Saudi Arabia is in a “fight against everything aiming to destabilize the national cohesion and harm Islam’s moderation,” Deputy Premier Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz declared.
Yet the secular legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s political leadership depends on support of Islam’s extremely conservative Wahhabi branch, one that enforces strict social rules, especially on women.
If the Saudis instructed Obama on Muslim affairs, he had to listen politely, but he could have drawn their attention to what many Americans see as Saudi Arabia’s self-serving hypocrisy. He chose not to, and that probably was the better idea ... for now.
The United States has no authority to instruct other nations on how to govern themselves, but it does have a strong hand to play, and it should be played with vigor when it comes to protecting America’s own interests when these interests, whatever their nature, risk being negatively affected by the behavior of others.
And that’s exactly what the Saudis were doing, on their own behalf, when they targeted Muslim groups supporting Islamist politics.