Questions on 9/11 and Dismal Human Rights Record Cast Shadow on U.S.-Saudi Relationship

Posted April 27, 2016

MP3 Interview with Sheila Carapico, professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond, Virginia, conducted by Scott Harris


President Obama concluded a visit to Saudi Arabia last week to meet with King Salman and other Gulf Cooperation Council leaders, amid much speculation about a falling out between Washington and Riyadh. Friction between the oil-rich kingdom and the Obama administration has risen over a number of issues, including the U.S.-brokered nuclear agreement with Iran and more recently proposed congressional legislation that would expose the Saudi government to legal jeopardy from lawsuits related to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Saudi Arabia is warning it will sell off three-quarters of a trillion dollars in U.S. bonds and other American assets if the U.S. Congress passes a bipartisan bill that would allow victims of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks to sue foreign governments. The Obama administration has, in turn, applied heavy pressure on Congress to block the bill. Separately, several members of the House and Senate, joining with families of 9/11 victims, are pushing for the declassification of 28 pages of a congressional report on the 2001 al Qaeda attack that may shed light on a possible Saudi role in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Human rights organizations cite a long history of abuses perpetrated by the Saudi government, including the arrest and imprisonment of dozens of dissidents and human rights defenders, systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities and the beheading, crucifixion and public flogging of individuals for nonviolent crimes. The Saudis have also been criticized for their U.S.-backed military intervention in Yemen, where indiscriminate bombing has killed large numbers of civilians. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Sheila Carapico, professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond, Virginia, who discusses the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and the links between the monarchy's promotion of the Wahhabist interpretation of Islam and extremist religious groups and terrorism.

SHEILA CARAPICO: This was President Obama's fourth visit to Saudi Arabia as president and it's primarily based on a commercial relationship where the United States sells a lot of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Oil is pivotal, but so are arms sales and so have relations based on common enmity – so the United States was opposed to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan obviously and to the Islamic Revolution in Iran and in the meantime, it has become a relationship based on American arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Despite Saudi Arabia's horrendous human rights record and violations that include the beheadings, torture, whippings, discrimination against the female population of Saudi Arabia, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been buttressed by the expensive lobbying machine the Saudis employ and from my understanding, lavish gifts over the years to U.S. politicians and presidents, including gifts to presidential libraries and institutions like the Clinton Foundation. Do you want to comment on how else there's a bond between Washington and Riyadh?

SHEILA CARAPICO: Yeah, the Saudis employ very smart people. So currently, there's a huge, veritable industry in Washington, or around Washington and beyond the Beltway of Saudi funded lobbyists and PR firms that churn out kind of improbable and yet, well-funded narratives about happy news from the kingdom. And the Obama administration unfortunately has appreciated that because it is an arms-selling industry that boosts American exports of arms to Saudi Arabia and therefore, we as a nation, benefit from a relationship with a government which is horrible, but where we benefit from selling arms.

BETWEEN THE LINES: One of the more important questions surrounding the U.S. relationship with the Saudis, professor, is the promotion of the Wahhabist interpretation of Islam that many Americans are not aware of. But I wonder as we talk about Saudi Arabia and its links to extremism, if you would discuss briefly for us what Wahhabi Islam and what are the links if any, to terrorist activity in the Middle East and across the world?

SHEILA CARAPICO: That's such a deep and important question that you just asked. Going back to 1979, and I know for a lot of your listeners, that sounds like ancient history. But there were two things that happened that year. One was the Islamic revolution in Iran and the other one was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At the time, Saudi Arabia decided to export the Salafi and fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam against both the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And the United States was completely in support of the Saudi export of Wahhabism or Salafism, or this sort of very fundamentalist, intolerant version of Islam, which actually hadn't been very well known or widely disseminated before then. So now, in 2016, the United States has decided that they really don't particularly like this Saudi-led or Saudi-inspired Salafist or Wahhabist version of Islam. But during the period of being anti-Soviet and anti-Iranian Islamic revolution, the United States was very appreciative of a version of Islam which would be anti-Shia and anti-Soviet.

So the Saudis, I mean, are clearly complicit or responsible for the genesis of a fundamentalist and Salafist version of Islam, but on the other hand, the United States has also been very much supportive of the Saudi monarchy. And again, this comes back to Saudi purchases of American weapons and support of American strategic objectives in Afghanistan and in the Gulf and in Yemen.

See "Killing Yemen: An Interview with Sheila Carapico," Critical Currents in Islam, April 4, 2016.

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