President Barack Obama plans an overnight stay in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on March 28-29 for a rendezvous with King ‘Abdallah. The enduring but always strange bedfellows have been quarreling of late over Saudi Arabia’s belligerent relations with neighbors Iran and Syria. Both sides hope during this visit to kiss and make up.
It’s a titillating occasion for the Saudi lobby, including the Saudi-US Information Service that churns out good news from the happy kingdom. The Service’s website filled a “special section” with feel-good links for the occasion. Johann Schmonsees, spokesman for the US Embassy in Riyadh, likewise trilled that the presidential visit “will be an opportunity to reinforce one of our closest relationships in the region and build on the strong US-Saudi military, security and economic ties that have been a hallmark of our bilateral relationship.” And erstwhile Israel-Palestine negotiator and diplomat extraordinaire Dennis Ross weighed in with an op-ed entitled “Soothing the Saudis,” advising the president to appreciate the fragile feelings and physical vulnerabilities of the royal family.
Following in the steps of predecessors from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush, President Obama will ceremoniously re-consummate Uncle Sam’s semi-clandestine bilateral romance with one of the most intolerant, sadistic partners on the planet. As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for International and Security Studies recently observed in an essay on The Need for a New “Realism” in the US-Saudi Alliance, it is a liaison based on some common angst but few shared values. It’s an illicit affair conducted mostly behind closed doors.
As Schmonsees, Cordesman, Ross and others see it, American and Saudi concerns converge in worries about the terrorist threat to their conjoint military entanglements. The long backstory to this cooperation ranges from Saudi support for the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan (Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters”) that spawned al-Qaeda to the prominent roles of Saudi Arabian citizens, including Osama bin Laden, in the September 11, 2001 attacks to ongoing real-time joint operations in Yemen.
Whether for internal political reasons or in anticipation of the Obama visit, in the past couple of months Saudi Arabia has expanded its definition of irhab, or terrorism, beyond the post-September 11 hysteria in the American press as encouraged by the Bush administration, beyond the Egyptian criminalization of the Society of Muslim Brothers under Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak and al-Sisi, and beyond even Riyadh’s own past crackdowns on dissident liberals and Islamists.
How has the kingdom tightened the vise? Umm al-Qura, the official Saudi gazette, published a new Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and Its Financing on January 31, 2014, effective as of the following day. “Irhab” is now a sweeping term that covers not only violent attacks but also “any act” that would “insult” the reputation of the state, “harm public order,” espouse “atheism,” shake the “stability of society” or advocate any form of dissent, according to Human Rights Watch.
Going further, on March 7, the Interior Ministry issued a list of “terrorist organizations.” The criminalization of association with the Muslim Brothers rightly attracted the most attention because the Brothers are a legitimate (though illegal) political party in Egypt, and under other different names in other Arab countries, and because the Saudi ban on the Brothers features in the kingdom’s spat with the spunky micro-petro-kingdom of Qatar and its media arm Al Jazeera, both accused of favoring the Egyptian branch of the Brothers.
But the Interior Ministry named not only the Society of Muslim Brothers, which is not as such an armed group, but also other guerrilla groups, some of them already on the US terrorist list, and two heretofore undesignated Yemeni entities. Several militant groups outlawed (in some cases not for the first time) were predictable enough, namely al-Qaeda and its eponymous offshoots in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen and Iraq. Two radical paramilitaries fighting in Syria, Da‘ish (also known in English as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, or ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, which not long ago looked like Saudi proxies, were also designated. All of these are Islamist militias of a Sunni salafi persuasion. Ideologically, they are distinguishable from the ruling Wahhabi doctrine in Saudi Arabia mainly by their opposition to dynastic rule. A little-known entity presumably named after the Lebanese Shi‘i militia called Hizballah in the Hijaz was also declared to be a terrorist organization.
Finally, the new Saudi list named two Yemeni groups that have been engaged in mortal combat with one another for several years. Al-Shabab al-Mu’minin (Believing Youth) is a Zaydi Shi‘i revivalist movement with a militant wing known as the Houthis who have held their own against Saudi forces, Wahhabi salafi evangelists and the Yemeni army along the Saudi-Yemeni frontier for the past decade. The Believing Youth’s nemesis the Reform Congregation (known as Islah) is a right-wing political alliance of Sunni salafis, Muslim Brothers, tribal leaders (especially from the preeminent family of the Hashid confederation, Bayt al-Ahmar) and a segment of the Yemeni business community that for two decades received financial and moral support from Riyadh. Many Yemenis were surprised to see Islah, a legal political party represented in the Yemeni parliament, on the list.
The broad set of criminalized activities under the Saudi Interior Ministry’s new rules include but are not limited to membership in, meeting or corresponding with, sympathy for, or circulating the slogans or symbols of any of these groups.
Obama’s conversations with King ‘Abdallah and ruling family scions will not address human rights, women’s rights, democratization or social justice. The American embrace of Saudi Arabia is carnal and/or crassly materialist, not principled. Don’t expect a replay of Obama’s supposedly inspirational 2009 speech to Muslims and Arabs in Cairo, or an adversarial press conference. The White House would rather not draw attention to its dalliance with the misogynist Saudi gerontocracy. Press coverage of the visit is likely to be scant.
The two leaders are likely to discuss arms sales, the linchpin of the bilateral relationship. Ambassador-designate Joseph Westphal reiterated this realist perspective in his Senate hearing statement on March 24 about a mutually fulfilling relationship servicing both Saudi survival instincts and the American military-industrial complex. ”We also have a critical security partnership,” he said. “Saudi Arabia is our largest Foreign Military Sales customer, with 338 active and open cases valued at $96.8 billion, all supporting American skilled manufacturing jobs, while increasing inter-operability between our forces for training and any potential operations.”
In addition, Obama and ‘Abdallah will almost certainly affirm American and/or joint operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, operations which continued in a series of deadly drone strikes against targets in Yemen in early March. The king may be upset that the US has not taken military action in Syria or Iran, but he will almost certainly take comfort from American promises to defend the House of Saud against the most proximate threat to its security and wellbeing.