The breathless hypocrisy of Donald Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia should leave us all reeling. The fact that the new president could make his first overseas journey to the very country he previously castigated, rightly, as the mother lode of 9/11 is bad enough. But the sycophancy he displayed to his hosts, especially King Salman, demonstrated just what a dangerous chameleon Trump is.
What an irony that Trump’s speech in Riyadh to the leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries proclaimed that “we will make history again with the opening of a new Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology, located right here”.
Does this man know anything about history, including his own? Has he forgotten his 2011 observation about Saudi Arabia: “It’s the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petrodollars … to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.”? Has he forgotten his 2015 comment: “The primary reason we are with Saudi Arabia is because we need the oil.”?
Even though he detested her, Trump might have learned from Hillary Clinton. A leaked 2014 email from Clinton said the US should use it diplomatic and traditional intelligence assets to pressure Qatar and Saudi Arabia, “which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region”. These countries, she argued, should be forced to balance their ongoing competition to dominate the Sunni world with the consequences of “serious U.S. pressure”. Another Clinton email from early 2016 included an excerpt from a closed-door speech in October 2013 in which she stated baldly: “the Saudis have exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last 30 years”.
Using its enormous oil revenues to fund this export, Saudi Arabia is in a league of its own. The sums involved are vast – estimated by intelligence agencies, scholars and others at upwards of US$100 billion. That buys a lot of “cultural advancement”.
The US State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities worldwide, Farah Pandit, wrote in 2015: “I travelled to 80 countries between 2009 and 2014 … In each place I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence; changing the local sense of identity, displacing historic, culturally vibrant forms of Islamic practice; and pulling along individuals who were either paid to follow their rules or who became on their own custodians of the Wahhabi world view. Funding all this was Saudi money, which paid for things like the textbooks, mosques, TV stations and the training of Imams.”
In late 2015, the Algerian journalist, Kamel Douad, neatly described Saudi Arabia as “an ISIS that has made it”. It is the country which produced Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, sent more suicide bombers to Iraq than any other country after 2003, and has supplied more foreign fighters to the Islamic State than any country other than Tunisia.
Perhaps the Saudi royal family and religious establishment have seen the error of their ways. Perhaps King Salman, over whom Trump positively drooled, has turned a new leaf. Or perhaps Trump’s wilful amnesia, combined with his limitless vanity, make him an easy mark.
Salman certainly has form as an ardent promoter of jihadists. He was the royal family’s bagman for jihadis in Afghanistan during the 1980s and the Balkans in the 1990s. Shortly after ascending the throne, in early 2015 he presented the King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam to Zakir Naik, an Indian Muslim “televangelist”. One of Naik’s contribution to international harmony was to describe 9/11 as an inside job led by President George W. Bush.
For a fleeting moment in Riyadh, it seemed that Trump might call the Saudis out. No discussion of Islamic extremism, he declared, would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists “safe harbour, financial backing and the social standing needed for recruitment”. But he was speaking, “of course, of Iran”.
Iran is no model international citizen. But it has just conducted a free and democratic election to choose a new political leader. That’s more than can ever be said for Saudi Arabia or indeed for most Arab states.
Trump termed the new approach he unveiled in Riyadh – which omitted any reference to democratic governance and basic civil and political rights – as “Principled Realism”. Tragically, this president wouldn’t know a principle even if it were illuminated in neon from atop one of his towers.
Peter Rodgers is a former Australian ambassador to Israel, who has written two books on the Middle East.