Trump’s War on Extremism Has Some Awkward Allies in Saudi Arabia

  • Saudis promote new center to combat militants with U.S. help
  • But Saudi clerics and cash helped spread of radical ideology

Trump, Tillerson and Ross Weigh in on Saudi Deals

Rows of men dressed in identical white robes and headdresses silently stared at computer screens as Donald Trump, the Saudi king and the president of Egypt placed their hands on a glowing orb.

The movie-set visuals were in honor of a new center in Riyadh to combat the ideologies behind terrorism. Technology is supposed to enable its staff to locate militant activity online, anywhere in the world, within seconds. But many analysts say the search for the roots of Islamic extremism should begin at home.

As Trump was starting his visit to the kingdom, one prominent scholar affirmed that Jews are the mortal enemies of Muslims. Another lectured his 320,000 Twitter followers on the lies spread by Shiite Muslims. Imposing the kingdom’s religious norms goes beyond words: in 2015 a liberal blogger was publicly whipped after criticizing the clerical establishment. Egyptian courts have jailed several bloggers on similar charges.

Trump, in a speech in Riyadh last Sunday, urged Muslim nations to eradicate terrorism and “send its wicked ideology into oblivion.” The assembled Sunni Muslim leaders echoed his call, but when it comes to acting on it, many start with a handicap. They’re often at cross-purposes with their own religious institutions, whose role extends well beyond the mosque; and they allow little space for non-violent expressions of dissent.

‘Awkward Place’

In Saudi Arabia, for example, some school textbooks condemn other religions as “invalid,” and clerics openly preach against members of non-Sunni Muslim sects -- even though there are many Shiites in the country, especially in its oil-rich east. And the kingdom’s restrictions on women, who aren’t allowed to drive cars, make it a global outlier.

“Saudi Arabia is an awkward place to give a speech about promoting tolerance and moderation,” said Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Saudi Arabia promotes a harsh, strict interpretation of Islam.”

Gulf rulers have joined in U.S.-led efforts to fight extremist groups since the Sept. 11 attacks, whose perpetrators were mostly Saudi citizens. While the effort mostly involved domestic law enforcement at first, in recent years they’ve sent warplanes to bomb Islamic State. Millions of dollars have been spent on conferences to promote inter-faith dialogue and programs to rehabilitate those who joined militant groups overseas.

“We have a policy in Saudi Arabia of zero tolerance for extremists,” Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said during a panel discussion last Sunday. “If somebody is an imam in a mosque that is preaching hate and violence, they get dismissed. Reprimanded, reprogrammed, and then dismissed if it doesn’t work, and we’ve dismissed thousands of them.”

‘Waste of Time’

Such efforts have been undermined by the conflicts raging in Syria and Iraq. Islamist militants fighting in those wars have framed them as a battle between Sunnis and Shiites. In the Gulf, many mainstream clerics promote the same view. Saudi citizens have carried out suicide bombings in Iraq, and wealthy individuals from the Gulf have sent money to radical groups.

A month after the fall of Mosul in Iraq to Islamic State in June 2014, an email exchange between Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, then an adviser to President Barack Obama, referred to American pressure on Qatar and Saudi Arabia over their financial and logistical support for extremist fighters, according to Wikileaks.

In Egypt, where the sectarian divide is less of an issue, the use of force to repress Islamist politics creates a different set of risks.

A bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood after the ouster of President Mohamed Mursi in 2013 sent many of his supporters underground, and raised concerns they’ll turn to violence now the electoral route to power is blocked. Militants pledging loyalty to Islamic State have intensified attacks on security forces -- they brought down a Russian passenger plane over Sinai last year -- and the country’s Christian minority.

“The best way to fight extremism is not by fighting extremist ideology but by addressing the political factors that allow it to take hold,” said Hamid. Without that, “all the focus on theology and religion are quite frankly a waste of time.”

‘Intellectual Leadership’

While Gulf leaders agree on the need for political settlements to conflicts like the one in Syria, they’ve also sought help from clerics to undercut the appeal of Islamic State -- and also the Brotherhood, more associated with electoral politics than violence in recent years, yet labeled a terrorist group in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

In Saudi Arabia, a sometimes uneasy alliance between political and religious leaders makes the task harder. It dates back to the 18th century, and a pact between the Al Saud family and the religious scholar Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, who gave his name to the austere Wahhabi creed that still predominates in the kingdom.

“Of course the Saudis aren’t supporting Da’esh,” said Kamran Bokhari, a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. The problem, he said, is that some Saudi clerics are competing with the group for “the intellectual leadership” of the ideology that promotes radicalism.

Saudi rulers have turned more conservative in the past in response to religious challenges. After the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by militants in 1979, public entertainment was banned and clerics were given more control over schools, courts and social life.

‘We Didn’t Do Enough’

The dominant leader in today’s Saudi Arabia, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is moving in the opposite direction. As part of his plan to transform the kingdom’s economy, he’s called for foreign investments in the entertainment industry.

Some Saudis hope a change in textbooks will follow. The kingdom’s schools “damage more than they repair,” Hasan Al-Malki, a moderate Saudi Islamic scholar, said in an interview. “Changing the curriculum is a must.” The Education Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Saudi officials “have made a sincere effort to overhaul the entire education system,” said said Fahad Nazer, a consultant to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, D.C., who does not speak for the government. Removing material seen promoting religious intolerance is “a key component of the government’s effort to ‘inoculate’ Saudi youths against recruitment by terrorist groups,” he said.

Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The center in Riyadh isn’t the first attempt by Saudis to combat jihadism online. But the program enjoys renewed U.S. support under Trump, and American officials say it can be replicated elsewhere. “We hope to take what we learn there into Africa,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday. “This is really a center of excellence that we’re going to develop.”

The foreign minister of another close U.S. ally said that leaders are addressing a problem they’ve neglected.

“Terrorism increased, because the methods that we used to fight terrorism were not enough,” the U.A.E.’s Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed said. “We didn’t do enough to fight the ideology.”

— With assistance by Vivian Nereim, Tarek El-Tablawy, Margaret Talev, and Donna Abu-Nasr

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE