American (and Muslim) Complicity in Saudi Theocracy

Here’s the best short commentary I’ve recently seen on our complicity in Saudi tyranny, from the letters section of today’s New York Times:

To the Editor:

What are American “interests” in this region, who determined them, and why have they not been shared with the American people?

We get energy from the Saudis and also used to buy significant amounts of oil from Iran. But we diversified our oil purchasing after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and cut off all Iranian shipments after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. With the current glut of oil on the market, we have never been in a stronger position to press the Saudis for democratic reform. But we don’t.

The only plausible answer is that they continue to buy enormous quantities of American weapons and get support from that lobby. They also continue to invest tens of billions of their petrodollars in Western banks. So despite all our talk about human rights and democracy, it appears that our “interests” are being dictated by the arms industry and Wall Street, both of which have a lock on the White House and Congress.

We the people, who do have an interest in human rights, are left to write letters to the editor and hope that our so-called representatives will hear our voices above the money machine in Washington. Something is very, very wrong with this picture.


Long Island City, Queens

The writer is a professor at the CUNY School of Law.

Every element of that is right, but there’s one thing he doesn’t mention: no boycott of or blacklist against the Saudi regime can work unless Muslims, especially Sunni Muslims, decide to join in and boycott the hajj and umra pilgrimages to Mecca (and Medina).

I find it odd and revealing that Sunnis, who pride themselves on their differences from Shia Muslims over questions of political succession, find themselves unable to apply their vaunted principles to the Saudis. Sunnis are distinguished from Shias by their adherence to the principles of merit and consensus in political succession: the most meritorious should lead the Muslim ummah, and should do so by uncoerced popular consensus of some kind. Sunnis are willing to kill and die for that principle, as applied to the caliphs of the distant past. The Shiite principle of hereditary succession, I’ve heard all my life, is ridiculous, subservient, racist, and tyrannical. Right. So why adopt it when it comes to the Saudis? If Sunnis are willing to kill and die over sectarian differences, why not try something more constructive and less violent: boycott the biggest tyrants in the Islamic world today?

A boycott/blacklisting is the only message that has a chance of breaking through the calculated indifference of the Saudi theocracy, and hitting the regime where it hurts. There was talk of such a boycott and of abolishing Saudi “custodianship” over Mecca just after this past September’s stampede in Mecca, but I’m not sure it’s gone anywhere since.  It ought to be revived. Whatever the merits or demerits of BDS against Israel, BDS against Saudi Arabia is, morally speaking, a complete no-brainer. (Consider this and this while you’re at it.)

I’m curious to hear what Sarah Skwire, Steve Horwitz and the rest of the “Scholars Without Borders” crowd have to say about that. Here’s their official position:

If invited to present our work in a country that is currently under such a boycott, or to collaborate with scholars in those countries, we will do everything possible to accept and, where possible, to reduce or waive our standard lecture fees.

Really? You’ll waive your standard lecture fees to go to King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah? You’ll go out of your way to lecture in a country that’s reluctant to give you a visa because you’re Jewish, or won’t let you in if it finds out that you’ve been to Israel?

When you boycott, say, King Abdul Aziz University, you’re sending a message to its owners, the Saudi regime: they lack moral legitimacy, and ought to clean up their act. Likewise when you reject a $10 million offer of assistance from them, as Rudolph Giuliani very properly did in the aftermath of 9/11. Granted, some innocents might adversely be affected by such actions, but innocents are bound to be adversely affected by any political action: one can’t avoid adverse effects in political life except by avoiding political action altogether (and even that won’t quite do, if you count the negative effects of apolitical quietism). But you’re not “punishing” those innocents by any plausible definition of that term (or any semi-plausible account of punishment in the literature). Those innocents are alas, “collateral damages” of an otherwise worthy (and entirely peaceful) endeavor. And frankly, it’s a bit of a stretch to think that they’re “damaged” at all.

By contrast, when you join the International Advisory Board of a Saudi university, you’re sending a different kind of message: that the Saudi regime is sufficiently legitimate that you’re willing to join it in a common enterprise, and lend your name to the task. When an American university accepts Saudi money, it’s saying something similar, and then some: that the Saudis can permissibly shape American scholarship by subtle and indirect financial means. (Read this as well.) Scholarly exchange is not as simple or easy as Scholars Without Borders would have us believe. Sometimes complicity is what allows one’s scholarly work to be “used as a political tool.” So-called “scholarship without borders” has to be tempered by scholarship conscious of moral limits–and conscious of the perils of complicity. Open Border cliches only go so far in the real world.*

The ultimate goal for Mecca (and perhaps Medina)–as for Jerusalem–should be the internationalization of the holy sites. The ultimate goal for Saudi Arabia should be the abolition, or constitutionalization (and secularization) of the monarchy. For now, the task is a matter of concerted de-legitimization of the regime–not just by Shiites, but by all of us. Enough to keep our hands full for the foreseeable future.

Postscript, January 27, 2016: Here’s another element of our entanglement with the Saudis–our reliance on their money to fund our proxy war in Syria–reminiscent of our reliance on their money to fund our earlier proxy war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

WASHINGTON — When President Obama secretly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin arming Syria’s embattled rebels in 2013, the spy agency knew it would have a willing partner to help pay for the covert operation. It was the same partner the C.I.A. has relied on for decades for money and discretion in far-off conflicts: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In other words, we don’t seem to have learned anything from our experiences in Central America in the 1980s. And though the Republicans have offered a lot of brave talk about “carpet bombing ISIS,” don’t expect that courage to extend to a candid discussion of the threat posed by reliance on the Saudis–who will inevitably pay for the “boots on the ground” after the inevitable failure of the bombing campaign.


*Though I haven’t read it yet, I’m eager in this connection to read Gregory Mellema’s new book, Complicity and Moral Accountability (Notre Dame, 2016):

In Complicity and Moral Accountability, Gregory Mellema presents a philosophical approach to the moral issues involved in complicity. Starting with a taxonomy of Thomas Aquinas, according to whom there are nine ways for one to become complicit in the wrongdoing of another, Mellema analyzes each kind of complicity and examines the moral status of someone complicit in each of these ways.

Mellema’s central argument is that one must perform a contributing action to qualify as an accomplice, and that it is always morally blameworthy to perform such an action. Additionally, he argues that an accomplice frequently bears moral responsibility for the outcome of the other’s wrongdoing, but he distinguishes this case from cases in which the accomplice is tainted by the wrongdoing of the principal actor. He further distinguishes between enabling, facilitating, and condoning harm, and introduces the concept of indirect complicity.

Mellema tackles issues that are clearly important to any case of collective and shared responsibility, yet rarely discussed in depth, always presenting his arguments clearly, concisely, and engagingly. His account of the nonmoral as well as moral qualities of complicity in wrongdoing—especially of the many and varied ways in which principles and accomplices can interact—is highly illuminating. Liberally sprinkled with helpful and nuanced examples, Complicity and Moral Accountability vividly illustrates the many ways in which one may be complicit in wrongdoing.

For a systematic discussion of American complicity in Saudi tyranny, I once again recommend Said Aburish’s The Rise, Corruption, and Coming Fall of the House of Saud (Bloomsbury, 1994), with this update.

5 thoughts on “American (and Muslim) Complicity in Saudi Theocracy

  1. Pingback: American (and Muslim) Complicity in Saudi Theocracy | Write There

  2. Years ago I co-ed a campus seminar on the Israel-Palestinian stalemate, and I vigorously advocated for the internationalization of Jerusalem. It is the nodal center, the Axis Mundi, of 3 religions, and for it to be administered by a highly-partisan nation-state is a recipe for trouble. Analogy to Washington, D.C. or Vatican City.
    Also, Saudi Arabia’s official domination by the Wahabbiist brand of intolerant ultra-conservative Islam has long been a ideological breeding ground for radical jihadists. So why are we so soft on them?


    • The internationalization of Jerusalem is the kind of reasonable idea that has zero chance of adoption. I’m completely in favor of it, but it has everything going against it.

      For one thing, it has no support among Israeli Jews. Israelis are fully committed to full sovereignty over a fully united Jerusalem. No Israeli government, left or right, will compromise on that.

      Meanwhile, I doubt it has much support among Palestinian Muslims. For one thing, Palestinians are justifiably disillusioned with the UN and with internationalization schemes. An attempt was made in the wake of the 1994 Hebron Massacre to internationalize the highly contested H2 sector of Hebron. The pathetic result was TIPH, the Temporary International Presence in Hebron. I say “pathetic” despite my admiration for the work they do, but when a massacre of Palestinians leads to the establishment of an unarmed observer “force” empowered merely to write confidential reports to the authorities and escort children to school, “pathetic” is the only word that suits. When I was in Hebron in 2013, some TIPH officials went by, and when they were out of earshot, my Palestinian guide spat on the ground, making a “TIPH” sound as he spat, and said, “That is what I think of them–the useless sons of bitches.”

      My guide in 2015 was nicer. He encouraged me to have a conversation with the local TIPH brigade–a really, really awkward conversation. I tried to ask them about the work they did, and they responded with bureaucratic boilerplate. I asked them whether their reports were available to the wider public, and they said they were strictly confidential. Without thinking, I asked them whether their reports had any practical effects, and they looked pained, as though I had asked a taboo question. Finally, I just “thanked them for their service,” so to speak, and we moved on. “TIPH, they are very nice people,” my guide said, as we walked down Shuhada Street to the next checkpoint (where my guide was detained and questioned).

      My point is, with a precedent like this, internationalization is going to be a hard sell.

      Finally, the deepest problem is that internationalization can resolve some problems, but doesn’t touch the core of the conflict over Jerusalem–the status of the Dome of the Rock/Al Aqsa complex (“Haram Sharif”). The official Israeli line is that Israel doesn’t want to “change the status quo.” But Israeli Jews routinely refer to Haram Sharif as “the Temple Mount,” which indicates something about their definition of “the status quo.” For Israeli Jews, the Temple Mount is really a Jewish religious site, and part of the status quo consists in the aspiration to restore it to its proper status. As militant Zionists correctly say, it makes no sense for the holiest of Jewish holies to rest in non-Jewish hands while sitting within the boundaries of a Jewish state.

      For Palestinian Muslims, Haram Sharif is Muslim, end of story. It belongs in its entirety to the Muslim ummah, and must remain, in perpetuity, in Muslim hands, even if those hands happen to be Jordanian. Given how much Palestinians have lost since 1948, they’ve come to see Haram Sharif as the last divot of soil that remains irrevocably theirs in the land west of the Green Line. I don’t think Americans or Israelis have any real appreciation for how powerful a commitment this is on the Palestinian side. The young men I taught at Al Quds University were willing to kill and die for it. It was a conviction, not a macho bluff. In that respect, the recent violence was entirely predictable. It was in the air even in 2013, and it became an inevitability this summer, even before the Duma incident. Every day I was in Jerusalem this summer, I thought: this place is a powder keg, and it’s only a matter of time before it explodes.

      The problem is, much as I support internationalization, I don’t see how it can resolve the Haram Sharif/Temple Mount dispute. If anything, the dispute shows the inadequacy of the tools at our disposal for resolving a conflict like this. How helpful is it to ask, “What would Locke say?”

      As for the Saudis, our relationship to them is more like our relationship with the Israelis than anyone cares to admit. We put their country on the map; our material interests are entangled in theirs; and they have a powerful lobby that plays our political system like a violin. Despite their supposed “strength”–including all the belligerent bluffing about ISIS–no Republican candidate will dare to go after the Saudis. I don’t know about Sanders, but Hillary Clinton won’t go after them, either. Our only hope is that the American people rise up in outrage against them. Maybe we can start the anti-Saudi intifada by teaching the new generation of Americans how to find Saudi Arabia on the map.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Update: American (and Muslim) Complicity in Saudi Theocracy | Policy of Truth

  4. Pingback: Canceled: Novak Djokovic | Policy of Truth

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