Hirsh: Bush's Odd Saudi Agenda

A day after George W. Bush gave his big democracy speech and declared the opening of "a great new era … founded on the equality of all people"—a line he delivered at the astonishingly opulent Emirates Palace hotel, where most of the $2,450-a-night suites are reserved for visiting royals—the president flew to Saudi Arabia on Monday. There he planned to spend a day with King Abdullah at his ranch, where the monarch keeps 150 Arabian stallions for his pleasure, and thousands of goats and sheep "bred to feed the guests at the King's royal banquets," as the White House put it in the "press kit" it handed out to reporters on the eve of the president's eight-day Mideast tour. Bush was also expected to take time out to meet with a group of "Saudi entrepreneurs."

What could not be found on Bush's schedule was one Saudi dissident or political activist, much less a democrat. Just a day after his speech in Abu Dhabi—and three years after declaring in his second inaugural address that "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture"—the president made time for a tour of Saudi Arabia's National History Museum but not for a meeting with Fouad al-Farhan. Farhan, Saudi Arabia's most popular blogger, was arrested in Jidda last month for daring to defend a group of Saudis who wanted to form a civil rights group.

OK, you get my point. Bush's words were, for the most part, seen as empty here. Especially since there was no follow-up. This is a part of the world where tribal sheikdoms have scarcely modified their medievalism, much less embraced democracy—even as their petro-dollars bring in Frank Gehry and other famous names, wrapping their Potemkin city-states in 21st-century glamour. I understand that Bush must engage in some realpolitik at the moment. This is no time to undermine the Arab regimes. It's important to rally them against Iran's nuclear program and to enlist them in supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In addition, the worrisome rise of oil prices to around $100 a barrel has given the big producers even more leverage.

But if that's so, then don't plan a major democracy speech when you know you're not going to act on it, with not even a symbolic move of any kind to accompany it. There's a word for this kind of thing. It's called hypocrisy.

The president seemed to know he wasn't exactly calling for democratic revolution in the Mideast. His underwhelming speech—touted before the trip as a high point—was a kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too address. So as not to upset the emirs and other Arab royalty too much, Bush told them they can probably keep their various monarchies even if they do democratize. He compared his vision for bringing democratic governance to the Arab world to what the United States did in Asia after World War II, beginning with occupied Japan. "The results are now in," he said. "Today the people of Japan have both a working democracy and a hereditary emperor." (Never mind that Akihito has no power.) When Steve Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, was asked what the emirs' response was to the president's "freedom agenda," he responded with an image as underwhelming as the president's speech. "Heads nod. Heads nod," Hadley said. This was true: a number of audience members in Abu Dhabi were nodding off as Bush spoke.

But the picture is far more pathological than you think, especially here in Saudi Arabia. We need to have an honest discussion about the nature of this strange state, which contains as much as 20 percent of the world's oil reserves. Saudi Arabia has always been a nation run by a family, the vast network of Saud princes who operate in a manner more reminiscent of the Sopranos than a modern, relatively transparent government, says a former senior CIA and FBI official with long experience in the country. The Saud family's legitimacy is built not on law but on an extremist brand of Islam, Wahhabism, in which Osama bin Laden was schooled, much as Tony Soprano's power is based on violence. (Remember when people used to talk about forcing the Saudis to change their radical Islamist views after 9/11? Didn't happen. Instead we invaded somewhat secular Iraq—at least it was next door to the real problem—and found ourselves preoccupied.) Imagine if Tony S. ran much of the world's oil supply and used the vast profits to fund more Bada-Bing fronts for organized crime all over the world? Don't you think governments would band together to stop it? Well, that's not unlike what's happening today, with Saudi Arabia's financing of anti-Western sentiment—but no one's doing anything about it, starting with George Bush. Simply because it's the Saudi government. Our "friends."

Clearly King Abdullah and other senior members of his government are not unfriendly to Washington. But many other Saudis are. This is what some experts have called petro-Islam. The Saudis have used their vast profits to fund not Bada-Bing clubs but Wahhabist mosques around the world, even in the United States. Wahhabists—or Salafists, as members of the broader movement are called—believe in a strict interpretation of the Qur'an and a pure, self-contained Islamic state. Many also embrace the idea that integration into the West—or American society—is profane. This never represented mainstream Islam. In fact, the creator of Wahhabism, the 18th-century thinker Mohammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was notorious among Muslims of his time for being something of an extremist himself. He vandalized shrines, and he was denounced by many Islamic theologians for his "doctrinal mediocrity and illegitimacy," as the scholar Abdelwahab Meddeb notes in "Islam and Its Discontents." The upshot is that Western consumers are paying hundreds of billions of dollars in oil profits to help educate and fund their own potential murderers.

None of this would have happened had it not been for the petro-dollar. The Saudis would have stayed obscure Bedouins and Wahhabism little more than a cult. But because of their oil wealth, the Saudis were able to spread Wahhabism's seed worldwide, making it far more mainstream than it would have been otherwise. As one Egyptian intellectual described it me, "It's as if Jimmy Swaggart had come into hundreds of billions of dollars and taken over most of Christianity."

Saudi Arabia was always the problem, and not just because 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi. It is because of the rise of petro-Islam in this troubled land. And as oil climbs in value, and research lags on alternative energy sources, this pathological family concern known as Saudi Arabia only grows. Even now no one is really doing anything about this critical problem. Bush was right when he said in his second inaugural address, "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." If only he had taken himself seriously on this trip. Perhaps next time he ought to insist on seeing a few dissidents.