Jihadism: Saudi Arabia Is Part of the Solution, but Also Part of the Problem

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a joint news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal in Riyadh March 31, 2012. Clinton has said Saudi Arabia must do more to stop its citizens from funding extremism. Fahad Shadeed/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution site.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has raised the difficult issue of Saudi Arabia’s unique position in the struggle with global jihad, a very complex subject that she rightly argues needs more attention.

She said Saudi Arabia must do more to stop its citizens from funding extremism. Ironically, a good place to begin to understand the very complex Saudi role is in Belgium.

Symbols of Saudi influence

The Great Mosque of Brussels is set in one of Belgium’s most beautiful and monumental parks, Le Parc Cinquantenaire, which opened on the 50th anniversary of Belgium’s independence in 1880.

Originally, the mosque was built as the Oriental Pavilion in the complex of museums that were constructed throughout the park to mark the anniversary. It was not a house of worship but a museum, to teach Belgians about Islam and the Middle East. Over the years after the celebrations in 1880, the building was neglected and deteriorated.

In 1967, King Baudoin of Belgium gave the building as a gift to King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, who was on a goodwill visit to Europe. Faisal had become king three years earlier, after a protracted succession struggle with his brother Saud. The Saudi Wahhabi clergy, the ulema, had been critical to Faisal’s victory in the power struggle. Faisal was eager to demonstrate his piety and religious devotion to Wahhabi Islam to keep the favor of the clerics.

Over the next decade, Faisal and then his successor King Khaled provided generous funding to restore the original building and turn it into a major religious center in Brussels, the Centre Islamique et Culturel de Belgique. It officially opened its doors to the faithful in 1978 at a ceremony presided over by Khalid and Baudoin.

Today, it is the largest and most influential mosque in the capital of the European Union. It is only a few hundred meters away from the EU’s headquarters in the city. My own home for more than three years was directly across the street from the mosque, on Avenue de la Renaissance, giving me a bird’s eye view.

The mosque in Brussels is symbolic of King Faisal’s decisive influence on both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic world more broadly. It was during his reign that the Kingdom began aggressively exporting its own brand of Islam around the world.

Faisal commissioned great mosques in many countries, from Belgium to Pakistan, to help spread the faith as practiced in the Kingdom. The Kingdom’s rapidly expanding oil revenues paid for the export of the faith around the world.

Faisal rightly is regarded as the architect of modern Saudi diplomacy based on the “legacy of strong puritan Islamic values maintained by descendants of Wahhabi reformers with the al Shaykh” family, as his best biographer wrote.

Indeed, Faisal’s mother was an al-Shaykh, a direct descendant of Muhammad abd al Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. Faisal literally embodied the unity of the two great families that created the Kingdom, the Sauds and the al-Shaykhs.

Faisal’s oil-funded export of Saudi Islamic values helped strengthen Muslim communities around the world. Much of his work benefited the global community of Islam, the umma, providing schools, hospitals and mosques for many faithful. But it also fueled the least tolerant and most extreme elements within the umma.

1127_Kerry Saudi Arabia U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, talks before a meeting with Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, left, and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 23, where the three met to discuss Syria. Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters

Within the puritanical version of Islam that Saudi Arabia values so much, there are also those who have exploited their faith for political purposes to justify the global jihad and terrorism. Osama bin Laden is only the most famous Saudi to make the journey from faithful citizen of Saudi Arabia to mass murderer. Faisal would undoubtedly denounce bin Laden and Al-Qaeda if he was alive today, but his propagation of his intolerant version of faith cannot escape some culpability for the problems besetting Islam today.

Within the puritanical version of Islam that Saudi Arabia values so much, there are also those who have exploited their faith for political purposes to justify the global jihad and terrorism.

Belgium has become a hotbed of Islamic militancy and extremism. The small Muslim community of 1967 has grown enormously with migrants, mostly from Morocco. More Belgians have joined groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS per capita than any other country in Europe. The district of Molenbeek, far across the city from le Parc Cinquantenaire, has achieved a dubious fame as “jihad central” in Europe.

Faisal is the architect of modern Saudi Arabia. He inherited a still very impoverished Kingdom with an almost medieval government and turned it into a modern state with a global reach. He ensured that out of the ashes of a dangerous succession struggle, the passage of power from one of his brothers to another would provide stability in the Kingdom for 50 years. That stability provides the basis for the Kingdom’s remarkable achievements.

The Saudis and the solution to global jihad

Earlier this week, Clinton specifically called on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the only two Wahhabi states in the world, to do a better job of ensuring their citizens do not fund terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

It was an unusual public admonition from a senior American policymaker that the Kingdom is both part of the problem and part of the solution to the global jihad. Clinton is right to call for a more candid and decisive dialogue between Washington and Riyadh on this subject. Usually it is discussed behind closed doors, but it needs more transparency.

Saudi Arabia has been a very effective ally against Al-Qaeda and related groups for over a decade, ever since bin Laden called for the overthrow of the House of Saud and began a violent campaign in the Kingdom to bring them down.

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the subject of my recent Brookings Essay, led the Saudi battle against bin Laden. He also leads efforts to stop private funding of terrorists. Much of the public discourse on Saudi links to jihad are hysterical and exaggerated.

But as Clinton’s remarks suggest, more needs to be done. Saudi sources remain major funders of groups like the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e Taiba in Pakistan. Some accounts suggest Saudi money has gone to Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front. Even Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which tried to assassinate Prince Nayef more than once, has been an unintended beneficiary of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, because it fights the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

These are complex and difficult issues for dialogue. Saudis like Prince Turki al-Faisal, the king’s son and former intelligence chief, will rightly note that Saudi Arabia has been fighting terror for years and that America also helped inadvertently to create the global jihad in its partnership with the Kingdom in the Afghan war in the 1980s.

The dialogue between America and Saudi Arabia is never simple. We are uneasy allies, but it is very important to get it right.

Bruce Riedel is director of The Intelligence Project and senior fellow at Foreign Policy Center for Middle East Policy , Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution . He joined Brookings in 2006 after 30 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, including postings in the Middle East and Europe. Riedel was a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House. BROOKINGS_REV_BlueBG Brookings

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