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Frontpage Interview's guest today is John R. Bradley, the author of
the new book Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis.
FP: Mr. Bradley, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Bradley: Many thanks for inviting me to speak with you.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
Bradley: A few months before the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals and which were organised by Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, I found myself the only permanent, locally accredited Western journalist in Saudi Arabia. By chance, a law that had banned expatriates from freely traveling from one region to another was abolished more or less on the day of my arrival. I stayed inside the kingdom for 2.5 years, spending only a few weeks outside the kingdom during that tumultuous period.
I had the intention of writing about the kingdom from the start, but a more literary kind of work. But then 9/11 happened, and everything changed in a matter of minutes, resulting in the prolonged crisis in Saudi-US relations. Then there was the beginnings of a low-level Islamist insurgency inside the kingdom itself. And so it became impossible to deal in literary abstractions.
I was in the thick of things. Indeed, I found myself in a very privileged position: I was inside one of the most closed countries in the world that everyone outside, and especially Americans, suddenly wanted to know so much more about. I could talk to whoever would talk to me, and go wherever I wanted to go without a government minder. My book is the result of that unique and very exciting experience.
FP: You managed to travel throughout Saudi Arabia. What were your impressions of the country?
Bradley: Yes, I seized on every opportunity to travel to the kingdom's remote regions, and visited some of them a number of times: Asir in the southwest, where most of the hijackers came from; Al-Jouf near the Iraq border, where there was a rebellion taking place against the Sudairi branch of the Saudi ruling family; the Shia-majority Eastern Province, where all the oil is; the capital Riyadh in the central region of Al-Najd, home of both the Al-Saud and the Wahhabi ideology; and, since I was based in Jeddah, to all parts of the liberal, western Hijaz region - apart, that is, from the cities of Mecca and Medina, which are off-limits to non-Muslims. All this time, as I say, I traveled freely and without restriction.
Like most people who have never been to Saudi Arabia, before I arrived I saw the kingdom in crude monochromatic terms: populated by strictly observant Muslims who were governed by a very oppressive and hypocritical political elite; women who faced impossible restrictions; the horror of public beheadings; and all the rest of it. And of course, there was some truth to that, and I write about it all frankly in the book - including, in fact, an account of a double beheading I witnessed.
But what I quickly came to realize is that it is nevertheless important to distinguish between the vile regime and the -- on the whole -- decent, oppressed people. It does nobody any good to just damn all Saudis as extremists. Indeed, that merely plays into the ruling family's hands, because they want us to believe the extremism in Saudi Arabia comes from the people. That way they can say they are the buffer that keeps it at bay, not its root cause.
The reality is somewhat different. All the regions I just mentioned have been historically very resistant to Al-Saud-Wahhabi hegemony. In the formative years of the 1920s, when these regions were being conquered by the Al-Saud and Wahhabi zealots, there were at least 26 major rebellions, and one historian says as many as 400,000 rebels resisting the Al-Saud forces were put to the sword. Shiites, Sufis and other non-Wahhabi Muslims were damned as infidels, and had their shrines destroyed.
What I found when I traveled to these regions is that the Saudi people who inhabit them are still very aware of their hidden history, despite all the state-sponsored propaganda; they have for the most part not embraced Wahhabism, and indeed see their country as an empire whose various regions were conquered and are still ruled over by this alien royal family, who use the Wahhabi ideology to oppress them. The overwhelming impression I was left with was that the people are just waiting for the moment to rid themselves of that imperial legacy, just as those who lived under the oppressive Communist ideology of the Soviet Union were. That, I suppose, is one of the main messages of my book, although I try to tell the stories as much as possible through the voices of the ordinary Saudi people.
The most startling single experience I had, and which I write about in the book, was encountering the "flower men" in the mountains of Asir. They are tribes who live off the land and wear multicolored clothes, put flowers and herbs in their hair and cultivate a passion for perfume. They are one of Arabia's great, hidden secrets, and of course are damned by the Wahhabis as nature worshippers (and therefore infidels). They are striking illustration of my point that not all Saudis are alike, that there are pockets of resistance to Wahhabi hegemony.
FP: You also met Osama bin Laden's nephew. Tell us about that meeting and conversation.
Bradley: A few months before the Iraq war I was invited to a picnic in the desert near Mecca by a 19-year-old nephew of Osama Bin Laden. Some of his teenage Saudi friends were there, and a bit later in the afternoon we were joined by three more members of the Bin Laden clan: one was a brother or a half brother of Osama (I didn't quite catch which in the introductions); the two others were also his nephews, like my acquaintance.
I write about the picnic at some length in the book. But the Bin Ladens that day told me two bits of information I obtained that are particularly extraordinary, which I can highlight here. The first is that they have applied to the Al-Saud regime to have their names changed in their passports: they no longer want to be known in the outside world as the Bin Ladens. Apparently, that request has in principle been approved by the royals, a decision unprecedented in the history of the Arabian Peninsula. No one has reported this yet.
The other information relates to the issue of the special flight which took place after 9/11, on which many Bin Ladens and other prominent Saudis were whisked out of the US. There are still lingering official denials that the flight took place. Back then, when I had the picnic, the issue hadn't really been picked up by the mainstream media. But the two Bin Laden nephews who joined us told me very casually that they had been in the US as students on 9/11, and that a plane had picked them and all the other Bin Ladens up, along with royals and other prominent Saudis, and got them out of the country. They flew out on a Saudi Arabian Airlines plane. So when I hear the lingering denials I kind of chuckle to myself, because I know for a fact that the flight took place. There would have been no reason for those two Bin Ladens to lie: quite the opposite, in fact.
FP: Why were the Bin Ladens whisked out of the U.S. in this flight? Why did they leave, why was the U.S. government complicit in it, and why is the U.S. government denying it?
Bradley: The two Bin Ladens who told me they were on the flight said they were terrified of being targeted in a wave of revenge attacks as it became clear their uncle Osama was the suspected mastermind. That was their story, and they were sticking to it. The truth is that they and the other Saudis basically got special treatment because they have bought off every level of Washington's political and intellectual elite for as long as anyone can remember.
You might ask not only how come they were flown out, but how come Saudi Arabia was not held responsible for the fact that 15 of the 19 suicide terrorists were Saudis. If they had been 15 North Koreans that day, it would have been seen as a declaration of war. I think you will have to ask US officials why they continue to deny the reality of the flights taking place.
FP: What exactly do you mean that they have "bought off every level of Washington's political and intellectual elite for as long as anyone can remember?" What does this "buying off" entail? How does this work? Why do American elites allow this to happen to them?
Bradley: The reason is simple: Money talks in Washington, and the Al-Saud have a lot of it to throw around. They have ingratiated themselves - to put it mildly - with successive presidents, be they Democrat or Republican. They put former American ambassadors to Riyadh on the payroll, and you find them popping up at conferences all the time saying that the Al-Saud are the only answer, that we must continue to stick with the Saudi regime. They fund think tanks, which are then compromised in what they can say about Saudi Arabia when it comes to drawing up foreign policy initiatives. They fund Middle East departments at major universities, which are basically in the hands of a pro-Palestinian, pro-Arab regimes mafia.
They also buy off so-called "experts", academics and journalists - if not directly with cash (and that does happen; your magazine has given lists in the past) then with the implicit threat of withholding visas for subsequent trips to the kingdom, which such individuals need to make in order to say "when I was in the kingdom recently" to give their comments an air of credibility (even though their trip usually involved staying at a local 5-Star hotel for a few days and meeting only vetted, Westernized locals).
Those who do not play that game, people like me that is to say,
suddenly find themselves persona non grata. As Simon Henderson hinted
recently in the LA Times review of my book
orgId=574&topicId=100007030&docId=l:291030654&start=42), the Al-Saud turned on me big time after I left the kingdom and it emerged that I was writing it. It started with them trying to ruin my reputation as a journalist, writing to the foreign editors of the publications I contribute to saying that I was an unethical journalist. That didn't work, of course, so the next trick was to get the Saudi ambassador to the country I had relocated to try and stop me from getting a job on the local newspaper. You wouldn't believe the letter he wrote! Of course, that was the main reason I in fact was offered the job, since everyone there realized I must be doing something right if the Al-Saud were so angry at me.
Then the hate mail and threatening phone calls started. And, finally, when it became clear that this would not intimidate me either, they even planned to launch a smear campaign in their state-controlled media. They had this idea that the right-wing blogs, which at that time did not have much time for me, would do their dirty work for them, which of course merely revealed another dimension to the Saudis' naivety.
They have these tribal notions of hospitality, and according to their rules I am a traitor because they "hosted" me for 2.5 years and then wrote a book exposing them which includes a lot of negative material. All I can say is that the US "hosted" 15 Saudis in the years and months and days and hours leading up to the 9/11 attacks. It gave them visas, let them take flying lessons, allowed them to live freely as Muslims? And look how they repaid that "hospitality". Those clowns in Jeddah and Riyadh now complaining about me should take a long hard look in the mirror.
The bottom line, in any case, is that while one cannot criticize one of the most ruthless and dictatorial regimes on earth and not expect some kind of blowback, but that one must never give in to such intimidation however awful it gets. I work on the principle that the only thing that could be worse than being smeared by the Al-Saud would be being praised by them! In the meantime, I have passed on every single email, every secretly recorded phone conversation, to my lawyers, including one with a senior Saudi editor who admitted there was a campaign of "blackmail" against me and blamed - actually naming names - a senior prince who is his boss and a journalist he sacked, who he said were worried about what I was going to write about them. I will continue to say and write exactly what I want to say and write.
FP: Tell us about the close relations between the Al-Saud ruling family and the Wahhabis. What are the roots of this relationship?
Bradley: The relationship between the Al-Saud ruling family and the fanatical followers of Wahhabism goes back to the mid 18th-century, when a member of the Al-Saud dynasty and the founder of Wahhabism, Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab, forged a pact. The Al-Saud needed the Wahhabi zealots as foot soldiers, or storm troopers if you will, as they set out to conquer hostile regions inhabited by non-Wahhabi Muslims. For their part, the Wahhabis wanted converts, and the booty that came from raids. Two Saudi empires rose and fell, until -- with collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WWI -- the Al-Saud finally managed to create a lasting state called the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the third Saudi empire which is still with us to this day.
Of course, with the establishment of a state, booty was not sufficient a reward for the Wahhabis, who had engaged in all the pillage and slaughter I described earlier which marked the birth of the kingdom. So the Al-Saud effectively appointed a Taliban regime, giving the Wahhabis control of the judiciary, the mosques, the media, the education system, and of the people themselves (in the form of the religious police). That remains the situation until this day, and it is why we (mistakenly) think the Wahhabis are the majority: because there is the only opinion allowed any kind of expression, that is all we ever hear about.
History tells us, then, that the Saudi royal family are not the buffer that keeps the extremism in Saudi Arabia at bay. They are the root cause of the extremism, because they fund and support the Wahhabi religious establishment, while ruling in partnership with it. The West has comparatively little to fear from the vast majority of the Saudi people, whose dreams, goals and aspirations are by and large no different from our own. They care about unemployment, poverty, corruption, lack of freedom of expression, lack of religious freedom for non-Wahhabi Muslims, and so on - not about waging jihad on the West. In that sense, there is a positive message in the book for those who say they are trying to spread democracy in the Middle East.
FP: Illuminate for us the authoritarianism that resides within this society and who are its greatest victims.
Bradley: Everyone suffers in a society like Saudi Arabia. Even those who post criticism of the regime anonymously on web sites are tracked down and punished. Non-Muslims and Non-Wahhabi Muslims cannot express their own religious beliefs in public without serious risk of persecution. There is no free media, and editors in chief, journalists and cartoonists continue to be sacked for not toeing the line.
There is widespread poverty, chronic unemployment, endemic corruption, and a crumbling health care system - and absolutely no accountability on the part of the regime that owns one quarter of the world's known oil reserves. They say a $60 bn budget surplus is not enough to solve the kingdom's problems, but Forbes magazine estimates King Fahd to be personally worth $60 bn!
The education system does not prepare Saudis for the 21st-century global economy, indeed it exerts most of its energy on propagating the state ideology, Wahhabism. The judicial system is, quite simply, an absolute disgrace. Six Somalis were beheaded earlier this year together in chop-chop square in Jeddah even though they had not been sentenced to death. Third-World immigrants have absolutely no rights: they are the kingdom's new slaves.
Saudis, then, have effectively been stripped of their individuality, of their distinct identities, and either been bought off with oil wealth or suppressed with all the brute force at the disposal of a totalitarian regime, one that rules without checks and balances.
FP: How do women live in this society?
Bradley: Saudi Arabia is the last country on earth where women are denied the vote, and the only country on earth where they are not allowed to drive. They cannot travel abroad without permission from a male relative. Indeed, they cannot in many instances leave the house without a male relative acting as chaperone. Whole employment sectors are closed to them.
And yet, females now form the majority of university graduates, and they have more money deposited in the local banks than the men. This is just one of the seemingly endless contradictions and absurdities of Saudi culture that, to an outsider, simply beggars belief. Generally speaking, the rule is that women are hidden, constrained and repressed. With Saudi men being unable to control their urges while being uncertain and insecure, nothing is more threatening to the established Wahhabi order than a confident and successful woman.
One odd development that is new, which I explore in greater detail in the book than space allows me to do here, is a kind of Islamist feminism. Somewhat surprisingly, increasing numbers of Saudi women are saying they are finding in Islam an ally in their struggle for freedom. Of course, it is a measure of the degree to which Islamists have hijacked the public debate in Saudi Arabia that Islam is the only basis for any kind of intellectual (as opposed to economic) progress available to women now. But let's face it: if it was Islam that got them into this mess, it will probably be Islam that gets them out of it.
There is already this wave of Saudi women who have turned their backs on the largely ineffectual liberal arguments and embraced Islam with a vengeance, adopting the methods of their natural opponents: the unltraconservative religious fundamentalists. Those women - a cross section of doctors, business leaders, professors, artists, housewives, and social workers - want to reach back to the ancient roots of Islamic law, viewing the Prophet's era as a golden age for women's rights.
The idea is that this way of promoting women's rights equals going back to the fundamentals of Islam, and so develops an argument that the fundamentalists will find much harder to counter -- since it effectively steals their clothes.
FP: What is the future of Saudi Arabia? What advice would you give President Bush in terms of American policy toward the Al-Saud ruling family?
Bradley: In the short term, the Al-Saud regime is secure - perhaps more secure than it has ever been. The Iraq war has been a boon for them. They have reaped the rewards of an all-time-high oil price; they are sending their jihadis there by the thousand, where they prefer them to blow themselves up instead of in Riyadh or Jeddah; they are happy to see the US sink into what increasingly appears to be a possible quagmire, because that means an invasion of their own Eastern Province remains unlikely.
At the same time, they have used the excuse of their own domestic war on terror - the need for national unity, the threat of fitna or civil war -- to roll back all the reforms that had been touted in the year after 9/11. In the face of continued repression - reformers imprisoned, Christians persecuted, journalists sacked, women denied voting rights, peaceful demonstrators fired at with rubber bullets and sentenced to prison and lashings - the Bush administration has remained more or less silent.
It seems to me that Washington has two choices. It can stick with the Al-Saud and continue to abandon the Saudi people to their fate. Or it can put its trust in the Saudi people, talk to them in a language they understand about the pitfalls and fragility of empire, about the importance of reclaiming their cultural inheritance, about the value of Islamic plurality, about how in the 21st-century royal families can rule but not govern, about the sickness of corruption and hypocrisy in the land of the two holy mosques. This is something that will resonate among the Saudi people, much more than lofty, abstract rhetoric about freedom and democracy.
There has to be an emphasis on some kind of Islamist democracy, which may empower people who may not see eye-to-eye with everything the Bush administration does but at the same time is not (like the Al-Saud and Wahhabis) jihad-inspired. For the time being, Washington has clearly chosen the former course: better the Devil you know. Unfortunately, this is only a short-term fix. The West's support for the Al-Saud will continue to stir up anti-Western sentiment among the Saudi masses, because it empowers the regime that oppresses them. There has to be a reversal of this process, because in the long-term the only people who will benefit are the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamists.
Having said that, in the long-term I predict an invasion by the US military of the Eastern Province to secure that region's oil fields. The plans are there, drawn up. The invasion would take a matter of hours. All that is needed is the excuse, and there are a million of them. It could be internal instability, or it could just be that the US finally decides it has had enough of the Al-Saud and so wants to abandon them. God knows there are many historical precedents for such a dramatic and sudden foreign-policy realignment.
I really don't believe Washington will ever forgive Riyadh for sending so many Saudis to Iraq for the jihad there - some 60 percent of the suicide bombers are Saudis. In a sense, Washington forgave the Saudi royals for 9/11 because they bought the argument that it was Bin Laden who had organized them to attack both the US and the Al-Saud, to undermine the historic oil-for-security alliance. But Iraq is another matter entirely: it is the Saudi ruling family, not Bin Laden, who is sending the jihadis there now. And many more people have died in Iraq as a result than did in New York and Washington on 9/11.
By playing this double game, of pretending to be Washington's ally while helping to blow Americans to smithereens inside Iraq, the Saudi royal family is sowing the seeds of its own downfall.
FP: An Islamist democracy? Mr. Bradley what on earth are you talking about? This is like saying a Nazi or communist democracy. You can't have Islamism and have democracy and still have Islamism. It just doesn't work like that.
Bradley: Of course, if we are talking about "Islamist" in the terms defined by maniacs like Al-Zarqawi and Bin Laden, then you are right: forget democracy. I suppose a better term for me to use would be "Muslim democracy". In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the majority of Saudis have always been and remain resistant to the Al-Saud and their Wahhabi cohorts, in terms of their belief in a pluralistic Islam and a proper judicial system and an elected government that does not steal and squander the people's wealth, and so on. They want rid of them, or at the very least a constitutional monarchy.
But do they want a secular, Western-style system? By and large, the answer is no. Can they marry their strong sense of being Muslims and wanting to live according to basic Islamic law and mores with an equally sincere commitment to democracy and pluralism? I think that is indeed possible. After all, there were elections in the Hijaz from before the establishment of the Saudi state until the 1960s, when the Al-Saud phased them out; and Mecca, Medina and Jeddah are historically among the Muslim world's most tolerant and diverse and cosmopolitan cities.
There has been much written on this, most notably "After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy" by Noah Feldman, who argues that jihad has lost its luster in the Muslim world and most Muslims find both Islamic ideals and democratic values appealing. He then asks whether democratically elected Islamic governments be good or bad for Western interests, and his answer is that we shouldn't fear the worst. The bottom line is that the choice for the West is not between aligning itself with the radical Islamists or the secularists, because the latter group do not really exist. There is not even a world in Arabic for "secular" - they use the English "worldly". The choice for the West in a country like Saudi Arabia, then, is between radical Islamists and moderate but pious Muslims.
FP: Why exactly is the Saudi ruling family sending jihadis to Iraq?
Bradley: The main group of people responsible for killing American soldiers and Iraqi civilians in Iraq are Saudis. They are the hardcore jihadis, the majority of the suicide bombers. And they bring with them their fascistic Wahhabi ideology.
There are many reasons why the Al-Saud want instability in Iraq. They don't want a strong Shia-dominated government, because they damn Shia as infidels and see their own Shia-majority in the Eastern Province as a potential fifth column. They would prefer Saudis to blow themselves up in Baghdad instead of Riyadh. They fear that a democratic, free and prosperous Iraq would set a precedent for their own country and the region. And they know that for as long as Iraqi oil is off the market the price of a barrel of oil will remain high. Before the Iraq war they were predicting an $18 bn budget deficit. Now they are predicting a $60 bn budget surplus. They are laughing all they way to the bank.
FP: Let's get back to your point about the invasion by the US military of the Eastern Province to secure that region's oil fields. This is quite a prediction. Tell us why this invasion will take place, why the U.S. is already planning it and what some of the outcomes might be.
Bradley: The invasion will take place either because of internal instability or because Washington has decided to abandon the Al-Saud. The US and British have had the plans on the table since the early 1970s, when the Saudis led an oil embargo against the West in support of the Palestinians. There are American troops on the ground already, guarding the main oil installations. The US could never risk the oil falling into the hands of its enemies. The area itself is geographically contained, and very easy to secure. Within a few hours of a decision it would be American property.
I have absolutely no doubt that the Shia-majority in the Eastern Province would welcome the American invasion, as would the indigenous Sunni minority. However, the imported Wahhabi Sunnis would put up fierce resistance, and they would have to be located immediately and effectively ethnically cleansed.
As for the broader consequences, for Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East, well? the truth is that it would largely depend on how the invasion was carried out and interpreted: as a way of liberating the oil and (by implication) the holy cities in the Hijaz from the corrupt Al-Saud, or merely trying to steal the oil reserves? I can assure you, though, that there are people in the Pentagon working day and night on these questions. Once Iraq settles down, such an invasion will emerge as one of the key potential American foreign policy objectives.
FP: Mr. Bradley, it was a pleasure to speak with you today. You are truly a courageous soldier.
Bradley: It was entirely my pleasure. Thank you.
Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's managing editor. He edited
and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz's new book, "Left
Illusions." He is also the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of the new
book "The Hate America Left and the author of Canadian Policy Toward
Khrushchev's Soviet Union" (McGill-Queens University Press, 2002) and
"15 Tips on How to be a Good Leftist."
Contact him by email at email@example.com.
This interview appeared in Front Page Magazine
(www.FrontPageMagazine.com) July 7, 2005.
Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's managing editor. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz's new book, "Left Illusions." He is also the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of the new book "The Hate America Left and the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev's Soviet Union" (McGill-Queens University Press, 2002) and "15 Tips on How to be a Good Leftist." Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview appeared in Front Page Magazine (www.FrontPageMagazine.com) July 7, 2005.
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