Time to face up to Mecca

Why wasn’t Saudi Arabia on Bush’s Axis of Evil?

By Tom Gross
February 8, 2002



In early 2002, President Bush made a speech that has come to define the opening years of his presidency. He declared that a group of countries formed an “Axis of Evil,” and that these regimes needed to be contained by the free world.

While Bush clearly intended to prepare the ground for taking decisive action against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, should it continue to flout international demands, notable by its absence from the speech was any mention of Saudi Arabia.

In the 9/11 attacks, which had taken place less than five months earlier, most of the attackers had been Saudi, and the kingdom remained a major sponsor of international terrorism and Islamic extremism, as well as home to one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

This piece below, written the day after the “Axis of Evil” speech, raised the question of why the Saudi regime continued to be given such an easy ride by both western governments and the international media.

Since it was written, the American government has applied slightly more pressure on Saudi Arabia both to liberalize and to crack down on terrorism. The western media, too, has begun to cast a slightly more critical eye over the Saudis – although any improvement in this respect still falls far short of what is called for.

-- Tom Gross


IN his State of the Union address last week, President Bush indicated where his war on terror is heading. Iraq, Iran and North Korea “and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil,” he declared. (North Korea, no doubt, was only included as non-Islamic window dressing to appease the Arab League. It exports about as much international terror as it does Internet start-up firms, which is to say, not very much).

Bush received considerable praise from the pundits. Charles Krauthammer, for example, congratulated him on an “astonishingly bold address” which was “about preventing the next Sept. 11.” The prime target, it was generally agreed, would be Iraq.

Yet, it has been clear since Sept. 11 – and actually since well before then – that if America wants to prevent a major terrorist onslaught there is one government above all others that must be reformed or replaced. And it is not that of Saddam, but the House of Saud.

A road for “Muslims only”: Islamic state apartheid in action
(A Saudi road sign, Nov. 2004)

The Saudi regime – not merely its exiled son, Osama Bin Laden – bears a major share of the responsibility for international terrorism. Further acts of terror against Americans of the kind seen in Africa, Yemen, New York and Washington, will likely follow unless some serious pressure is placed on Riyadh, both to stop sponsoring Islamic extremists, and to allow moderates some significant role in government.

The Saudis aid terrorism both directly and indirectly. On the direct level, they fund (at government and at private levels) Islamic terrorist groups throughout the world. For example, evidence uncovered in Afghanistan by British and American intelligence officers clearly implicates a number of leading Saudis, some of them members of the royal family, in the funding of al-Qaeda.


The Saudi government is also the chief financial backer of the Palestinian terror group Hamas. It was members of Hamas who taught shoe bomber Richard Reid, who attempted to blow up an American Airlines jet, how to dry the explosive triacetone triperoxide, and mold it into shoes and belts. He received this instruction when he visited Gaza last June.

In addition to providing support for terrorist groups, the Saudis have helped to shape those groups’ ideology by exporting an extreme form of Islamist philosophy.

A Saudi multi-millionaire in exile

The Saudis are also responsible for terror on an indirect level. By refusing to permit any opposition to the regime other than that of the extremist imams, who support Bin Ladenism, they have virtually forced young Saudis who want to express their opposition to the ruling family’s brutal, corrupt ways into the arms of those imams. The result – al Qaeda – merely mirrors their own lack of respect for life and humanity.

These extremists will eventually overthrow the regime if it doesn’t reform. Signs of dissent are growing. Just before Christmas, for example, 1,000 young men were reported to have rioted in Jeddah.

The Saudi regime regularly dishonors the moderate Islamic tradition with its beheadings, amputations and floggings. Its appalling treatment of women (the religious police patrol the streets with electric camel prods looking for women exposing a little too much under their chadors), the vile anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial that permeate the state-controlled media, and the general lack of tolerance for Christians and Jews – in all these respects, the Saudis are worse than Iran and Iraq.

When it comes to inciting Islamic extremism, too, the Saudi record is in many respects worse than Iraq or Iran. It is no accident that the Saudis enjoyed warm relations with the Taliban long after Teheran broke ties. As Abdullah Al Refaie, editor-in-chief, of the Saudi paper Al Muslimoon, put it: “The Iranian claim that the Taliban have discredited Islam is simply not true. The Taliban, in fact, have a good record of behaving as faithful and moderate Muslims.”


The Saudi regime’s brutal record of torture is ignored by the West – even when Britons, Belgians, and Canadians are the victims, as was the case last year. As the British media revealed last month, during a 67-day period of torture, Saudi police hung from the ceiling a middle-aged British man who was being held on trumped-up charges, beat him with a pickaxe handle, and threatened to have his wife repeatedly gang-raped until he confessed.

And yet the Saudi government is often described by American media and politicians as “moderate” and “our partners,” and is subject to much flattery from American and British halls of government. As is the case with the Palestinian Authority, reports about the true extent of the awfulness of the Saudi regime are largely ignored in the western media, creating a dangerously misleading impression. Last week, for example, the New York Times sub-headlined its news interview with Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, “Dispensing wisdom, receiving praise.”

Western governments have spent far too long propping up the regime in Riyadh, as they have the one in Gaza, on the principle that the alternative would be worse. But in fact there are plenty of moderate voices, among both the Saudis and the Palestinians, who are desperate to find Western support but are too terrified to speak out against their native regimes.

The New York Times on Saudi ruler Abdullah:
“Dispensing wisdom, receiving praise”

To say that the Saudis have been less than fully cooperative in the war on terrorism would be an understatement. The lack of meaningful criticism or rebuke from the US to Riyadh for the fact that 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudis (and at least one entered the US on a Saudi diplomatic passport) – a fact that the Saudis only acknowledged this week – that over 100 of the 158 detainees being held in US custody at Guantanamo Bay are Saudis, that 240 of the 250 al-Qaeda prisoners Pakistan is holding are Saudis – this is surely one of the main reasons why the Saudi ruling class are continuing to fund al Qaeda and other Islamic terror groups.

Citing Western intelligence sources, Turkish, German and British newspapers all last month reported that Saudi intelligence is currently financing the relocation of thousands of Al Qaeda insurgents to Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. The German daily Die Welt reported last Wednesday that Saudi officials have helped place many of them in the Ein Hilwe Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, and plan to finance their relocation to territory controlled by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. (Not unrelated, Die Welt also reported that it was Saudi intelligence that paid Iran $10 million to buy the weapons for the Palestinian Authority that were captured by Israel in the Red Sea on January 3.)

Indeed it is the Saudis, not the Iraqis, who one way or another leave their fingerprints on virtually every major development among Muslim terrorists. Take, for example, the recent use of women suicide bombers against Israeli civilians. The Islamic authorities in Gaza have so far ordered only men, not women, to blow up Israeli teenagers. The Palestinians behind these recent female attacks (only one of which was “successful”) cite as their inspiration last August’s fatwa issued by the Saudi High Islamic Council exhorting women to become suicide bombers.


Even with the Taliban’s collapse, the ideological justification for the September 11 attacks (and of similar future acts) continues among Saudis. For example, Saudi Sheikh Safar Abd Al-Rahman Al-Hawali, as quoted in Al-Hayat, a London-based Arabic daily, on January 13, 2002, said: “Since when is the Pentagon ‘innocent’? The famous American intellectual Gore Vidal himself called it ‘Hell and a nest of Satans’... [It is] a den of spies and a Mafia nest.” He went on to describe the World Trade Center as “the center of usury and money laundering.”

The Twin Towers are no more. Sheikh Ali bin Khdheir:
“It is permissible to kill… non-combatants”

And here is Sheikh Ali bin Khdheir (a Yemenite who is funded from Saudi sources), again speaking after Sept. 11: “It is permissible to kill the combatants among them, as well as those who are non-combatants, for example the aged man, the blind man, and the dhimmi, as the clerics agree.”

Former CIA Director James Woolsey is virtually alone among American officials in stating what should be obvious to everybody: Saudi Arabia, he said last month, “deserves a very large part of the blame for Sept. 11.”

It is constantly argued that if the Saudi monarchy were to fall, the successor regime would merely be more extreme and anti-Western. Such thinking also led Bush Sr. to try and keep the Soviet regime in power in the dying days of communism. Yet there are moderate Saudis. Some come from within the regime, such as King Fahd’s half-brother, Prince Talal, now 73, who spent many years in exile for trying to persuade his fellow royals to shed their despotic ways, and only last week renewed his call for the modernization of Saudi institutions.

Others are from the middle classes, such as Dr. Sahr Muhammad Hatem of Riyadh. Unable to voice her criticism inside the country, she wrote a letter to a London-based Arabic newspaper on December 12, 2001. Under the title “Our Culture of Demagogy Has Engendered bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri, and Their Ilk,” she wrote: “The mentality of each one of us was programmed upon entering school as a child, [to believe] that … anyone who is not a Muslim is our enemy, and that the West means enfeeblement, licentiousness, lack of values, and even Jahiliya [a term used to describe the backward pre-Islamic era] itself. Anyone who escapes this programming in school encounters it at the mosque, or through the media or from the preachers lurking in every corner.”

Dr Hatem has received much praise from other Saudis. In the future, is the US going to support those who agree with her, or is it going to continue to prop up the unsavory regime that continues to govern Riyadh? The regime can be pressured. It needs to sell oil more than the US needs to buy it. And it isn’t just oil that it sends abroad. It also exports hate – the hatred of America.

(Tom Gross is a former Jerusalem correspondent for the London Sunday Telegraph and the New York Daily News.)