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November 12, 2007

Saudi Arabia and the Autocracy-Terrorism Link
Posted by Shadi Hamid

In response to the autocracy-terrorism link that Stephen McInerney and I discuss in our recent TNR article on Saudi Arabia, Michael van der Galien brings up some good points, which I'll try to address in this post:

Could we also say that oppressive regimes exist in [Arab] countries because there are many radicals there? In other words, do extremists force governments to ignore human rights in an attempt to survive by preventing those extremists from taking over? Or both?

While this raises some valid concerns about the direction of causality, it still misses the mark. Western democracies have had to deal with significant terrorist threats (leftist radicals in Europe in the late 60s and 70s, and, more recently, Muslim extremists in 9/11, 7/7, and Madrid) and while this has resulted in civil liberties abuses, it hasn’t led these democracies to morph into dictatorships or to resort to anything approaching full-on repression. In short, the existence of a terrorist threat is not a significant explanatory factor in accounting for the autocratic nature of regimes. And let’s keep in mind that Saudi Arabia was a full-blown dictatorship well before there was a real extremist threat within its borders, making an assertion of reverse causality even more dubious.

The surprising logical fallacy the two authors make: if those terrorists rebelled against the Saudi government, they would stay in Saudi Arabia and they would attack Saudi targets. Instead, they go abroad and strike against other targets.

Well, yes, many of them do stay in Saudi Arabia and attack Saudi targets. There was the 1979 seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca led by Juhayman al-Utaibi. There were the Khobar towers in 1996, the Riyadh Compound bombings in 2003, the Khobar massacre of 2004, to name just a few (for a list of incidents, see here). But Van der Galien is right that many Saudi terrorists do seem to concentrate their efforts elsewhere, but that’s largely because they hold the U.S. responsible for supporting the Saudi regime. Keep in mind that Bin Laden’s main grievance against his own government was that it allowed U.S. troops to be stationed in the holy land. So, in this sense, by targeting the U.S., Bin Laden is also targeting the al-Saud family. The "near enemy" and the "far enemy" are connected, and, in the minds of the terrorists, two sides of the same coin.

Moreover, the argument that I make regarding the tyranny-terror link is not that democracies are less likely to be targets of terror. In fact, the opposite is often true, partly because it’s easier for terrorists to organize in free societies, and partly because democracies are more “responsive” to terrorism (in the sense that Western democracies tend to overreach in reaction to terrorist attacks, which is precisely what al-Qaeda and others wanted in the first place – to drag the U.S. into a civilizational conflict, thereby creating in the mind of sympathetic Muslims a binary between the American invaders and the Islamic revolutionaries. Democracies are also “responsive” to terror from an electoral standpoint, where certain political parties are more likely to win elections because of how the public perceives their approach to national security). But while democracies are often targets of terror, it is autocracies which produce terrorists and provide the most hospital conditions for the rise of extremist ideologies in the first place. This, to me, is the more important issue, if we intend to look for root causes and to attack the problem at its origin (rather than at its target, when it’s too late). Once people become terrorists, it’s difficult to "convert" them back into normal citizens. The goal, then, should be to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place. And, at least in the Middle Eastern context, terrorists did not become terrorists after they arrived in the U.S.; they became terrorists in their home countries (i.e. the repressive autocracies of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and so on).

The problem is that if you democratize [Saudi Arabia], extremists will undoubtedly take over and the situation will become even worse.

Yes, this is often what you hear, but it’s a bit more complicated. First of all, Stephen and I were not arguing for abandoning the al-Saud family and holding free elections tomorrow. Rather, we make very clear that a slow, gradual process – starting with legal, educational reforms and then moving into more substantive political reforms – would be the most practical, effective course of action. This will strengthen moderate voices, give liberals room to operate and get out their message, and provide constructive outlets for the accumulated grievances of Saudis. The goal, in this initial phase, would be to build and nurture the rudiments a functioning civil society that can counter the religious establishment.

The problem in Saudi Arabia isn’t that the population rebels, it’s that the population doesn’t rebel, because it agrees with Wahabbism.

This is a big claim – to say that the Saudi population, as a whole, is extremist – and such a claim would probably need to be backed up by evidence. Unfortunately, because Saudi Arabia is a totally closed society, we have no way to know what the population does or doesn’t agree with. In any case, Saudis do rebel, which is the source of the regime's intability in the first place. Why they rebel is a more complicated matter that I don't have time to discuss here, but suffice it to say that there are a whole host of factors, many of which have little to do with liking or disliking Wahabism, and much more to do with economic and political factors, particularly, as mentioned above, their country's foreign policy orientation and closeness to the U.S. 


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Not all Arabs are Terrorists but all Terrorists are arabs. This is true. But what's happening here? Without even alarming Saudi Arabia for supporting and financing global terrorism the west attacked Iraq and Afghanistan! Why? Why not the root of the Terrorism? I don't say attack Saudi Arabia. But I want to see sincere West like it shows itself!
Saudi Arabia has it's share comming soon. Like it came to Pakistan recently. Many homeless people, people without parents are just because of the Saudi fund. Today, Pashtoons die just because of the Saudi fund for wahabism and terrorism. Today if West didn't open their eyes, tomorrow the same curse would come to their own gates. Lets be sincere. All I want is justice in this World. Otherwise the world won't live for long.
Yours Sincerely

"Well, yes, many of them do stay in Saudi Arabia and attack Saudi targets. There was the 1979 seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca led by Juhayman al-Utaibi. There were the Khobar towers in 1996, the Riyadh Compound bombings in 2003, the Khobar massacre of 2004, to name just a few . . ."

Hello, is anybody home? Do you think maybe, just maybe, there is a distinction to be drawn between attacking Saudi Arabia, and attacking Americans who happen to be in Saudi Arabia at the time?

Take the bombing of the Riyadh National Guard Headquarters in 1995. The bomb was perfectly timed to go off during mid-day prayers, and this had precisely the intended effect - 5 Americans dead, 0 Saudis dead.

Then you have the drive-by shootings in Janbu (2 Americans dead), the kidnapping and beheading of Paul M. Johnson, and an armed assault on the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, all in 2004. Like the attacks you reference above, each of these targeted Americans, not Saudis (except for the incident in Mecca - but that was nearly three decades ago, and really wasn't a terrorist attack at all).

And of course, all of this is really just the tip of the iceberg:

Saudi Arabia is clearly the nation most responsible for the rise of Al Qaeda and the attacks on 9/11. No other country even comes close, not even Afghanistan. And we will never make substantial progress in the War on Terror until we understand that fact and act accordingly.

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