ARRIVAL

It was the late summer of 1978, and, after six weeks of traveling through Greece, Turkey and Iran, I had just returned to the university town in the South where I was a tenured associate professor of history.  When I arrived home, I had almost forgotten that I had passed through New York City, glanced at the higher education employment section in the New York Times and had, purely on a lark, forwarded my resume to an address in Houston that was soliciting faculty and administrative staff for King Saud University in Saudi Arabia.

Approximately three and one-half weeks before the beginning of the fall semester, I received a telephone call from the education attaché in the Saudi consulate in Houston, who inquired if I would be interested in flying to Texas for an interview.  I admitted that I was curious about Saudi higher education, and within five days I found myself flying from Birmingham to Houston.

I was met in Houston by a staff member of the Saudi consulate, and after a restful night at a five-star hotel in the River Oaks district, I was interviewed the following morning at the consulate and offered my equivalent faculty rank as well as administrative responsibilities in the area of institutional research, where my first project would be to convert the university, with its 20,000 students and twelve schools and colleges from the European annual system of academic administration to the American credit-hour system.

Later, when it came time to talk about compensation, I was offered a very attractive financial package and alluring fringe benefits, such as housing, utilities, medical coverage, the use of an automobile and annual transportation to and from the U.S.  What was particularly attractive was that I would have an annual vacation allotment of eighty days, during which I could indulge my addiction for travel by making stops while going to and from the U.S. by way of Europe and Asia.

After viewing some promotional tapes on King Saud University, I was dropped off at the airport late in the afternoon and encouraged to inform the consulate of my decision about their offer within a week’s time.  In the end, avarice and my desire for travel and adventure won out, and by early October I found myself flying by way of London to the Saudi capital city of Riyadh.

Arriving late in the night at Riyadh, I found the airport second-rate but the customs inspection the most thorough I had encountered at any international airport. After clearing customs and having my Bible confiscated, I was conducted to a nearby hotel and informed by my escort that I would need to hail a taxi in the morning and make my way to the university administration building to complete personnel requirements and officially join the university.

When I awoke the following morning and peered out the window of my hotel room, my initial impression was of a prevailing russet color. It was, of course, owing to Riyadh’s location in the arid and semi-barren region of the Arabian Peninsula called the Najd that almost everything seemed to be covered with a prevailing brownish cast.

After a taxi ride of twenty minutes, I found myself at the gates of the university administration building in the middle of Riyadh, which, at that time, counted a population of more than a million people.  Despite having all of my earthly possessions with me in several suitcases, the taxi driver assured me that I could safely leave them on the street while I transacted business with the university personnel office.  Indeed, when I returned after three hours, all my belongings remained intact. 

Later, while being driven to my new home in university housing, I noticed that it was not uncommon to see pedestrians, obviously on their way to banks, carrying good-sized bales of money tied up in twine.  Although I had a theoretical background in the Koran and Sharia law, my experience with leaving my luggage on the street and street scenes with large amounts of money being carried about impressed upon me some of the practical aspects of Islam having to do with thievery.

Dropped off at my new home in faculty housing, near the site chosen for the construction of a new three-billion dollar campus, I hardly had time to inspect my new quarters before my thoroughly jet-lagged system went into shutdown mode, and I fell fast asleep.

Thus ended my first full day in Saudi Arabia, as I began the six years of my career in higher education in which I would experience my greatest challenges, but it would also be a time during which I would grow immeasurably by learning to live in and adapt to a culture far different than any I had previously encounter

                                                                           

                                                                        THE FUNDAMENTALS OF LIFE IN SAUDI ARABIA


As a newly-arrived expatriate in Saudi Arabia, I could not escape a feeling of newness.  Owing to the construction that one encountered almost everywhere in Riyadh, the skyline of the city was dominated by immense cranes that were being utilized in raising a modern city in the middle of an oasis surrounded by desert terrain.

Along with the erection of multi-storied office buildings and outsized shopping malls that would rival the dimensions of any in the United States, it seemed that practically overnight an infrastructure was being put into place, with super highways and high-speed rail transportation taking form.  Oil revenues were having a decided impact in a few years’ time, while previous centuries had tended to bypass the tribal peoples who inhabited the vast expanse of the Arabian Peninsula that was once thought by most Europeans and Americans to be a useless wasteland.

In prior history, most contact with the outside world was through the annual hadj, or pilgrimage, which saw thousands of the Muslim faithful journeying to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.  But, by the 1970’s, thousands of young Saudis, through the largesse of their government, were studying in leading universities in Europe and America and were returning home to take their places as faculty on relatively new campuses, such as King Saud University, where I had recently been employed.

For a society that was just lately entering the 20th century, the physical progress was fast and furious; and, occasionally, I found myself wondering if the human element would be able to keep pace with such rapid material advancement.  Furthermore, Saudi Arabia was a newcomer to the family of nations, having only assumed its current status as a monarchy, presiding over slightly more than 860,000 square miles of the Arabian Peninsula since 1932.

The name of the country as expressed in Arabic literally means the Arabian Kingdom of the Saud family.  As I would learn, there were 5,000 princes of the royal Saudi bloodline, and government in the Kingdom could only function by consensus of the Saud family.

The Sauds had been dominant in the central region of the Arabian Peninsula for generations and, in the 18th century, had allied themselves with a fervent Sunni Muslim preacher named Muhamad Abdul-Wahab.  Thus was born the religious-secular alliance that the Sauds would eventually ride to power.

In the late 19th century, the Sauds had fallen on hard times; and, owing to a power struggle with the politically prominent Rashid family, had gone into exile in Kuwait.  By the early 20th century, however, the forceful, legendary figure of Abdul-Aziz Ibn-Saud would emerge to triumphantly lead the family back to Riyadh and the Nadj, which would serve as a base of operations from which he would emerge as a king and gradually put together the territories that would comprise his kingdom. 

Keeping in mind that divorce and remarriage in Islam were comparatively clear-cut and uncomplicated matters, Ibn-Saud would achieve a multitude of marriage alliances with the desert aristocracy that would cement his hold on his territory, producing 70 legitimate sons who would spawn the line that would eventually produce the 5,000 royal princes who hold forth in Saudi Arabia today.

What could not be obtained by alliance was conquered.  By World War I, Ibn-Saud had broadened his control to include large swaths of eastern Arabia; and, availing himself of the services of fanatical Wahabi warriors known as the Ikhwan, he began a program of conquest, deposing or sending into exile the rulers of various petty Arabian sheikhdoms.

By the early 1920’s, Ibn-Saud turned his attention to the Hijaz, the western portion of the peninsula, where the Hashemites had ruled as protectors of Mecca and Medina.  By 1925, the Hashemites had been overthrown by Ibn-Saud and sent into exile, eventually to be set up by the British Empire as rulers of Trans-Jordan and, by 1932, the Hijaz had been melded into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In 1932, oil was discovered in the Kingdom’s eastern province.  After World War II, ARAMCO, the Arab-American oil company, was created.  Very soon thereafter the Kingdom was recognized as the holder of the world’s largest verifiable reserves of oil.  And, by the 1980’s, the Kingdom, owing to the outflow of oil, would become the world’s principal holder of foreign currency reserves.

With fundamentalist Wahabi Islam holding sway in the Kingdom, the religious establishment has received government financial support to the tune of billions of dollars.  These funds have been used to build mosques and establish Islamist schools and universities throughout the world.  Some of the madrassas which have been founded with Saudi backing in countries such as Pakistan, Egypt and Algeria have served to incubate a new generation of Islamic extremists.  And yet it can truthfully be said that the Saud monarchy could in no way stand without the backing of two seemingly dissimilar props, one being the Wahhabi religious establishment and the other American military power.

It was not long into my stay that, owing to living and working in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula, I began to rethink my own world-view. No longer would I see the Middle East and Islam in the simplistic terms of the American news media.  No longer would I unthinkingly be able to consume propaganda turned out by various political interest groups seeking to dominate American foreign policy.  And, had I been possessed of sufficient foresight at that time, I might have been able to convey to my fellow Americans much more successfully how limited knowledge of the history, cultures languages and religions of other lands may lead to disastrous decisions adversely affecting the lives of not only one’s countrymen but also those of foreign innocents caught in the crossfire generated by the inappropriate policies of bungling politicians.


ENCOUNTERING ISLAM ON A DAILY BASIS


Having taught Islam as a part of a Western civilization curriculum and having taken graduate courses on Islam at Vanderbilt University, I was bursting at the seams with bibliographies and interpretations on Islamic history.  However, none of that remotely prepared me for the practical side of living in an environment in which no other religion except Islam was permitted.

On the faculty housing compound where I lived, there was a mosque which blared out five prayer calls, or Adhans, in every twenty-four hour day.  As the loud-speakers affixed to the mosque emitted the prayers with an ear-splitting volume, my nightly slumber was at first adversely affected; however, I eventually became accustomed to the noise and was able to sleep through the night.

Even shopping was affected by calls to prayer, for it was the law in Saudi Arabia that all commercial activity should cease as the faithful were called to pray.  Thus, when I planned my outings to obtain vegetables and groceries, I had to keep in mind at what times the prayer calls would take place, as all stores, shops and markets would close as the muezzin began his prayers.

At the various colleges of the university, mosques were strategically located and all classes, seminars and symposia would be halted in order to accommodate prayer.  Also, a good deal of space in each college was devoted to special bathroom facilities, which would be able to provide the hoses and water necessary for pre-prayer ablutions.

It was not unusual for staff members with whom I worked in institutional research to make overtures to me about how happy I would be if I converted to Islam.  My practice was to politely thank them for their concern and then go about my business.  That seemed to mollify these would-be missionaries and, after a few months, I was no longer hectored by them.  Nevertheless, I did know of two or three weak-willed Americans in the university who actually recited the sha-ada and became Muslims.

An Egyptian working in my office named Abdul-Gawad informed me one day that he was taking his young daughter for removal of her clitoris, in accordance with his interpretation of the requirements of Islam.  Despite my attempts to dissuade him from such action, he was strong in his intent and carried through with his plans.  It was my first encounter with Islamist practices of female genital mutilation.

Each year, probably more than 3,000,000 girls throughout the Middle East and Africa will have female genital mutilation (FGM) performed on them, usually taking the form of a  “clitoridectomy.”  An even more radical form of female mutilation, practiced mainly in Africa, is infibulation, in which all external genitalia are removed and the two sides of the vulva are stitched together. Sadly, even in the United States and with its growing Muslim population, 300,000 girls annually are victims of FGM.  In an effort to circumvent legalities, no small number of Muslims residing in America take their daughters outside the U.S. for what is euphemistically called “vacation cutting.”

Down the hall from my office was the office of the special assistant to the university president, an American who had converted from Mormonism to Islam.  This former Utah Mormon had studied at the London School of Oriental Studies and at the University of Beirut.  His Arabic was pristine, and Arabic speakers who encountered him on the telephone were never aware that he was Utah- born.  From being known as “Clyde,” he had taken the Muslim name of Muhamad Abdurrahman.

During my first Christmas in Saudi Arabia, I found out, of course, that there were no Christmas trees for sale, and that, in a country-wide fatwa, the religious authorities had banned something which they considered to be an integral Christian practice.  Not to be deterred, however, I resolutely strode out into the desert, where I found a scrawny conifer and, back in my living quarters, decorated it with tin foil and ribbons.

As Christmas was not considered a holiday in Saudi Arabia, I was expected to work, and I did.  My whereabouts on Christmas day seemed to occasion a great deal of curiosity in the area of the university where my office was located.  In fact, throughout the day, inquisitive faces continuously appeared at my office door, wondering if I were indeed in the office on that day.

During that first year, I learned by experience that Islam embraces all areas of life, including its public, private social and personal components.  Some of its stipulations, particularly those relating to marriage, divorce, property, children, legacies and other matters of personal significance, are based on behavior patterns, which the faithful are expected to emulate and which, in the Kingdom, were backed up by a religious establishment willing to resort to extreme measures in their enforcement.  Sharia I learned, from first-hand experience, provides the framework of dictates toward which society is expected to strive.  These all-encompassing and authoritarian precepts lend some credibility to those who insist that Islam is better seen as an ideology and not as a religion, at least in terms of how the word is employed in the Western world.

Despite Western disparagement of the harsher aspects of Muslim jurisprudence, such as the removal of hands for theft, decapitation for murder and rape and the stoning of women for adultery, Riyadh, during the first year of my residency, did appear to be a safe place in which to move about.  Women, although thoroughly veiled and covered in black abayas, freely walked the streets and market places of the city, although - by custom and by law – they were not allowed to drive.  Families were seen strolling in city parks, and the atmosphere – at least initially – did not seem oppressive.


                                 THE LACK OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN SAUDI ARABIA AND MUSLIM-DOMINATED LANDS


In studying the Koran, I have found passages that would seem to endorse the concept of religious freedom; however, from a practical standpoint, time and the imposition of tradition have tended to obscure such declarations, perhaps because of Islam’s pervasive fear of apostasy.

Apostasy is a term that today is not widely used or understood in the West.  A simple definition of the word is “… to renounce religious faith.”  The great majority of Muslim Koranic scholars writing in the 21st century see apostasy as a crime against Islamic society, and a weakening of the Muslim community, as a Muslim who has been exposed to the teachings of Islam should know that it is a faultless system designed by God for not only his own welfare but for the good of all. Thus, if one Muslim departs from the faith, his act of apostasy is, in effect, a fissure that that could endanger the redemption of the entire Muslim community.

In most Muslim-majority countries, apostasy is a serious crime warranting death.  In Saudi Arabia, it is a capital offense and is rigidly enforced, with the weight of the Hadith, or the sayings of Muhammad, in which he is quoted as saying, “Whoever changes his religion, kill him!”

Following this reasoning, a recent posting from ISIL, the Islamic extremist group now gobbling up Middle Eastern territory and persecuting Christians, proclaims, “Before Satan reveals his doubts to the weak and the weak-minded and the weak-hearted, one should remember that enslaving the families of the infidels and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharia that, if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narration of the Prophet…..and thereby apostatizing from Islam.”

It naturally follows, then, that to allow other religions to exist in free and open environments with Islam is to endanger Muslims, who might be lured away from Islam.  Thus, the concept of religious freedom does not resonate well in societies that are predominantly Muslim.-

On Friday, the Muslim holy day, there was a solid cacophony of strident voices of imams emitting from the public address systems and loud-speakers affixed to the minarets of hundreds of mosques scattered throughout Riyadh.  At the beginning of my stay in the city, those sounds made no sense to me; but, as I gained more proficiency with the Arabic language, I began to understand that I was not hearing words of peace and love.  On the contrary, what was being blasted about the airwaves were condemnations of unbelievers, and good Muslims were being told to look forward to an eventual day of reckoning, when Christians, Jews and others not of the Prophet’s faith, would be driven into the sea and slaughtered.

I vividly recall the day I attempted to engage a Saudi colleague with a doctoral degree from Michigan State University in a dialogue on religious freedom.  Naively, I asked him why Christians could not worship freely in Saudi Arabia, while the Kingdom was spending billions in the construction of massive mosques in American cities such as Houston.  I could just as well have been butting my head against the proverbial brick wall, for I discovered that a Muslim could be educated, urbane and even charming, but when it came to Islam, such a person quickly became illogical, allowing me to see that, for all practical purposes, Islam could be an obliterator of intellect.

From this and like experiences, I developed my own hypothesis about Islam and its position among other religions of the world.  As the Islamic calendar began with Muhamad’s flight to al-Yathrib or Medina, al-Hegira, (622 A.D.), Muslims had only advanced into their 15th century and had missed any development that might be synonymous with a Renaissance, Reformation or Enlightenment.  Granted, there was the venerable 10th century Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and there were the intellectual achievements of the Umayyads in Damascus and Abbasids in Baghdad, but, from the 13th century onward, Muslim intellectual life had stagnated and had been subdued by an oppressive theology and constant tension between Sunnis and Shias.  As my knowledge of Islam grew, it was inevitable that I began to see it as an institution fostering repression, as it sought to control politics, government, economics, education and virtually all aspects of society. 

Searching for some sort of substantiation for my hypothesis, I stumbled across a comparison of Jewish Nobel laureates versus Muslim winners of the prize.  The contrast was overwhelming.  At that time (the 1980’s), with a total worldwide population of just 12 million, Jews accounted for slightly less than 120 Nobel winners, while Muslims, numbering 23% of the world’s population (15 billion), had managed to produce a mere 8 laureates.  For me, the comparison was damning.  It was palpably clear that Islam, when closely examined, came off as an impediment to human advancement and was nothing short of a miserable failure when compared to Western civilization.


THE UNDERGROUND CHURCH IN RIYADH AND MY EXPOSURE TO CHRISTIANS IN NON-CHRISTIAN LANDS


Growing up, I heard all sorts of stories about the persecution of early Christians, how Christians were martyred throughout the Roman Empire and how they were forced to worship secretly in the catacombs.  As a child, I assumed that such incidents from past history were well behind us, and that the principle of religious freedom was so strongly imbedded in our culture that it could rightly be taken for granted. 

With maturity, though, I realized that the American republic represented a mere interlude in history and was, for all practical purposes, an exception to the rule on the timeline of human experience.  Now, even more than ever, I see that St. Paul’s words in 2nd Timothy ring true in the 21st century:  “Indeed, all who desire to live a Godly life in Christ will be persecuted!”  Even in my own country, it is now not uncommon to hear of small business owners of fundamentalist Christian persuasion being coerced by the state into participating in observances which they feel are repugnant to their faith.

The popular culture, which in the United States is more and more a pagan culture, takes great pains to paint Christians as backward, ignorant and out of touch with the times.  Such themes are all too common in cinema, literature and left-leaning periodicals and newspapers.  And, with an increasingly unsophisticated population that seems more and more unaware of the Bill of Rights, it is not outside the realm of possibility that Christians in the United States, within a few short decades, could very well experience extensive, state-mandated persecution.

I first began to focus on such concerns during the time of my residence in Saudi Arabia.  Although I had been very much aware before my arrival that the only religion allowed to exist was Islam, the practical side of going without worshiping with fellow Christians was another matter.  For an inveterate church-goer, doing without the Eucharist and divine services made for a bleak and dismal existence.

During my second year in Saudi Arabia, a British colleague in the university informed me that there existed in Riyadh a clandestine Christian fellowship.  Swearing me to absolute secrecy, he divulged that the group met on Friday, the Muslim holy day, on a residential compound provided by the McDonnell-Douglas aircraft company for its American employees.  Located in central Riyadh, services there were led by an Armenian-American Presbyterian pastor who had come into the country under the guise of being an engineer.  In time, I became a regular attendee, along with approximately 150 other expatriate Christians.

Eventually, it became clear to me that the authorities in Saudi Arabia were completely serious about enforcing any and all laws preserving the privileged status of Islam.  For Europeans and Americans who might be found out in taking part in such services, the penalties could be brief confinement, followed by expulsion from the country.  For others, however, the cost of being a practicing Christian could be much higher.

Within the congregation was a sprinkling of Arab Christians, predominantly Palestinians.  I recall a colleague from the university, Dr. Hana Nasrallah, who regularly attended the services with his wife and daughters.  The assumption among Muslims being that the Prophet was an Arab, and that the holy sites of Mecca and Medina are found on Arab soil, leads them in their logic to suppose that all Arabs must be Muslims.  Therefore, Arab Christians were on perilous ground when they entered into worshiping with their counterparts from Europe and America.  Accordingly, Muslims tended to conveniently forget the history of the Middle East, when the region was almost wholly Christian and was a wellspring of Christian theology and missionary activity, propagating the message of Jesus Christ long before the advent of Islam.

During Muslim holidays, e.g. Eid al-Adha, I was in the habit of traveling outside the Kingdom to other countries in the region.  For example, during one such holiday, I journeyed to Egypt. During that trip, I visited the neighborhood in old Cairo where the Holy Family had purportedly sought refuge from King Herod.  Along a small alleyway, I was approached by a Copt, an Egyptian Christian, who sought to engage me in conversation, speaking of the many ways in which Egyptian Christians were persecuted, including discrimination in employment, education and housing.  He also shared with me how fanatics from the Muslim Brotherhood thought nothing of waylaying Christians, kidnapping and raping their daughters and burning churches. 

While in Egypt, I was also to learn that Egyptian Copts accounted for close to 11% of the Egyptian population, or approximately 10 million individuals.  Tracing their origins to St. Mark the Evangelist, who was martyred at Alexandria in the 1st century A.D., the Copts have a Christian history of 2,000 years, and are the descendants of Christians who remained true to their faith during the Muslim conquest of the 7th century. 

Long relegated to dhimmitude, or 2nd class status, Copts have faced discrimination in virtually all areas of Egyptian society.  In most respects, it is impossible for them to advance into the top tiers of the professions, participate fully in political and community life, receive equal opportunities in employment and openly practice their faith.

As I was to see during my six years of living in the Middle East, Christianity in that region was beginning to experience its death throes.  Once thriving Christian communities, from Lebanon to Syria and the West Bank, were dwindling in population.  Yet, the prevailing Christian view in Egypt seemed to be that it would be difficult to call oneself a Copt without living in Egypt.  Nevertheless, at the end of my Egyptian trip, I concluded that the Copts would face an uncertain future, owing to the overwhelming presence in that country of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist Muslim organizations.

In the next year after my departure from Saudi Arabia, I found out from a British friend that the Saudi authorities had forcibly closed Riyadh’s underground church and had expelled the pastor and the congregation’s leaders.  I was also informed that an Italian Catholic priest had been stopped at a police checkpoint, where police found vestments, candles and a crucifix.  The priest was jailed and then summarily booted out of the country.

To equate the inconvenience of having to worship secretly  with the persecution and hardships experienced by the early Church – not to mention the Muslim persecutions of religious minorities in the 21st century – is a rather pathetic intellectual stretch.  Nevertheless, my experience of living in the Middle East caused me to think more about the subject of religious freedom than I had during any other time of my life.


ON THE SQUASH COURT WITH A MUSIM BROTHER


In spearheading institutional research at King Saud University, I was able to intermingle with people from many national origins.  A particularly interesting person named Bashir, who hailed from the old mountain kingdom of Swat in the Khyber region of Pakistan, worked as a technician at the university press. Bashir taught me a great deal about Oriental carpets, which led me to frequent bazaars in Riyadh, where I made several purchases of carpets that now have honored places in my home.

Bashir, I was to learn, was a fan of squash, which I had previously thought was a game somewhat like racket-ball in the U.S.  Bashir was not at all reticent in informing me that the greatest squash players in the world were Pakistanis, and this included a family of Pakistani champions called the Khans.

It was inevitable that Bashir would suggest that I should learn how to play squash.  Eventually, we made our way to the university squash courts where I was introduced to the game.  It did not take me long to realize that squash was not at all like racket-ball, that it was a sport that demanded agility, speed and split-second timing.

Perhaps two months into my squash career, I was challenged to a game by a portly individual, dressed in a Saudi thobe, wearing a skull-cap and sneakers.  Since this individual did not appear at all athletic, I accepted the challenge.  Unfortunately, I was totally embarrassed, humiliated and soundly defeated.

Bashir, who had witnessed my shame, quickly asked me if I knew against whom I had been competing.  Saying that I had no idea, I asked my friend to please inform me.  Bashir let me know in no uncertain terms that I had taken the court against a professor of Islamic studies who was in exile from Egypt and who was a leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.  My encounter led me to begin to bone up on that organization, hoping to gain more insight into religion and politics in the Middle East.

My subsequent research revealed that the Muslim Brotherhood had its origins in Egypt in 1928, when a young teacher, Hassan al-Banna, began speaking out against Western imperialism, proclaiming that the best way to counter European influence in Egypt – and specifically British influence – was by adhering to traditional Sunni Islam and rejecting all foreign ways that might tempt Muslims to stray from the fold.  Within ten years’ time, there were more than 500,000 Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

After Banna was assassinated in 1949, the leadership of the Brotherhood passed to Syed al-Qutub, a scholar who had pursued graduate studies in the United States at Colorado State and  Stanford.  Qutub’s matriculation in the West had the effect of reinforcing his view that Islam was the only hope for the redemption of Egypt from European colonialism and what he considered the loose lifestyles and “race imperialism” of the United States.

By the 1960’s, the Muslim Brotherhood had several million adherents in Egypt and had become so strong that it was viewed as a threat to the government, and hundreds of its members were banished from Egypt, just like my squash opponent in Riyadh.  Falling out of favor with the Egyptian dictator Gamal-Abdul Nasser, Syed al-Qutub was tried by an Egyptian court and subsequently hanged.

My first visit to Egypt occurred during a time after Anwar Sadat had become popular, owing to Egypt’s armed forces having acquitted themselves courageously against the Israeli Defense Forces during the 1973 war.  Sadat’s popularity at home, however, would wane, when he shook hands with Israeli prime-minister Begin in 1979, thus cementing a peace of sorts during the mediation of President Jimmy Carter of the United States at Camp David.

After Camp David, Sadat was the darling of the media in America and Europe.  However, during my stay in Cairo during 1980, I saw on almost every street corner enormous banners with Sadat’s image emblazoned on them.  Having seen displays of this sort throughout the world, I quickly caught on that, contrary to what was being said in the U.S., Sadat was an out and out dictator, a feeling which was confirmed by conversations with Egyptians.  Consequently, I was not surprised when Sadat was gunned down by Egyptian elements tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.

A former air force general, Hosni Mubarak, followed Sadat and was able to extend his rule for more than thirty years, finally falling victim to the Arab Spring movement, when the long-suffering patience of the Egyptian people came to the breaking-point, after decades of cronyism, corruption, poverty and human rights abuses.

Finally in what were called “democratic elections” in 2012, the Brotherhood came to power, with Muhamad Morsi assuming the presidency of Egypt.  Those elections were characterized by intimidation, especially against Egyptian Christians.  The Morsi government lasted two weeks more than a year; and, owing to incompetence and widespread violence, was toppled by a military coup.  Once again, in Egypt, events have come full circle to return to military rule.

Crane Brinton’s classic work, ANATOMY OF REVOLUTION, offers some meaningful insight into what is now playing out in the societal upheaval through which Egypt is passing.  The failure of Sadat and Mubarak to adjust to the demands of a long-beleaguered population, of which 60% are now less than 30 years of age, obviously led to insupportable pressures that could not be restrained by traditional means of repression.  In the succeeding phases of the upheaval, there are predictable developments to anticipate.  Various elements of moderate, radical and military orientation will, in turn, exercise power.  In due course, and leading to a final synthesis, there will, hopefully, emerge a regime based on expediency and level-headedness.  The wild-card in all of this is Islam.  If Islam does return to power, the result will be disastrous.  Not only will the Egyptian people continue to suffer, the American position in the Middle East – at this point tenuous – will be beset by forces dedicated to the destruction of Israel; and, thus, will be in a  position to bring forth regional economic dislocation and disruption for years to come.


MORE ON THE HOUSE OF SAUD

Living in the absolute monarchy that is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can be a challenging experience for an American.  Thus, my first year at King Saud University in Riyadh not only found me in a demanding work setting, but also on an extremely arduous learning curve concerning the Kingdom, its religion, customs, traditions and past.

Merely 6 kilometers distant from my quarters in university housing lay the ruined city of Dirayah, which I found to be an interesting site to explore during my spare time.  Eventually, I discovered from faculty colleagues that the ruins had once been the early center of power for the Saud family.  But, in not kowtowing to the Ottoman Empire, the Sauds, in 1818, would see an overwhelming force under the Egyptian Khedive Ali-Pasha, an Ottoman minion, dispatched to accomplish the destruction of their capital.  Its crumbling walls and once proud ramparts proved to be an impetus for me to delve into the history of the Saud dynasty.

I was to find that, in effect, there had been three Saud family dynasties, the first enduring from the 1740’s to 1818; the second from the 1820’s to 1891; and, finally, the dynasty of Addulaziz, the kingdom builder whose line still remains in power.

Any treatment of the Saud line would be remiss without reference to Sheikh Muhamad Abd-al-Wahab, who was born near Riyadh and whose life spanned the greater part of the 18th century.  At any early age, Abd-al-Wahab began the study of Islam and was eventually recognized as an authority on the Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence.  After studying for several years at Basra, which is located in present- day Iraq, he returned to the region of central Arabia called the Najd and initiated a rigid reform movement, which would ultimately result in the establishment of one of the most doctrinaire and unbending forms of Islam.

Of great significance for the future of the Saud family was a partnership which was forged with Abd-al-Wahab and his puritanical partners.  Thus, Saud family power in the Najd was linked to the Wahhabis; and, eventually, this collaboration would oversee the birth pangs that would bring forth the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Still today, the theocratic 21st century descendants of Abd-al-Wahab hold great influence in the Kingdom and receive lavish governmental subsidies toward the propagation of Wahhabi Islam throughout the world.

A major nemesis for the Saud family, which extended all the way into the early 20th century, was the Ottoman Empire, which through its subalterns, most notably the Khedive Muhamad Ali-Pasha, who was, for all practical purposes, absolute ruler of Egypt, the Sudan, Palestine, Crete and Syria until his death in 1848.  During both the second and third Saud kingdoms, the Ottomans and Egyptians took their toll on the family, executing several key family members and sending others into exile at Istanbul.

By the second half of the 19th century, Ottoman power was in decline, and British influence was on the rise in Cairo.  Consequently, two families, the Sauds, from their power base at Riyadh, and the al-Rashids of the Shammar clan of Hail, vied for power in the Najd.  By 1891, the al-Rashids had ejected the Sauds from Riyadh; and, subsequently, Abdul-Rahman Saud, the patriarch of the Sauds, and his family were given refuge by the Kuwaiti emir.

In 1901, Abdulaziz ibn-Saud, the enrgetic and ambitious 6’6” twenty-four-year-old son of the patriarch began to lead a series of raids into the Najd, directing his fury against tribes that had joined forces with the al-Rashids.  As a result of the success of the attacks carried out in the spring of 1901, Abdulaziz was able to draw combatants to his standards from clans sympathetic to the Sauds.  In 1902, Abdulaziz conceived a plan for a daring raid against the al-Rashids at Riyadh; and, with a raiding party of a mere twenty men, he entered the city under cover of darkness and killed the al-Rashid governor and captured Riyadh.

Once in possession of Riyadh, Abdulaziz set out to solidify his relations with the tribes and clans of the Najd, wisely realizing that the Najd would be the nucleus of family power that would prove crucial to eventual expansion.  A novel strategy in this regard was the contracting of numerous marriage alliances which, owing to the Islamic practice of polygamy and the relative ease of divorce enjoyed by Muslim males, enabled Abdulaziz to produce offspring with the daughters of tribal leaders to such an extent that it is reckoned that he had 37 sons by 22 legitimate wives.  If one includes daughters and progeny produced with concubines, the exact number could never be known.  Thus, by periodically rotating spouses from prominent Najdi tribal families, the Saud family would forge the links that would ensure control of the Najd and ultimately result in the more than 5,000 princes of the royal blood who are included in the 21st century Saud family.

In 1904, Sheikh ibn-Rashid appealed on behalf of his family to the Ottomans for aid and protection against the Sauds.  Although Abdulaziz ibn-Saud suffered early defeats at the hands of the Rashids and their Ottoman allies, he and his followers resorted to guerrilla warfare, eventually disrupting the Ottoman lines of supply and resulting in the withdrawal of Turkish-Egyptian forces.  By 1912, Saud control of the Najd and the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula was complete.  At that point, Abdulaziz ibn-Saud, now known as King Abdulaziz, could focus his attention on other portions of Arabia that would eventually be included in his kingdom.

The Saud family and Saudis in general like to say that, unlike other Arab countries, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the lands that comprise it have never fallen under the influence of Western imperialism.  Be that as it may, by 1915 the British had initiated the Treaty of Darin with the new Saudi state.  This pact called for British protection for the lands of the House of Saud, while King Abdulaziz committed himself to continue hostilities against ibn-Rashid, who was still carrying on as an ally of the Ottoman Empire.  The British saw the agreement as a part of their overall strategy during World War I of overcoming the influence of the Ottomans and the Central Powers in the Middle East, while King Abdulaziz saw it as a means toward vanquishing ibn-Rashid.  However, in the same year at the Battle of Jarrab, the forces of King Abdulaziz lost to ibn-Rashid, thus delaying the long-sought final victory over the rival Rashids.

By the early 1920’s Abdulaziz was for all intents and purposes King of the Najd.  Although he had eventually destroyed the Rashid family’s political power, rather than to immediately assume the title of king, to continue – at least in the interim to be designated as “Sultan of the Najd.

In the meantime, Saud designs on additional territories on the Arabian Peninsula were able to go forward.  The expansionist aims of Abdulaziz were strongly abetted during the 1920’s by Wahabi warriors who made up a military brotherhood known as the Ikhwan.  Hardened by the strenuous life of the desert and fortified by the version of Islam taught by Muhamad Abdul-wahab in the 18th century, the Ikhwan were employed to reduce rebellious tribes and to extend Saud power to the Red Sea.

A major obstacle to the political ascendancy of the Saud family in Arabia was the Hashemite dynasty, which for centuries had ruled the eastern region of the Arabian Peninsula, the Hejaz, and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. By 1917, the Hashemite ruler Hussein ibn-Ali, who traced his lineage to the Prophet Muhamad, had shed his ties to the Ottoman Empire; and, following the lead of T.E. Lawrence during the Arab Revolt of World War I, declared himself to be King of the Hejaz.  Although Hussein ibn-Ali had taken this step with the implied support of Britain, his actions placed him on a collision course with Abdul-Aziz of the Najd, who had by 1920 come to dominate the mountainous Asir region, which lay in close proximity to the Hejaz.

Just as Hussein ibn-Ali had had his British champion in T.E. Lawrence, Abdul-Aziz formed a deep and personal friendship with an enigmatic British foreign intelligence officer, H. St. John Bridger Philby.  Educated at Cambridge in oriental languages, Philby had a Sir Richard Burton-type personality, which saw him assiduously researching the regions, cultures, languages and natural features of the locales in which he served.

Although Philby had worked with Lawrence, he was, unlike Lawrence, no admirer of the Hashemites ; and, ultimately, he came to the conclusion that British and Arabian interests could best be served by facilitating the efforts of Abdul-Aziz to forge unity on the Arabian Peninsula, from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea.  Pressing his contention that Middle East stability required that the Saud family should serve as the guardians of Mecca and Medina; at the same time, he maintained that Saud power on the Peninsula would work in favor of keeping vital sea lanes open from India through Suez.  Any forthright assessment of the work of Philby should also include that his empathy for Sultan Abdul-Aziz ultimately caused him to compromise himself as a British intelligence officer by leaking vital intelligence, which eventually led to the defeat of the Hashemites and the annexation of the Hejaz and its inclusion into what would become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Philby’s “going native” ended in his severance from British intelligence.  For a time, he engaged in commercial enterprises in Jeddah.  He also converted to Islam and continued to serve as an advisor to Abdul-Aziz, a role which was assuredly instrumental in bringing about the modern nation of Saudi Arabia.  As an aside, Philby’s son, Kim Philby, is best known as a British double agent who defected to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

By 1924, King Hussein ibn-Ali of the Hashemite dynasty, had declared himself “Caliph of all Muslims.”  However, this lofty title was of little use to him when Abdul-Aziz unleashed his forces, including the Ikhwan, conquering the cities of Mecca, Medina and Jeddah and forcing Hussein ibn-Ali to flee to Transjordan, where his son, Abdullah, had been installed by the British as monarch.  Hussein ibn-Ali would continue to use the title of Caliph until his death in Amman in 1931.  His Hashemite descendants continue to reign in Jordan in the 21st century.

The Ikhwan, because of their Islamic fundamentalism and puritanical ways, began to mutiny against King Abdul-Aziz, owing to tentative steps toward opening Arabia to the technology of the 20th century.  Abdul-Aziz, realizing that his power could be enhanced with up-to-date means of communication and the implements of modern warfare, refused to give in to his erstwhile champions of the desert.  Finally, he felt that his power was being challenged to such an extent that he was left with no alternative than to take the field against the Ikhwan.  In 1930, at the Battle of Sabilla, Abdul-Aziz’s forces, consisting of infantry wielding machine-guns and cavalry regiments boasting motorized units, totally devastated the Ikhwan, who would never again challenge the power of the Saud dynasty.  Sabilla represented the last time that camel-mounted warriors would charge an opposing force in any major battle.

Two years later, the kingdoms of Najd and Hejaz were officially joined as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a nation that today numbers 26,000,000 subjects and stretches from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea.

THE ATTACK ON THE GRAND MOSQUE


November of 1979 was an especially memorable month during my time in Saudi Arabia, for that was when Islamist fanatics seized the Grand Mosque at Mecca. What began in the early morning hours of November 20 was, in some respects, a harbinger of what would occur a couple of decades later, on September 11, 2001, when 15  Saudi citizens were involved in the events that resulted in the deaths of more Americans than that caused by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Although the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia proclaims itself to be the seat of Islam, dovetails its policies with the Wahhabi religious establishment, and spends billions of dollars throughout the world in spreading radical Islam, the Saudi princes themselves are well known for their profligate ways, cruising their pleasure-filled yachts on the Mediterranean and taking delight in activities forbidden at home in locations such as Edgeware Road in London.

Despite official support for the type of intransigent Islam preached by Sheikh Abdulwahab, the royal family of the Kingdom lives life in a manner that is far from the Wahhabi ideal.  Within the Kingdom are individuals who are very much aware of this and who also deplore the presence of alien, non-Islamic military forces and the foreign influences they represent.  Osama bin-Laden’s radicalism was, in part, a product of such thinking.

Jahayman al-Otaybi was a young man of no little means, a member of a prominent Najdi family, who felt that Saudi Arabia had fallen far afield from the Islamic ideal and had profaned the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. Otaybi’s grandfather, a fervent Wahhabi, had been an early supporter of King Abdul-Aziz and his rise to power.   The grandson, though, was of the opinion that judgement day was not far off and that it was time for the appearance of a Mahdi, or redeemer, who would prepare the faithful for judgement.   November 20, 1979, coincided with the first day of the year 1400, by the Islamic calendar, a date which according to one of the sayings of the Prophet Muhamad, would be the date on which a Mahdi would appear.  Otaybi believed that the Mahdi was his brother-in-law, Muhamad Abdullah al-Qahtani.   These two young men entered into a pact through which they hoped to bring down the Saud family, abolish education for women, ban television, expel all non-Muslims from the Kingdom, and replace the monarchy with a pure theocracy. Their first move and the catalyst for their movement would be the taking of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Attracting followers from various theological schools in the Kingdom, Otaybi and al-Qahtani began to organize their supporters and clandestinely import weapons and munitions from throughout the Middle East.  Gradually, Otaybi, who had been an officer in the Saudi National Guard, sharpened the martial abilities of the group, while sympathizers in the National Guard squirreled away more weapons and supplies in the underground passages beneath the Grand Mosque.  Finally, on November 20, four to five hundred armed insurgents, following Otaybi’s command, sealed off the Grand Mosque, taking hundreds of pilgrims hostage in the process.  Thus was initiated a two-week battle that not only would shake the Saudi monarchy to its foundations, but would also resound throughout the entire Muslim world.  For 24 hours, at the beginning of the insurgency, telephone, Telex and telegraph connections to the outside world were shut down.  Saudis and expatriates alike were in the dark as to what was occurring in the Kingdom.

The city of Mecca was eventually evacuated and was occupied by units of both the army and the national-guard.  The religious authorities gave their sanction to undertaking military action in and around the Grand Mosque, and frontal assaults were begun.  In the meantime, the insurgents continued to disseminate their demands while fending off the government offensive. And American C-130’s began an airlift of vital armaments in support of Saudi government forces.

Eventually, the fighting was confined to the mosque’s underground passageways.  Hand grenades were responsible for the deaths of many hostages, and tear gas was resorted to in extricating the insurgents from their concealed positions.  After two weeks, military casualties amounted to 127 dead and 451 wounded. Probably 255 insurgents and hostages were killed and an undetermined number were wounded.

Muslim fundamentalists throughout the world erupted in a rage that would see American embassies in Islamabad and Tripoli burned to the ground.  In Iran, fatwas and condemnations went out against the American imperialists who aided the corrupt Saud family in the retaking of the Grand Mosque.

Meanwhile, in Riyadh, as news began to leak out from what had transpired in Mecca, I began to consider my own well-being and what might have occurred if the events of those two weeks might have had a different outcome.  Almost immediately, I noticed that the Saudi government began to undertake a program of shoring up the Islamic foundations of society, hoping to avoid any future repetition of an Islamic insurgency.  As for the 67 surviving insurgents who surrendered at Mecca, after secret trials and death sentences, they were divided into small groups, which were dispersed to various cities throughout the Kingdom, where they were publicly beheaded.  The Saud dynasty had obviously determined to proceed down a punitive path to insure both their own and their kingdom’s security.

My reflections on what had taken place in Mecca in 1979 eventually led me to a consideration of fundamentalist Islam, for  I had not previously realized that there was a substantial undercurrent in Islam of individuals whose minds were principally mired in an apocalyptic and violent interpretation of their religion.  Looking back to those times, I now see that any candid analysis of what we now perceive taking place with Islam in the early years of the 21st century must lead  to the conclusion that Islamic fundamentalism is advancing and is not only a threat to Middle East stability but has the potential to place both Europe and America in grave peril.  For example, if, conservatively speaking, those Muslims throughout the world supporting and giving lip-service to Islamic terrorism were assessed to be fifteen percent of the whole, that would mean there are more than 250 million Muslims devoted to the annihilation of Jews and Christians and the suppression of freedoms that have resulted from the development of Western civilization.

Incredibly, political leaders in the Western world who have sufficient mettle to confront such a challenge are becoming less and less common, with the politically correct response being one that is reluctant to mention terrorism in the same context as Islam.  Nevertheless, it is accurate to say that Islamic terrorists, such as those associated with ISIL or al-Qaeda, are literally going by the book, as far as their interpretation of Islam is concerned.  For example, in the Koran (9:5), the words of the Prophet could not be clearer:  “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them, besiege them, and be ready to ambush them.”  As Muslims consider those who worship the Trinity to be idolaters, it is no wonder that Middle East Christians have become prime targets.  Yet again, in the Koran (5:51), the Prophet, addressing the faithful, says, “Oh you who have believed! Do not take the Jews and the Christians as friends; they are but friends of each other; and whoever among you takes them for friends, he surely is one of them.”  In the Koran (47:4), the   Muslims, in confronting Jews and Christians, are advised to, “Smite their necks!” and, in another Koranic declaration, (8:67), are admonished not to take prisoners.  Hence, the barbaric beheadings that all too often are part and parcel of the savage assaults now taking place in Syria and Iraq.

For all their oil and for all the billions in foreign currency reserves controlled by the Saud family, the dynasty rests on a shaky foundation.  In enabling the collaboration between themselves and the conservative Wahhabi religious establishment, the Sauds have sown widely the seeds of Islamist extremism, which through both public and private largesse, has seen immense sums flowing out of the Kingdom and into the coffers of organizations such as the Taliban, al-Shabab, ISIL and al-Qaeda.  If not for the politically expedient blind-eye, Saudi Arabia could very well stand a good chance of seeing the dynasty toppled by zealots, with a pure Islamic theocracy taking its place.  Therefore, Americans and Europeans see themselves in the peculiar position of subsidizing Islamic terrorism by way of transferring a significant share of their affluence to the Middle East, where, more often than not, copious amounts of those monies find their way to extremists and terrorists throughout the world.  What better argument could be proffered for energy independence?   Not moving toward self-sufficiency in oil and gas as well as green forms of energy is, to borrow a banal phrase, to kick the proverbial can down the road and opt for our own eventual cultural suicide.


OIL

Shortly after arriving in Saudi Arabia, I soon determined that driving would be a necessity.  When I purchased gas for my new Toyota for the first time, I figured out that I was paying the equivalent of fifteen-cents per gallon.  Besides the windfall that accrued to Saudi citizens in the form of  largesse through a multiplicity of government programs, the three-dollar per barrel cost to bring oil out of the ground translated into cheap gas for the drivers who were beginning to choke the Kingdom’s  roads with Mercedes Benzes, Audis, Cadillacs, Chevys and a vast array of Japanese vehicles.

Until recently, Saudi Arabia had the highest amount of verifiable oil reserves in the world; however, Venezuela now boasts 298 billion barrels of reserves, as compared to Saudi reserves of 267 billion barrels.  Still, the Saudi total amounts to one-fifth of world reserves. Almost all of Saudi oil comes from the eastern portion of the country and one oilfield, the Ghawar field, annually provides 60% of total production and contains reserves of 70 billion barrels.

Practically speaking, if it were not for oil Saudi Arabia would still be the backwater that it was in the early 20th century.  As late as the early 1930’s, it is said that the King’s finance minister kept the Kingdom’s financial records in his own home.  But, owing to oil, the duties of the minister and those who assisted him with his duties would ultimately become somewhat more laborious.

Throughout the 1930’s, American geologists and engineers affiliated with Standard Oil of California, based on oil strikes that had occurred on Bahrain, followed their gut feelings that there was oil to be found in Saudi Arabia.  Finally, at well number 7 in the Damman geological dome in early 1937, oil began to flow in consistent quantities, heralding the surge that would eventually propel the Kingdom to world prominence.

For fiscal year 2015, the Kingdom’s budget assumes that oil production will average 9.6 million barrels of oil per day, which should produce daily revenues of $438,000,000.  This is predicated on a per barrel price in the neighborhood of $60.00.  Owing to a world oil glut and the subsequent fall of oil prices at the end of 2014, the 2015 budget will feature a deficit, owing to anticipated expenditures of 229 billion dollars and expected revenues of 190 billion.  Of those revenues, only 30 billion will come from non-oil revenue.

Since 1973, when King Faisal declared an oil embargo which resulted in soaring energy prices in the West, the Kingdom has not hesitated to use its oil as an instrument of political power. Most recently, awareness of rising estimates of oil and gas reserves in the United States resulted in the Saudis slashing their per barrel price, hoping to adversely affect the thriving fracking industry in America.

In the last decade, owing to a diminishing practice of flaring off natural gas produced at well sites, the Kingdom had become the leader in the production of propane and butane.  However, with U.S. reserves of natural gas sufficient for domestic use for more than 90 years, a pall has been cast over Saudi prospects in the world gas market.

In the last two years, verifiable oil reserves in the U.S. have gone up by 3.8 billion barrels, resulting in proven reserves of 40 billion barrels.  In addition, shale oil produced by fracking in Texas, North Dakota and Montana has been turning out millions of barrels, with the potential of producing billions.  The Energy Information Administration recently has stated that technically recoverable oil reserves in the U.S. amount to 198 billion barrels. By 2015, the Unite States has been producing on average 11 million barrels of oil per day, not to mention a similar barrel-per-day number for natural gas. Thus, the U.S. is surpassing the Kingdom and will be energy self-sufficient within two decades.

90 percent of Saudi exports are oil-related.  The vast majority of these exports are, of course in the form of crude oil, with refined petroleum, ethylene polymers, acylic alcohol and natural gas making up the remainder.  China, South Korea, Japan and India are now the chief customers for Saudi oil products. However, China is becoming more dependent on Russian oil, while Europe, owing to the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, is now viewing the growing prominence of American oil as a more reliable source.  If China is lost as a major customer for Saudi oil, tough economic conditions for the Kingdom are not far away.

To keep from running budget deficits and drawing down its foreign currency reserves, the Kingdom must bring in approximately $90.00 per barrel of oil.  The planners at the Saudi Arabian Oil Ministry know very well that the Kingdom cannot indefinitely continue to subsidize Saudi citizens with some of the most generous social programs in the world and persist in defense spending of more than 60 billion dollars annually, which in itself would amount to approximately 12% of GDP. Incredibly, the Kingdom’s defense expenditures represent the 4th largest defense outlay in the world and the largest in the Middle East.

With fracking profits dependent on a per barrel price of $55.00, American producers obviously do not have to contend with a national budget delivering a vast array of government amenities and services.  The Saudi ministers of state charged with oil production and budgetary planning are very much aware of this, and their recent oil price decreases were, in part, aimed at constraining American frackers, giving the Kingdom additional time to make the necessary technological and financial adjustments in order to compete.  Whether this strategy will prove viable remains to be seen; nevertheless, the Kingdom remains a major power in the Middle East, owing to its vast oil deposits.

I recall a conversation I once had with a Saudi professor at King Saud University.  The subject of oil came up as we discussed world affairs.   Somewhat artlessly, I asked him, if for some reason, the Kingdom lost or did not have control of its oil deposits, what Saudis would do.  His reply was that they would simply return to the desert life which had been followed by their ancestors for hundreds of years before the discovery of oil.

                                                              

                                                                     SAUDI FOREIGN AID AND THE SPREAD OF WAHABI ISLAM

That fifteen of the nineteen attackers of 9/11 hailed from Saudi Arabia seems to have been forgotten by 2015.  It should be remembered that the first two pilots to enter the United States in preparation for the al-Qaeda strikes were Saudis Khalid al-Mindhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, both twenty-five-year-old jihadis who had won the trust of Osama bin-Laden. And any notion that the Islamic extremism represented by the attack on Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979 had faded was demolished by what befell American Flight 11 and United Flight 175 on a glorious early fall day in 2001.  Moreover, to think that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a breeding ground for Muslim extremists is delusional, for, to date, around 3,000 Saudis are fighting with ISIS.

Much is made in the United Nations of the Kingdom’s generosity, by way of the 15% of government expenditures represented by Saudi foreign aid, an amount which would rank near the top of any listing of leading world benefactors of aid for third world countries.  However, what must be remembered is that such aid as is extended to nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia is limited to Muslim countries. 

One of the five pillars of Islam is Zakat, or monies donated from the incomes of the faithful for charity, but, again, such charity is for Muslims only. For example, it is virtually unheard of for the more than 9 million Muslims in the United States to commit their money to charitable community organizations like the United Fund, or even to take part in civic organizations such as Rotary, Lions or Kiwanis.

It is widely known that a significant percentage of the wealthy in Saudi Arabia, including individuals at the highest levels of the Kingdom’s government, contribute money that eventually is involved in fanning the flames of Islamic extremism.  Much of this money goes to the United States for the promotion of religious schools, or Madrassas, which provide no practical benefits in terms of marketable skills or competencies that could elevate depressed communities.  And, for those who question how many outsized mosques are constructed in large urban areas, such as the multi-million dollar mosque complex in Atlanta, much of the wherewithal for those projects originates in Saudi Arabia.  Of the 2,000 mosques in the United States, 80% receive subsidies from Saudi Arabia, and elaborate Islamic centers have been constructed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno, New York, Tucson, Raleigh, Washington, D.C., and Toledo.

A subsidiary of the School of Islamic Studies at King Saud University was what was called the Arabic Language Institute, which provided “scholarships” for less well-off students from around the world to study an Arabic curriculum which was strong on boosting Islamic values.  I vividly recall one such student, a young American black man from Houston, who had converted to Islam and taken the Muslim name of Bilal.  The recipient of such a scholarship, Bilal got more than he bargained for at the Arabic Language Institute in Riyadh and developed severe culture shock, which rapidly took him into depression.  As an American administrator and faculty member in the university, I was called on to give some assistance to Bilal, whose mood was significantly cheered to encounter a fellow American, albeit one who was neither black nor Muslim.

Bilal, who was a highly sensitive human being, had found out in short order that what he was learning at the Arabic Language Institute was not in keeping with American values and standards of toleration, broadmindedness and decency and, therefore, chose to return to Texas. Unfortunately, too many converts to Islam do not possess the background to see through the indoctrination that such programs entail, and too many Americans have not had direct experience in encountering an Islam which seeks to further itself through guileful methods and dubious means.

Poverty stricken people in such countries as Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Mali and Nigeria often have no choice when it comes to education.  Thus, they opt for a madrassa education as opposed to no education at all.  And, in the process, the homegrown, more tolerant versions of Islam that often exist in those countries have a difficult time surviving in the face of the flood of money from Saudi Arabia supporting the madrassas and their curricula of hate against Christians, Jews, Yazidis and Sufi Muslims.

Of the countries where Saudi- backed madrassas have taken root, some of the most baleful effects have been experienced in Pakistan.  By 2002, Pakistan, had more than 13,000 unregistered madrassas, with a student population of 1.8 million. In many areas of the country, they outnumber the pitiful institutions which pass as public schools.  Most Pakistani madrassas are associated with the Deoband movement, from which the Taliban faction in Afghanistan sprang.  Hundreds of millions of Saudi petrodollars go into the support of these schools, which prey on poverty-stricken families with many children.  A common ploy is to use the concept of martyrdom in curricula, promising salvation for families producing martyrs, along with more than 6-thousand dollars of support for relatives after the martyrdom of a child.  Graduates of the madrassas are either used as teachers in new or expanding madrassas, or sent on to post-madrassa training sites for jihadis.

The World Association of Muslim Youth, or WAMY, was founded in Riyadh and now has 5,500 subsidiaries worldwide, including many in the United States.  WAMY is another organ into which Saudi money flows freely, and WAMY convocations have proudly featured speakers who praise the faith and bravery of suicide bombers.

The 2008 Holy Land Foundation decision concerning the foundation’s so-called charitable fundraising, which saw millions channeled to Hamas, a body officially designated a terrorist group by the United States government, saw lengthy prison sentences being handed out to the organization’s management through a federal court in Dallas.  Labeled an unindicted coconspirator in the case was the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a body which describes itself as a protector of Muslim civil rights in the United States, but which in reality is a front organization for Islamist extremism.  And here we have another questionable group receiving significant backing from Saudi contributors.

Despite continuing statements in support of American efforts to clamp down on terrorism, money from the Kingdom continues to find its way into the coffers of those who hate America and look forward to the day of its demise.  In what is perhaps the ultimate in duplicity, since 2006 more than 1.5 trillion dollars in Saudi private assistance has gone to the Taliban in Afghanistan, money which has been involved in the killing of American soldiers.

In considering the deceit involved in allowing the outflow of cash which bankrolls Islamic extremism throughout the world, it should be noted that the Saudi royal family lives in fear of zealous, homegrown terror groups, which, if not given lip service of support for the spread of Wahhabism and the advantage of an official blind eye to the outpouring of funds to dubious recipients, might very well try to topple the regime.  Then, too, the theocratic establishment, upon which the monarchy depends for indispensable backing, must be placated by any and all efforts to expand Wahhabi Islam.

                                                                                   

                                                                                        LET’S PLAY DRESSUP, MY DEAR!

During my six years in Saudi Arabia, I encountered not a few American women married to Muslim men.  In fact, there were several couples of this type on the University housing compound where I lived.  Some of these couples appeared to be quite happy; however, most did not.  A cultural milieu based on the male prerogative in which men have the last say in the governance of their families and the rights of their children would not be pleasing to the vast majority of American women.   And it is a fact that numerous American women married to Saudi women eventually had rude awakenings to the reality of life in the Kingdom.

The 1991 film “Not Without My Daughter,” which featured Sally Field as Betty Mahmoody, an idealistic and trusting American woman married to an Iranian-American doctor, touches on a painful subject for far too many American families, viz. the heartbreak caused by Muslim fathers in foreign settings preventing their American children from returning to or visiting the United States.  After viewing this film, I could not help but think back to Saudi Arabia where I witnessed American women fleeing from marriages with Muslim husbands.  The saddest aspect of these breakups concerned children with American citizenship who were forced to remain in Saudi Arabia with their Saudi fathers, owing to Sharia law which gave complete control over their lives to their fathers.

Over the years, I gave much thought to why and how American women would undertake to place themselves into marriages with men whose view of women could be said to be in complete opposition to the Western culture from which they came.  At last, a light popped on in my brain.  Perhaps an answer could be found through a thorough examination of the modern American psyche; and, since Americans think so passionately and naively that they are world citizens, it is not a quantum leap in logic to surmise that their ill-founded trust in toleration and faith in diversity must mean to them that individuals from totally different cultures would happily accept their values.  Unfortunately, that is not how the world turns.

In 1950, the seminal sociological analysis “The Lonely Crowd” was published   by David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. The work emphasized that, increasingly, Americans no longer had the impetus to adhere to conventions and customs that had previously served as its bonding elements.  The result would be growing anomie and a societal rootlessness suggesting breakdown. Society, according to this view, was dominated by “other directed” people who could only distinguish themselves and their beliefs by virtue of how those beliefs were delineated by society at large.

Could it be that an expanded anomie has produced more and more rootless people who are susceptible to the firmness of conviction of individuals coming from less developed societies and belief systems in direct opposition to what had once been robust American traditions?  Could American women sauntering about under cover of hijabs and abbayas be symptomatic of a malaise and societal crisis of the first order? These possibilities are worth considering in light of the fates of American children being held in Muslim countries that do not recognize international agreements concerning children, such as the Hague Abduction Accords.

Despite frequent congressional hearings and efforts undertaken by public figures such as Representative Dan Burton, whose 2009 trip to Saudi Arabia in behalf of American children abducted to that country, was unceremoniously rebuffed, little or no progress has occurred in these sad cases. It goes without saying that young American women should consider the long-term consequences of their actions in Muslim-American matings before they slip on the garb of exotic places.  All too frequently, those dreams of romance and the Arabian nights morph into Arabian nightmares.

                                                                                    

                                                                                        ISLAMIC HYPOCRISY OR REALPOLITIK?

SAUDI FOREIGN POLICY AND THE SECURITY OF THE KINGDOM

NEW CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY


With hundreds of thousands fleeing the Middle East in 2015, owing to the catastrophic lack of coherent and viable regional policies on the part of the West, it has been enlightening to observe that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil-sheikdoms have been severely lagging in extending aid to refugees taking flight from ISIS, the Syrian civil war and internecine fighting spawned by Hezbollah. If past history may serve as our guide, it is safe to say that the Western powers will extend far more aid than the cash-bloated countries of the Arabian Peninsula.  Germany, for example, has been talking about settling an initial 800,000 Arab refugees within its borders in 2015, to be followed by 300,000 annually, beginning in 2016.  No offers even approaching such numbers has been heard from the Arabian Peninsula, although one could very well question the wisdom of Germany opening its doors to such an extent, given that the majority of refugees will likely be Muslims looking to network with Europe’s existing Islamic populations.

Following money flowing as foreign aid from Saudi Arabia reveals that 1) such aid, as it exists, is largely limited to establishing Koranic schools in Muslim countries and to assuaging the effects of natural calamities, 2) to ensure that the chances of threats from fanatical movements coming its way are minimized, and 3) that no sums of any amount are ever directed to non-Muslim populations.  Recently, large outlays of Saudi assistance have gone to Lebanon, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Indonesia.  But, to even consider settling en masse large numbers of fellow Arabs and Muslims within Saudi Arabia would be next to impossible, despite the country having a population of 28 million within an area approximating the United States east of the Mississippi River and a population density of 13 per sq. km., in contrast to Germany’s population density of 232 per sq. km.

Simply stated, Saudi foreign policy is all about preserving the Kingdom’s oil wealth and the absolute monarchy of the Saud dynasty, holding at bay potential aggression from extreme Islamist movements and from objectives for achieving area hegemony by arch-enemy Iran, its regional proxy, Hezbollah, and its Shia minions.  With this in mind, it is easy to see how Saudi Arabia would be reluctant to admit thousands of foreigners – even foreign Muslims – when those foreigners might include extremists who would like nothing better than to bend the Kingdom to their will.

So far, in the 21st century, Saudi Arabia has spent more than 500 million dollars in aid to Palestinian Muslims.  Lest one assume that these millions are indicative of great generosity, a more prosaic interpretation is that the Saudis have been frightened out of their wits for decades of Hamas, al-Fatah and other politically extreme Palestinian movements, sensing that such groups, if left uninfluenced by financial inducements, could endanger the Kingdom’s security and potentially threaten its oil fields. 

For years, the United States has taken in far more refugees than the rest of the world combined.  Lately, more than half of those admitted are Muslims, something that we might like to rethink, since a very large proportion of Muslim refugees tends to repay American kindness with involvement in various plots and schemes to engage in terrorism and commit mayhem in the host country.  Looked at in this light, it is little wonder that wheelers and dealers from the Middle East tend to view Americans as childlike, gullible and diplomatically wet behind the ears. Characteristically, the present administration has done little or nothing to dispel this reputation.

Recent American efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program and to pull Teheran out of its orbit of extremism have resulted in Saudi Arabia pursuing its own policies without American backing, in an attempt to checkmate Iranian influence in its backyard.  Traditionally relying on great powers such as the U.K. and the United States to provide security and safeguard regional interests, the Kingdom now feels abandoned by the Americans and Europeans and compelled to rely on its own abilities to achieve desired political outcomes. 

With the new American emphasis on Asia, Middle Eastern chaos has been the result, with the constellations of regional powers no longer being able to rely on balance once provided by outside powers.  Now, the Saudis must become leaders in the region, as Iranian objectives are played out in places like Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.  That a sectarian divide pitting Sunnites against Shiites will define Middle East politics for decades is a likely scenario.  And, for those who thought that a nuclear accord with Iran would make the world – and especially the Middle East – a much safer place, they might wish to reconsider.  Saudi Arabia, seeking a counter-weight to Iran, presents the prospect of the Kingdom partnering with its Arabian Peninsula neighbors in seeking access to nuclear weapons.  At the same time, Russia, now feeling more confident as a result of the controversial nuclear treaty/non-treaty, will continue to draw closer to Iran through Iran’s leading Middle Eastern proxy, Syria.

In the early 1980’s, a private American Corporation, the Vinnell Corporation, was actively involved in training elements of the Saudi armed forces.  Those doing the training were retired members of the U.S. armed forces.  During my time in the Kingdom, I made the acquaintance of several of the trainers, who were not at all impressed with Saudi military capabilities, informing me that Saudi recruits lacked commitment, espirit de corps and the willingness to put their lives on the line.  Largely in response to the lack of military preparedness at the time and the mullah-led revolution in Iran, the Kingdom arranged, through the outlay of a considerable sum to Pakistan, for the deployment of 25,000 Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia.  Since that time and with the experience of the gulf wars, the Kingdom has built up a military force of 200,000 full-time personnel.  With military expenditures nearing 60 billion dollars annually (approximately 12 percent of Saudi GDP) Saudi Arabia now has a force that must be reckoned with, witness recent incursions into Yemen and Bahrain to quell Shia-sparked revolutions.  By comparison, the huge military budget of the United States falls within the range of 3.5 to 4 percent of GDP, with an annual expenditure approaching 600 billion dollars.

Presuming a growing Russian presence in the region, combined with Iran’s aspirations for regional hegemony, it stands to reason that the Middle East will be unstable for decades. It goes without saying that, with America spending more time in looking toward Teheran, the Saudis must be considering how to avoid becoming friendless in the region.   It could very well be that the Sunni states will band together for a face- off with the Shiites – principally Iran – in a protracted military and political stalemate that will manifest itself for much of the 21st century.  Keep in mind, too, that Sunni Pakistan has the bomb, which the Kingdom may seek, and that Sunni Egypt, with its population nearing 90 million, may also be beckoned in support of its fellow Sunnis. 

If the 20th century is viewed as a time of great unrest and disorder in the Middle East, the possibility of sectarian-fueled clashes between Sunnis and Shias augurs even more turmoil for the region in the 21st century. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in its role as a major player, will no doubt need to summon all of its military power, abetted by Byzantine intrigues, to maintain itself. For Saudi Arabia, new directions in American foreign policy have managed to make the world a far different place.




John sharing a meal with some of his Arab friends in the 80”s