In his speech in Riyadh on Sunday, US President Donald Trump announced the opening of a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. Since the announcement was made in all seriousness and not as a satire, it was one of the unfortunate moments of the war on radicalization. It seems the gap between words and reality has never been bigger.
There were many nice words in the speech, even appropriate words. But while Trump talks about opening the joint center, Saudi Arabia keeps funneling a fortune towards the funding of Islamic radicalization. Trump spoke about soldiers from the Gulf who are fighting terror, but as we speak, Saudi tycoons keep funding the Taliban, with the leadership’s knowledge.
It’s safe to assume that Trump did not read Dr. Dore Gold’s critically-acclaimed book "Hatred’s Kingdom" before leaving for Saudi Arabia. Nor has he read Prof. Vali Nasr’s research on the massive Saudi funding of the distribution of Wahhabism and Salafism in the past few decades, which created the ideological infrastructure for global jihad and the huge wave of terror that is troubling the West and mercilessly hitting the Muslims themselves.
This massive funding, of course, goes hand in hand with the fact that Saudi Arabia is one of the most unenlightened countries in the world. Forty-nine countries are defined as “not free” in the 2017 Freedom in the World index. Saudi Arabia is among the bottom 10. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia is at the center of a double paradox: On the one hand, it offered endless support to Salafist organizations, but has become the bitter enemy of global jihad because of its cooperation with the United States; on the other hand, it has not learned its lesson and keeps funneling a fortune to education systems, Islamic centers, imams and mosque that continue along the same Salafist line.
Trump is not the first leader to trust Saudi Arabia. Britain established centers for Islamic studies in a bid to make the Muslim students more moderate. Saudi Arabia offered to help. It transferred 233 million pounds to these centers in eight leading universities. Prof. Anthony Glees published a study revealing the grim outcome: More radicalization among those young students. Saudi capital is funneled to leading universities in the US as well, weakening academic freedom. Trump is no different from the professors who receive donations. They too are living in denial. One has to be really naïve to believe that Saudi Arabia would suddenly make a historic change.
The map of interests of the past few years creates an odd situation, in which the Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia, stand in the same front with Israel and the American administration. It’s not the result of love. It’s happening primarily because of the shared enemy—Iran. Even Dr. Gold, who understands the problem much better than others, and who has no illusions about Saudi Arabia, was one of the architects of the renewed ties—mainly secret ties—between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Yes, there are shared interests.
The problem is that interests have a blinding power. The Obama administration suffered from blindness when it signed the nuclear agreement, completely ignoring Iran’s long reach. In his speech Sunday, Trump rightfully spoke about Iran’s support and funding of terror, but there is only one country which does it more than Iran—Saudi Arabia.
And now Trump is repeating the same mistake. He is arming the kingdom of hatred, thereby continuing his predecessors’ policy. For nearly a decade now, Saudi Arabia has been at the top of the arms import list. From 2008 to 2015, the kingdom purchased weapons for $93.5 billion (compared to $30.1 billion purchased by Egypt and $14.3 billion by Israel). There are no accurate estimates of the parallel expenses in the area of Wahhabism exports, as they involve both governmental capital and private capital, but different estimates point to a fortune. Saudi Arabia is far from the glory days as a rich oil country, but when it comes to weapons and radicalization it seems to have no limitations.
Trump did not forget to praise Saudi Arabia for advancing the status of women. That is as true as saying that Saudi Arabia is fighting radicalization. The Saudi king, on his part, claimed that Iran was the big exporter of terror. No one was allowed to mention, of course, that most of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were Saudis. Have I already mentioned that the gaps between words and reality has never been wider? Well, I must say it again.