Richard W. Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, says that U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism cooperation is increasing. “From a slow and fitful start in October 2001,” he says, mutual efforts to track terrorists “really took off” after the May 12, 2003, assaults on Riyadh housing compounds that killed 35. Saudi public sympathy for Muslim extremism is eroding, he says. When terror attacks “ended up killing Saudis or even non-Saudi Muslims, the public reaction grew increasingly negative,” Murphy says. “I gather the reaction to [the April 21] bombing [in Riyadh] was particularly negative. A direct attack on a major government installation associated with the police was just the latest evil in the minds of the Saudi public.”
The Council’s Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for the Middle East, Murphy was interviewed on April 23, 2004, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.
Describe the current political scene in Saudi Arabia. Are there still tensions in the royal family? Some experts say that Prince Nayef, the interior minister, and Crown Prince Abdullah don’t see eye to eye.
Despite the very large royal family, the core leadership group that shapes Saudi policies has been working together for years. You can’t really expect it to be speaking always with one voice; however, it is easy to exaggerate the differences of view and differences of approach. Right after 9/11, Nayef’s public statements put him at odds with others among the senior [royalty] on the issues of al Qaeda involvement and Saudi involvement in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He was the lead spokesman for the denial camp. “It couldn’t have been Arabs; it certainly couldn’t have been Saudis,” he more or less said.
Others came around to what was a painful acknowledgment that there had been Saudis involved and there just might be al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia. Nayef is a full brother of Prince Sultan, the defense minister, and a full brother of [King Fahd]. He has been in his government position for more than 20 years, as has Sultan. The crown prince was the designated No. 3 when King Khalid was still alive, and he moved up under King Fahd [who suffered a severe stroke in 1996; the crown price has effectively ruled the country since].
Abdullah represents the Saudis who are increasingly ready to speak out about the need for reform. He is more interested in opening a national dialogue than some of the brothers. He’s considered more open to reform and change than Nayef, who is allegedly the counterweight. Sultan has kept his positions private, but you can be sure that he speaks up in the inner circles. There is ferment going on. The Saudis have [formally] started a “national dialogue” and launched a Human Rights Commission, even though it still has not acted on behalf of human rights activists, as far as we can tell.
Have the terror incidents caused Prince Nayef to acknowledge that Saudi Arabia has a problem?
I think the bombings [of housing compounds] in May 2003 in Riyadh led to a change in Nayef’s attitude. He is the senior member of the family most directly responsible for internal security, and he has spoken out very forcefully against terrorism since last May. It’s been a troubled year. The bombings in May and another terrorist attack [on housing compounds in Riyadh] in November were the most serious. But there were shootouts [with terror suspects] in July, and police activity is increasingly publicized. The Saudis took the unusual step after the November bombings of publishing photographs of their “most wanted.” They’ve been arresting and killing the men on that list ever since.
Are the “wanted” all Saudis?
There is no question. They are all Saudis.
Do they come from so-called good families?
Saudis point out that the conspirators on the hijacked aircraft on 9/11 were men from “the South.” It means a certain tribal grouping and, in some cases, strong Yemeni connections— and some Saudis therefore argue that these men were not “good Saudis.” I don’t know enough about the identification of the others who have been hunted down since.
But while it probably makes sense to talk of al Qaeda operating in Saudi Arabia because it is Osama bin Laden’s home territory, even the Saudis who use that description rather quickly acknowledge that the terrorists are “inspired by” rather than “directed by” [Al Qaeda]. After the campaign to close down al Qaeda in Afghanistan, they are not sure there is direct control or inspiration from Osama or Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy, or from anybody else in the top command that survived the Afghan war.
But there is no question that once the operations ended up killing Saudis or even non-Saudi Muslims, the public reaction grew increasingly negative. I gather the reaction to [the April 21] bombing was particularly negative. A direct attack on a major government installation associated with the police was just the latest evil in the minds of the Saudi public.
I assume there is now more U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism cooperation because of the attacks in Saudi Arabia.
There is. After 9/11, the Saudis became aware that they had to install some control mechanisms in the financial field. They sent over top finance officials to explore with our Treasury Department how to control the outflow of money to groups such as al Qaeda. Now, this administration has been criticized for being too soft or too generous in its comments about the Saudis, for pulling punches. As best I understand it, from my vantage point outside the government but traveling to Saudi Arabia fairly frequently, there are grounds for Washington to be pleased. Until the war against terrorism is over— and that won’t happen in the near future— there is always more work to be done. But the cooperation, if you charted it out, has been definitely increasing. From a slow and fitful start in October 2001, it really took off after May 2003.
Now there is general satisfaction, I find, with the speed of the Saudi reaction to requests for name checks [of terror suspects] and for working together on [investigations of] questionable financial transactions. They have gone beyond that in their own sphere, moving to close down the collection boxes outside of mosques, because they want to create a paper trail, which never existed, to forestall monies raised by charitable foundations from reaching terrorists.
On the one hand, they are an easy target of criticism because they represent the region’s, if not the world’s, largest collection of wealthy individuals. There are hundreds of billions of dollars in private Saudi hands outside the kingdom. I have no estimate of what’s in their hands inside, but estimates go as high as $600 billion outside. And terrorism, we have to keep remembering, involves comparatively few people and small amounts of money. It doesn’t cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
What the Saudis stand accused of is spreading a doctrine called Wahhabism, which I call the most Puritanical movement of Islam. They have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build mosques and send teachers from Saudi religious schools abroad. These people, who are by no means leading intellectuals of Islam, have emphasized hate messages that distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims, be they Christian, Jewish, or another faith. Even within Islam, they have asserted a superiority of practice and a purity of belief that sets many Muslims’ teeth on edge.
You mean the Shiites in particular?
No. It can be Sunni Muslims as well. When the Wahhabis have traveled to East Asia for instance, they’ve discovered a blend of religious practices that has horrified them. They say, “We have purified Islam in our revolution in the 18th century and have been very strict ever since. We have been the best. We are the best. We are in the land where the holiest of Muslim sites exist, Mecca and Medina. The Prophet was from here. The language of God is ours.” And they are almost Calvinist in a way when they go beyond that to say, “If you still question our right to leadership in Islam, explain why we have so much oil. We have been blessed.”
Oil is becoming a political issue in the United States. The price of gasoline is rising. What is causing that? Are the Saudis likely to try to lower oil prices to help President Bush’s re-election prospects, as Bob Woodward suggests in “Plan of Attack”?
There are some interesting statistics out there in the public domain on the price of oil in an American presidential election year. There has been a dip almost every time. Why? This is apparently not tied to the incumbency. It happened under Democratic as well as Republican administrations. One interpretation is that there is a Saudi interest in not having oil seen as a political issue in an American election campaign, [and therefore the Saudis] can help ensure the issue fades by helping provide a surplus of oil to the market in the springtime of an election year.
The Saudis would like a predictable price. The price now is in the high $30s a barrel. There was an OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] agreement solemnly adopted in December 2003 that if the price got outside of a range of $22 to $28 a barrel and stayed beyond that range for 60 days, then OPEC would be called into session to adjust production. That session hasn’t happened. They maintained the cut in production.
Now, why is the price so high? We do have a situation in part of our own creation. We have a very segmented market in which California has strict air pollution controls that require a degree of oil refining, which pushes the price higher. We have not enlarged our refining capacity to a level that would help cushion price spikes. And of course the drop in the value of the dollar means that the real value for oil is about that of the early ’70s.
Why have the Saudis closed their borders and blocked jihadists from streaming into Iraq?
The Saudis had a sad awakening. The great jihad experience in Afghanistan was a very exhilarating one for a young Saudi or young Arab Muslim and has had some blowback effects on their countries of origin. The Saudis don’t want to see this cycle of violence start all over again.
Neil MacFarquhar reported in The New York Times on April 23 that Saudi attitudes are bifocal. If someone dies fighting Americans in Iraq, he is praised as a martyr; if the same man dies mounting a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, he is evil.
This reflects a blurring, more prevalent now than in the past, of the distinction between the Israeli soldier in the West Bank/Gaza and the American soldier in Iraq. Both are shown killing or beating up Muslims. Every night, television is bringing pictures of Israeli and American soldiers into Saudi living rooms.
Many observers have said Bush’s April 16 endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan worsened the United States’ standing in the Arab world.
I think it has across the Arab world. Admittedly, when Bush said he understood the realities on the ground as far as the [Israeli] settlements were concerned and on the Palestinians’ right of return, he added that these issues had to be dealt with in negotiations. But his position did shock Arab opinion, did embarrass leaders like [President] Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, not that they don’t probably recognize the same realities. As they see it, you don’t talk about them and you certainly don’t give positions up before negotiations are joined.