The expulsion of 21 Saudi pilots training at the Pensacola naval base may signal the beginning of a new attitude towards the desert kingdom, which soon may come under a scrutiny it has never felt from the United States.
Buried deep in the massive $1.4 trillion spending bill signed on Dec. 20, 2019, is a provision requiring the declassification of all information detailing efforts undertaken by the Saudi government to help its citizens charged with crimes escape the U.S. The Saudi Fugitives Declassification Act gave the FBI director and the Director of National Intelligence 30 days to comply. That Jan. 18 deadline is approaching.
Getting this provision into the spending bill was primarily the work of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) who said "it is long past time to stop treating Saudi Arabia as if it were above the law." Wyden's interest is mainly in the dozens of Saudi students "gone missing" after being charged with serious crimes, some as long as 30 years ago.
But if the document release is thorough, it may reveal much about Saudi espionage inside the U.S. and any role that Saudi officials may have played in assisting the 9/11 hijackers, as the 28 redacted, and then declassified, pages of the 9/11 Commission Report suggest.
The pressure for a thorough declassification should be immense, coming after Saudi aviation student Mohamamed Saeed Alshamrani murdered three and injured eight others at the Pensacola naval base Dec. 6. Perhaps what Wyden and other legislators learn will inspire them to look at another plan to investigate Saudi Arabia that was never taken seriously — former Rep. Sue Myrick's "Wake Up America Agenda."
In 2008, Myrick (R-N.C.) issued a 10-point call to action, if not quite to arms, mainly directed against Saudi Arabia. She was a co-founder of the Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus, but in 2008 Democrats controlled the House, and her press release contained the qualifying admonition "This is her agenda, this is not the agenda of the Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus." As E.J. Kimball, my colleague at the Middle East Forum who drafted the Wake Up America Agenda as a foreign policy counsel to Rep. Myrick, tells me, "[Department of Homeland Security] was livid and strongly urged to have the agenda pulled."
Wyden's interest suggests that it will find a more receptive audience today now that the Democrats are keen to target Saudi Arabia's leaders, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) in particular, in ways they weren't when Myrick was sounding the alarm.
Myrick wanted to end the pattern of U.S. giving and Saudi Arabia taking by limiting one-sided cultural exchanges, restricting U.S. contributions to Saudi war-making capacity, and ending U.S. reliance on and faith in Saudi Arabian intelligence.
She wanted "to block the sale of sensitive military munitions" and "cancel contracts to train Saudi police and other security forces in U.S. counterterrorism tactics." Questioning the Saudis' ability to act responsibly with U.S. weaponry in 2008 was prescient, given credible reports that Saudi Arabia apparently transferred materiel to rebel forces willing to fight Houthis in Yemen, including those that may be tied to al Qaeda and ISIS. It remains to be seen if the royals of Riyadh can actually defend themselves against an enemy such as Iran who fights back.
Myrick mistrusted Saudi intelligence-sharing, and her agenda sought investigations into chaplains and translators trained in Saudi Arabia, especially those approved by convicted al Qaeda financier Abdurahman Alamoudi. Her skepticism of the Saudis' "deradicalization programs" also was prescient, considering the Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care, where Islamic radicalism is allegedly purged, but whose graduates have a high rate of recidivism. Why should we trust that the Saudi military students sent to train in the U.S. are any more moderate? Presumably they are the cream of the crop, but CNN reported that several of the expelled Saudis had child pornography in their possession.
The deference to Saudi Arabia that Myrick found so objectionable remains largely in place.
The deference to Saudi Arabia that Myrick found so objectionable in 2008 remains largely in place. Otherwise, Mohamamed Saeed Alshamrani would not have been able to shoot up the naval base at Pensacola with a "legally-purchased 9mm Glock Model 45." If Florida licensing authorities were doing a thorough job, they might have noticed the fraudulent address he gave. But if they were applying an extra layer of scrutiny to a Saudi national, he would be allowed neither a hunting license nor a license to own firearms.
Many analysts believe a course correction is under way in Saudi Arabia, and that pushing MbS too much will be counterproductive, considering the significant changes he has made. But as John Hannah, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, puts it, "Holding the kingdom's feet to the fire when it comes to unraveling the catastrophic damage that Wahhabism's export has systemically inflicted on Muslim communities ... has largely fallen by the wayside as a U.S. priority." Wyden could help make it a priority.
Saudi Arabia is at best an unreliable ally, and at worst a concealed enemy.
Saudi Arabia is at best an unreliable ally in a sometimes hot and sometimes cold war against Iran, and at worst an enemy that has skillfully concealed itself and earned the trust of U.S. policymakers. The future of U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations will depend on whether MbS turns out to be a true reformer. If he is both reformer and con man, our relations should be guided by realpolitik, utilizing him while limiting the damage he can do to us.
Either way, Saudi Arabia should not be afforded the trust and occasional deference shown to an ally. The Saudis have not earned a "special relationship" with us like the British have. Saudi Arabia does not share our values the way that Israel does. And opposing Iran does not mean blindly trusting Saudi Arabia. Sometimes the enemy of my enemy is my other enemy.
The U.S. no longer needs Saudi oil or Saudi intelligence on al Qaeda. In fact, they need us more than we need them. It's time to start acting that way.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsberg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.