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9/11 attacks: US-Saudi relations are proof that the ‘war on terror’ was a lie

US strategic interests are well-served supporting despotism in the Muslim-majority world. Defending the American public from terrorism has never been Washington's priority
Then US President Donald Trump (R) and wife Melania (2nd R), with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (L) and Saudi Arabia's King Salman during the inauguration of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh, 21 May 2017 (AFP)

Last week, US President Joe Biden announced the declassification of FBI files on possible links between Saudi Arabia and the al-Qaeda cell responsible for the atrocities of 11 September 2001. The move came in response to years of pressure from victims’ families demanding greater transparency on the issue, while simultaneously pursuing the Saudi regime for accountability in the courts.

Proof of any connection between the 9/11 attackers and mid- or low-level Saudi officials would undoubtedly be a significant story. But there is zero chance that the regime itself would have sanctioned an assault on the United States. After all, the House of Saud has long been virtually dependent on Washington’s protection for its very survival.

As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, and as Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan appears to mark the end of the 9/11 wars, there are deeper and more profound questions to be asked about US-Saudi relations and what they tell us about the so-called "war on terror".

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Let us recall what we know about the origins of the threat from groups like al-Qaeda. There are two interlinked grievances on which these groups feed. The first is the prevalence across the Muslim-majority world of corrupt governments lacking popular legitimacy (the "near enemy"). The second is the support provided to those regimes by external powers, as well as the direct military interventions in the region carried out by those same powers (the "far enemy").  

In principle, such grievances might express themselves in any number of ways. In an earlier period, they were mobilised predominantly through various forms of quasi-socialist, anti-colonial nationalism. More recently, in the case of groups such as al-Qaeda, the animating ideology is one of religious fundamentalism, which explains both the extremity of their methods and their comparatively far more limited appeal across diverse Muslim societies.

Such groups are only able to emerge from the shadows in "failed states" and ungoverned spaces, where the suffering of the local population is so acute that they may be willing to temporarily acquiesce to these groups’ presence, in exchange for the provision of basic security and governance.  

Formidable obstacle

If this confluence of grievances, ideology and material conditions is what produces groups such as al-Qaeda, then the US-Saudi alliance can only be seen as a major driver of this form of terrorism.

The House of Saud is the epitome of ruling-class corruption in the region, having run the kingdom’s economy for decades as a family bank account, enabling avarice and embezzlement on an epic scale. Arms and security guarantees supplied by Washington represent a formidable obstacle to any Saudis seeking to take their country down a different path, and have played a significant, perhaps decisive, role in keeping the regime in power.  

The House of Saud is the epitome of ruling-class corruption in the region, having run the kingdom’s economy for decades as a family bank account

The Saudi kingdom has also established itself as the hub of a wider regional network of authoritarianism, sending troops into Bahrain and cash to Egypt to facilitate the crushing of the Arab Spring in the early 2010s. Again, Washington is the ultimate sponsor and guarantor of this repressive regional order, through massive arms deals, training for regime security forces, and the large-scale presence of its own troops and military apparatus.

Meanwhile, direct and indirect Saudi interventions have exacerbated civil conflicts from Afghanistan to Syria to Yemen, thus helping to sustain those ungoverned spaces in which terrorist groups flourish. And in each of these instances, the United States has provided vital assistance.

All the while, the Saudi religious establishment has made strenuous efforts to export its fundamentalist ideology as widely as possible across the region and beyond, with the full connivance of the royal family and the blithe acquiescence (at best) of their American protectors. As Kim Ghattas documents in her recent book Black Wave, Saudi proselytising played a leading role in spreading the chauvinistic, hateful worldview that characterises the likes of al-Qaeda and the perversely self-styled Islamic State group.

Toxic relationship

Why, if Washington’s priority is to defend the United States from terrorist attacks, has it embroiled itself in this toxic relationship with the House of Saud? Put plainly, the answer is that defending the American public from terrorism is not Washington’s priority.

Rather, the prime strategic objective is to project US military and political power into the leading oil and gas producing region of the planet. This posture provides Washington with significant structural leverage over its main geopolitical competitor, China. An additional benefit is the wealth extracted from regimes like Saudi Arabia in exchange for Washington’s protection, which comes in the form of massive investments in the US economy and the purchase of US government debt.

Protest against US arms sales to Saudi
Demonstrators protest against American weapons sales to Saudi Arabia outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, 7 September 2016 (AFP)

So US-Saudi relations expose the lie that the US government’s priority since 9/11 has been the safety and security of the American people. But they also expose another lie at the heart of the war on terror, and of western neo-imperialism in the 21st century.

Throughout the past 20 years, we have been presented with a simple, juxtaposed binary. On the one hand, "western values" of liberty, democracy, even of secular rationality. On the other hand, a fundamentalist authoritarianism that has consistently been portrayed as virtually synonymous with Islam and the culture of the Muslim-majority world. The war on terror was sold by many of its leading champions as an existential showdown between these opposing forces.

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US-Saudi relations expose this narrative as pure fiction. It is not merely that the US government is relaxed about fundamentalist authoritarianism when it is being practised by its geopolitical allies. It is that this fundamentalist authoritarianism is an established and intrinsic part of Washington’s presence in the Muslim-majority world.

It is a preference and a choice through which the US has consistently pursued its strategic interests for decades. To externalise it as something alien and antithetical to the West is self-evidently a nonsense. The reality is that despotism in the Muslim-majority world is often a joint enterprise between local elites and the western powers they rely on for their survival, in the absence of popular legitimacy.

Twenty years on from 9/11, it is clear that the war on terror has been an unmitigated disaster. The estimated combined death toll across all theatres stands at around 900,000 people, including over 300,000 civilians, with little substantive reduction in the terrorist threat to show for it.

It is long past time to ask whether the things we told ourselves about the war on terror were true. The US-Saudi alliance would be an excellent place to begin that process of re-examination.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

David Wearing
David Wearing is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at SOAS University of London, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at the University of Southampton, and a specialist on UK foreign relations in the Middle East. He is the author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain and has contributed comment and analysis for the New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, Sky News and others.