This Friday, President Trump will arrive in Saudi Arabia for his first foreign trip as leader of the United States. During his time in the Saudi kingdom, Trump is planning to lead an address to around 50 Muslim leaders and take part in a debate about how to promote moderate Islam.
According to White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, the president will “deliver an inspiring but direct speech on the need to confront radical ideology” at the newly inaugurated Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology; one reported possibility is that Trump may propose an “Arab NATO,” in part to help fight terrorism.
The setting for the speech is key. Saudi Arabia is not only a key U.S. ally in the Middle East and a powerful force in the Arab world, but the birthplace of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. The Saudi leader, King Salman, is officially referred to as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — a reference to the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina.
However, the location may also rankle some. The Saudi kingdom does not have a reputation as a land of religious moderation. Instead, Saudi Arabia and the al-Saud royal family have been accused of aiding and abetting religious extremism that can feed terrorism — not only granting conservative clerics vast say over daily life within Saudi Arabia, but actively exporting their views abroad.
“It’s fair to say the Saudi government has spent billions of dollars over several decades to promote its ultraconservative version of Islam, which calls for hating infidels and, sometimes, jihad against them,” says Will McCants, director of the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.
Trump offered exaggerated claims of the Saudi kingdom’s extremist values before he was president. Last summer, a message was posted to Trump’s Facebook page that said Saudi Arabia wants “women as slaves and to kill gays.” Later, during a presidential debate, Trump suggested that the Saudis were “people that push gays off buildings” and “kill women and treat women horribly.”
Perhaps worse still for a leader who railed passionately against “radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump has also suggested a number of times that the Saudi government may have had links to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “It’s going to be very profound having to do with Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia’s role on the World Trade Center and the attack,” he said while discussing the infamous 28 pages of redactions in the 9/11 commission report with Fox News last April.
Other members of Trump’s team have expressed similar sentiments. Last April, Sebastian Gorka, now deputy assistant to Trump, appeared on Breitbart News Daily with future White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon. The pair discussed Saudi Arabia, and Gorka said that for 20 years “elements of the government were deep into the export of jihadi ideology,” while Bannon seemed to offer his approval.
The Trump campaign had a reputation as prejudiced against Islam. However, criticism of Saudi Arabia is not unusual. The sudden rise of the Sunni extremist Islamic State group in 2014 sparked widespread debate about Saudi Arabia’s role in extremism. Broadly, critics tended to focus on one of two arguments: First, that the Saudi government was actively supporting the Islamic State and other groups through donations and other methods; and second, that the fundamentalist dogma that formed the Islamic State’s ideology could be traced back to Saudi clerics.
Of those arguments, the former is easier to disqualify. The Saudis quickly joined the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in 2014, with Saudi princes even taking part in the initial bombing run. That same year Lori Plotkin Boghardt of the Washington Institute published a policy analysis that concluded there was “no credible evidence that the Saudi government is financially supporting [the Islamic State].”
The ideological argument is murkier. It’s undeniably true that ultraconservative religious attitudes are widespread in Saudi Arabia and often enjoy the support of the government. The bond with this ultra-orthodox community goes back to the 18th century, when cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab formed an alliance with Muhammad bin Saud. Today, that fundamentalist version of Islam called Wahhabism still holds sway over much of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi legal system, for example, is based around an unusually strict form of sharia law that allows punishments such as public beheadings.
The al-Saud family initially used this religious conservatism to gain legitimacy domestically. Later it pushed Wahhabism abroad as part of a broader plan to limit the influence of its Shiite rival Iran. These twin lanes of state-sponsored proselytizing may have had a negative effect years later: Boghardt’s study found that Saudi citizens were donating to the Islamic State in huge number, despite government efforts to block such funding, while thousands traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight with the group.
To many Saudis, the idea that they spread extremism is frustrating. Not only are they deeply involved in the fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations, they are often the victims of these groups’ attacks. “I think there is a wide disconnect between the perceptions of casual observers and the assessments of U.S. counterterrorism officials,” says Fahad Nazer, a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington who said he was not speaking on the embassy’s behalf.
It’s certainly possible that if Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative values were once ignored, they are occasionally dramatically overplayed.
“I don’t think there is anything close to convincing evidence proving Saudi Arabia helped perpetrate 9/11,” David Andrew Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in an email, referring to Trump’s comments last year. “Saudi Arabia certainly has problems with its government’s treatment of women and LGBT individuals, but it does not push gay people off of buildings.”
Even the real issue of Saudi Arabia’s funding of fundamentalist proselytizing is complicated and hard to gauge. “It’d be wrong to blame Saudi-state proselytizing solely or even primarily for jihadism,” McCants said. “It’s one of many factors, the greatest of which is civil war.”
Growing criticism of Saudi Arabia has also coincided with the kingdom making a dramatic reimagining of its civil society, dubbed “Saudi Vision 2030″ and led by the powerful young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Although this project is not focused around religion and the Saudi government seems to be avoiding an open confrontation with conservative clerics, certain economic and social changes being promoted — such as greater freedom for women — seem sure to loosen the grip of clerics.
The kingdom may have some way to go, however. Weinberg says he recently completed a study of government-published textbooks, which contained “outrageous, extremist” things despite a Saudi pledge to remove intolerant passages. Among the passages Weinberg described was one that said the penalty for adultery was a “stoning … until death” and another that prescribed a similar punishment for sodomy.
Since he became president, Trump appears to have given up his criticisms of Saudi Arabia. He greeted Mohammed bin Salman warmly at the White House in March and spoke to King Salman on the phone before then. According to reporting from The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, the White House has called upon Saudi officials to step up actions to combat radical Islamist extremism and intensify the fight against the Islamic State.
Trump seems to have quickly come to a similar conclusion as that of many of his predecessors, including Obama: Whatever Saudi Arabia’s role in spreading extremism, it needs to be involved in the battle to combat it, too. “What remains to be seen is whether Trump will press the Saudis to curtail their proselytizing abroad, which the Obama and Bush administrations sometimes did,” McCants said.
There are signs that if Trump pushed, he might have the Saudi government’s ear. After Obama spent years trying to balance the Middle East between the Saudis and Iran, Riyadh is happy to have a U.S. leader clearly in its corner. But Trump may have a harder time engaging with an ordinary Saudi audience after his criticisms of not only their own religious traditions but that of all Muslims: One recent poll found that 84 percent of young Saudis thought Trump was anti-Muslim.
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