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Ali Al-Ahmed says IS is a key part of Saudi Arabia’s strategy in the Middle East

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

President Obama’s war against the Islamic State–he says it’s to degrade and destroy it–has a rather strange set of alliances, and perhaps one of the strangest of all these alliances is the alliance between Saudi Arabia and said the United States. This is a country which, according to Senator Bob Graham, was actually involved in the attacks of 9/11. We’ll get more into that in the course of this interview. But it’s also a country that is fairly well acknowledged to have playing on both sides of this terrorism question. So just what is the role of Saudi Arabia? What’s its relationship with the Islamic State? And just why are they so intent on overthrowing Assad in Syria?

Now joining us is Ali Al-Ahmed. He’s the director of the Institute of Gulf Affairs in Washington, D.C. He’s a Saudi scholar, an expert on Saudi politics and the politics of the Gulf region, and on terrorism.

Thanks very much for joining us, Ali.

ALI AL-AHMED, DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR GULF AFFAIRS: Thank you so much for having me.

JAY: So this is a very complicated time in the Middle East, particularly the war in Syria, the emergence of IS in Iraq.

One thing which I can’t understand–I know President Obama says American intelligence underestimated IS, and it’s kind of weird because some people have called the success of IS militarily one of the greatest routs of an army in modern history–that’s the rout of the Iraqi army. How on earth could the American intelligence not know this is what–IS had this kind of power? But even more to the point, the Saudis must have known. Don’t they tell the Americans this sort of thing?

AL-AHMED: Well, the Americans, I think there is a strategic problem here, that the American security apparatus and the American government has relied on unreliable allies, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and others, who have basically been misleading and giving misinformation to the United States. The Iraqi government is no better. The Iraqi government, because due to pressure from Iran, chose not to have an integral relationship with United States in terms of security arrangements. So the United States really didn’t have those reliable allies.

In terms of Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia is interested in misleading the Americans [crosstalk]

JAY: Why?

AL-AHMED: –ISIS and its power, because Saudi Arabia is the godfather of ISIS and other terror groups in Syria and in Iraq. So absolutely they are doing this to deceive. And that’s their game from 1930s. They are very good at it.

JAY: Now, when it comes to Syria, my understanding of the situation from other people I’ve interviewed is that the Saudis thought they could bring in these kinds of extreme Islamist jihadists into the Syrian battle and kind of control them, use them to overthrow Assad, and then, when Assad’s gone, they would then be able to contain these forces. First of all, do you think that was there thinking? Had they lost control, then, of forces like IS? Or is what IS doing still part of the Saudi agenda?

AL-AHMED: It is very much part of the Saudi agenda. If you look at what ISIS has been doing, it is really–it is in correlation to the Saudi foreign policy in Iraq and in Syria. The Saudi government want either to dislodge or to weaken the Iraqi and Syrian governments. So ISIS is doing that for them.

I don’t know if they have lost control of them. There is no evidence of that yet. But the Saudi and Qatar’s goals in Syria was not to remove Assad and replace it with a democratic regime. They wanted to make sure that if Assad is gone, there is not a Democratic, pluralistic, representative government in Syria that gives a model for the region, for the people in the Gulf, that you can have a government that is run by Sunnis and Allawis and Shia and Christians that can work in terms of representation.

The Gulf countries, the golf absolute monarchies, they fear a model where people within a society can work with together, elect their government. And that model really is the most dangerous thing to these absolute monarchies who are based on DNA, not based on people’s representation.

JAY: Right. Now, one thing I also find a little peculiar at this moment: I see the Saudis seem to be willing to work with the Iranians to fight IS. There’s a–I’ve seen there’s this organization called INEGMA, which is sort of a military think tank that has influence with the Saudis and other military leaders. And I think they often represent a lot of Saudi opinion. And they’re far more interested in overthrowing Assad. And they actually–one of the things I was reading said, you know, we can work with the Iranians, but only if they give up support for Assad. But I thought the whole point of the Saudis overthrowing Assad was a way to get at Iran.

AL-AHMED: Absolutely. I think that’s part of their game is Iran has a friendly relationship with the Iraqi government and the Syrian government. In fact, it’s propping [up] the Syrian government in many ways. So the Saudis’ part of the fact preventing an emergence of a model in the Levant, in Syria and Iraq, they want to make sure that the Iranian power is contained, Iranian influence is contained. And they are very obsessed about this. So, yes.

But they are very pragmatic as well. They did this in the ’30s when a very similar group as ISIS was led by the Saudis, and they were attacked by the British at the time; a group very much like ISIS attacked Syria and Iraq. And it was Saudi force, purely Saudi force, known as the /χwɑːn/. And they were later destroyed by the Saudi government itself. And they’re very pragmatic. They are driven by one thing, the survival of the monarchy. And anything that it takes to do that, they will do it, including killing their own offsprings and cutting their own tentacles in Syria and Iraq.

JAY: You mean now joining the bombing of IS in Iraq and Syria. I mean, this is this parallel policy: you act like an American ally over here; on the other hand, you helped finance and organize the extremists you’re supposedly fighting.

AL-AHMED: Absolutely. Look, everybody knows there is a similar example in Afghanistan, where Pakistan, U.S. ally, receives billions of dollars in U.S. support. In fact, Pakistan has a nuclear bomb that the U.S. didn’t really make a fuss about like they are making about the Iranian supposed nuclear program. So the Taliban is supported mainly by Pakistani government, by the Pakistani ISI, which is the security, military security apparatus there. Yet that did not stop Pakistan. The support of the United States to the Pakistani government did not stop the Pakistani government from supporting Taliban in killing American soldiers and other Western and, of course, Afghani people. So this is a situation where the U.S. government has really–have not been successful in terms of its choices of allies.

The Saudis, their best position, in their eyes, is to be in their coalition so they are not seen as openly against the United States and supporting ISIS. They might be a target themselves if they were not part of the coalition. So they made the rational, pragmatic choice.

JAY: Now, they IS, at least the rhetoric of IS, is also targeting the Saudi regime. They think of them, they call them blasphemers, and working with the Americans is in theory one of the highest crimes one could commit in the eyes of an IS. You’re suggesting that’s more rhetoric than it is any real intent to try to foment some kind of uprising within Saudi Arabia.

AL-AHMED: Absolutely. And the Saudi voices here, and their agents, I would call them, we always use–IS is threat Saudi Arabia. I say, well, that’s in rhetoric, yes. But where are the evidence? We don’t have any evidence of any attacks. We have not seen any attack. In fact, the ISIS or IS has been on the Saudi-Iraqi border. They have not attempted to infiltrate or bomb or kill or do anything. So it’s a lot of smoke screen in my opinion. We have not seen evidence of that.

It doesn’t mean that we will not see some small attacks here or there. Yes, we might. But that is used as part of the deception process that we see used in the Middle East, not only in Saudi Arabia. There are other countries like Egypt that use attacks on Christians, launched attacks on Christians and blamed it on Muslim extremists. So that is not new in the region [crosstalk] cover and smoke screen.

JAY: Right. In the beginning of the interview you talked about the Saudis misleading the Americans. And I guess you’re suggesting they didn’t let the Americans–they didn’t give the Americans legitimate intelligence on just how strong IS was becoming. But how could the Americans not have better intelligence on their own? They’ve been in this region for years now.

AL-AHMED: I think there is a failure here, the failure of system. You know, when you have American officials and they have not been scrutinized running the show–. I don’t want to mention names here, but we had an American, the person who was running, during the Bush administration, the terror file. She is basically a Saudi mouthpiece. If you have close relationship between these people and the Saudi monarchy getting contracts after they leave–. The former head of the FBI now is on the Saudi docket. So these things, these relationship, these personal financial relationships really undermines the ability of U.S. officials who are running the intelligence and running these files to make the right decisions, because personal interest really is the first motivator for human beings. So financial gains become, sometimes, to some people, much more important than the interests and the safety of the United States. And that’s why when you talk about Senator Graham saying that the Saudi government is involved somehow in September 11, we have not seen any American effort in terms of bringing Saudi Arabia to account, or even publicly saying, you have to clean house. And they have not done that. [crosstalk]

JAY: Yeah. Well, I had asked this off-camera, and I’ll pursue it a bit further. Yeah. We interviewed Senator Bob Graham. We did a series of interviews with him. And he specifically says that the Saudi government, not some rogue princes, as sometimes is suggested, was directly involved in facilitating and helping to finance the 9/11 attacks. There’s 28 pages of redacted–28 redacted pages in the joint congressional 9/11 report, and we know from various sources, including the L.A. times and New York Times, who interviewed people who saw those pages, that in those pages it specifically names names of Saudi officials and so on. And I asked Bob Graham directly whether Prince Bandar was involved, and he essentially said yes. Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to the United States at that time and known as Bandar Bush, he was so close to the Bush family. So, I mean, the American authorities know the role of the Saudis in all of this, and yet they’re treated like a normal ally. What is going on here other than what you suggest, individuals get money shoved up you know what? But still there’s something more than that.

AL-AHMED: I think if you–in fact, we did–I read an article in the Politico magazine basically addressing this issue and saying that why is Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries basically are immune from U.S. criticism despite their horrible human rights record, despite the fact they support terrorism that has killed many Americans. It’s very simple, really. It’s not complicated if I compare China to Saudi Arabia.

The Chinese own $1.3 trillion of U.S. debt. They are greater, a much more powerful nation. And they sell the U.S. over $450 billion of goods every year compared to the Saudi $55 billion of oil and oil products every year. Yet the Chinese are a target of U.S. sanctions, of criticism, openly, and the U.S. harbors a lot of Chinese dissidents. They don’t do that with the Saudi monarchy.

So what is the difference? What’s the variance here? It’s the fact that the Saudi government and Gulf countries in general are investing in buying opinions and loyalties within Washington, D.C. And we have details of that, long details, in terms of think tanks, universities, and former officials. Current officials usually are given the nod that when you leave your office you have a good contract coming up. And that is, unfortunately, the case.

And I think we have to–that’s why Congress must have very strong hearings on this to see why an absolute monarchy is able to influence not only U.S. officials, but academic and think tanks in the United States.

JAY: And also enormous amounts of arm purchases. I think it’s in the, what, fifty, sixty billion dollars of arm purchases.


JAY: So just one final question. If we go back to Syria because it’s one of the linchpins of this whole issue with IS, and the logic being that if there are successful military operations against IS in Iraq, then IS simply goes back into Syria, and much of IS is–you know, Syria is a base for IS operations in Iraq. And so they’re talking about arming supposed moderate forces and so on, which–the whole policy seems kind of in a debacle. The issue of Assad in all of this is critical. The Saudis still seem intent that Assad has to fall. But if what they’re afraid of is democratization of Syria, why do they care if Assad stays?

AL-AHMED: Oh, they don’t care if Assad stays. They want Assad to say, Iran is my enemy, and basically blocks Iran’s access to the Mediterranean, and to stop supporting Hezbollah, and Hezbollah would be weakened. And that is their strategic or number-one goal. Their number-two goal is to ensure that there is no modern secular democratic, semi-Democratic, even, state north of Saudi Arabia, either in Iraq or Syria. So that is their main goal is to prevent a modern state, a model that challenges their model of–a medieval model.

JAY: And if IS more or less an instrument of the Saudis, how the heck can the American intelligence and political leaders not get this?

AL-AHMED: I think that some of them know it. They choose to ignore it. This is the same case with Qatar, with Kuwait. We know very well that these things are so public sometimes it’s embarrassing, the fact that the Qataris are supporting al-Nusra, which is now threatening the United States as well, yet the Americans, Mr. Kerry, has refused to say anything about it, as if Qatar is a superpower. Why is Qatar not being able to–why is not the U.S. able to criticize Qatar or Bahrain? Because, like, again, it has to do with that variance I talked about is the money that’s spent in think tanks and foundations, especially to former U.S. presidents and other U.S. officials. That is really the difference that makes the difference is that a lot of money comes in from these countries to [crosstalk]

JAY: Right. But there must also be a convergence of interests. It’s not like the United States wants popular democracy all across the Middle East. I mean the whole–U.S. policy has always been–.

AL-AHMED: They have not–the U.S. has no [crosstalk] stated in support of democracy. I wrote an article in The New York Times saying that we haven’t heard the U.S. government talk about its support for–not democracy–for a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain, or for resignation of the prime minister in Bahrain who’s been there for 44 years. So the U.S., you know, publicly, the policy is to support absolute monarchies in the Gulf. They have not said anything beside that. They have not said, we would like to see the people in the Gulf, in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Qatar, to have a greater role in their government. We have not heard that. No. You’re right.

JAY: Right. Alright. Thanks very much for joining us.

AL-AHMED: Thank you so much.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Ali Al-Ahmed is a Saudi scholar and expert on Saudi political affairs including: terrorism, Islamic movements, Wahhabi Islam, Saudi political history, Saudi-American relations, and the al-Saud family history. He is a writer, and public speaker on Saudi political issues.

He has been invited to speak by Princeton University, Amnesty International, the Hudson Institute and Meridian International Center.

As journalist he exposed major news stories such as the Pentagon's botched translation of the 9-11 Bin Laden tape, and the video of Daniel Pearl's murder.

He has authored reports on Saudi Arabia regarding religious freedom, torture, press freedom, and religious curriculum.

A frequent consultant to major world media outlets including CBS News, CNN, PBS, Fox News, Washington Post, and Associated Press.

Al-Ahmed has been quoted in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Boston Globe and other newspapers in several languages.

He graduated with a B.A. in Journalism and Science and a M.A. in International Finance from Saint Thomas University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.