By Zalmay Khalilzad,
On my most recent trip to Saudi Arabia, I was greeted with a startling confession. In the past, when we raised the issue of funding Islamic extremists with the Saudis, all we got were denials. This time, in the course of meetings with King Salman, Crown Prince Nayef, Deputy Crown Mohammad Bin Salman and several ministers, one top Saudi official admitted to me, “We misled you.”
He explained that Saudi support for Islamic extremism started in the early 1960s as a counter to Nasserism—the socialist political ideology that came out of the thinking of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser—which threatened Saudi Arabia and led to war between the two countries along the Yemen border. This tactic allowed them to successfully contain Nasserism, and the Saudis concluded that Islamism could be a powerful tool with broader utility.
Under their new and unprecedented policy of honesty, the Saudi leadership also explained to me that their support for extremism was a way of resisting the Soviet Union, often in cooperation with the United States, in places like Afghanistan in the 1980s. In this application too, they argued, it proved successful. Later it was deployed against Iranian-supported Shiite movements in the geopolitical competition between the two countries.
But over time, the Saudis say, their support for extremism turned on them, metastasizing into a serious threat to the Kingdom and to the West. They had created a monster that had begun to devour them. “We did not own up to it after 9/11 because we feared you would abandon or treat us as the enemy,” the Saudi senior official conceded. “And we were in denial.”
Why this new frankness? First, it’s fair to ask how far the new policy really goes. Clearly, there are some questions about whether some extremist Sunni groups, such as al-Nusra in Syria, are still getting Saudi money. But as the Saudis described it to me, this new approach to grappling with their past is part of the leadership’s effort to make a new future for their country, including a broad-based economic reform program.
In their current thinking, the Saudis see Islamic extremism as one of the two major threats facing the kingdom—the other threat being Iran. On Iran, there is continuity. I remember when King Abdullah asked me to pass on to President George W. Bush in 2006 that he needed to cut the “serpent’s head” and attack Iran and overthrow the regime. The new leadership, like their predecessors, blames Iran for regional instability and the many conflicts going on.
The new Saudi leadership, in other words, appears to be downgrading ideology in favor of modernization. In fact, one senior Saudi official explicitly said that the Kingdom was pursuing a “revolution under the cover of modernization”—meaning that modernization was now the driver of Saudi policy.