Potent words, softly spoken, rock Saudi-US relations

The RAND analyst, Laurent Murawiec who advocated the targeting of Saudi oil fields and freezing of Saudi assets, speaks to Arabian Business
Potent words, softly spoken, rock Saudi-US relations
By Massoud Derhally
Sat 24 Aug 2002 04:00 AM

|~||~||~|For many American neo-conservatives, the hornets’ nest in the Middle East lies south of Iraq, in Saudi Arabia. Little wonder that Laurent Murawiec’s anti-Saudi briefing to the Defense Policy Board was leaked to the Washington Post. Smelling an embarrassing spat the media pounced on the Post article, damaging the brittle US-Saudi relationship of the post-September 11 world. The event of the brief complements what some would say is a foregone conclusion—that relations between the two countries have been affected. In the case of the now infamous brief, there was plenty to pounce on. Murawiec’s comments were certainly forthright, suggesting targeting Saudi oil fields and freezing its overseas financial assets. The French-born analyst who works at the RAND Corporation [a public policy institute] said in his brief titled ‘Taking Saudi out of Arabia’: “Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain,” that “Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies,” and that “Saudi is the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent in the Middle East.”The brief hasn’t gone down well in Saudi Arabia or other parts of the Arab world. For many Arabs, this is another example of American misconception of the Middle East, which may have a negative bearing on an already delicate relationship. American goods are being replaced with Japanese and European products, resulting in a sharp decline of US exports to Saudi Arabia, according to Besher Bakheet, managing director of Saudi-based Bakheet Financial Advisors.But Bakheet doesn’t think the brief will have any further effects on the US-Saudi relationship. “No. I honestly don’t think so. But somebody in the US is fishing in murky waters when they made that leak, trying to associate the entire Saudi public as being terrorists as being anti-American and pushing a wedge between the two populations.” “At the centre of the whole issue is the foreign policy stand of the US government toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is definitely biased towards Israel and the only way for the [Saudi] population to protest is through the boycott. US trade and interest in the region, has never at any point in time, since 1973 been questioned, since the recent Israeli bias in the current US administration. To twist this around and say that Saudi public is anti-US or anti-American is wrong,” Bakheet added.If the current trend continues, the problem could be immense for the Kingdom’s economy, already suffering from anaemic growth, a staggering US $170 billion in debt — equivalent to nearly 100 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) — and unemployment at an estimated 20 percent.Figures from the US Department of Commerce, which show exports to the kingdom for the first quarter of 2002 dropping to US $985.9 million — 43% decline from US $1.739 billion in the same period a year earlier, illustrate the strain on the relationship. Analysts and economists explain the decline as a result of consumers in the Kingdom reacting to the escalation of violence in Palestine and perceptions of Western collusion with Israel —ultimately that a current grassroots boycott is a reflection of an upsurge of political consciousness. “I read the news articles that came out about this briefing. It reflects some kind of a sentiment in the US about Saudi-American relations these days, but at the same time I think it is biased—which does not really accurately reflect the problem right now. Because it was leaked I think it will be discredited fairly quickly in order to save face between Saudi Arabia and the US. But we should not at the same time discount that there is a problem between the two countries,” says Johnny Abedrabbo, senior economist at the National Commercial Bank in Saudi Arabia.Others think the relationship may experience further strain. “It is very hard to prophesise, but everything really hinges on what the US intentions are with respect to Iraq. If the war on Iraq escalates we might have a big problem on our hands in the region. If the thing falls very quickly things might improve—but I suspect things will get worse,” a senior Saudi economist speaking on condition of anonymity.This all makes one wonder what type of person would draw such a damning—albeit misguided—conclusion about Saudi Arabia, one of America’s most loyal allies in the Middle East. Being under a gag order, Murawiec could not discuss the briefing. Nevertheless, he revealed to Arabian Business, what can be interpreted as the motivation for his incendiary comments at the Pentagon in one of two phone conversations I had with him last week. “My experience of your part of the world is that most people hate the Saudis’ guts, not to make too fine a point about it. Everybody knows they are a bunch of lazy a******s that are arrogant, too big for their shoes, which behave in a consistently disgusting manner. People in your region have told me that for twenty years. But I am not telling you anything new,” Murawiec said.Responding to Murawiec’s comments, Nail Al Jubeir, deputy director of information at the Saudi Embassy in Washington said, “We don’t dignify unprofessional work with answers. The US administration has responded to his views and his views don’t represent the views of this administration nor do they represent the views of people with common sense. He has no experience in Saudi Arabia, has never been to Saudi Arabia—his views are based on his own biases towards the world.”Mathew Lussenhop of the Near East Affairs (NEA) section at the State Department in Washington, said, “He [Murawiec] does not speak for the US government. He is a private researcher who gave a presentation to a private group of Americans. None of the people involved were US government officials and the US government made very clear on Monday [August 5] from the White House, the State Department and the Defense Department our feelings about Saudi Arabia.”Murawiec’s comments on Saudi Arabia provide a rationale behind painting such a twisted picture of Saudi Arabia to former high-ranking American officials. In doing so, he exhibited his utter disregard for the 70-year relationship between the two countries.But it doesn’t stop there. Murawiec also has strong opinions about Islam. “I have been working for several years on a book that will be called In the Spirit of Islam, which starts with medieval Muslim theology,” Murawiec said.A book on Islam sounds just about the last thing one would anticipate from Murawiec. “Personally, my long-range interest is how Islam might or might not be able to adapt itself to modernity. If you want, in a sense, my views are very consistent to Fouad Ajami or Kanan Makiya [Arab scholars critical of the modern Arab world].” “We are in the middle of one of the most fundamental questions, which is the unity, and diversity in the world of Arab Muslims. I certainly agree that there is an enormous difference and there is commonality. To me what is important, and it is a point that I am making to Americans endlessly, is that there is a fundamental difference between Islam as a privately-practiced religion and Islam as it claims to be—meaning a polity. Islam is a private religion and it is comparable to all the others—but Islam as a polity is an unadulterated disaster. I speak very brutally because I think it is better to be direct about such things,” Murawiec said.Contentious books about Islam have a nasty habit of coming back to haunt their author, as Salman Rushdie would attest. And this book would seem to promise some interesting opinions. Whether the 1.2 billion Muslims that follow the religion see ‘eye to eye’ with him, remains to be seen.Although he hasn’t lived in the Arab world, Murawiec claims to understand how people in the Middle East might come to interpret his argument. “I have not lived [in the Arab world] but I have spent some time [there]. I grew up with Arabs in France,” Murawiec said. The feedback from Monsieur Murawiec indicates he is a man who has never lived in the Middle East or been to Saudi Arabia, appears to have based his views of the Arab world on his interactions in France and from acquaintances that have had some dealings with the Arab region. One also wonders how his opinions were shaped by his time at Wiesbaden, the German office of ultra controversial Lyndon Larouche.RAND Corporation appears nervous. While Laurent Murawiec, a RAND employee prepared the briefing, it wasn’t a RAND research product, says the company. The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author. So did the Pentagon commission Murawiec to do the briefing? “No comment,” said Murawiec.The Defense Policy Board is made up an independent group of well-known intellectuals, private sector national security experts and former senior officials like former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who advise the Pentagon on defense policy. If this is the type of advice that former US officials are receiving, then what are we, in this part of the world, to expect of current foreign policy makers?||**||

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