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Yes, Prince Turki, You are a Free Rider | Mellanöstern Tidningen Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
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Published On: Sat, Mar 19th, 2016

Yes, Prince Turki, You are a Free Rider

In a wide ranging interview with The Atlantic, President Obama chided Saudi Arabia as being a “free rider” in the Middle East, noting also that Saudi funding of their intolerant Wahhabi version of Islam has made Islam in Indonesia less tolerant since he lived there.

Prince Turki Al Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (photo: Marc Müller)

Prince Turki Al Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (photo: Marc Müller)

Obama dared to say the obvious: that the Saudis have to learn to get along with Iran and not fuel their Sunni-Shi’a rivalry to the destruction of the region, especially to a point where the U.S. might have to intervene. It is the right message, but unfortunately providing billions of dollars worth of weapons to allow the Saudis to do just the opposite shows the continuing duplicity of American foreign policy in the region.

Not surprisingly, given the public relations blitz of the Saudis, Prince Turki al-Faisal responded with a piece of propaganda reminiscent of the hard-core Soviets or even Herr Goebbels. “No, Mr. Obama. We are not ‘free riders,’ argues the prince. “We shared with you our intelligence that prevented deadly terrorist attacks on America.” It is hard to image a more tone-deaf start to a response. The majority of the attackers on 9/11 were, in fact, Saudi and there were no Iranians among them. Osama bin Laden was Saudi, not Iranian. Despite the rhetoric of hard liners, Iran has not been targeting the United States through terrorism; it is the Sunni al-Qaida and ISIS who are the problem.  Both of these are monsters created in part with Saudi support.

But it gets even worse. “We initiated the support — military, political and humanitarian — that is helping the Yemeni people reclaim their country from the murderous militia, the Houthis, who, with the support of the Iranian leadership, tried to occupy Yemen; without calling for American forces,” claims the prince.” I feel no need to defend the Huthis, but it was Ali Abdullah Salih after 2005 with the full support of the Saudis that attacked the “Huthi” areas in the north of Yemen, killing thousands and causing several hundred thousand to flee their homes. The Huthis were from the start not a “murderous militia” but the illegitimate target of Salih’s army. During the Arab Spring the Huthis stayed out of the fighting between Salih and his opposition. When they eventually took over Sanaa, with the support of Salih’s troops, it was virtually bloodless. To the extent the Huthis are “murderous” today, and some of them are indeed, it is the Saudi bombing campaign that has created the murderous environment. The fact that American forces were not directly involved on the ground is probably one reason why the Saudis have failed to retake the Huthi area after a year of intensive bombing, with planes and bombs supplied by America, not to mention the presence of U.S.naval vessels.

Humanitarian support? The prince continues his spin: “We are the biggest contributors to the humanitarian relief efforts to help refugees from Syria, Yemen and Iraq.” Note first that the prince’s idea of relief is financial support for one’s allies. Unlike Turkey, Germany, and even the United States, neither Saudi Arabia nor the Gulf States have actually taken in the unskilled and fleeing refugees from the fighting. Instead, the visa requirements have been made more difficult for entering Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Yemen remains one of the most pressing humanitarian crises in the world today, as noted by the United Nations, Amnesty International and other concerned organizations. Here is how OCHA assesses the situation, caused mostly by the Saudi bombing campaign and their tacit allies, al-Qaida and ISIS:

One year after armed conflict escalated across Yemen, an estimated 21.2 million people – 82 per cent of the total population – need some form of humanitarian assistance. This includes 14.4 million people unable to meet their food needs (of whom 7.6 million are severely food insecure), 19.4 million who lack clean water and sanitation (of whom 9.8 million lost access to water due to conflict), 14.1 million without adequate healthcare, and at least 2.7 million who have fled their homes within Yemen or to neighbouring countries.

As the old saying goes, with a friend like the Saudis, why does Yemen need enemies!

The pandering in the prince’s screed is pathetic. American should like the Saudis because they send so many students to study in America. The Saudis pay top salaries to American expats, but could this be because there are not enough trained Saudis able or willing to do the same jobs? But then the prince suggests the United States has thrown them a curve ball regarding Iran. Since he uses a baseball metaphor, he should also be aware that big lead hitters have to be able to hit curve balls. The Saudis clearly are not in that league. Their game plan is to demand a batting practice fastball and buy off the umpires so that their own faults are not in the public eye. Obama once said that you can tell the quality of a country by the way it treats its women. In a country where women are not allowed to drive, that is easy to say, but it is the repressive regime that stifles all dissent, discriminates agaist the Shi’a population in the east and still beheads people in public that best reflects the nature of the Saudi state. Indeed, it is the exporting of the Salafi/Wahhabi denigration of women that has damaged Islam, as though the only way to be a Muslim is to dress and act the Saudi way.

Dear Prince Turki, you may be right that you are not a free rider, given the fabulous wealth that allows your royals to live in palaces, destroy the many Islamic monuments in Mecca to make way for 5-star hotels and boutique shopping centers, and spread your intolerant view of Islam worldwide. Free rider or mega-rich rider matters not when you politicize religion and promote your own regime to the despair of millions of fellow Muslims.

About the Author


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Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, a Senior Postdoctoral Scholar at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.

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