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Saudi Arabia


SAUDI ARABIA , an authoritarian monarchy, whose legal system is based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law, known in the West as Wahhabism, after the spiritual leader of the original Saudi state, Muḥammad ibn ʿAbdul Wahhāb (1703–1792). Modern Saudi Arabia was established in 1932 by King Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman Āl Saud (1880–1953), who waged a three-decade-long campaign to unify the kingdom and re-claim the patrimony that was one ruled intermittently by his family in the 18th and 19th centuries. He was also known in the West by the name King Ibn Saud. Like the earlier Saudi states, the modern Saudi Kingdom was based on a political partnership between the Āl-Saud family and the Wahhabi clerics, whom the Saudis funded and empowered with control over Saudi ministries. Today Saudi Arabia's land area is 1,960,582 square kilometers. Its longest land boundaries are with *Yemen (1,458 km.), *Iraq (814 km.), and *Jordan (744 km). But it also shares borders with Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait. The Saudi Kingdom is made up of a number of regions including the Najd plateau, the birthplace of the Saudi royal family, the Hijaz, where the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and *Medina are located, and the Eastern Province, where the Saudi oil fields are situated that contain 25 per cent of the world's proven petroleum reserves. Since 1953, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by the sons of Ibn Saud who were successively: Saud, Faisal, Khaled, and Fahd, and in 2005, King Abdullah, who was born in 1923, acceded to the throne.

To understand Saudi attitudes to the Jewish people and the Jewish state, Israel, it is necessary to examine Wahhabi doctrines towards the monotheistic faiths outside of *Islam. These were far harsher than those adopted under classical Islam, which defined Jews and Christians as ahl al-kitāb (people of the book) who were entitled to live their lives under their respective religious codes, albeit as second-class citizens, who had to pay special discriminatory taxes for non-Muslims, such as *jizya (poll tax) and *kharāj (land tax). In his main work, the Kitāb al-Tawḥīd (The Book of Monotheism) Muḥammad ibn ʿAbdul Wahhāb described Jews and Christians as sorcerers who believed in devil worship. He challenged the assertion that both groups were truly monotheistic, charging that "the ways of the people of the book are condemned as those of the polytheists." Given that there was a negligible presence of either religious group in Central Arabia in the 18th century, these theoretical distinctions would only become relevant after the establishment of the modern Saudi state, when Wahhabi doctrines would influence Saudi attitudes to Israel as well as provide the ideological underpinnings for jihadi movements, like al-Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia was implacably opposed to the creation of the State of Israel. Several years after U.S. oil companies, led by Standard Oil of California, secured oil exploration rights in Saudi Arabia, King Ibn Saud addressed a series of letters to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stating his opposition to the creation of a Jewish state in British Palestine, and raised the subject yet again in his historic summit meeting with Roosevelt on the ussQuincy in Egypt's Great Bitter Lake. But Ibn Saud's primary concern after Israel's creation came from his Arab rivals – the Hashemite Kingdoms of Transjordan and Iraq – and their British sponsors. Ibn Saud was not prepared to sacrifice his relations with the U.S. and give up on American security guarantees against his potential rivals, despite Washington's backing of the partition of Palestine and its early recognition of the State of Israel. His son, King Faisal, launched an oil embargo against the U.S. during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but quickly sought to repair his relations with Washington, and agreed to a U.S.-sponsored buildup of Saudi military capabilities against Soviet-backed Arab rivals, from f-15 fighter aircraft to awacs planes.

Saudi Arabia sent its ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar, to attend the 1991 Madrid peace conference with Israel, Syria, *Lebanon, and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. There was a slight incremental thaw in Israeli-Saudi contacts thereafter. Saudi Arabia attended the 1992 Moscow multilateral negotiations and the various working-groups that it had established. But after the 1993 Oslo Agreements, Saudi Arabia did not follow the examples of Qatar and Oman, which allowed Israel to open quasi-diplomatic trade offices in their capitals. Nor did the Saudis follow the model of Bahrain and uae (Dubai) which allowed Israelis to attend multilateral conferences on their soil. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal attended a 1996 counter-terrorism conference in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon *Peres, marking the outer reaches of Saudi readiness for open, high-level contacts. The Saudi religious establishment, represented by the Saudi Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, was not willing to condone the idea of permanent peace with Israel, but was only willing to concede the idea of a hudna with the Jewish state, which, he explained in a formal document, was only a temporary truce until the balance of power changes. During the 1990s, despite its demand for religious identification in its visa applications, Saudi Arabia hosted several American Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League.

After Yasser *Arafat's Fatah movement became the dominant component of the *Palestine Liberation Organization (plo) in the late 1960s, Saudi Arabia became its largest financial backer. Yet after the plo allied itself with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War, Saudi Arabia increasingly began to provide financial assistance to Hamas, despite its direct involvement in suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, through large Wahhabi charities, such as al-Haramain, the Muslim World League's International Islamic Relief Organization, and the World Assembly for Muslim Youth. The 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda on New York and Washington brought into focus the Saudi connection to the new escalation of global terrorism, since 15 out of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. Moreover, their overall commander, Osama bin Laden, was born and educated in Saudi Arabia and had worked with Saudi intelligence against the Soviet presence in *Afghanistan. In 1998, he set up the "World Islamic Front Against Crusaders and Jews." He relied heavily on Wahhabi religious scholars, such as Suleiman al-Ulwan or Hamud bin Uqla al-Shuaibi, who justified his use of mass violence against the "infidels," which, from their doctrinal standpoint, included Christians and Jews. Both scholars justified suicide bombings against Israeli civilians on the website of Hamas. Other Saudi scholars, like Nasser bin Hamed al-Fahd and Ali al-Khudeir, put out religious opinions that dovetailed with al-Qaeda strategy, since they advocated the mass murder of infidels by means of weapons of mass destruction. After 2003, Israeli officials, like Defense Minister Shaul *Mofaz, became openly concerned with al-Qaeda's penetration of the Saudi military, including the Saudi Air Force. Israel raised the possibility that Saudi f-15 fighter planes, deployed during the 2003 Iraq War at Tabuk Air Base near Eilat, might be used by al-Qaeda suicide pilots for operations against Israeli buildings in Tel Aviv.

King Abdullah, in his capacity as crown prince, floated a new peace plan between Israel and the Arab world through New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on February 17, 2002. The core of the plan was the idea of exchanging a "full Israeli withdrawal" from the territories Israel captured in the Six-Day War for "full normalization" of relations with Israel. But Abdullah retreated from this formula with the Arab peace initiative that was launched at the Beirut Arab summit on March 28, 2002, when he watered down his original proposal and suggested instead granting Israel "normal relations" – a Syrian diplomatic term that was less than full peace. Given Saudi sensitivities to Western penetration, it is unlikely that Abdullah was really proposing full normalization with tourism, business ties, and cultural exchanges. Behind the scenes of the Saudi peace plan was Adel al-Jubeir, Abdullah's foreign policy advisor, who had been dispatched to Washington to repair Saudi Arabia's tarnished image in the U.S. after 9/11. It is probable that this was the context of the Saudi proposals.


M. Abir, Saudi Arabia: Government, Society and the Gulf Crises (1993); M. Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent (1999); D. Gold, Hatred's Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (2004); M Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia (2002); A. Vassiliev, The History of Saudi Arabia (2000); J.D. Halevi, "Al-Qaeda's Intellectual Legacy: New Radical Islamic Thinking Justifying the Genocide of Infidels," in: Jerusalem Viewpoints (Dec. 1, 2003).

[Dore Gold (2nd ed.)]

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