There has been much disagreement over President Donald Trump’s recent Executive Order imposing a short-term moratorium on travelers from 7 countries in the Middle East (and Africa). I believe this decision, while controversial, is justified. However, I also believe those who worry about the hasty implementation of the Trump executive order have reasonable concerns. One question many have is why some countries–Saudi Arabia in particular––were excluded from this list, while others were not? This is an especially apt question considering that a majority of 9/11 hijackers emanated from Saudi Arabia.
Listed below are 4 reasons why the Trump Administration’s decision to leave Saudi Arabia off of the list was not arbitrary and was, in fact, strategically sound:
#1 The Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is an ally of the US. In fact, they are as much of an enemy of Jihadist groups as we are.
To address this properly, we need to make three critical points.
First, Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham, and other Jihadist terrorist groups are fundamentally opposed to the Saudi government. That Al-Qaeda included so many Saudis on 9/11 was probably an attempt to create a rift in the relationship between the two governments.
Second, the Saudi government had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 plot even though some continue to make an issue out of the contents of the infamous 28 pages from the 9/11 report released last year.
“I don’t think that there is much practical significance at all to the 28 pages. They demonstrated that a few Saudi government employees might have been sympathetic to the al-Qaeda mission. Richard Clarke, the NSC official in the Bush 43 Administration responsible for counter-terrorism, speculates that one of the “persons of interest” identified in the 28 pages might have been working for Saudi intelligence, in cooperation with the CIA, to try to infiltrate al- Qaeda.
My bottom line on the 28 pages is that we do not know that much more than we did before. It certainly does not change my view, and the view of both the 9/11 Commission and the subsequent official bodies who have looked at the evidence, that the Saudi government was not involved in the 9/11 attacks in any way.”
Third, the 9/11 plot was, in my view, an unfortunate lucky strike that is unlikely to be repeated again. That both the Saudi and US governments failed to prevent the attack is a terrible mistake that we have been paying for over the last 16 years. However, 9/11 occurred within the context of specific geopolitical conditions that no longer apply today.
#2. Strong Internal Vetting Abilities: Saudi vs Yemen
The KSA sends 100,000 students to the United States each year. Yet, the Saudi government spends a great deal of effort monitoring their students which assists U.S. security forces. The Saudis know very well that any attack perpetrated by one of their students studying in the U.S. will have severe, negative consequences for their country. That is a key factor for why the KSA was excluded from the list.
Anecdotally speaking, there is a natural vetting process among Saudi expatriates living in the United States today. For instance, I frequent a coffee shop in Washington, D.C. near a local university that is popular with many Saudi expatriates. There are always a large number of Saudi students at this coffee shop. However, there are many older Saudis, military officials taking English classes with them. There is a very communal atmosphere among these Saudi expatriates. In effect, they have a built-in natural vetting process.
By contrast, I have friends that have worked for the Yemeni Government here in DC. For the last several years, any semblance of central Government has disappeared. Many of their officials in DC are broke and unemployed. The Yemeni government has no ability to provide organized vetting. This is an important distinction between the Saudi government compared to the Yemeni government.
That difference cuts to the core of President Trump’s reasoning for enacting his “extreme vetting” policy. Essentially, he is placing a 90-day moratorium on travel from countries where we have no reasonable way of finding out who is seeking entrance into the U.S. Indeed, the 7 countries that have had the moratorium placed upon them are countries that the previous Obama Administration recommended to have a similar ban imposed upon them last year. Saudi Arabia has an extensive system–both formal and informal–that allow them to adequately vet their people
#3 – President Trump’s travel ban will incentivize the Saudis to crack down on problematic activities by religious charities or private citizens
Critics of Saudi Arabia in the West misunderstand two key points related to Counter-Terrorism:
First, the ultra-conservative version of Islam that most associate with the KSA is not a conspiracy forged between the Saudi royal family and the religious establishment. Quite the contrary: this ultra-conservative form of Islam is an organic movement and such beliefs represent how a majority of Saudis practice their religion.
Second, critics also misread the nature of Saudi “authoritarianism.” While governance in Saudi Arabia is certainly not “democratic” by Western standards, in many areas, it is what would be described in the US as “laissez faire.”
As I wrote in 2012, it is important to note that Saudi Arabia’s historical trajectory is in many ways similar to the US (a new country, governing over territory with no history of central control or authority). People forget that it took the US government two hundred plus years to obtain the level of central control that it has today.
A similar parallel is true with the Saudi government and the activity of individual Saudis or charities. In the past, that meant less government incentive to crack down on charities, which are often hard to monitor. For the central government in Riyadh allowing their citizens a degree of freedom has historically been to an extent part of the political bargain. President Trump’s Executive Order will have the effect around the world of causing governments like Saudi Arabia and elsewhere to be more aggressive in their regulation of such activity. As an example of this incentive, Pakistan quickly cracked down on a militant group in response to President Trump’s executive order.
#4 – Saudi Arabia as leader of the Sunni Arab world is too important of an ally for the US to neglect.
I spent two years working in Saudi Arabia working on environmental consulting projects. This entailed significant travel outside of the relatively “cosmopolitan” cities of Riyadh and Jeddah to all kinds of small towns and cities in the provinces. In a country where the overwhelming majority of the citizens are extremely conservative, too many American policymakers misunderstand that the current crop of Saudi government officials are as liberal and “moderate” as it is gets in the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is what Saudi Arabia is. They are certainly not without their own internal problems. But they are the leaders of the Sunni Arab world. Riyadh is an integral component to maintaining regional stability and The Kingdom’s exclusion must be viewed in the context of two critical US national security goals.
First, a healthily confident Saudi government is vital if the Iran nuclear deal is to be successful. Therefore, Saudi Arabia must look upon its strategic alliance with the U.S. with a high degree of confidence. That is why there has been so much turmoil in the U.S.-Saudi alliance these last eight years. It also explains why loose talk from many Americans about “dumping” Saudi Arabia has the effect of encouraging the Saudi government to engage in counterproductive policies, such is the case with their war in Yemen.
Second, the exclusion of Saudi Arabia from the Visa ban list is critical to US overall counterterrorism goals. The Saudi government is undergoing a massive economic reform package that is critical to the Kingdom’s long-term political stability. A critical part of that depends on sending over 100,000 students abroad each year to study at US universities. That preference from the US is critical to the prestige of the Saudi “establishment” and to the fate of these reforms. Helping the Saudi establishment “win” is critical to undermining the anti-Establishment Jihadist forces trying to overthrow them.
Neglecting or abandoning Saudi Arabia would be as disastrous for U.S. foreign policy in the region as would neglecting or abandoning Egypt or Israel. For these reasons, the Trump Administration’s decision to keep Saudi Arabia off of the list is the right, indeed, the only, choice.
Nathan Field is an Arabic speaker and a commentator on Middle East politics based in Washington, D.C. He spent two years as part of the management team of a one billion dollar engineering project in Saudi Arabia. He then spent five years building up and then selling a translation company called Industry Arabic. Follow him on Twitter at @nathanrfield1.