Everyone knows the Saudis have money, but when the Pentagon notified Congress last month that the desert kingdom planned to spend more than a billion dollars to buy anti-tank missiles, military analysts were puzzled. The proposed deal would put more than 15,000Raytheon anti-tank missiles in Saudi Arabia to defend the desert kingdom against a nonexistent threat.
The most likely answer, one analyst concluded, was that the Saudis planned to purchase the missiles to replace older stockpiles of anti-tank weapons the kingdom intended to funnel to Syrian rebels. Saudi Arabia has backed the rebels in their fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite concerns that such military aid might go to radical Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda.
U.S. intelligence attempted to skirt the issue by trying to “vet” Syrian rebels. The Saudis then made a point of opting out of the CIA’s vetting process, possibly in order to protest what they view as U.S. reluctance to eliminate Assad. But recent suggestions by the Obama administration that it might be willing to back Islamists in Syria may bring America’s shaky position in the war closer to the Saudis.
The House of Saud has a longstanding policy of achieving goals via funding, donating, financing, and endowing. The Syrian rebels are merely the most recent recipients of Saudi generosity, which has traditionally flowed to equally dubious causes.
Shortly after 9/11, Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed bin Talal offered New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani a $10 million check. After making the donation, Alwaleed released a written statement, saying, “I believe the government of the United States of America should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause.”
Giuliani returned the check. In was, in a microcosm, representative of the relationship between the two nations—Saudi fighters and Saudi money have been major factors in the rise of al-Qaeda.
But Saudi money has spread to more than just terrorists. In 2005, Alwaleed established the “Alwaleed Network,” bankrolling notable universities like Harvard, Cambridge, and Georgetown. Harvard has used the prince’s money to create four endowed professorships. He also invested heavily in News Corp., the Fox News parent company, which created an awkward situation when Fox commentators played up his connection to the Ground Zero mosque in New York.
Alwaleed used his clout with Fox News to influence its reporting on French riots in 2005. When Fox identified the riots as Muslim, Alwaleed told a conference in Dubai he “picked up the phone and called [News Corp. head Rupert] Murdoch. … I said that these are not Muslim riots; they are riots.” According to Alwaleed, the network quickly changed “Muslim riots” to “civil riots.”
While bankrolling Western universities, the Saudi kingdom has contributed large amounts of money to spreading Wahhabism, its own unique brand of Islam. Wahhabis espouse a fundamentalist view that tends to create terrorists. Saudi money went to fund textbooks with inflammatory materials characterizing Jews as apes and swine and calling for the death penalty for apostates. But the Saudi Arabian government seems to recognize the toxic effect caused by the official textbooks and has taken some steps to reform them.
Saudi funding of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood once created similar concerns. Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes told me “as recently as a few years ago they were funding the Muslim Brotherhood,” but as the Arab Spring ripped through the region, and the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in Egypt, the Saudis began withdrawing support from the group, funding its enemies instead.
Similarly, the cash trails from Saudi Arabia to terrorist groups worldwide have been impeded by Saudi crackdowns on terrorism in the region, although underhanded fundraising remains a concern. Leaked U.S. State Department cables from 2009 identify Saudi Arabia as “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
Overall, Saudi Arabia remains a troubled country, with a long history of supporting terrorism and a deeply ingrained breed of Islam that lends itself to violence—and Saudi financing of Western higher education and media outlets shows no sign of stopping.