x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A view from Riyadh charts a new decade beyond terrorism

So much has changed, in Saudi Arabia and Saudi-US relations, over the last decade, writes a former US ambassador to Riyadh.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 I arrived at the board meeting of a charitable foundation in Dallas, Texas. This would be my farewell meeting, as President George W Bush had announced his intention to make me the next US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Before the meeting began, a fellow board member rushed in to tell us that an airplane had just hit the World Trade Center. As details of the hijackings emerged, the connections to Saudi Arabia became apparent. I realised that my assignment had just become far more difficult.

Within a month my nomination was confirmed, and after a hastily arranged swearing-in ceremony with the then-secretary of state, Colin Powell, I was on my way to Riyadh.

By the time I arrived, the US military response to the September 11 attacks was in full force. Within days I was next to General Tommy Franks asking King Abdullah (then the crown prince) to support coalition efforts in Afghanistan.

Outrage at the attacks was expressed from many quarters, even from the bin Laden family. I received a letter of abject apology from the head of the family in Jeddah. Countless Saudis signed a condolence book.

And yet we also began to see disturbing outbursts in the US media accusing all Muslims of hatred and terrorist sympathies. This was bitterly resented in Saudi Arabia; Saudi attendance at US universities declined significantly and business and holiday travel were curtailed. Saudis could no longer get visas without intrusive scrutiny.

Congressional delegations took every opportunity to question the values and trustworthiness of many in the Arab world. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict reached new levels of violence, anger and desperation. Cooperation in rooting out Al Qaeda cells and sympathisers was uneven and slow, often complicated by a lack of coordination and cultural understanding on both sides. We truly seemed to be moving towards a clash of civilisations.

Much has changed since that dark time in 2001. US and regional security forces have learnt to take the initiative in going after extremists. After an intensive campaign, improved intelligence and aggressive police work, Saudi Arabia has made great strides against Al Qaeda in the kingdom.

Saudi and US intelligence analysts sit shoulder to shoulder in a joint centre. Increasingly, ordinary Saudi citizens have reported suspicious activity. Many extremists have been captured or killed. And many courageous Saudi police officers have paid with their lives.

The killing of Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda leaders signals another change since 2001. When the Arab Spring swept in, the protesters, rebels and emerging leaders came not from Al Qaeda, but from the middle and working classes. The perpetrators of September 11 were irrelevant.

In the Arabian Gulf states we are seeing massive infrastructure projects. Students from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region have returned in large numbers to US campuses; US universities are opening branches in the Gulf.

If September 11 changed the way we view conflict, it has not shown us a clear path to resolving world tensions. We have learnt the hard way that there is not a military solution to every crisis. We also have learnt that no country, not even a superpower, can go it alone on the world stage.

As we enter the "post-post-September 11" decade, what will be our values and goals for the future? First, we can build upon the resilience that has been tested on every continent in recent years. From overcoming the shock waves of the September 11 attacks to recovering from tsunamis to overthrowing a Libyan dictator, the human spirit has shown a capacity to weather enormous obstacles.

We saw this resilience when Saudi families noticed suspicious behaviour among their neighbours and took responsibility for contacting the authorities. We saw it again when citizens of Benghazi endured attacks from government troops and refused to give up.

In a new world, security will rely less upon a "with us or against us" mentality and more upon an understanding of the limits and costs of military power. Clear-eyed realisation that threats truly exist should prevent apathy. The expensive lessons of the past decade will inform efforts to tell real threats from illusory ones.

The resilience of societies will again be tested, but we can all pray that we learnt something from the wrenching experience that we memorialise this day in September.

 

Robert W Jordan is a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the partner in charge of the Middle East practice of the law firm Baker Botts