Secretary of State John Kerry began his first official world trip on February 24, 2013. A notable stop will be in Saudi Arabia, and one wonders what sort of lavish gifts he will receive along with the red carpet and the military band. Beyond the diplomatic niceties however, Kerry is on record as saying that he has concerns that the Kingdom's "officially sanctioned bigotry breeds terrorism" but that "the truth is that we have deep, and for the moment, inescapable ties."
Maybe the moment has come however, for a recalibration of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as the U.S. is becoming more self-sufficient in energy and therefore less reliant on Saudi oil. According to a 2012 report by the International Energy Agency, by 2035 nearly 90 percent of Persian Gulf oil exports will go to Asia, with the United States getting a negligible amount. Saudi oil imports have picked up a little recently because of the sanctions on Iranian oil, but overall the share of U.S. oil coming from the Gulf is down by one-third.
The U.S. has always been aware of Saudi Arabia's role in funding and spreading Wahhabism -- an extremist ideology which provides the ideological foundation for groups like Al Qaeda. In a 2010 classified cable released by Wikileaks, Secretary Clinton stressed: "We emphasize that a critical component in this campaign is cutting off the funds from Saudi Arabia to foreign religious, charitable and educational organizations that propagate violent extremist ideologies to vulnerable populations."
Though the Saudi government does not explicitly promote terrorism, its official state doctrine, the conservative cult of Wahhabism, advocates anti-Semitism, misogyny and inter-action with non-Muslims only in cases of necessity. It therefore provides the ideological justification for animosity and hatred of wider society thus providing the perfect foundation for radical preachers to then advocate violence as a religious duty.
Through their embassies and charities, the Saudi's have built multi-million dollar mosques and schools and sponsor international students to study in Saudi on full scholarships, sending them back with funding and lifetime jobs as Wahhabi proselytizers to their respective countries.
The Wahhabi movement was instigated by the eighteenth century theologian, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (c.1703-1791) who believed that Muslims had strayed from the authentic teachings of Islam. The movement condemned visiting shrines and tombs of saints and Muslims who did not agree with his teachings were excommunicated or killed in an effort to purge Islam from what Wahhab believed to be unsanctioned innovations. Wahhabi military campaigns waged war against moderate Muslims, demolishing Islamic shrines and slaughtering entire villages of Muslims who did not subscribe to his extremist interpretation. This same extreme ideology is behind the present day destruction of shrines and mosques in Libya and the continuing violence against minority and mainstream Muslims all over the world such as the Shia in Pakistan.
An alliance was formed between Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the ruling house of Muhammad ibn Saud who provided political and financial power for the religious revival in return for religious legitimacy when forming the new state. Political loyalty to the House of Saud effectively became a religious obligation and by reviving the notion of a community of believers, Wahhabism helped to forge a sense of common identity that superseded tribal loyalties.
Wahhabism would have remained a footnote in history as a puritanical cult movement even after it was adopted as the official state religion were it not for a single history altering factor: the discovery of oil. The flood of petro-dollars meant that the Saudis could then spend an estimated $ 2 to $3 billion each year promoting the extreme and conservative ideas of religious leaders who in turn helped maintain the Saudi royal family's position of power.
The essential contradiction in U.S. policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East is that while trillions of dollars have been spent and many lives lost in the war on terror, little has been done to address the ideological foundation of terrorism, which is being promoted through Wahhabism funded by Saudi Arabia.
As the Arab Spring falters in Egypt and Tunisia and as Libya and Syria continue to tear themselves apart with violent sectarian fighting, it is surely time that the U.S. recognizes that its attempts to encourage democracy in the Middle East are futile in the face of well-funded religious extremism, whose adherents are fighting not only Western democratic ideas but also any signs of liberalism in their own religion. Sectarian violence in Pakistan for example can no longer be blamed just on Pakistan, but when it is funded by America's ally Saudi Arabia, then the U.S. gets the indirect blame. The Sunni-Shia antipathies will continue to fester and erupt as long as Saudi petro-dollars are being distributed so lavishly.
The proxy wars being fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mali and Syria are attracting itinerant zealots and angry young militants and keeping them from creating unrest in their own countries. Emboldened by anarchy in failed and failing states, funded by Saudi Arabia and justified by fundamentalist ideology, extremist groups similar to al Qaeda are seizing the moment and endeavoring to impose Wahhabi ideas wherever possible. In the process, they are killing and maiming more Muslims than people of other faiths, and are creating deep societal rifts and lasting enmities within their own communities.
America's uneasy partnership with Saudi Arabia must change and together or separately they must develop a convincing strategy for reducing Wahhabism and its global influence. Whether the new Secretary of State can achieve this or not remains to be seen, but it is certainly time that the relationship undergoes more intense scrutiny and recalibration in the name of future global security.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute and a former International Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale.