John Brennan, a top advisor on homeland security and counter-terrorism to President Obama, said the United States is “grateful” to Saudi Arabia “for their assistance in developing information that helped underscore the imminence of the threat emanating from Yemen.” Other American officials have noted bluntly that without the Saudi tip-off, the bombs would likely have found their way aboard cargo flights bound for Chicago – and potentially detonated midair.
The vital role Saudi Arabia played in saving American lives brings us full circle, one year before the 10th anniversary of the horrific Sept. 11 terrorist attack. On that day, 15 of the 19 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, and the kingdom’s security and intelligence apparatus was not hard-wired to adequately deal with al-Qaeda or the rising tide of jihadi terrorism that threatened the kingdom just as much as it did Americans.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has developed one of the most widely admired jihadist rehabilitation programs in the Muslim world, rolled back al-Qaeda in its own borders, and developed wide-ranging sources to disrupt al-Qaeda activity in neighboring Yemen. It has been dangerous work – many Saudi national guardsmen and police officers have lost their lives in this battle.
Meanwhile, the highly regarded deputy Interior Minister, Prince Mohammad bin Naif, whose work in fighting al-Qaeda has been lauded by a slew of western officials, averted an assassination attempt simply because a suicide bomber’s explosives detonated too early.
But in addition to the hard intelligence work – the hardware of the war on terror -- the reform-minded King Abdullah has been quietly transforming the “software” within the kingdom and in the broader Muslim world that had, for too long, created an environment conducive to radicalism. This “software” transformation will be even more important, in the long run, than the “hardware” intelligence battles.
The king has re-oriented the Saudi education system away from the religious excesses of the past, sponsored global religious dialogue conferences that include Jews and Christians, and spoken out dramatically against the religious “deviancy” that produces terrorists. His five year rule has been marked by new openings in the media, civil society, and women’s rights.
The king’s signature initiatives – from wide-ranging domestic and international dialogue conferences to the creation of new universities for women to the launch of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology earlier this year – have all revolved around themes of tolerance, dialogue, and education. While it is true that the king’s lofty ambitions are often not matched by realities on the ground, his goals and actions have indubitably moved the heavy Saudi ship of state in a new direction.
The Saudi king’s influence does not end within his own borders. As custodian of the two holiest mosques in the Muslim world, in Mecca and Medina, and as the home of the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia casts a long shadow on Muslim world affairs and holds a unique place in the views of world’s Muslims.
For far too long, Saudi Arabia either shirked its responsibility to build a more moderate Muslim world, or actively supported radical elements outside its borders as part of its geopolitical strategies. That has changed under King Abdullah. After all, a Saudi king who shakes hands with a rabbi in a conference on dialogue and pushes all other Arab states to come to peace terms with Israel and is described as “a remarkable leader” by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is certainly a new kind of Saudi king.
While the news of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence cooperation wins plaudits from U.S. policy-makers, we also ought to be aware of the “software” transformation engineered by King Abdullah within his own borders and beyond. Those policies, too, will go a long way toward keeping us safe from the scourge of terrorism.
S. Rob Sobhani, Ph.D is the author of two books on the Middle East.