Saudi Arabia and Fouad Ajami’s Way

The Hoover Institution Press has just published Fouad Ajami’s posthumous book, Crosswinds: The Way of Saudi Arabia. To mark the occasion, the Hoover Institution asked a number of colleagues and friends of Ajami to comment on the book for its online journal Caravan. I joined these other writers: Russell A. Berman, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Charles Hill, Frank Salameh, and Sanam Vakil. For all the contributions, go here. My contribution is here, and is reproduced below. To order the book, proceed here.

Crosswinds may best be described as Fouad Ajami’s furthest exploration in the Arab world.

He began in the 1970s with what he knew well: Egypt and the Levant. A child of radical Beirut and Nasser’s Arabism, he first had to escape the orbit of both. When I first met him, in a Princeton classroom in 1972, he was just beginning to shake loose.

The Arab Predicament (1981), which he described as a “chronicle of illusions and despair, of politics repeatedly degenerating into bloodletting,” freed him to explore further and deeper. First he probed the Lebanon of his own fathers in The Vanished Imam (1986). In The Dream Palace of the Arabs (1996), he crossed into Palestine and Israel. Later, in The Foreigner’s Gift (2007)he ventured further afield, to Iraq. The Syrian Rebellion (2012) filled the space between.

But beyond all these beckoned Arabia, and especially the Saudi kingdom. Of course, he knew it by legend. His own father had gone there to work. And it crept into his other writing, as early as The Arab Predicament, as a place of fabulous wealth that “only underlined a painful gap between what a society can buy and what it can be.”

The problem was that it seemed so impenetrableBut after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and America’s massive entry to Saudi Arabia, something changed. The Saudis, who had always let oil make their case, had to justify themselves. Ajami began to pay closer attention, and the Saudis took note. I have a vague recollection of meeting him in his Washington office in the early 1990s. I found him immersed in matters Saudi, busy with Saudi students, and keen to introduce his New Republic friends to the kingdom.

• •

What appealed to him? “The Arabs of the Peninsula and the Gulf littoral were the products of a pragmatic world.” They were, in a sense, his kind of people, despite all the apparent differences. An essay he wrote exactly thirty years ago (1990) explained:

Rage against the West does not come naturally to the gulf Arabs. No great tales of betrayal by Western powers are told by the Arabs of the desert. These are Palestinian, Lebanese and North African tales, told in those parts of the Arab world where the West made promises, and where people convinced themselves that they had been let down and betrayed.

Yes, there was “Muslim rage,” the title of a famous article by his friend Bernard Lewis, also from 1990. But Lewis didn’t place it in Saudi Arabia, either: “There is a Libya, an Iran, and a Lebanon, and a surge of hatred that distresses, alarms, and above all baffles Americans.” The seizure by Saudi fanatics of the Grand Mosque in 1979 was forgotten. It seemed like an internal affair, and it had left only rumors and a few grainy photographs.

Sure, there was dissent in Arabia, for which Ajami always had an ear. In The Dream Palace, Ajami amplified such a dissenting voice: the novelist Abdelrahman Munif. author of the famed quintet, Cities of Salt. To recall, in Munif’s book, American oil prospectors offend the sensibilities of traditional tribesmen. But this was a very specific, even local sort of grievance, confined to an oasis here and a clan there. No one imagined it could metastasize in something world-shaking.

In 2001, this generalization failed. “Fifteen of the nineteen”—this count of how many of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis became a ringing indictment of the kingdom. Here was rage, alright, and Osama bin Laden gave it a prominent Saudi face and a voice. Ajami had to revisit the whole question.

But where to start? It’s telling that when he finally profiled a 9/11 hijacker, he chose not a Saudi, but a Lebanese. Ziad Jarrah, he wrote, was “of greater interest to me than the others, and for strictly parochial reasons: We were both born in the same country, but two generations apart.” With Jarrah, he was on familiar ground. But could he take up the Saudi story? The 9/11 Commission, he wrote, had failed to crack the 9/11 “riddle,” but that wasn’t their fault: “the country is opaque, the walls of its privacy are high and prohibitive.” Was there another way?

Crosswinds, then, is Ajami’s attempt to do what the Commission did not do: penetrate those walls and understand the rage that erupted from within Saudi Arabia on 9/11, surprising both him and the world. As such, it looks backward, not forward. It is an attempt to uncover the roots of a radicalism nurtured by sharp contradictions. Ajami takes a deep, astute dive into texts that neither he nor any Westerner had troubled to read before 9/11: the ramblings and musings of clerics totally unknown to the outside world.

There Ajami finds many of the same ideas he had encountered in the usual rage-filled places, but with this difference: unlike in, say, Egypt, it is “hard to draw a line between mainstream jurists and their more radical colleagues.” And the monarch? (At the time, he was King Abdullah.) He, too, “was destined to stay close to the religious obscurantists.” The Saudi Arabia of Crosswinds is threatened if not occupied by hate-filled extremists.

Nor did he think it likely to change. At one point, during a 2003 visit, Ajami called on some forward-looking, cosmopolitan Saudis in Jeddah. They complained that the country had gone to the dogs, impressing Ajami with their pessimism. His conclusion: “I could not see this group of men and women, and their peers, winning a test of wills against the vigilantes and the zealots.” That being so, what was, would be: “I have long harbored doubts about the ability of the young to remake the system.”

This is the limitation of Crosswinds. Cole Bunzel, in his introduction, is right: the book does seem to have been overtaken by the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the dramatic changes of the past five years. In one place, Ajami writes that “the Saudi world changes and it doesn’t change.” Never has this been a more open question than it is today.

So Crosswinds isn’t a current analysis, but a portrait of a period. This is no reason to dismiss it, any more than one would dismiss the brilliant works of such great nineteenth-century travelers to Arabia as Palgrave (whom Ajami quotes). It is a reason to acknowledge that this gripping book combines both lasting and transient truths.

• •

T.E. Lawrence, by his own account, left most of the first draft of Seven Pillars of Wisdom on a train. His biographers believe it signaled ambivalence. Ajami left Crosswinds in his desk. Was this only because he wanted to protect people named in the book? Or was he also a bit ambivalent? We will never know.

But we must be grateful for the posthumous publication of this work. Yes, it tells us much about what Ajami called “the Saudi way.” But it also tells us everything about Ajami’s way—the way he listened, internalized, paraphrased, and interpreted. This was his unique gift to our world, and this book is a reminder of how bereft we are without him.

Martin Kramer teaches Middle Eastern history and served as founding president at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and is the Koret distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was Fouad Ajami’s student and friend for forty-two years.

Image: Newly-crowned Saudi King Abdullah, preceded by an incense burner, visits his vacation palace near Casablanca, Morocco, May 2002. Image by Ammar Abd Rabbo/Flickr.

Mecca: You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

Today is Eid al-Adha, culmination of the pilgrimage to Mecca, now marred by yet another tragedy that has left hundreds dead in a stampede. (Earlier, it was a crane collapse.) In a new photo gallery, I offer some commentary on the stupendous transformation of Mecca in our time. If you haven’t followed it closely, and (like me) you don’t have any plans to visit Mecca anytime soon, the images (and the numbers) may astound you. The effect on Islam? Unpredictable. Follow this link.

Mecca photo gallery

Chas Freeman’s Saudi fable

The other day, I brought this January 2004 quote from Chas Freeman, just named to head of the National Intelligence Council (NIC):

The heart of the poison is the Israel-Palestinian conundrum. When I was in Saudi Arabia, I was told by Saudi friends that on Saudi TV there were three terrorists who came out and spoke. Essentially the story they told was that they had been recruited to fight for the Palestinians against the Israelis, but that once in the training camp, their trainers gradually shifted their focus away from the Israelis to the monarchy in Saudi Arabia and to the United States. So the recruitment of terrorists has a great deal to do with the animus that arises from that continuing and worsening situation.

I offered this as evidence for Freeman’s view of the roots of anti-American terrorism—his thesis that terrorism is America’s punishment for supporting Israel. But some readers saw it as real evidence that terrorists are recruited through a bait-and-switch process. Bait: Fight the Israelis. Switch: Kill fellow Saudis and Americans. So I decided to check whether Freeman’s story held water. Did the television show related to him by his “Saudi friends,” and which he related to us, actually report what he said it did? After all, Freeman told this anecdote in Washington, on a panel in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and he drew rather far-reaching conclusions from it. So it should hold water, right?

Freeman told the anecdote on January 23, 2004. He prefaced it by saying that he had visited Saudi Arabia “a week ago.” The episode described to him by his “friends” would have been the dramatic broadcast on Saudi TV1 (state television) on January 12. Lasting 67 minutes, it featured several anonymous Saudi members of “terrorist cells” (their faces were shadowed) who gave brief details of how they were recruited, followed by commentary from Saudi experts. The program was a big deal, and was much commented upon by the Saudi press and foreign wire services. (Examples: Associated Press, BBC, and Agence France-Presse.) The official Saudi Press Agency provided a very detailed report, and the Foreign Broadcast Information Service prepared an exhaustive account of the program (both here).

And guess what? There is nothing in the program to substantiate Freeman’s “bait-and-switch” version of it. In almost thirty short segments in which the terrorists described their recruitment, only one made reference to something said by a recruiter on Palestine: “I sat with them and heard them speaking about jihad, the duty of jihad, and jihad as an individual duty [fard ayn] that has become incumbent on every Muslim for almost 50 years, since the Jews entered Palestine.” But another recruiter used this message: “We want to establish an Islamic state and carry out the prophet’s tradition [Hadith]. He says with great pride: The prophet removed the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula.” Some recruiters talked about the afterlife: “We ask them: What are we doing here? What do we get in return? And, they say it is in return for paradise.” Then there was Afghanistan: “Two so-called mujahidin, who were in Afghanistan, came to me and told me stories about jihad, conquest, Afghanistan, the rewards of the steadfast, the graces bestowed on mujahidin, and the glory of jihad.” Recruiters incited recruits against Saudi authority: “They only speak against Saudi rulers and men of religion. They concentrate all their efforts on Saudi Arabia.” And they plied recruits with various radical fatwas and books.

Nothing in the program suggests that the recruitment of these terrorists had “a great deal” to do with Palestine, or much to do with it at all. Palestine was one message in a barrage of messages directed by recruiters toward recruits, and not in any particular order or priority either. There is not a shred of evidence for the “bait and switch” thesis in the program. Judge for yourself.

And yet the notion is out and about in America, thanks to Chas Freeman. He didn’t see the television program; he said he was relying on his “Saudi friends.” If so, he obviously didn’t perform any due diligence on what they told him, before repeating it on Capitol Hill and drawing far-reaching conclusions from it (“the heart of the poison” and all that). It’s not hard to see how this might serve some Saudi public relations interest. But can the United States afford to tolerate this kind of method at the top of the National Intelligence Council? And isn’t the only explanation for this shoddy approach to evidence a combination of political spin and uncritical reliance on foreign “friends”—the most dangerous infections for any intelligence organization?

Freeman is hailed by some as a “contrarian” and “gadfly.” After checking out this one episode, he looks to me like a shill or a sucker. Get your red pencils sharpened for those National Intelligence Estimates.

Update, late afternoon, March 10: Put the red pencils away. This announcement is just in: “Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair announced today that Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. has requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret.”