Why the west’s view of the Saudis is shifting
Politicians are taking up similar themes. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor, has accused Saudi Arabia of funding Islamist extremism in the west and added: “We have to make it clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over.” In the UK, Lord Ashdown, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, has called for an investigation into the “funding of jihadism” in Britain and pointed at Saudi Arabia.
There are also solid reasons, that have little to do with money, for continued western co-operation with Saudi Arabia. The past five years have demonstrated that when bad governments fall in the Middle East, they are often replaced by something far worse. The most powerful internal critics of the Saudi monarchy are not liberals but hardline Islamists. The fear that Saudi Arabia could become yet another failed state haunts the west. One senior UK diplomat warns: “Get rid of the House of Saud and you will be screaming for them to come back within six months.”
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with jihadism is also complex. It is true that Islamists in Saudi Arabia have provided ideological and sometimes financial support for jihadis around the world. But it is also true that the Saudi royal family itself has been targeted by both Isis and al-Qaeda. At the same time, intelligence provided by the Saudis has been critical in thwarting some terrorist plots in the west. As one western counter-terrorism official puts it: “The Saudis are sometimes both the source of the problem and the best antidote to it.”
Some western strategists daydream about ditching the Saudi alliance in favour of a rapprochement with Iran. If international politics were a chess game, this might look like a clever gambit.
There has long been something repellently craven about the western approach to the Saudi monarchy.
The Europeans and Americans have accepted a blatant double standard, in which the Saudis are allowed to fund their own brand of religious intolerance while banning the organised practice of other religions inside Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps it is time to give the Saudis a choice: agree to allow churches, Hindu temples and synagogues to open in Saudi Arabia, or face the end of Saudi funding for mosques in the west.