The mask of U.S.-Saudi friendship is finally slipping

New accusations, from a convicted 9/11 conspirator, that Saudi princes were among al-Qaeda's key patrons is driving a new wedge into U.S.-Saudi relations, one that was already more of a public show than anything else, Neil Macdonald writes.

Saudi princes accused of being patrons of al-Qaeda by 9/11 conspirator

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, her head uncovered, stand in a receiving line, in Riyadh, in January, to express their condolences on the death of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. (The Associated Press)

The Saudi embassy in Washington says Zacarias Moussaoui is a deranged criminal.

He may well be; the so-called "20th hijacker" is certainly a criminal, confined to the most secure federal prison in America, and certainly portrayed himself as crazy during his 9/11 trial, 10 years ago in Virginia.

I covered it, and his courtroom rants were either delusional or meant to be perceived as such. (It didn't work; the presiding judge pronounced him competent to stand trial and "extremely intelligent.")

But his most recent testimony, given at the super-max penitentiary in Colorado last year and made public this week, reads like what it is: a detailed accounting by a man who holds a master's degree from a British university.

And what a remarkable account it is.

Moussaoui states that the 9/11 hijackers were supported not only by Saudi Arabian charities, but by Saudi princes and diplomats.

He reels off names he says were in an al-Qaeda database of moneyed donors, making it clear the jihadists couldn't really have accomplished much without them.

Moussaoui was testifying in civil proceedings in support of families of 9/11 victims who are suing the Saudi government.

So far, the White House has protected the kingdom. It has classified part of a congressional investigation — widely believed to have examined Saudi sources of funding for the attackers —  and has never emphasized that most of the attackers were Saudi citizens.

One suspects the feds weren't too keen on allowing Moussaoui to testify in the lawsuit, either.

Deranged or not, though, Moussaoui's testimony is further straining an ugly diplomatic bargain: In return for open gushers of oil and military co-operation, America and other Western nations smile and overlook the sometimes ugly elements of the Saudi regime.

A telling scene

It's instructive to watch video of President Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia last month. He abruptly rearranged his schedule to publicly mourn the dead king and fawn over Salman, the newly installed one.

The official welcoming ceremony was all smiles and fellowship, yet another staged display of American-Saudi solidarity.

(Also among the leaders who sent messages of high praise for the deceased King Abdullah was Stephen Harper, the same fellow who made a big deal of only reluctantly shaking Vladimir Putin's hand.)

But the kingdom's contempt for the West was easy to see.

Michelle Obama, forced to stand away from and behind her husband, keeping her face blank, as a procession of important Saudis conspicuously ignored her.

Saudi Arabia's new King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 2nd right first row, poses with members of the consultative Shura Council in Riyadh. Since assuming the throne Jan. 23, King Salman has elevated some of his closest relatives and sidelined previous power-brokers. (The Associated Press)

Most Saudi men practise a fundamentalist version of Islam, and won't publicly touch a woman. Especially one who had the nerve to appear before them with her hair uncovered.

The American first lady no doubt did that quite deliberately; she has covered her hair in other places, notably Indonesia and the Vatican.

Presumably, as a feminist, she disapproves of trying women in terrorism courts for the crime of driving, and hacking the head off a screaming, struggling woman in public, as someone videotaped it all, and a voice on a loudspeaker read from the Qur'an.

(No press releases after that episode about "barbarity" or "mindless violence" of the sort the State Department issues about ISIS beheadings, only diplomatic silence.)

At last month's welcoming ceremony, as one VIP after another shook the American president's hand, a man approached, ignored Obama, who seemed to try to shake his hand, too, and spoke directly to the king. It was prayer time.

The monarch and every other Saudi man present abruptly turned and walked away, leaving Obama standing there.

Obama, striving to maintain presidential dignity, turned to a nearby diplomat and began chatting, as though he hadn't just been left hanging.

It was a telling scene, one that belied the mask of amity the two countries wear in public.

The gift of secrecy

Obama, having endorsed the Arab Spring as a wonderful expression of the people's will, also had to look the other way in 2011 when the Saudis sent troops across the causeway into Bahrain to violently crush Shia crowds protesting their treatment by the emirate's Sunni rulers.

Saudi's minority Shias have met with similar treatment; a respected Shia cleric was sentenced to death recently for criticizing the government.

The Saudis, who fund the building of mosques in America and around the world, strictly prohibit the presence of any religion but Islam on their soil, and America, the champion of religious freedom, says nothing.

The Saudis also openly scorned Obama for not being quick enough or generous enough in funding Syria's rebel forces. (As it turned out, of course, much of the Saudi funding ended up being channeled to ISIS and its cohort, but never mind.)

Convicted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui has been testifying at a civil suit on behalf of the families of 9/11 victims suing Saudi Arabia for compensation. (The Associated Press)

But the American public's willingness to tolerate the hypocrisy around Saudi Arabia is wearing thin. According to reports in U.S. media, Obama was unwilling or unable to form any sort of real friendship with Abdullah, the recently deceased king.

Increasingly, Saudi Arabia is being discussed in the U.S. media with the same tone accorded Pakistan, another official ally with at least informal links to al-Qaeda.

Pakistani officials are still angry that Obama sent a team of assassins to Osama bin Laden's hideaway in Abbottabad without telling them. (They were completely unaware, of course, that bin Laden was living there, just down the road from one of their military bases.)

Now, politicians on both sides of the aisle in Congress have called on Obama to declassify the 9/11 chapter concerning the Saudis.

The American public, they say, has the right to know what their own Congress discovered.

It was ironic that Moussaoui would have testified in support of the 9/11 families; it would be profoundly so if this "20th hijacker," from his captivity in Colorado, forces the White House to lift the gift of secrecy it's extended to the Saudis.

For those wishing to see Moussaoui's testimony in the civil suit, the New York Times provides links to the transcripts from its story. 

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.


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