Saudi Arabia is part of the problem and part of the solution to global jihad

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has raised the difficult issue of Saudi Arabia’s unique position in the struggle with global jihad, a very complex subject that she rightly argues needs more attention. She said Saudi Arabia must do more to stop its citizens from funding extremism. Ironically, a good place to begin to understand the very complex Saudi role is in Belgium.

Symbols of Saudi influence

The Great Mosque of Brussels is set in one of Belgium’s most beautiful and monumental parks, Le Parc Cinquantenaire, which opened on the fiftieth anniversary of Belgium’s independence in 1880. Originally, the mosque was built as the Oriental Pavilion in the complex of museums that were constructed throughout the park to mark the anniversary. It was not a house of worship, but a museum to teach Belgians about Islam and the Middle East. Over the years after the celebrations in 1880, the building was neglected and deteriorated.

In 1967, King Baudoin of Belgium gave the building as a gift to King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, who was on a good will visit to Europe. Faisal had become king three years earlier, after a protracted succession struggle with his brother Saud. The Saudi Wahhabi clergy, the ulema, had been critical to Faisal’s victory in the power struggle. Faisal was eager to demonstrate his piety and religious devotion to Wahhabi Islam to keep the favor of the clerics.

Over the next decade, Faisal and then his successor King Khaled provided generous funding to restore the original building and turn it into a major religious center in Brussels, the Centre Islamique et Culturel de Belgique. It officially opened its doors to the faithful in 1978 at a ceremony presided over by Khalid and Baudoin. Today, it is the largest and most influential mosque in the capital of the European Union. It is only a few hundred meters away from the EU’s headquarters in the city. My own home for more than three years was directly across the street from the mosque, on Avenue de la Renaissance, giving me a bird’s eye view.

The mosque in Brussels is symbolic of King Faisal’s decisive influence on both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic world more broadly. It was during his reign that the Kingdom began aggressively exporting its own brand of Islam around the world. Faisal commissioned great mosques in many countries from Belgium to Pakistan to help spread the faith as practiced in the Kingdom. The Kingdom’s rapidly expanding oil revenues paid for the export of the faith around the world. Faisal rightly is regarded as the architect of modern Saudi diplomacy based on the “legacy of strong puritan Islamic values maintained by descendants of Wahhabi reformers with the al Shaykh” family, as his best biographer wrote. Indeed, Faisal’s mother was an al-Shaykh, a direct descendant of Muhammad abd al Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. Faisal literally embodied the unity of the two great families that created the Kingdom, the Sauds and the al Shaykhs.[i] 

Faisal’s oil-funded export of Saudi Islamic values helped strengthen Muslim communities around the world. Much of his work benefited the global community of Islam, the umma, providing schools, hospitals, and mosques for many faithful. But it also fueled the least tolerant and most extreme elements within the umma. Within the puritanical version of Islam that Saudi Arabia values so much, there are also those who have exploited their faith for political purposes to justify the global jihad and terrorism. Osama bin Laden is only the most famous Saudi to make the journey from faithful citizen of Saudi Arabia to mass murderer. Faisal would undoubtedly denounce bin Laden and al-Qaida if he was alive today, but his propagation of his intolerant version of faith cannot escape some culpability for the problems besetting Islam today.

Within the puritanical version of Islam that Saudi Arabia values so much, there are also those who have exploited their faith for political purposes to justify the global jihad and terrorism.

Belgium has become a hotbed of Islamic militancy and extremism. The small Muslim community of 1967 has grown enormously with migrants, mostly from Morocco. More Belgians have joined groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State per capita than any other country in Europe. The district of Molenbeek, far across the city from le Parc Cinquantenaire, has achieved a dubious fame as “jihad central” in Europe.

Faisal is the architect of modern Saudi Arabia. He inherited a still very impoverished kingdom with an almost medieval government and turned it into a modern state with a global reach. He ensured that out of the ashes of a dangerous succession struggle, the passage of power from one of his brothers to another would provide stability in the Kingdom for fifty years. That stability provides the basis for the Kingdom’s remarkable achievements.

The Saudis and the solution to global jihad

Earlier this week, Secretary Clinton specifically called on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the only two Wahhabi states in the world, to do a better job of ensuring their citizens do not fund terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic state. It was an unusual public admonition from a senior American policymaker that the Kingdom is both part of the problem and part of the solution to the global jihad. The Secretary is right to call for a more candid and decisive dialogue between Washington and Riyadh on this subject. Usually it is discussed behind closed doors, but it needs more transparency.

Saudi Arabia has been a very effective ally against al-Qaida and related groups for over a decade, ever since Osama bin Laden called for the overthrow of the House of Saud and began a violent campaign in the Kingdom to bring them down. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the subject of my recent Brookings Essay, led the Saudi battle against bin Laden. He also leads efforts to stop private funding of terrorists. Much of the public discourse on Saudi links to jihad are hysterical and exaggerated.

But as Clinton’s remarks suggest, more needs to be done. Saudi sources remain major funders of groups like the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e Taiba in Pakistan. Some accounts suggest Saudi money has gone to al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front. Even al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which tried to assassinate Prince Nayef more than once, has been an unintended beneficiary of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen because it fights the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

The dialogue between America and Saudi Arabia is never simple. We are uneasy allies, but it is very important to get it right.

These are complex and difficult issues for dialogue. Saudis like Prince Turki al-Faisal, the King’s son and former intelligence chief, will rightly note that Saudi Arabia has been fighting terror for years and that America also helped inadvertently to create the global jihad in its partnership with the Kingdom in the Afghan war in the 1980s. The dialogue between America and Saudi Arabia is never simple. We are uneasy allies, but it is very important to get it right.


[i] Joseph A. Kechichian, Faysal: Saudi Arabia’s King for All Seasons (Gainesville, Florida, University of Florida Press, 2008), p. 7.