Solving the Riddle of Saudi Arabia, and of September 11

November 4, 2020 | Martin Kramer
About the author: Martin Kramer is a historian at Tel Aviv University and the Walter P. Stern fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as founding president at Shalem College in Jerusalem.

After writing books centered on Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinians, Iraq, and Syria, the great Arab scholar Fouad Ajami tackled Saudi Arabia. His book on the subject, titled Crosswinds, did not appear until after his death in 2014. Martin Kramer examines Ajami’s assessment of this country, whose great wealth, the latter once observed, “only underlined a painful gap between what a society can buy and what it can be.”

[A]fter the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and America’s massive entry into Saudi Arabia, something changed. The Saudis, who had always let oil make their case, had to justify themselves. Ajami began to pay closer attention. . . . What appealed to him? “The Arabs of the Peninsula and the Gulf littoral were the products of a pragmatic world.”

Sure, there was dissent in Arabia, for which Ajami always had an ear. . . . But . . . no one imagined it could metastasize into 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.

The 9/11 Commission, he wrote, had failed to crack the 9/11 “riddle,” but that wasn’t the fault of its members: “the country is opaque, the walls of its privacy are high and prohibitive.”

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