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OPINION: Why Saudi isn't part of Trump’s travel ban

Ali Shihabi

Published: Updated:

Saudi Arabia has not been included among the list of countries whose citizens are banned from entering the US by the Trump administration. That may seem strange since most of the 9/11 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia.

Critics of the executive order are suggesting Trump gave Saudi Arabia a pass because he has business interests there. But that’s not true, and there is far more to the story.

In reality, while he had registered four companies in Delaware that included the name of Saudi Arabia’s port city of Jeddah, those companies were closed immediately after the election, and he has no businesses registered in Saudi Arabia itself.

But the most compelling reason why Saudi Arabia is not on the list is clear: Saudi Arabia is not, and has never been, considered by the State Department to be a state sponsor of terrorism, unlike Iran. Saudi Arabia is also not a failed state like others on the list.

List is 'nothing new'

The list is also nothing new, and was in fact part of a bill signed by President Obama a year ago that ended visa waivers for foreigners who had visited those seven countries.

There is a simplistic, knee-jerk reaction among political commentators who try to paint Saudi Arabia in broad brush strokes by pointing out that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens. Yes, that is true. But what may surprise many Americans is the extremely close security relationship that has developed between Saudi Arabia and the United States in the wake of that horrific event.

Over dinner one night last year, a high-ranking, recently retired US diplomat who had been posted to Riyadh told me that US-Saudi security cooperation “is now the closest in the world, closer even than that of the UK-US or even that of the Israeli-US security relationship.”

Ali al-Shihabi

That relationship was made crystal clear over the weekend in a more than hour-long phone call between Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. During that call, the two discussed how one of Osama bin Laden’s goals was to destroy the strategic relationship the US and Saudi Arabia have held for some 70 years.

The administration of President George W. Bush did not fall into this trap set by al-Qaeda. The Obama administration also, wisely, did not take that bait. Instead, the relationship has become even stronger, and for good reason.

Security cooperation

The 9/11 tragedy led to an even closer level of security cooperation between both allies specifically targeted at fighting terrorism. This has protected American lives, including thwarting a series of attacks planned by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula emanating from Yemen. In that plot, two bombs hidden in printer ink cartridges planted aboard UPS and FedEx planes would have detonated over US cities.

Underpinning all this has been the enormous effort by the Saudi government after 9/11 to crush al-Qaeda and then ISIS within its borders, hunt down any of its citizens involved with these groups inside the country and abroad, and aggressively go after any funding for terrorist activity that could be tied to Saudi citizens or organizations. This was recognized last year by Daniel Glaser, the US Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing in his testimony to Congress in which he described Saudi Arabia as a “leader in combatting money flows to terrorism.”

Over dinner one night last year, a high-ranking, recently retired US diplomat who had been posted to Riyadh told me that US-Saudi security cooperation “is now the closest in the world, closer even than that of the UK-US or even that of the Israeli-US security relationship.”

In support of this, the Saudi government has built a multi-billion-dollar security technology program that, among other things, now issues digital identity cards to every citizen in the country, tying them all into a central data base, where all information known to the state, including sensitive intelligence information, is collected and accessible.

This has been accompanied by a protocol of full transparency to American authorities, allowing Saudi Arabian passenger manifests to be shared with US intelligence well before anyone sets foot on a plane. It also effectively ensures that no Saudi with even a remote association or risk of being associated with terrorism is granted a visa. Given this intense level of security cooperation - something the US does not enjoy with Iran - it becomes clear why the Trump administration has a high level of comfort about Saudi visitors to the US

Banning visitors to the US based on religion or ethnic origin will probably do little to protect America - and in fact, may actually increase the risk to its national security. But succumbing to falsehoods presented as fact about Saudi Arabia will also do nothing to tackle the true security threats that exist today. Saudi Arabia is a friend and ally in this fight. Let’s not be sidetracked by arguments about adding it to a list of countries to which it most certainly does not belong.

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Ali Shihabi is Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Arabia Foundation, and is a member of the board of trustees of the International Crisis Group.