Ranting or analyzing? Fareed Zakaria and Saudi foreign policy

Abdullah Hamidaddin

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Fareed Zakaria is a very influential media figure, but his understanding of the region is somewhat limited, and his approach to foreign policy analysis is quite immature. Both qualities featured in his recent Time Magazine article: “Zakaria: The Saudis Are Mad? Tough! Why we shouldn’t care that the world’s most irresponsible country is displeased at the U.S.”

Criticizing the foreign policies of any State is absolutely necessary. The one who benefits most is the target of the critique. But it is one thing to offer political critique and another to offer political ranting; which is what Zakaria did in his article. But the problem is not his rant, rather, the problem is that it would be taken as a serious political analysis. Saudi Arabia is stereotyped. And as a result people are allowed to think about it in certain ways, regardless of the facts. Worse still, people are allowed to analyze it nonsensically and still be taken seriously. This is a fundamental problem. If the logic which Zakaria used in his article was applied in an analysis of German or Russian foreign policy, it would become a laughing matter. But applying that logic to Saudi Arabia made it a political analysis.

He starts by saying: “America’s Middle East policies are failing, we are told, and the best evidence is that Saudi Arabia is furious.” And then he sarcastically says: “Surely the last measure of American foreign policy should be how it is received by the House of Saud.”

It is worth nothing that Zakaria was himself among those telling us that U.S. foreign policy was failing. He even said that some of Obama’s policies should be taken as “a case study in how not to do foreign policy.” But the odd thing is that someone like Zakaria would say that maintaining good relations with your primary allies is not a measure of foreign policy success. Like it or not, Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the U.S. for seven decades now. This alliance has been based on mutual tangible interests that are fundamental to the national security of both countries. And there is nothing to suggest that this will change anytime soon. So to say that the anger of such an ally is not important is politically naive to say the least. At the end of the article he justifies his lack of interest in the Saudis by the assumption that the U.S. will soon not need oil from the Gulf. But Saudi Arabia is not just a source of oil for the U.S., it is the primary player in the global energy security market, making its alliance fundamental to U.S. national security.


If the logic which Zakaria used in his article was applied in an analysis of German or Russian foreign policy, it would become a laughing matter. But applying that logic to Saudi Arabia made it a political analysis.

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Zakaria goes on to say that he the Saudis should be awarded “a prize for Most Irresponsible Foreign Policy.” The reasons he offers for awarding this to the Saudis can be summed in their relationship with “Islamic radicalism and militancy around the world.” Now, let’s assume for a moment that the Saudis had such relations, which would only be bad because many innocent people had died violently because of Islamic radicalism. But, would he also give such an award to all countries whose foreign policy had destructive consequences? Had caused immeasurable human suffering? Would he give such a prize to a country that had supported some of the most ruthless dictators in the world? Or a country which had sought to obliterate democracy in Central and South America? Or a country whose secretary of state believed that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children was a worthwhile price for containing Saddam Hussein? Or a country whose victims in one day may exceed the victims of Islamic terrorism since the early 1980s? Or the country that had trained and financed death squads in Central and South America?

Now, believe me when I say that I am not a fan of Wahhabism, nor zealotry, and I have been very critical of both. But I criticize them as a form of religiosity and not because of their immediate influence on social or individual behavior. There simply exists no empirical evidence to suggest that having an exclusionary religious creed leads to violence or intolerance. Much in the same way that there exists no empirical evidence to suggest that having a peaceful creed would lead to peace and love. Violence and intolerance comes from people of all religions and non-religions. But even if I am wrong here, Zakaria himself had once said that “for all his intellectual shortcomings, Bush recognized that the roots of Islamic terror lie in the dysfunctions of the Arab world.” And this is true.

The situation in the Middle East has pushed many people to the edge, and when they do fall, they justify it with the moral system to which they belong; Islam in this case. But again, even if I were to concede that being a Wahhabi makes it at least easier to justify violent motivations; would that mean the Saudi government is to blame? Zakaria himself said in 2002 that Saudi funding of terrorists is not coming from the government of Saudi Arabia “but Saudi charities.” Many Americans at one point financed the IRA; does that implicate the American government? And once again if I were to say that he is right, that the Saudi government had actually supported terrorist organizations, does it in itself say anything about the soundness or irresponsibility of such a policy? In politics, relationships are not judged by themselves, rather, by their outcomes. So he needs to come and tell us that a cost benefit analysis would establish that those decisions lead to more loss than gain; losses and gains in Saudi interest and not in any other country’s interest. But of course he does not do that.

The ABC of foreign policy

He goes on to say: “Saudi Arabia’s objections to the Obama Administration’s policies toward Syria and Iran are not framed by humanitarian concerns for the people of those countries.” It is as if there has to be humanitarian considerations for objections to strategic decisions? The ABC of foreign policy is that it is inherently self-serving and amoral. Does he think that Obama’s administration has a humanitarian litmus test for its relations with its allies? And does he want to fool us into thinking that the U.S. cares about the humans in Syria or Iran? Did Kerry come to the region to speak to the Saudis about their humanitarian unconcern? And please don’t get me wrong. I am here judging the article according to the standards of foreign policy, not to the standards of morality. Zakaria then says that those Saudi objections to the U.S. are “rooted in a pervasive anti-Shiite ideology.” So, the Saudis hate the Shiites and tailor their regional political strategy according to that hate. And the training Saudi security strategy manual includes a chapter on theological polemics. This is, of course, nonsense. And I refer you to an article I had written on such sectarian analysis.

In 2008, Zakaria had asked: “What would be the gain to the average American to lessen our influence with Saudi Arabia, the central banker of oil, in a world in which we are still crucially dependent on that energy source?” I think Zakaria 2013 needs to seriously revisit his question. But the question I wish to conclude with is this: What are Saudis going to do about the stereotypes that have made such empty analysis be taken seriously?

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Nov. 8, 2013.

Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

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