In September we commemorated 20 years since the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Those of us who have been professionally involved in the study of the Middle East were shocked to learn that the vast majority of the terrorists who flew hijacked aircraft into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon did not come from Lebanon, Libya, or Syria, but rather from Saudi Arabia, which was never associated with international terrorism. The same was true of their commander, the architect of the attacks.
Across the world, many tried to understand the source of the rage that motivated the attacks. Looking into this question at the time, I discovered that in Saudi Arabia there were huge multinational charities propagating a movement representing an extreme form of Islam, known in the West by the name of its 18th century founder, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab. These charities were moving enormous sums of funding to jihadist organisations around the world.
We in Israel had a particular interest in what they were doing, since one of their recipients was Hamas, a Palestinian group that advocated suicide bombings which were hitting our major cities. During 2000, Hamas helped launch the Second Intifada which brought about a sharp escalation in these attacks. I wrote a New York Times bestseller, Hatred’s Kingdom, which presented the evidence from captured documents.
Fast forward to 2021. How much Saudi money is now going to Hamas? The answer is Zero. In fact, Saudi Arabia is not giving a dime to any of the terrorist organisations. Today the main countries funding Hamas are the Islamic Republic of Iran and Qatar. Moreover, this year a Saudi Court sentenced 69 Hamas members to prison terms up to 22 years. Something had seriously changed.
What about the propagation of extremist ideologies? Back in 2001, the Muslim World League, headquartered in the Saudi Kingdom, was spreading the ideology that supported a new wave of global terror. Their membership included refugees from Arab states who had been part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet today the same Muslim World League has issued the Charter of Mecca in 2019 based on interreligious tolerance rather than jihad. A year later its secretary general took a delegation to Auschwitz. We are in a different world. Given these new circumstances, the main thesis of my book was wrong.
Since Muhmmad bin Salman (MBS) became Crown Prince in 2017, important reforms have reshaped key elements of Saudi Arabia. The religious police were harassing Saudi citizens and foreigners. In 2020, however, MBS curbed their powers. In the meantime, he has launched a new city called “Neom” near the Gulf of Aqaba, requiring international cooperation. He has set the stage for a new Saudi Arabia, which can take a leadership role in the Middle East and beyond. In many areas progress in Saudi Arabia has been remarkable. But there have been setbacks like the war in Yemen against the pro-Iranian Houthis. Iran remains on the march in the Middle East; its Houthi forces fired missiles and drones into the Saudi capital, Riyadh. There was also the Jamal Khashoggi incident in which the Saudi journalist was killed within the Saudi consulate in Turkey.
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What is required in the region is a new infrastructure of relations. After the Second World War, the US wanted to withdraw its troops, but the Soviet Union kept its armored forces ready in Germany and Czechoslovakia. The Western powers created NATO, bringing together former enemies, in order to address the new threat to them all. Today our collective challenge is Iran and its proxies, which seek to re-establish Persian power in the framework of a renewed Safavid Empire.
That would bring the Iranian armed forces into most of Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, and large parts of Syria. Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been in Lebanon since 1982 and stand to take over that country today as its economy collapses. Tehran is claiming much of the Arab Gulf, as its sovereign territory, beyond the obvious case of Bahrain.
Iran is also active across Africa. It uses Hizbullah to train Arabic-speaking militias. It employed its embassy in Algiers to reach out to the Polisario in the Western Sahara, and arm them to fight Morocco. Iran has a clearly expansionist agenda. The West’s attitude to Iran is unclear. The last time it made a nuclear deal with Tehran in 2015 (the JCPOA), it removed sanctions’ leading to massive funds flowing to the Iranian treasury and then to its militia forces around the Middle East. This must not happen a second time.
The way forward is for like-minded Saudis and Israelis to draw together. Governments will follow. We need to create consensus for the security of our nations. There are great risks on the horizon but there are great opportunities as well if we can cooperate. The time for action is now. It cannot be delayed while we wait for political developments that might take years to reach fruition. Even private citizens can bring about the needed changes if they can reach out to visionary leaders on both sides.
This is not about geo-politics alone. Historically, Jews and Muslims have been cousins who surmounted their differences and reached a common language that brought us together. In the Middle Ages, Jewish religious scholars like Maimonןdes and Yehuda Halevi wrote in Judeo-Arabic–which was written in Arabic with Hebrew letters
Our religions are rooted in common concepts, especially the One-ness of G-d, which is called Tawhid in Arabic. Our concept has been enshrined in the Biblical verse: “Hear O Israel the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One.” We have both protected our peoples from the Byzantines, the Crusaders, and others who sought to obliterate both our civilisations. We overcame what separated us and we survived.
While we have security challenges that bring us together today, we should leave future generations with a new basis of cooperation and hope that keeps our peoples as one in an alliance of civilisations. Our region gave birth to our religions and to the nations that today live with us. We must embrace that history again and in doing so set the stage for a very different Middle East.
Ambassador Gold is the President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and as Director-General of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.