When the Onion Writes the Pentagon’s Scripts: Je Suis Abdullah

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January 26, 2015; Department of Defense News

As a follow-up to our story on President Obama’s decision to cut short his trip to India to visit with new Saudi king Salman, we had to share this. Although worthy of The Onion, it is real—unless we, Mother Jones, the Washington Examiner, the National Review, and scores of other outlets have been snookered by a fabulous prank. On behalf of the Pentagon, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that the National Defense University would sponsor a research and essay competition in honor of the late King Abdullah, who died last week at the age of 90. Calling the dead king a “man of remarkable courage,” Dempsey said that the essay competition was “an important opportunity to honor the memory of the king, while also fostering scholarly research on the Arab-Muslim world.”

Give that some thought. An essay competition to honor the Wahhabi king who financed terrorism around the world, repressed his own people, denied some of the most basic rights to women, authorized mutilating or beheading “criminals”…oh, the list goes on and on. The fact that this competition was announced by President Obama’s military chief as the president goes to Saudi Arabia has given politically conservative outlets the opportunity to lambaste the president for honoring Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi monarch.

Abdullah ruled as the regent, the de facto ruler of the country, beginning in 1995 when King Fahd suffered a serious stroke and became king in 2005 when Fahd died. Mother Jones published its entry in the essay competition, noting Abdullah’s infamous accomplishments against women’s rights, the rights of migrant workers (including domestic workers), peaceful protest, torture, and more. Another category MJ could have added was Saudi Arabia’s horrific record on domestic violence and child abuse during Abdullah’s reign, epitomized, so to speak, by the unbelievably vicious rape and beating of a five-year-old girl by her father, a celebrity preacher in Saudi Arabia, because he suspected she wasn’t a virgin. Lama lingered for 10 months before dying as a result of the sadistic beatings she endured. It took her death to prompt the Saudi royal family to do anything about domestic abuse, but don’t credit Abdullah. By 2013, Abdullah was so ill it is likely that others in the royal family were in charge of making that begrudging acknowledgement.

So why is President Obama making a sharp detour to spend time with King Salman? By failing to show up in Paris for the Charlie Hebdo rallies (the White House was reportedly “surprised” that 40 heads of state including Western European allies plus Netanyahu from Israel and Abbas from Palestine did), the president may be saying to the world, even if unintentionally, “je ne suis pas Charlie, mais je suis Abdullah.”

Please share with us your ideas for the Pentagon’s essay completion. Send them to us…and perhaps to The Onion as well.—Rick Cohen

  • John Godfrey

    Rick, you are usually more painstaking in your research. “Wahhabi king who financed terrorism around the world, repressed his own people, denied some of the most basic rights to women, authorized mutilating or beheading “criminals”…ouch! First, Abdullah and his family are not Wahabi. The Wahabi are an entirely separate clerical dynasty/community who enforces moral order through the mosque in Saudi Arabia. An alliance was forged between the Saud dynasty and the Wahabi by King Abdel-Aziz in the early 1900s. The deal was that the Wahabi been given leave to enforce their strict form of Islamic clerical law in return for their military support of the King. That deal was how Abdel-Aziz secured control of the various fiefdoms of the Arabian peninsula; and is how his sons have maintained control ever since. In comparison to his brothers Abdullah was regarded by most Saudis, including much of the Saudi intelligencia, as a “liberal”. OK, he may not seem much like a liberal to Western eyes yet, albeit achingly slow, reforms were made under his rule. The main source of opposition to reform in Saudi Arabia are those self same Wahabi plus other members of the extraordinarily large royal family, many of who continue to jostle for power behind the scenes. In short, Saudi Arabia is a political powder keg over which a strong, by Western standards, seemingly tyrannical rule is a neccessity. Regarding the intelligentsia, this is something which Abdullah tacitly developed by funding overseas, university education for large numbers of Saudi men and women; and more recently invested a significant part of his personal fortune in by founding an eponymous co-educational university near Jeddah, where I worked for a brief period. Regarding the powder keg – with the flames of ISIS/ISIL, Syria, Iran and Iraq flickering not too distantly it’s probably as well to keep the protective relationship and the policies that have kept it from exploding thus far.

  • Rick Cohen

    Hello John Yes, I know the history of the Wahhabis and the protection they have received plus the quid pro quo with the Saudi family. Yes, apparently compared with Fahd, he was a reformer of sorts. It’s a little hard to appreciate that with the coverage I’ve given to the protests of women in Saudi Arabia seeking the right to drive cars (I remember one woman whose father, supportive of his daughter’s efforts, was in the back seat, but quaking the entire time–I really admired him as well as his daughter). The chart I showed in my previous article about the punishments meted out by Saudi authorities for various crimes, punishments including maiming, beheading, stoning, etc., suggests that Abdullah had a long way to go. And then, I must confess, I’m personally stunned at the 1000 lashes and 20 year sentence that blogger Raif Badawi has earned for his crime of insulting Islam, which the insult was simply one of religious tolerance of some sort. There are Realpolitik reasons for the Saudi royal family’s protection of the Wahhabi dynasty and Realpolitik reasons why Obama along with lots of others have flocked to Saudi Arabia to welcome in King Salman. Of course, some of it is kind of stunning. Egyptian strongman al-Sisi cut short the ceremonies honoring the Arab Spring, which are a distant memory in Cairo, to head to Riyadh himself. It is all very complex. It’s good that Abdullah put a significant part of his wealth into the university. Abdullah seemed to rarely appear on the lists of the world’s wealthiest people, because those lists typically don’t include heads of state, but the estimates I’ve seen put his personal wealth at somewhere between $19b and $21b, roughly in the range of his nephew, Al-Waleed bin Talal, who’s always in the top 50 at a minimum of the world’s wealthiest people. It is a truly distinctive country. Abdullah and his family, including the minor relatives who I have seen at DC fundraisers, oddly enough, are not Wahhabis, but the country provides a protective gauze over the sect and allows its interpretation of religion and the law to continue and be enforced, albeit as you note with small movements toward liberalization. Isn’t the powder keg that is Saudi Arabia, evidenced in any number of ways, partly due to the dominance of Wahhabism? Thanks for the “ouch” comment.