Why did it take until January for Muslim protests to erupt in violence, after the initial non-violent reaction to the publication of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons in Denmark on September 30, 2005? The answer lies within the enigmatic and schizophrenic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. By designating themselves Custodian of Islam's holy shrines, Mecca and Medina, the Saudi royal family and its uncompromising Wahhabi-Salafist religious partners have declared to the Muslim world that they are the true defenders of Islam and its Prophet.
The issue of the cartoons provided the Saudi royal family with an unprecedented opportunity to reinforce their Muslim leadership role and warn the West of Saudi willingness and ability to mobilize Muslims - violently if necessary - against the "enemies of Islam." Knowing that Muslims will rise against anyone who defames their Prophet or religion, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called an urgent summit meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Mecca on December 7, 2005, ostensibly to discuss religious extremism and the image of Islam, with the leaders of the world's 57 Muslim nations.
Playing its hand cleverly and stealthily, the Saudis used the Mecca conference to spark violent reactions to the four-month-old cartoons and eclipse other significant events the Saudis wanted to cover up (see Hassan M. Fattah's report in the New York Times, "At Mecca Meeting, Cartoon Outrage Crystallized," February 9, 2006). "It was no big deal [the cartoons] until the Islamic Conference, when the OIC took a stance against it," said Muhammad el-Sayed Said, deputy director of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. Instead of condemning violence, the closing OIC communiqué tersely condemned "using freedom of expression as a pretext to defame religions." And on January 26, 2006 the Saudis were the first to recall their ambassador from Denmark to protest the cartoons, while radical Wahhabi-Salafist clerics back home called on their Muslim followers to boycott Danish products. These moves came four days before the State of the Union Address in Washington, where President Bush again called for democratization and political openness in the Middle East, much to the chagrin and discomfort of the autocratic Saudi ruling family.
Given Saudi influence with the Muslim faithful worldwide, the royal family failed to exercise restraint in the cartoon controversy and placed its own narrow self-interest before peace, stability, respect for law, and sanctity of life. The Saudis again demonstrated that it would risk plunging the world into religious war if its domination or survival is perceivably threatened. The Saudi decision to initiate a protest against Denmark and the cartoons was based on well-calculated principles of royal family self-preservation and helped divert world attention from the Hamas Palestinian election victory, uncomfortable Kuwaiti succession issues, and Abdullah's extraordinary security-for-oil agreements with China. The strategic significance of King Abdullah's recent trip to China was overshadowed in the press by the cartoon fiasco, but his trip clearly marked a strategic effort by the Saudi government to shift alliances from the West to Asian countries, especially China, for trade, protection, and support for the Saudi royal family against possible future threats to its repressive regime.
The Saudi royal family could have used the Mecca conference to bring the world's Muslim leaders together in the cause of peace and stability. Instead, King Abdullah chose to play a devious, behind-the-scenes role to bolster Saudi leadership in the Muslim world and reinforce the royal family's survival by using explosive religious issues, energy blackmail and billions in oil money. As many Western politicians and news media organizations cringe in fear over the Danish cartoons, many questions remain unanswered:
What price must the world ultimately pay for the self-serving efforts of the Saudi royal family?
Where does their unrestrained behavior in promoting violence leave the oppressed Saudi people?
What are the implications for Middle East peace and global economic stability?
Finally, what side in the war against radical, militant Islamism is Saudi Arabia really on? -- Colonel B. Wayne Quist and Dr. Ali H. Alyami