Op-Ed: Citizen Trump was right about the Saudis; President Trump, not so much

President Donald Trump holds a sword and sways with traditional dancers during a welcome ceremony at Murabba Palace on May 20, in Riyadh.
President Donald Trump holds a sword and sways with traditional dancers during a welcome ceremony at Murabba Palace on May 20, in Riyadh.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

“It’s the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petrodollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people.”

So said Donald Trump, private citizen. But then President Trump made Saudi Arabia his very first foreign destination. Trump rode in a golf cart with King Salman, did a traditional sword dance and speechified about America’s great friendship with “the Magnificent Kingdom.”

What changed Trump’s mind? Apparently, $110 billion. That’s how much the Saudis announced Saturday that they’ll spend to buy advanced American weaponry — one of the biggest arms deals in history.


This weapons deal, the president said, is all about U.S. jobs. Yet how many Americans want to work to arm the country that, as Citizen Trump said, “blew up the World Trade Center”?

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis. The 9/11 Commission report found that Saudi society “was a place where al Qaeda raised money directly from individuals and through charities,” and that it was likely that “charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to al Qaeda.” Although the Saudis have made some progress in cutting back such support since 2001, massive amounts of funding still go from Saudi Arabia to extremist groups. So Citizen Trump was right: Saudi Arabia still “funnels our petrodollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists.”

The Saudis have spent between $70 billion and $100 billion transforming once-tolerant Muslim communities from Pakistan to Paris into wellsprings of extremism.

Worse, over the last 40 years, even more of “our very own money” has helped the Saudi regime disperse its radical form of Islam by building schools and mosques, and by paying preachers worldwide. It’s estimated that the Soviets in their day spent around $7 billion spreading communist ideology while the Saudis have spent ten times that amount — or more — transforming once-tolerant Muslim communities from Pakistan to Paris into wellsprings of extremism. Journalist Peter Maass calls it “the most expensive information campaign ever mounted,” in his book on oil, “Crude World.”

The Islam that Saudi is spreading is a severe fundamentalism called Salafism. Citizen Trump tried to sum up Salafism by saying that Saudis “want women as slaves and to kill gays.” In older Salafist school textbooks that the Saudis disseminated globally, Christians and Jews were compared to “swine” and “apes.” A later 12th-grade text explains the religious duty to wage jihad against the infidel to expand the faith. Even recent Saudi textbooks teach the anti-Semitic fable “The Protocol of the Elders of Zion” as history and insist that sorcerers must be killed.

Trump’s speech on Sunday rightly decried the horrors of terrorism and urged international unity to resist it. But the “global center for combating extremist ideology” he announced in the speech, to be credible, will need to start by combating the Saudi government itself.


Decades of Saudi proselytizing have contributed to violent extremism worldwide. According to William McCants, the director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, most of the groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the United States now espouse some version of the Saudis’ intolerant faith. And a close look at the Global Terrorism Database shows that the increase in terrorist killings since 2000 is almost entirely due to attacks by violent Salafists — including nearly 3 out of 4 terrorist killings worldwide in the last 10 years.

And it’s “our very own money” that’s been bankrolling the Saudis in their gigantic ideological campaign. Using U.S. government data, I calculate that America’s 125 million households each sent, on average, around $35 to the Saudis last year just by buying gas — and even more if you count what we spent on plastics and other everyday goods made with petroleum.

The irony is that we don’t need to buy Saudi oil anymore. Nick Butler, a former vice president at BP, says that the U.S. could end imports of oil from Saudi Arabia (in fact from all authoritarian countries) in a matter of months, and at almost no cost. Instead of selling the Saudis arms, we could stop doing business with the country that still incites radicals who “seek to destroy our people.”

The main force behind the weekend’s arms deal is King Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman. This young prince is leading Saudi’s war in Yemen, where Saudi attacks on civilians have been flagrant enough to make the United Nations warn of war crimes. In January, Trump joined the Saudis by ordering a failed raid in which a Navy SEAL and 30 Yemini civilians were killed. By giving the young prince this huge arms deal, Trump is doubling-down on U.S. complicity in another disastrous foreign war.

Citizen Trump once accused a Saudi prince of wanting to “control U.S. politicians with daddy’s money.” A critic might say the same about what Prince Mohammed wants to do to President Trump. Except that the money that lets Saudi Arabia control the president of the United States comes from us, when we pointlessly pay for Saudi oil at the pump.


Leif Wenar is the author of “Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules That Run the World.” He is a professor at King’s College London.

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