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Ambassador Walter Cutler on Saudi security


Interview with Ambassador Walter Cutler,

President, Meridian International Center
by VOA's James Bertel - December 6, 2004

MR. BERTEL:

Joining me is Ambassador Walter Cutler, President of the Meridian International Center and a former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for being with us.

Who do you think is behind the violence in Saudi Arabia over the past 18 months?

AMBASSADOR CUTLER:

It's al-Qaida or remnants of al-Qaida, or perhaps a variety of organizations that get their inspiration and perhaps not their support from al-Qaida, those who are opposed to the American presence in the Gulf and those who also are opposed to the Government of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi royal family, for being aligned too closely with the West.

MR. BERTEL:

Is that the only reason, because of the ties between the Saudi royal family and the United States?

AMBASSADOR CUTLER:

Well, no, not the only reason. There are advocates of change. There are those who accuse the Government of Saudi Arabia of being insufficiently Islamic. The King has a title of custodian of the two Holy Mosques. This is the home of Islam. And there are religious conservative elements who feel that the country should be directed by those who are more conservatively religious than the Saudi royal family.

MR. BERTEL:

Well, you mentioned the Islamic teachings, thinking that the royal family isn't sufficiently Islamic. Are these the Wahhabi schools, and are they teaching in schools basically how to become a terrorist?

AMBASSADOR CUTLER:

No, they're not teaching how to become a terrorist. There's no question that in some of the religious schools, and in some of the public schools in Saudi Arabia, certainly the study of Islam, the study of the Quran, occupies a fair portion of the curricula of those schools. As you may know, we have been concerned, the United States has been concerned, that this not be translated into anti-Americanism or anti?Zionism. And therefore we have expressed our concern, and the Saudi Government has been reviewing the curricula and trying to take out those portions of the teachings that actually would encourage violence in the name of Islam.

MR. BERTEL:

That's one step the Saudi Government is taking. On the other side, security. Are the Saudis doing enough to come down on terrorism?

AMBASSADOR CUTLER:

Well, they're doing an awful lot more than in years past. 9/11 certainly was a start. But it really was not until last year, when the Saudis had their own 9/11, as people like to say, that the government really started getting tough on these insurgents, and with, I might say, a considerable amount of success.

As you know, we had some major incidents sometime ago. And until today's attack in Jeddah, really there had not been major incidents. The occasional attempted assassination, but not a major terrorist attack.

MR. BERTEL:

Does this go beyond religion? The Saudi royal family is trying to reform the country, move a few steps closer to a democratic society. What role is reform playing in this tension?

AMBASSADOR CUTLER:

Well, change is coming to the Middle East. Change is coming to Saudi Arabia. There's no question about it. And every time I go to Saudi Arabia, I see these changes. For example, there is a much more public dialogue, on all kinds of social issues particularly, be it education, be it the bureaucracy, be it the role of women. I've been very, very struck by how much more talk, open talk, there is on issues that in the past were too sensitive to discuss in the press for example. So you see this change coming. Elections are being planned for early next year.

In my mind, this is all good. I think everybody, including the government, recognizes that no country can stay static, can stay unchanged, during these fast-moving times.

But I think the Saudis do not want to lose their religion, do not want to lose their culture. And therefore they want reform and change to come at a measured pace. Going too far too fast could prove disastrous.

MR. BERTEL:

Ambassador Walter Cutler, thank you so much for speaking with us.

AMBASSADOR CUTLER:

You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

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