A Saudi sponsor of Jihad

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IT WAS Tony Blair's lowest moment since the terrible atrocities of 7 July: when King Fahd of Saudi Arabia died last week, Britain's Prime Minister hailed him as a man of "great vision and leadership" who "inspired his countrymen", "served his country with the utmost dedication and dignity" and "developed close political, commercial and defence links" with Great Britain.

I appreciate you should not speak ill of the dead; but accuracy demands that I point out that only the last bit of Mr Blair's tribute is true. The British Prime Minister rightly argued in a powerful speech in the aftermath of the London bombings that most of the world has dropped back to sleep after 9/11 and become complacent about the Islamic terrorist threat; yet last week, without batting an eyelid, he praised the legacy of one of the men most closely implicated in the murderous rise of Islamo-fascism. It will not do. During the watch of King Fahd and his half-brother and successor, Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia has become the world's largest promoter and funder of extremist perversions of Islam; the least any self-respecting democracy can do is not to shower them with unearned praise.

There remains much public ignorance about the facts: fundamentalist Islam has been the calling card of the House of Saud since its inception in 1744. Two and a half centuries ago, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab forged an alliance with Muhammed bin Saud, the founder of today's dynasty, in a fusion of religious and political power. In 1924 the Wahhabi al-Saud dynasty conquered Mecca and Medina, the Muslim holy cities, formally creating the state of Saudi Arabia in 1932; Wahhabism is the official version of Islam in Saudi Arabia. At first, none of this mattered because Saudi Arabia was a powerless place, but when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Saudis found oil, the country's extremist Wahhabist interpretation of Islam became a matter of global importance.

Wahhabism's explosive growth began in the 1970s when Saudi oil revenues were put at its service. Saudi citizens, government officials, clerics and, above all, the Royal Family donated millions to create Wahhabi religious schools (madrassas), mosques, newspapers, books and groups around the world. The result: what was regarded only five decades ago as an extremist fringe group by most Muslims is now powerful and influential throughout the Islamic world, even gaining ground among Muslims in America and Great Britain.

This has been a wholly retrograde step for the global development of Islam. Wahhabism revived the idea of jihad as a military, rather than a spiritual, struggle and declared as its enemy not only Jews and Christians, but rival versions of Islam. Intolerance of medieval proportions is its hallmark. It is so austere and exclusive that it insists that all those who don't practice its form of Islam - especially Shia Muslims - are enemies to be defeated violently.

Wahhabis ban pictures, photographs, musical instruments, singing, video, and celebrating Muhammad's birthday, among many other things. Strangely, it does not stop them from using the internet to spread pictures of jihadist violence and enlist suicide-bombing recruits. Bernard Lewis, the West's foremost scholar of Islam, has pointed out that, throughout most of its history, Islam has usually been more tolerant than many other religions, especially in its attitudes to Jews and Christians. But this tolerance is comprehensively rejected by the Wahhabis and, as its Saudi-financed influence has grown, so has intolerance in the Islamic world.

Little wonder, then, that of the 19 terrorists who attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11, 15 were from Saudi Arabia and that many other terrorists linked to al-Qaeda have been indoctrinated by Wahhabism's grim message. The Saudi royal family is only the Wahhabi Establishment's junior partner: the clerics run the police and the schools. Children are taught to hate Jews and Americans; government departments churn out modern encyclicals of jihad.

Its Religious Affairs Ministry warns anyone thinking of converting to another religion or Islamic sect that they would be considered "an apostate and you should be killed because you have denied the Koran". Saudi influence on Muslims around the world is almost wholly negative. The extremist madrassas in Pakistan which have become schools of terror are financed by tens of millions of Saudi dollars every year, educating more than 1m Pakistanis, including, it would seem, at least two of the July 7 London bombers.

Much of the financing for the deadly Iraqi insurgency, which is daily massacring innocent Muslim civilians, is coming from Saudi Arabia, a disgrace its government has unforgivably neglected to address. The money is funnelled through pseudo-charities, tribal institutions and businesses, following a financing model similar to that which props up al-Qaeda.

Saudi money also flows into the coffers of Hamas, the Palestinian suicide bombers committed to the destruction of Israel whom the Saudi government refuses to categorise as terrorists.

The House of Saud's nurturing of terrorism has gone hand in hand with its utter failure to embrace the kind of liberal economic reforms that would allow ordinary Saudis to become richer and create jobs for its army of young people, thus reducing their hate and anger. Even though Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil producer, with about 25% of known reserves, its citizens remain astonishingly poor.

Hundreds of billions of oil dollars have been squandered by the ruling elite, with nothing to show for them, in what must be the greatest waste of a precious resource in economic history. GDP per capita last year was a mere 5,584, far less than many countries with no natural resources.

If oil were to vanish tomorrow, Saudi Arabia would be little richer than the poorest of African nations - a devastating indictment of its ruling plutocrats, too many of whom live in obscene wealth, which they have not earned, while their fellow-countrymen live in an idle squalor tailor-made for Wahhabist exploitation.

For a brief period after 9/11, it looked as if the Bush administration was ready to face up to the truth about Saudi Arabia. No longer: America is back to kowtowing to Riyadh, symbolised by vice-president Cheney leading an all-star American cast to King Fahd's funeral last week. US dependence on Saudi oil is as bad as ever; the Congress has passed a shameful energy bill which does nothing to end US exposure to the Middle East. And Prime Minister Blair praises the root cause of today's Islamic terrorist threat. The US and Great Britain are supposed to be in the vanguard in the war on terror; no wonder thoughtful people are increasingly concerned about its outcome.