For almost two years now, the amount of information that has been circulating about the Middle East has propped up an entire caste of pseudo-experts. People who follow the news regularly believe that their intellectual hobby has given them true knowledge of the region. Regurgitating headlines and the half-truths of hasty research has become unavoidable because of America's sudden exposure to the almost unfathomable complexities of the Arab world.
Middle East politics is played out for all of us by an unintentionally subjective media. Objectivity was lost as soon as a two-week vacation in Turkey qualified you as an expert in Middle East affairs. The true authorities are not getting enough words in print or minutes on air. Everyone who has been hurrying to read up on the Middle East over the past two years speaks with the same confidence as a government official, a professional who has lived there, or an academic who has spent the past 20 years keeping his reading up to date and who still hesitates to call himself an expert
Another problem with this, beyond the ideological one, is that reports and statements from various sources are continuously recycled by lesser journalists in later editions, because of the high demand and marketability for the information. The more accessible the story, the easier it is to write, the more it is rewritten. In this environment, whatever issues take the least amount of expertise to hammer out an opinion on, suddenly become the most publicized issues.
The case of Saudi Arabia illustrates this quite well. The government of Saudi Arabia has done an incredible amount to combat terrorism and terrorist financing, a fact that has been established and repeatedly confirmed by U.S. government officials. Nevertheless, it is easy for some to criticize Saudi Arabia in this regard because there are no consequences for the editors or producers who approve that criticism. It doesn't matter that the critical comments just aren't true because they have been circulated enough to bestow on them an aura of credibility.
In its war on terror, Saudi Arabia has questioned 2,000 individuals, made more than 300 terror-related arrests and just last month referred 90 terror suspects to the courts to stand trial. Many of the arrests of major al-Qaeda operatives around the world were made possible because of Saudi assistance. And just this past February, CIA Director George Tenet stated: "The Saudis are providing increasingly important support to our counter-terrorism efforts - from arrests to sharing debriefing results."
Since September 11, Saudi Arabia has conducted a thorough review of its charitable organizations and made a number of specific changes. It set up a Financial Intelligence Unit, linking its central bank with other banks in the Kingdom to track suspected transactions. A high commission for oversight of charities was established, and charities are now subject to regular mandatory audits. Any of their activities that extend beyond the country's borders must now be coordinated with the Foreign Ministry. Saudi Arabia has been a member of the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for quite some time. It was one of the first members to complete two FATF self-assessment programs, one regarding 40 FATF recommendations on the prevention of money laundering and the other regarding eight specific recommendations on terrorist financing.
Senior American officials have publicly and consistently praised Saudi Arabia for its positive contributions to the war against terrorism. President George W. Bush has said, "as far as the Saudi Arabians go ... they've been nothing but cooperative." In November of 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated: "Saudi Arabia has been prominent among the countries acting against the accounts of terrorist organizations." One year later, on Nov. 26, 2002, he reinforced this point in the following statement: "We cooperate with Saudi Arabia at many different levels - law enforcement, intelligence exchange, picking up people who have been involved or are suspected to be involved in terrorist activity, in sharing information with the law enforcement activities and intelligence agencies of both governments - and I have no reason to believe that Saudi Arabia is not committed to the campaign against terrorism."
We are very lucky that those who are actually dealing with the Middle East, speaking with the people and the leaders of the Arab world, are the true experts. Their information has to be correct, because it isn't just for sale.