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Who’s afraid of Ilhan Omar? Saudi Arabia, for one

Plenty of people were excited about the election of two Muslim women to Congress in the 2018 midterms. The rulers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia weren’t among them.

Ilhan Omar
Since Ilhan Omar’s victory in last month’s midterm election, influential voices in Saudi Arabia have taken to social media and newspaper op-ed pages to attack her.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The rapid political ascent of Ilhan Omar — who went from a Minnesota state legislative seat to a seat in Congress in just three years — has captured the attention of adoring liberal activists, critical conservative pundits and documentary filmmakers.

Add to the list of those interested in the former Somali refugee: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Since Omar’s victory in last month’s midterm election, influential voices in the oil-rich Middle Eastern country have taken to social media and newspaper op-ed pages to attack her and fellow congresswoman-to-be Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — the other “first” Muslim woman set to serve in Congress — as rising enemies of Saudi Arabia, and as subversive agents of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political organization.

A Dec. 9 op-ed in Al Arabiya, a Saudi-funded news network, is typical: It says the two “Muslim sisters” are aligned with an anti-Saudi movement that infiltrated American politics in order to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives — so it could rebuke President Donald Trump’s policy to maintain a strong U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia.

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Faisal al-Shammeri, an Al Arabiya writer who works for the Saudi diplomatic mission in the U.S., tweeted out a list of Omar’s social media statements about Saudi Arabia and declared she will be “hostile to the Gulf.”

Why is Saudi Arabia so worried about a 36-year-old who hasn’t yet served a day in Congress?

Kingdom’s critics

Saudi loyalists aren’t wrong that Omar is a persistent critic of the Saudi regime. Recently, she’s condemned the kingdom over two crises that are drawing international scrutiny to the secretive regime: the war in Yemen, and the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened in a civil war in neighboring Yemen on behalf of the ousted president, leading a U.S.-supported coalition to conduct an airstrike-heavy campaign that has hit not only military targets but hospitals, wedding venues and fishing boats. The ongoing war has killed an estimated 56,000 people since January 2016 and has led to a devastating famine.

Saudi Arabia is also facing significant global backlash for the death of Khashoggi, a vocal critic of the regime, who was brutally murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a team of assassins, who were on orders from the highest levels of the royal family. American intelligence officials reportedly believe the country’s leader-in-waiting, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was personally involved.

Omar has broadcast unsparing criticism of Saudi Arabia’s handling of Yemen and of Khashoggi to her 271,000 Twitter followers. In November, she tweeted out a New York Times story on the Yemen war, saying the “Saudi-led assault on civilians is [a] crime against humanity,” and accusing the U.S. of being complicit in atrocities.

On Oct. 15, the day that Turkish investigators said they found evidence Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Omar tweeted: “The Saudi government might have been strategic at covering up the daily atrocities carried out against minorities, women, activists and even the #YemenGenocide, but the murder of #JamalKhashoggi should be the last evil act they are allowed to commit.” (She added a hashtag, “#BDSSaudi,” apparently a call to subject Saudi Arabia to a “boycott, divest, and sanction” strategy of isolation that Omar also supports using against Israel.)

Perhaps most concerning from a Saudi point of view: On Dec. 15, when the U.S. Senate approved a resolution to end U.S. involvement in the Yemen war, Omar cheered it and indicated she’d work to do the same when she takes office next year: “In January we can have the house vote to help permanently end this atrocious war and hold Saudi Arabia accountable,” she tweeted, along with a link to a video from Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a longtime critic of the Yemen war.

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The Senate resolution, which would prohibit the U.S. military from providing support to Saudi operations in Yemen, passed by a margin of 56 to 41, with both Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Tina Smith voting in favor. It was the first time Congress has invoked the War Powers Act, passed in 1973, to call for an end to U.S. military activity abroad. (The Senate also passed another, symbolic resolution, blaming the crown prince for the death of Khashoggi.)

However, GOP leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives — working to advance the Trump administration’s pro-Saudi policy — moved to shut down similar action in that chamber for the rest of the session, wrapping into a Farm Bill-related procedural vote language to prohibit consideration of bills pertaining to Yemen. (It narrowly passed, partially thanks to 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson, who said he didn’t know “a damned thing” about the Yemen war.)

The Democratic majority taking power in the House in January is likely to reverse that move in order to take up Yemen legislation similar to the Senate’s. That’s part of what could make Omar and Tlaib dangerous in Saudi Arabia’s view, according to Mary Curtin, a former State Department Foreign Service officer who is currently the diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School.

“If Democrats didn’t win the majority, it’s possible the Saudis would not have cared so much what Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are saying,” Curtin told MinnPost. “If they’re part of the majority, that probably makes the Saudis more concerned. They traditionally have not wanted U.S. scrutiny of their internal affairs … that’s accelerated under MBS,” she said, using a popular shorthand to refer to the Saudi crown prince.

Omar and Tlaib, Curtin says, “have chosen to be very outspoken on issues of internal affairs in Saudi Arabia, with the murder of Khashoggi, and very vocal about the war in Yemen.”

A ‘political Islam’ conspiracy

The two Muslim congresswomen-elect, however, are hardly the only vocal critics of Saudi Arabia on Capitol Hill these days. But they are considered rising political stars, and they are Muslim. Experts say that makes the kingdom especially worried about them, and its defenders are turning to a familiar playbook to discredit the duo.

The attacks that appeared from pro-Saudi media figures on Omar and Tlaib hit on similar themes: that the two were not only hostile to Saudi Arabia and its interests, but that they were linked to a Muslim Brotherhood-led conspiracy to place agents in the U.S. government in order to reverse Trump’s strategy of alignment with Saudi Arabia and move closer to other countries — namely the kingdom’s regional arch-enemies, Iran and Qatar.

Why the Muslim Brotherhood? The popular movement follows a philosophy of “political Islam,” which embraces electoral politics and democracy to achieve its political and religious aims. That approach makes the Brotherhood a threat to autocrats in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world, like Egypt, where the Brotherhood briefly held power after the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.

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According to two policy experts at the Brookings Institution, the Brotherhood’s philosophy is “the only serious, organized alternative source of legitimacy in the region that can command real popular support” beyond monarchy or military dictatorship; The U of M’s Curtin says Saudi rulers are “afraid” of the Brotherhood.

The Saudi attacks worked to link the Muslim Brotherhood to Omar and Tlaib through Linda Sarsour, a Muslim-American activist who supports progressive candidates and is most recently associated with the Women’s March organization. (A Tablet Magazine story, published in December, investigated the Women’s March and explored Sarsour’s ties to Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.)

“Those sponsoring and supporting the two Muslim women to reach the US Congress adopted a tactic to infiltrate through their immigrant and Black minority communities in general, and women’s groups in particular,” the Al Arabiya column claimed. The column suggests, without much evidence, that Sarsour is a Muslim Brotherhood agent in charge of a campaign to undermine Saudi Arabia in Congress through Tlaib and Omar, calling the three “mujahideen” — or holy warriors — against Trump and Saudi Arabia.

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Al Arabiya’s content is a reliable reflection of the foreign policy views of the Saudi royal family. Brookings Institution Middle East expert Tamara Cofman Wittes told Haaretz that it is not surprising that Al Arabiya “would publish conspiracy theories about people whose views don’t accord with those of the government that funds it.”

Omar herself responded to the Saudi attacks, outlined in a Foreign Policy magazine story, with a tweet saying that “Those threatened by the idea that people in a democracy will elect women like @RashidaTlaib and I will continue to lash out.” (A spokesperson for Omar could not make Omar available for an interview. Her staff declined to provide further comment.)

A new method

It’s unusual for Saudi media and public officials to go after U.S. lawmakers in such an aggressive, public fashion, Curtin says. The Saudi approach to influence in Washington has been defined by bankrolling high-powered lobbyists, including former Sen. Norm Coleman, to burnish the country’s perception among members of Congress and to fight back against legislation it doesn’t like.

“Their calculation always was, they could be more effective doing things quietly, they didn’t want to burn any bridges,” Curtin says. “This is definitely a new method for them to use. … It shows they’re worried.”

She said it could signify a “new normal” in which Saudi leaders, particularly Crown Prince Mohammed, feel emboldened by their strong relationship with Trump and his administration to be more aggressive than they have been in the past.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is currently in a precarious position — on the global stage and at home, too — and its leaders may be worried about threats to its authority beyond the Muslim Brotherhood.

“They are worried probably that these women have a legitimacy — that they could capture people’s imagination,” Curtin said. “They’re very worried about any inspiration that might come to their citizens from the outside. To have these women be those leaders just adds to the fear that they have.”