Robert Jordan was working as a business attorney in Dallas when President George W. Bush, a friend and former client, called on him to fill the role of U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2001.
“I’d never been there, and it seemed like the worst idea in the world at the time,” said Jordan, 73, a part-time Sun Valley resident.
He eventually took the post from 2001 to 2003, which meant serving as the president’s personal representative in the country. Jordan said Bush initially tasked him with trying to keep the price of oil at about $23 per barrel, support human rights and religious freedom, and supervise U.S. assets in the kingdom, including 6,000 U.S. military personnel at two of its 20 military bases.
“No non-Muslim churches or temples of any kind were allowed in the kingdom and no public worship of any religion other than Islam was allowed,” Jordan said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, one month before he took his seat at the embassy, Jordan’s mission changed when jets hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and it was discovered by U.S. intelligence that 15 of the 19 al-Qaida hijackers were Saudi citizens.
“The president wanted me to do two things: maintain relations with the Saudis and also determine if there were further threats from the kingdom,” he said.
Jordan had only recently taken what he called a “crash course” in Saudi and Middle Eastern affairs, including briefings by think tanks, governmental agencies, military leaders and academics. He learned about what he describes as the “seething hatred” of “about 10 percent” of the 26 million Saudi citizens toward the U.S., most notably from followers of an ultraconservative form of Islam called Wahhabism, dating from the 1700s.
“We saw the threat of extremism in the 1990s with attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, but we hadn’t yet fully realized their capability until 9/11,” Jordan said.
Once ensconced in the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, Jordan set about notifying members of the Saudi royal family and administration about the identity of the attackers. He said some initially denied Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks and also denied that extremists were a threat to the kingdom, until May 12, 2003, when a compound in the kingdom housing Saudis was bombed.
Though Saudi relations with the West have a long history, Jordan said 1979 marked a turning point in both countries’ attitudes toward Islamic extremism. During that year, 52 hostages were taken from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, by Shia extremists. During the same month, Sunni extremists (historical enemies of the Shia) seized the Grand Mosque at Mecca in Saudi Arabia, which led to two weeks of fighting and hundreds of deaths, until it was reclaimed.
“The attacks on the U.S. em-bassy in Tehran were due to the Shah of Iran not being sufficiently religious,” Jordan said. “The Grand Mosque in Mecca was the symbol of the Saudi royal family. After its seizure the Saudis sold out to the religious establishment and abdicated responsibility for education to them in exchange for legitimacy conferred upon the royal family.”
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia saw an increase in religious fundamentalism as the U.S. was facing off against the Soviet Union over control of Afghanistan. The U.S. turned to Saudi Arabia for assistance in the struggle, funding a mujahedeen group led by a young member of the financial elite in Saudi Arabia named Osama bin Laden. Ten years later, the Russians had been turned back, but a new threat had emerged as an unintended consequence.
“We had been creating a jihadist army [which became al-Qaida] and also subsidizing it,” said Jordan, who now serves as diplomat in residence and adjunct professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He said an investigation found no evidence that the Saudi royal family funded the 9/11 hijackers.
“But certain private individuals, charities and mosques in Saudi Arabia did funnel money to al-Qaida,” he said.
About 17 years ago, Jordan met a young journalist named Jamal Khashoggi who had made a name for himself by reporting news while embedded with bin Laden during the war in Afghanistan. Khashoggi later moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as media representative for Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal.
“Prince Turki’s father was King Faisal, who had introduced newspapers, television and women’s education for women to the Saudi kingdom,” Jordan said. “He was assassinated in 1975 for being too liberal.”
Khashoggi would eventually work as a columnist for The Washington Post before he was reportedly assassinated and dismembered in Istanbul on Oct. 2, allegedly by Saudis tied to the royal family, including Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.
“Jamal was an intelligent, careful and soft-spoken person,” Jordan said. “He was also a critic of the crown prince and in support of reforms and human rights.”
Jordan called Price Mohammad “thuggish and reckless” during a PBS interview in October, and told the Mountain Express that his publicity campaign as a reformer across the United States in 2018 was “a scam.”
“MBS has allowed film production in the kingdom and mixed gender attendance at sports events, but executions and beheadings are up in Saudi Arabia,” Jordan said. “There are no human rights in the kingdom, only certain privileges that can only be granted by the crown prince or royal family.”
Jordan said the Trump administration’s support of a $110 billion arms deal following the Khashoggi murder “sends a terrible message to the world.”
“But France and England, too, are eagerly trying to sell military hardware to the kingdom,” Jordan said. “Only Germany is withholding military supplies to Saudi Arabia.”
Jordan said most of the al-Qaida extremist groups have been eradicated from Saudi Arabia, with most moving south to Yemen or into northern Africa. He said the proxy war by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen is being fought against Shia Houthi rebels who were “historically, marauding bandits” along the Red Sea coast and Gulf of Aden and are now supported by Iran.
“The kingdom is trying to win the war with air power and have killed ten thousand Yemeni civilians. Hundreds of thousands more have died of starvation or been displaced. It is a humanitarian crisis,” Jordan said. “The Saudi pilots are not very good and are fighting in a mountainous region like Afghanistan. The pilots are often royal family members who have an idea of glamor about being a pilot. They fly too high to use their high-technology bombs effectively.”
From 2010 to 2014 Jordan worked in Dubai as a business attorney, providing geopolitical expertise for defense contractors, construction companies and corporations like Proctor and Gamble, and of course, oil companies. He took regular trips to Saudi Arabia for business.
Jordan said that although he has “historically” been a Republican, he does not support the current party leader’s objectives.
“I am disappointed by Trump’s apparent affection for authoritarian regimes and his disregard for our foreign alliances,” Jordan said. “He wants to convey strength to his base and disassemble anything President Obama would’ve done.
“Some of his supporters are thoughtful and want tax breaks, other elements are represented by those [white supremacists] who marched in Charlottesville.”
Jordan said he hopes for a new “middle of the road” president in 2020 with an interest in the U.S. economy and human rights.
“It wouldn’t matter to me which
party he or she comes from,” he said.
Jordan’s memoir, “Desert Diplomat, Inside Saudi Arabia Following 9/11,” published by Potomac Books, is available on Amazon.