U.S. and Saudi Arabia: Troubles in a Toxic Relationship

by Larry Everest and the RW writing group of the San Francisco Bay Area

Revolutionary Worker #1174, November 10, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

This summer, the imperialist think tank Rand Corporation gave a secret briefing at the Pentagon on a certain Middle East country. The briefing labeled the country under discussion an "enemy" of the U.S., "active at every level of the terror chain." It recommended aggressive U.S. actions in response.

This briefing might well have passed unnoticed, given the U.S. government's near-daily warnings of another new "terrorist threat." But instead it created big waves in the media, because the country being accused was not one of the usual "axis of evil" suspects of the Bush administration, like Iran or Iraq. What was astonishing and unheard of was that the briefing was talking about Saudi Arabia, which has long been one of U.S.'s most reliable and valued client states.

In the wake of Sept. 11, and with war looming over the Persian Gulf, an unprecedented debate has broken out within the U.S. ruling class over its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia's role in the global order.

For over six decades, protecting the corrupt and oppressive Saudi state has been a pillar of U.S. strategy. Until September 2001, criticism of the Saudi royal family was practically nonexistent in the U.S. media, and Saudi loyalty to the U.S. was never questioned. Yet what was unspeakable a year ago is being shouted out today by some influential voices among the U.S. bourgeoisie.

The trigger for the barrage of U.S. criticism was Sept. 11: 15 of the 19 reputed hijackers were Saudis, as is Osama bin Laden. But the U.S. complaints go beyond Saudi connections to Sept. 11.

The kingdom has been accused of being "soft on terrorism"--or even funding "terror" and promoting anti-U.S. hatred via Saudi-supported Islamic schools across the region. The Wall Street Journal editorialized, "President Bush has said repeatedly that countries must decide whether they are for us or against us in the war on terrorism. So far, Saudi Arabia hasn't made up its mind." U.S. military commanders complain that war preparations are being hindered because Saudi Arabia has balked at supporting a war on Iraq and has imposed restrictions on U.S. forces operating there.

Some of this criticism is clearly designed to strong-arm the Saudis into more fully supporting the U.S. moves against Iraq and the overall "war on terror." The Bush administration has distanced itself from the harshest criticisms of Saudi Arabia. And the Saudi regime recently stated it would support a U.S. war on Iraq if the necessary UN resolutions were cooked up. The Saudis also quietly told the Bush administration that they would ramp up oil production when the fighting starts--to keep supplies flowing and prices under control.

Yet much more is going on here than simply lining up support for war. There are sharp contradictions roiling Saudi Arabia and the Middle East as a whole--and the U.S. imperialists have wildly ambitious plans for dealing with these contradictions. These plans start with war on Iraq, but they don't end there. The U.S. rulers are scheming to crush a whole range of anti-U.S. forces and redraw the region's political map--including possibly within Saudi Arabia itself.

Huge Stakes

To get a sense of the enormity of U.S. goals in the Middle East and the risks the U.S. rulers might be willing to take to achieve them, consider the huge stakes they have in Saudi Arabia.

This has been a long and toxic relationship. The royal kingdom is economically, politically, and militarily dependent on the U.S. for its functioning and survival, and the U.S. in turn extracts enormous benefits from its dominance of Saudi Arabia.

Oil is vital to the running of capitalist economies and modern armies and is a source of enormous profit and strategic power. Saudi Arabia sits on the world's largest pool of oil--some 260 billion barrels, or a fourth of the entire world total. Saudi Arabia pumps more oil than any other country, and it can quickly increase or decrease output to drive oil prices up or down. This gives the U.S. great leverage over the world oil market.

Adding to its strategic significance is Saudi Arabia's location--at the center of the region's oil fields, along the petroleum transit routes of the Persian Gulf, and next door to Iraq (which has the world's second largest oil reserves). The U.S. basically ran the 1991 Gulf War from bases in Saudi Arabia. These bases are still occupied by 4000 to 5000 U.S. troops and are the launching pads for U.S. and British air patrols and strikes over the "no fly" zone in Iraq. Last year, the U.S. directed its air war in Afghanistan from the kingdom's Prince Sultan Airbase.

Saudi Arabia has carried out many dirty deeds for U.S. interests around the world--from helping to fund Nicaragua's counter-revolutionary Contras in the 1980s to underwriting the 1991 Gulf War to the tune of $50-$60 billion. The Saudis have also wielded their financial and political influence to work against the emergence of a revolutionary movement in Palestine.

The Imperialist Roots of the Saudi Crisis

But in recent years, U.S. domination of the region--and especially its military presence--has increasingly enflamed anti-U.S. sentiments in Saudi Arabia and intensified deep stresses within Saudi society. These developments are limiting the Saudi rulers' maneuvering room and raising U.S. concerns about Saudi Arabia's stability and reliability.

The growth of anti-Western Islamic trends is an important part of these developments. Islam plays a central role in Saudi society. The religion's two most sacred sites--Mecca and Medina--are located in Saudi Arabia. Since its formation in 1932, the Saudi regime has been based on an alliance between the royal al- Saud family and the clergy, which practices Wahhabism, a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam.

Wahhabism is Saudi Arabia's official religion and the foundation of its social mores. The royal family's "legitimacy" rests largely on its claim to be the defender of the faith and guardian of Islam's most holy sites.

Until recent years, the centrality of reactionary, conservative Islam and the kingdom's prominence in the Muslim world had been a source of stability for Saudi Arabia's rulers. This made Saudi Arabia very useful to the U.S. in contending with the former Soviet Union and in undermining and attacking secular revolutionary and nationalist forces in the Middle East.

But in some important ways, things have turned into their opposite. Saudi Arabia's role in the 10- year war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan is a case in point. During the 1980s, Saudi Arabia organized and recruited many of the reactionary Islamic groups who fought in Afghanistan. The Saudis and the U.S. spent $500 million a year funding this war.

The Soviets were driven from Afghanistan and handed a major defeat. However, the war also brought together, armed, trained, and strengthened anti-Western Islamist forces across the region. Among them was Osama bin Laden, who came from a wealthy Saudi family closely connected to the Saudi royal family.

The defeat of the Soviets emboldened these fundamentalist forces. But at the same time, they found they were no longer needed by the U.S. Events soon led to bin Laden's transformation from a CIA asset to a U.S. enemy.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden offered to organize new groups of Islamic fighters against Saddam Hussein's secular regime. (This bitter animosity between bin Laden and Hussein is ignored by U.S. officials, who instead have continually tried to claim some Iraq/al-Qaida "link" to justify another war against Saddam.)

Bin Laden and his followers were shocked and outraged when the U.S. and the Saudis rejected their offer to fight Iraq. Their anger grew when 500,000 U.S. and allied troops were deployed on Saudi soil. They saw this as "infidels" defiling holy territory.

Bin Laden and other Islamic fundamentalists felt that the U.S. now sought to dominate Muslim lands. They accused the Saudi royal family of complicity in the transgressions committed by the U.S. troops on Saudi soil. They turned their "jihad" on the U.S. and its allies, including the Saudi royalty.

Some prominent Saudi clerics also began to speak out against the U.S., and they found an appreciative audience. A few religious figures even argued that the royal family had lost its legitimacy. The Saudi security services--including the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), which was trained, organized, and equipped by the Pentagon--cracked down hard. Hundreds of Islamist activists were arrested. In 1994 the Saudi regime kicked bin Laden out of the country and stripped him of his citizenship.

But anti-U.S. sentiments have only deepened. A recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine noted, "Despite official denials, the U.S. troops, who have been in Saudi Arabia ever since the Persian Gulf war, are highly unpopular...many Saudis complain that they consider it a form of occupation-- at best humiliating...at worst intolerable....The U.S. presence undermines the government's legitimacy as well." ("Trouble in the Kingdom," Eric Rouleau, Foreign Affairs , July/August 2002)

Sympathy for bin Laden apparently extends to some members of the Saudi upper classes. In his book The Taliban , Ahmed Rashid notes that that Saudi officials did not want bin Laden falling into U.S. hands in 1998 because he "could expose the deep relationship that bin Laden continued to have with sympathetic members of the Royal Family and elements of Saudi intelligence, which could prove deeply embarrassing."

The escalation of Israeli atrocities against Palestinians and the launching of the second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000 further stoked the anger against the Saudi royalty and their U.S. backers. Foreign Affairs argues: "The deterioration of the Arab-Israeli situation has started to threaten the very stability of the Saudi state in a way many Westerners, particularly Americans, had not anticipated. In particular, outsiders have underestimated the anger roused in the Saudi population by the suffering of the Palestinian people--and the fact that this suffering is blamed less on Israel than on its American protector. Given the privileged nature of relations between Washington and Riyadh, this anger has also started to focus on the House of Saud itself."

The Foreign Affairs article contends that bin Laden "remains widely popular in Saudi Arabia today--not for his crimes, but because of the population's reflective anti-Americanism."

Economic Strains and Severe Repression

These developments are taking place against a backdrop of extreme repression and growing economic difficulties in Saudi Arabia which are adding to rising discontent against the ruling order.

The extended royal family has dictatorial power over the country's government, politics, and economy. Saudi society is extremely stifling, public protest is rare, and political liberty is basically nonexistent. The judicial system has been described as one of the most secretive and oppressive in the world.

The list of discriminatory laws against women is practically endless: women can't open bank accounts, purchase property, work, or travel without the express approval of their "guardians." Women aren't allowed to drive or leave their homes unless they're veiled and accompanied by a male family member.

Foreign workers, who make up about a fourth of the population, labor under extremely oppressive conditions, have few if any legal rights, and are typically confined to the worst jobs. Followers of the Shi'ite branch of Islam, some 10 percent of the Saudi population, face intense discrimination.

Stagnating oil revenues, huge outlays for U.S.-sponsored wars, and soaring population growth have combined to cause a staggering reduction in the average income per person, from $28,600 in 1981 (roughly the same as the U.S. at that time) to $6,800 last year. Unemployment has become a serious issue.

Saudi Arabia's infrastructure is crumbling. Saudis have invested between $700 billion and $1 trillion abroad, mostly in the U.S. This recycling of oil revenues, or "petrodollars," is vital for the running of the world imperialist financial system. But according to Foreign Affairs , one result is that "there is not enough money for local investment."

Wild and Brutal Ambitions

"They have ambitions of essentially reshuffling the whole deck, reordering the whole situation - beginning with the strategic areas of Central and South Asia and the Middle East that are more immediately involved now - but, even beyond that, on a world scale."

Bob Avakian,"The New Situation andthe Great Challenges"

It is growing clearer to millions that the U.S. is determined to wage a bloody and unjust war on Iraq. They aim to overthrow the Hussein regime and install a pro-U.S. government--run by an Iraqi puppet or directly by the U.S. military. This would put the U.S. in direct control of the world's second largest oil reserves.

But the U.S. imperialists are after far more than oil and Saddam Hussein's head in the Middle East-- Iraq is only the beginning.

The Boston Globe (9/10/02) reported: "As the Bush administration debates going to war against Iraq, its most hawkish members are pushing a sweeping vision for the Middle East that sees the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq as merely a first step in the region's transformations... After an ouster of Hussein, they say, the United States will have more leverage to act against Syria and Iran, will be in a better position to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and will be able to rely less on Saudi oil."

Various ex-officials and ruling-class experts warn that waging war on Iraq and implementing such sweeping transformations could trigger mass upheaval and destabilize U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. But the Bush team is pushing ahead in the face of such warnings.

It is not that they're unaware of the potential dangers--they are trying to refine and sequence their horrendous project so that they neither lose post-Sept. 11 political "momentum" nor allow events to escape their control. But they're driven by the necessities of their global empire--and what they perceive as a golden opportunity--to cut the "Gordian knot" of contradictions they face with the sword of war.

A Washington Monthly article gave a glimpse into the dominant imperialist mindset these days. The author asked one proponent of war on Iraq whether "wobbly or upended regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia were worth the price of removing Saddam." The war proponent responded, "All the better if you ask me." The author concluded, "These neoconservatives are not just being glib. They see toppling Saddam as the first domino to fall, with other corrupt Middle Eastern regimes following." (Joshua Micha Marshall, "Bomb Saddam," June 2002.)

The Rand Corporation's Pentagon briefing echoed this theme: It called Iraq the "tactical pivot," Saudi Arabia the "strategic pivot," and Egypt "the prize." In their view, the entire region should be reconfigured to U.S. specifications.

War on Iraq is also intended to undercut the maneuvers of other imperialist powers in the region and to force them to be subordinate to U.S. dictates.

And the U.S. rulers hope their war on Iraq will intimidate the masses throughout the region-- especially the Palestinians, who are fighting for their very survival as a people. The Palestinians face escalating savagery of the Israeli military, backed with billions of dollars in U.S. aid. There is open discussion within Israeli and U.S. ruling circles of massive "transfer"--the ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine.

Rather than negotiate a resolution of this struggle, powerful forces in the U.S. ruling class favor cutting this knot, too, through war. The Wall Street Journal argued in a March 29 editorial that a U.S. defeat of Iraq would demoralize the Palestinian people and force them to accept whatever "deal" the U.S. imposed on them: "The path to a calmer Mideast now lies not through Jerusalem but through Baghdad."

In the view of the "war party," defeating and "stabilizing" Iraq would give the U.S. more freedom to push its client regimes in the region to clamp down harder on anti-U.S. political forces. And the U.S. could do this with less fear of the consequences of mass upheaval and destabilized regimes.

The Rand briefing, for example, recommended that the U.S. "demand that Saudi Arabia stop all anti-U.S., anti-Israel, and anti-western rhetoric in the region; dismantle and ban the kingdom's `Islamic charities' and confiscate their assets; and prosecute those involved in terrorism." If Saudi Arabia does not comply, the briefing warned, the U.S. should "target" Saudi oil fields, Saudi assets in the U.S., and holy places in Saudi Arabia.

Another goal of the U.S. imperialists is to more thoroughly integrate the Middle East into the U.S.- dominated global economy. Saudi Arabia has come under criticism for putting roadblocks in the way of global capital--such as limiting foreign ownership and forbidding the charging of interest. If Saudi Arabia is going to survive, the U.S. rulers warn, it has to "modernize," open its economy to the forces of globalization, and train its elite to operate in the world capitalist market.

Unpredictable Consequences

It is unclear just how far and how fast the U.S. will go to revamp its alliance with Saudi Arabia or force changes within Saudi society. But any U.S. attempt to "modernize" the kingdom would probably entail reducing the role of traditional Islam and the clergy and increasing the foreign presence in the country. Yet such actions could further weaken key pillars of al Saud rule and lead to greater instability. How would the U.S. respond then? And what would the fallout be among the world's billion-plus Muslims, if the U.S. felt compelled to occupy or even dismember Saudi Arabia--the geographic and historic center of Islam?

The U.S. bragged that the 1991 war of aggression and slaughter against Iraq would usher in a "new world order" of what-we-say-goes U.S. dominance. But things didn't turn out as planned. Look at Saudi Arabia, where deep fissures have opened up in one of the U.S.'s most important and reliable puppet regimes.

The new, more arrogant, and more brutal plans of U.S. imperialism will undoubtedly leave the Middle East awash in even greater human suffering. But they may also backfire in unforeseen ways. And that may create openings for the people and turn the imperialists' diabolical ambitions into their worst nightmares.

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