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The Road To Riyadh


One of the claims made for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (leadership change, if not regime change) is that a democratic Iraq beholden to the Bush administration will enable the champions of democracy to lean on the authoritarian Saudi regime in Arabia. The road to Riyadh, it is said in these circles, goes through Baghdad.

There is much that reeks of falsehood in this claim: Are the paleo-cons in Washington who spout this line really interested in democracy and its proliferation? If a democratic Iraq shared a boundary with Saudi Arabia (and Iran) would this make one jot of difference to the entrenched (and Pentagon-Big Oil backed) Ibn Saud family in the peninsula? Would the US use a democratic Iraq as a forward post for military and political pressure? The New York Times (1/23/03) reports that members of the Ibn Saud clique worry about such a prospect, that a democratic Iraq will spark a fire in their lands. This worry is not new, since they have lived with dissent against their rule of the holy sites of Islam and of the oil for at least a century. What is also not new is the generous help bestowed upon them by the Pentagon-Big Oil, to protect control over the oil fields.

In January 1957, Ibn Saud, son of the original emir, traveled to Washington to meet with President Eisenhower and they produced a declaration known as the Eisenhower Doctrine (to protect Saudi Arabia as if it were part of the USA). Even as Eisenhower found Ibn Saud personally unfit for leadership, he accepted that this substandard leader was the stuff that allowed the oil to travel untrammeled by nationalists like Gamel Abdul Nasser of Egypt. Nasser had introduced the world to the doctrine of pan-Arabism, as he called upon the Arabs to reject neocolonialism and take shelter in a radical socialist agenda that included the use of their resources toward the development of their lands. In 1956 Nasser nationalized the crucial Suez Canal (through which all ship traffic from Asia-Europe passed); in response, the English-French invaded the Suez. But Nasserism seemed to be on the rise, and the US was terrified when the people of Riyadh received him as a hero in 1956. “Arab Oil For the Arab People,” said Nasser, and he not only scared the US government (who invaded Lebanon in 1958), but also local potentates (such as the heads of Iraq and Lebanon) who, in the words of the scholar Fouad Ajami “reign, but do not rule.”

From 1957 to the present, Washington has treated Saudi Arabia as an extension of its territory, with a guarantee for the protection of the Ibn Saud family from Communism, Arabism and Shia radicalism. That the Eisenhower pact will be broken now seems improbable. The road to Baghdad is through deceit about its extension into Riyadh. Nothing, in the short run, will harm the Pentagon-Big Oil-Saudi relationship, so lovingly cultivated this past half century.

What makes the argument thoroughly unbelievable is the experience of Yemen. In the 1960s, this nation with an ancient name formed an Arab republic in the north (1962) and a socialistic state in the south (1967). For a time both Yemens held a brief against Saudi sub-imperialism, but they got no support from the votaries of democracy. Yemen’s modern history till the 1960s was dominated by four forces: (1) imperial Britain (who controlled the port city of Aden from 1839 to 1967, the gateway to India, what became known to consume more security than it produced); (2) the Ottoman empire (1849 to 1923, mainly in the north); (3) an expansionist Egypt (Muhammad Ali made his first alliance with one Yemeni province in 1837 and Nasserism held its own in the region until 1967); and (4) the rapacious and nepotistic Zaydi Imams of the north. A microcosm of the forces that engendered the modern states of Arabia, Yemen was poised for a bright future in the 1960s when it dispatched its foreign overlords and its domestic pretenders – but things did not turn out as its people hoped.

In 1958, north Yemen, still under the Imams, joined with Syria and Egypt to form the United Arab Republic. “The Arab giant will drive imperialism into the pit. The claws of death have clutched at the imperialists,” declared Sanaa Radio, a sign to the agrarian and merchant overlords that the forces of progress had come to overthrow Yemeni backwardness (takhalluf). Among the lower middle class, Marxist ideas led to the formation of a Communist Party (in the 1940s) and a decade later the Movement of Arab Nationalists (whose moving spirit was the Palestinian revolutionary, George Habash). Things did not look well for the regional satrap (Saudi Arabia) and its international allies (Pentagon-Big Oil), so they adopted two distinct but related strategies to undermine progress:

(1) Blockades and Wars.

When the republicans in the north overthrew the Imams in 1962 and made common cause with Egypt, the Saudi regime aggressively went on a war footing on behalf of the Imams. They established camps for the Imam’s followers in Jizan and Najran as well as offered every facility to the side of the monarchy against the republicans. The following year, a US State Department official noted that “Saudi gold and arms [keeps] the tribal pot bubbling” in Yemen. When the republicans seemed to be unstoppable, the Saudis dropped the Imams in 1970. The republicans, meanwhile, themselves fell out with the Egyptians and compromised with local tribalisms. The North became the Saudi base against the Marxist south.

With its Omani ally, Saudi Arabia conducted several armed assaults against the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen. In November 1969, for instance, Saudi troops and its air arm attacked the Yemeni border position at al-Wadi’ah. The Saudi’s Radio Free Yemeni South, meanwhile, broadcast anti-Left propaganda ceaselessly. When the two Yemens went to war in 1972, Riyadh backed the more feudal north against the Marxist south. Under Riyadh’s influence, the US government opened an embassy in Sanaa, the capital of the north, and the US Secretary of State said of this, “We value the positive step Yemen has taken. [It has] an important geographical position on the oil-rich Arabian peninsula and the largest population on the peninsula.” Yemen itself was oil-less, a great problem for the Marxists whose program included land reform (the intifadah of 1970-71 mobilized small peasants to grab land, form cooperatives and transform power relations in the countryside), but whose lack of resources meant a challenge for economic development.

(2) Wahabbism.

Such conventional means to strangle South Yemen apart, the Saudis began to export their brand of intolerant Islam across the Empty Quarter. In 1970, the Saudis put pressure on the Yemen Arab Republic (the north) to become an Islamic state (Doula Islamia). From the north and from Oman, Saudi ideas and funds traveled to create mayhem in the south. Here’s a little known fact: in the midst of his Afghan adventure, Osama Bin Laden went to Yemen on assignment from the Ibn Saud family. His volunteer force of Saudi White Guards included such types as Tariq al-Fadli, son of a former emir of one province. Al-Fadli later went to Afghanistan and returned to operate in the south as a leader of Jama’at al-jihad. In 1989, a leader of the Yemeni Socialist Party noted, “The religious groups have, within a decade and a half, been transformed into a major power center exercising extensive political and ideological influence and undertaking active propaganda work, while in the past they had neither existence nor even any historic roots in the area.” The next year, the two Yemens merged, and the gradual war against the Marxists won in favor of the great neighbor in the north.

To write this brief reminder, I re-read, among other things, Fred Halliday’s Arabia Without Sultans (1975). What a feeling to go through those pages, sensing revolt in the air across the peninsula, whether in Yemen or else in Dhofar and Oman. “Neither the enrichment of the Saudi regime nor the capitulations of Egypt have aided the liberation of the Arab people,” Halliday wrote in the opening pages, “but the changes have produced a movement that is more original and more rooted in the people than any before. An oil-hungry America, already brooding uneasily over its foreign entanglements, is now tied to an insurgent Arabia.” Almost three decades later, things are so very different. The “insurgent Arabia” no longer leans left; intolerance spawned by the Saudis, galvanized by the landlords, supported by the Pentagon-Big Oil, is now legion: we are left with the presence of the USS Cole in Yemen, an attack on it in October 2000 (17 dead, 40 injured), a generous presence of al-Qaida in the region, some killed by pilotless US gunships, missionaries murderedÅ and a population benumbed and comforted by Qat and tradition.

The road to Riyadh did not go through Aden. Why believe that Baghdad will be the first caravanserai for democracy’s hegira?

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