This summer, the 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. The subject of this briefing was Saudi Arabia—long
a reliable and valued client state.
In the wake of September 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. The trigger for the recent barrage of U.S. criticism
was September 11:15 of the 19 reputed hijackers were Saudis, as
is Osama bin Laden. But the U.S. complaints go beyond Saudi connections
to September 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
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.
The New York Times reports a “growing impatience among
some segments of influential opinion that the United States should
take a much tougher line toward Saudi Arabia, despite its status
as a longtime ally.”
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 Saudis
quietly told the Bush administration that they would ramp up oil
production when the fighting starts to keep supplies flowing and
prices under control.
But so far the Saudis haven’t fully come around. After having
said that they would support a U.S. war if the necessary UN resolutions
were cooked up, in early November the kingdom’s foreign minister
stated that bases on Saudi soil could not be used for an attack
on Iraq—UN resolutions or no UN resolutions.
Saudi-U.S. dispute is over much more than war on Iraq. This debate,
and Saudi Arabia’s flip-flops on the war, reflect the sharp
contradictions roiling Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, and the
U.S.’s wildly ambitious, nakedly imperialist, plans for dealing
with them. These plans start with war on Iraq, but don’t end
there. Rather, America’s rulers are scheming to then move to
crush a host of anti-U.S. forces and redraw the region’s political
map—possibly including Saudi Arabia. To
get a sense of the enormity of U.S. goals in the Middle East and
the risks U.S. elites 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. The U.S.
basically ran the 1991 Gulf War from bases in Saudi Arabia. These
bases are still occupied by 4,000 to 5,000 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 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 against the emergence of a revolutionary
movement in Palestine.
Roots of the Saudi Crisis
In recent years U.S. domination
of the region—and especially its military presence—has
increasingly inflamed anti-U.S. sentiments in Saudi Arabia and intensified
deep stresses within Saudi society. These developments are limiting
the Saudi rulers’ maneuvering room, forcing them to publicly
distance themselves from U.S. positions in the region 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. It also
made Saudi Arabia very useful in intrigues against the U.S.’s
former superpower rival, the Soviet Union, and in undermining and
attacking secular revolutionary and nationalist forces in the Middle
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.
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. Eric Rouleau, writing
in the July/August 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs, notes,
“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.”
Sympathy for bin Laden apparently extends to some members of the
Saudi upper classes. In his book The Taliban, Ahmed Rashid
writes, “Osama Bin Laden’s critique of the corruption
and mismanagement of the [Saudi] regime is not falling upon deaf
ears amongst the Saudi population.” Rashid also reports 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. Rouleau 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.”
contends that bin Laden “remains widely popular in Saudi Arabia
today—not for his crimes, but because of the population’s
Economic Strains and 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 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.
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.
The result, Rouleau notes, is that “there is not enough money
for local investment.”
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.)
A recent report in Oil and Gas International (October 30)
noted that plans are already developing for drastically reorganizing
the business relationship of a post-war Iraq: “The Bush administration
wants to have a working group of 12 to 20 people focused on Iraqi
oil and gas to be able to recommend to an interim government ways
of restoring the petroleum sector following a military attack in
order to increase oil exports to partially pay for a possible U.S.
military occupation government…. According to the source, the
working group will not only prepare recommendations for the rehabilitation
of the Iraqi petroleum sector post-Hussein, but will address questions
regarding the country’s continued membership in the Organization
of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and whether it should be
allowed to produce as much as possible or be limited by an OPEC
quota, and it will consider whether to honor contracts made between
the Hussein government and foreign oil companies, including the
$3.5 billion project to be carried out by Russian interests to redevelop
Iraq is only the beginning. The Boston Globe (9/10/02) reports:
“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 well aware of them and they are trying to refine and sequence
their horrendous project so that they neither lose post-September
11 political “momentum,” nor allow events to escape their
control. 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
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 regional maneuvers
of other imperialist powers, such as Russia, Germany, and France,
and to force them to be subordinate to U.S. dictates.
rulers hope their war on Iraq will intimidate the civilians throughout
the region—especially the Palestinians, who 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. (Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has called Jewish
settlements in the West Bank and Gaza legitimate Israeli spoils
of war; Dick Armey, the Republican Majority Leader in the House,
has spoken in favor of expelling Palestinians to Jordan.)
Rather than negotiate a resolution of this struggle, powerful forces
in the U.S. 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,” the Journal editorialized on March 29. A week
later they added, “Only a seismic political change in the Middle
East will show the Palestinians that they must come to terms with
Israel’s right to exist. A democratic pro-western Iraq will
do more for peace in Palestine than 100 trips by Colin Powell.”
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.
The Rand briefing 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 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. warns, it has to “modernize,”
open its economy to the forces of globalization, and train its elite
to operate in the world capitalist market.
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 there. Such actions could further
weaken key pillars of al Saud rule and lead to greater instability.
How would the U.S. respond then? What would the fallout be among
the world’s billion-plus Muslims, if the U.S. occupied or dismembered
Saudi Arabia—the geographic and historic center of Islam?
Bush I bragged that the Desert Storm slaughter would usher in a
“new world order” of unquestioned U.S. dominance. But
things didn’t turn out as planned. For one, the Hussein regime
survived. For another, the war opened up deep fissures within one
of the U.S.’s most important and reliable clients—Saudi
The U.S.’s new, more arrogant, and more brutal plans will undoubtedly
leave the Middle East awash in even greater human suffering. But
they may also backfire in unforseen ways. That may create openings
for the people and turn the imperialists’ diabolical ambitions
into their worst nightmares.
Larry Everest is a correspondent for the Revolutionary
Worker newspaper and author of Oil, Power &
Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda (Common Courage
Press). Leonard Innes is part of a Revolutionary
Work- er newspaper writing group.