It shouldn’t have needed confirmation, but the latest WikiLeaks release affirmed what astute observers of the Middle East have known for a long time: Saudi Arabia is a most dangerous ally. On the one hand, King Abdullah is reported as having urged America to “cut off the head of the snake,” referring to the radical fundamentalist regime in Iran. On the other hand, another cable states that “Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like al-Qaida.” Neither bit of news is terribly surprising, but it puts new focus on the troubling, entangling and often hypocritical alliance between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration, like administrations before it, surely understands the complexity of the Saudi problem. The question is: how to solve it? Given Obama’s lamentable foreign policy track record, it would seem that America is farther away than ever from formulating a plan to deal with the Saudi monarchy.
There are multiple challenges in dealing with the Saudis and they’re all intertwined. Oil is at the root of the problem of course. As much as we love to dream of a world in which Saudi crude doesn’t matter, that’s not the world we live in. Nor will we live in such a world in the foreseeable future. No amount of cornfields or wind farms are going to supplant crude in any meaningful way. A stable, reliable global petroleum supply chain is essential to America’s economic health, and the nation that churns out twenty per cent of the world’s crude oil is the most critical aspect of that supply chain. So, in the case of Saudi Arabia, we are choosing the devil we know and hope we can make the relationship work. Yet, the larger problem inherent in dealing with Saudi Arabia is that we’re not dealing with the interests of a nation, but rather those of a family.
Estimates vary, but the Royal House of Saud, which has ruled the kingdom since unification in 1932, has between 7,000 and 20,000 members. In a nation of 25 million, a stunning amount of national wealth flows through the hands of the Sauds – around forty percent of GDP by some estimates. Over $200 billion per year is under the control of one extended family. The princes of the House of Saud and their families live very well and they know it. They are also very aware that the foundation of their authority rests on two very shaky pillars: their continued control of the kingdom’s vast oil reserves, and keeping the restless and often resentful populace of the nation in check. Those two over-riding goals of the royal family manifest themselves in two very contradictory policies when it comes to relations with the United States of America.
Keeping control of the source of the family’s wealth (those enormous oil reserves) means ensuring that none of Saudi Arabia’s more dangerous, covetous neighbors get their hands on it. Thus, King Fahd was happy to help American during the First Gulf War in order to thwart Saddam Hussein’s naked ambitions – even if doing so meant suffering the undying enmity of Islamic purists like Osama bin Laden. In the same vein, which nation in the region represents the greatest threat to the royal family today? Iran, and in particular, a nuclear-capable Iran. Thus, King Abdullah’s wish that America use its military might to cut off the head of the kingdom’s latest threat comes as no surprise. The King could hardly be expected to hope for anything else.
While America protects the Kingdom from external threats, internal threats are every bit as dangerous to the House of Saud. Managing those threats means that America, Saudi Arabia’s ally behind the scenes, must be made the public scapegoat for all the ills that millions of ordinary Saudis suffer (along with Israel, of course). However many handshakes that Saudi and American diplomats privately exchange, or however many bows Barack Obama publicly offers to Saudi royalty, the fact of the matter is that the average Saudi Arabian despises America – and the Saudi royal family is quite happy with that arrangement.
I speak from experience. In the late nineties, I did a significant amount of work in the kingdom as one of the many expatriates who keep the wheels of industry turning in Saudi Arabia. The English language newspaper in the kingdom, the Arab Times, was constantly filled with virulent anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda. (I can’t even imagine what was published in the Arabic-language newspapers.) Most – though not entirely all – of the native population treated Americans and Brits with undisguised contempt and, occasionally, employed the kind of physical aggression and intimidation that would shock the public if it happened in the United States. The Saudi religious police reveled in harassing Americans and Brits. There is a caustic, poisonous anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Israel atmosphere pervading Saudi Arabia and it could not exist without the tacit approval, if not the active encouragement, of the House of Saud.
This is the other half of the royal family’s strategy of holding onto power; wealth and privilege. Millions of ordinary Saudis are poor and don’t understand why that should be so in a nation so rich and so beloved by Allah. Many among the Saudi middle class resent the wealth and privilege that the ruling class enjoys. Absent a convenient scapegoat, this rage and resentment would be turned against the House of Saud and its fragile authority. And so, within the borders of our so-called ally, the myth that American imperialism and Israeli Zionism are to blame for all of the woes that ordinary Saudis suffer is both tolerated and encouraged. The House of Saud showers money onto radical Muslim clerics, perpetuating a centuries old partnership between the royal family and the fundamentalist followers of Muhammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab. The Wahhabis, in turn, use those riches to fund the terrorist organizations that want to destroy Western civilization.
The Sauds don’t appear to be troubled by the contradiction of relying on the protection of the world’s one remaining superpower, while simultaneously – if indirectly – undermining America’s ability to provide that singular service. The royal family has been happily playing both ends to the benefit of their personal middle for decades and they show no signs of stopping. As the WikiLeaks release confirms, the House of Saud knows that they hold the ultimate trump card in the form of black gold, and no one in America is willing to call.
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