Saudi Arabia is to America what India was to Imperial Britain
The powerful bomb
that exploded earlier this month in the Saudi capitol, Riyadh, sent shock across the Mideast and set off alarm bells in Washington and London.
Five American servicemen and intelligence agents were killed and 60 wounded in the first-ever attack on a U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia. While American officials made the usual ritual denunciations of Iran, Iraq and Islamic extremists, the attack boldly underlined the growing instability of the Saudi regime.
Washington's worst political nightmare is that one morning Riyadh radio will announce the overthrow of the Saudi dynasty by an unknown army colonel who proclaims the new 'Islamic Republic of Arabia.'
Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, is to America what India was to Imperial Britain: the jewel in the crown. Just as much of Britain's wealth last century came from exploiting the riches and markets of India, today, America's economy has come to depend on the steady flow of cheap oil from its Arabian protectorates, and on arms sales to Arab clients.
U.S. and British military muscle keep the royal families of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates in power, protecting them from larger neighbors, notably Iran and Iraq. In exchange, the petro-sheiks sell oil at artificially low prices to the west, buy western goods, and stash their money in western banks. Saudi arms purchase, some $14 billion since the Gulf War alone, produce hundreds of thousands of jobs in the U.S., and keep production lines of America's defense industry running.
America, in turn, closes its eyes to the increasingly repressive nature of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates while championing democracy and human rights elsewhere in the world. The feudal rulers of Arabia, the Gulf, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt's military regime, remain the foundation of America's modern Mideast Raj.
This cozy arrangement may be nearing an end, as many of Saudi Arabia's 10-12 million citizens grow increasingly restive under the oligarchic rule of the 8,000-member Saudi royal family. While the royal family has spread wealth around the kingdom, many young, educated Saudis want their nation to become a modern, democratic republic. Within the small army, which is rarely given ammunition for fear of a coup, must lurk a number of would-be Col. Nassers. underground Islamic groups. Since the Saudi regime tolerates no free speech or political opposition, citizens have inevitably turned to political Islam as the sole way of expressing their frustration. Orthodox Islamic groups denounce the royal family for defiling the holy land of Islam by allowing some 10,000 U.S. and British military personnel to garrison the kingdom. These troops, claim militants, are really an occupation army whose mission is to corrupt Islamic society and crush any rebellion against the 'traitorous' Saudi dynasty -- and hence fair game for attacks.
The CIA and FBI have aided the Saudis in their crackdown against political and religious opponents
is an inherently revolutionary faith that preaches social equality and opposes accumulation of vast wealth by a few. Riches, says the Koran, must be shared among all Muslims. Islamic militants advocate increasing the price of oil to realistic levels -- in other words, to cease giving it away to the West in exchange for Chicago-style protection. Such radical talk horrifies Washington and the U.S. defense industry.
Other Islamic groups scourge the royal family, which styles itself Defender of Islam, for shameless, un-Islamic drinking, whoring and gambling in Europe. And for moving towards peace with Israel. Fundamentalist Muslim groups condemn modest attempts at modernization, or education of women. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia, America's closet Arab ally, still does not allow women to drive cars.
The government has responded to these rising tensions by increasing repression against citizens and 'guest' workers. At least 190 people have been beheaded this year. Many were drug smugglers; but some were political opponents. Outspoken critics have been arrested, or cowed into silence. Attempts were made to poison Saudi dissidents in London who disclosed embarrassing information about the royal family.
Both the CIA and FBI have aided the Saudis in their crackdown against political and religious opponents -- just as American agents did in Iran during the Shah's era. By doing so, the U.S. has cut itself off from the legitimate opposition, increasing the risk that the regime that eventually replaces the Saudi dynasty will be bitterly anti-American.
Meanwhile, against the background of a sharply deteriorating economy caused by mountainous Gulf War debts, a struggle to succeed the ailing King Fahad has already been joined. Sharp personal and generational rivalries within the Saudi royal family are breaking into the open. If the family splits into warring factions, chances of its collapse grow geometrically. The fall of the Saudis could bring down the emirs of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and the Sultan, preserve of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service.
In spite of all their vast wealth, the Saudis live in constant fear: fear of Iran and Iraq; fear of their own disgruntled people; of terrorist attacks and kidnapping; fear of their army and national guard; fear that Egypt or even Israel might seize their oil fields. Fear that time may be running out for their kingdom built on sand.
Eric Margolis is a syndicated columnist and broadcaster who writes the weekly "Foreign Correspondent" dispatch.
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