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U.S. Backing Enables Saudi Arabia to Crush Dissent in Bahrain

Posted on 09 May 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia, the oil rich kingdom that is the birthplace and former home of Osama bin Laden, has staved off the widespread popular protests that have swept across the region since January. The country’s oil-rich Eastern Province, bordering Bahrain, has witnessed protests from the minority Shia Muslim population. In March, Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to support its royal family after a month of protests. We speak with Toby Jones, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, on the role of Saudi Arabia in suppressing the Bahrain uprising, as well as its own. “We shouldn’t assume that there is a lack of interest on the part of Saudi citizens in achieving some sort of democratic or political reform. There are deep frustrations in Saudi society,” says Jones.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich kingdom that is the birthplace and former home of Osama bin Laden. On Thursday, a senior extremist linked to al-Qaeda surrendered to Saudi authorities. Khaled Hathal al-Qahtani is thought to be the first operative to turn himself in after U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday in Pakistan.

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has staved off the widespread popular protests that have swept across the region since January. The country’s oil-rich Eastern Province, bordering Bahrain, has witnessed some protests from the minority Shia Muslim population. In March, Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to support its royal family after a month of protests.

Seventy percent of Saudi Arabia’s almost 19 million people are under the age of 30, and last year unemployment was at 10 percent. In a bid to pacify Saudi citizens, King Abdullah, the 87-year-old head of state, has distributed over $100 billion in social handouts since February.
Municipal elections are planned for September. Women will not be able to run for seats or vote in the elections, and there have been some protests organized by women to end the Kingdom’s discriminatory laws. Saudi Arabia has no political parties.

To discuss the situation there, we’re joined by Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University. He was previously Persian Gulf analyst for the International Crisis Group. He’s the author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia and is working on a new book project, America’s Oil Wars.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

TOBY JONES: Thanks for having me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, why has Saudi Arabia escaped the widespread popular movements that have swept through the Middle East and the Arab world?

TOBY JONES: Well, for a number of reasons. The first is that it possesses the incredible ability to police its own population, which is not dissimilar from other autocratic regimes in the region. But it also has oil wealth and an almost unlimited ability to pay out, and to co-opt potential dissidence, which we saw the King and the royal family attempt to do in early and mid-March by passing out, as you noted, over $100 billion in inducements to encourage people not to take to the streets.

But we shouldn’t assume that there is a lack of interest on the part of Saudi citizens in achieving some sort of democratic or political reform, that there is absent in Saudi Arabia the political will for precisely the kind of thing that happened in Egypt or Tunisia, Yemen, Syria or Bahrain. There are deep frustrations in Saudi society. There are anxieties about the ailing nature of the political system, corruption within the royal family, and a deep desire to see fundamental change.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how Saudi Arabia has repressed its own protests as well as moved into Bahrain to support the government in the fierce repression of the pro-democracy movement there?

TOBY JONES: Well, in addition to using financial and other kinds of social inducements to convince its citizens not to take to the streets, at least not for now, the Saudis have also rolled out a series of other measures, some security-based, initially responding to the possibility of a popular uprising in mid-March. The Kingdom blanketed its streets with heavy security presence, discouraging people from gathering publicly.

But they’ve also done another thing, which is very important and has not totally escaped notice but is important to keep in mind, particularly in light of the demise of Osama bin Laden and the continuing concern about the global war on terror: Saudi Arabia has also renewed a set of relationships with the religious establishment, empowering Islamists, as part of this wave of responding to popular mobilization, using the religious clergy and religious scholars to attempt to delegitimize popular protest and also to basically encourage citizens to remain quiescent. The reestablishment or the re-empowerment of the religious clergy is a new thing under King Abdullah. When he came to power in 2005, he actually took fairly serious measures to roll back the authority of the religious establishment, which he saw both as a source of embarrassment but also as a potential threat to Saudi power, to the power of the royal family. So the fact that some of his early efforts or some of his most recent efforts are being systematically undone and that the clergy are enjoying a kind renaissance, if you will, should be a source of concern.

The decision to intervene in Bahrain is linked directly to anxieties on the part of the Saudis about the potential for a democratic demonstration effect. They worry that if there were popular uprisings or if there was a successful regime change in Bahrain, that that might somehow sweep across the Saudi borders and encourage Saudi citizens to pursue a similar path. But there’s also another element, and that is something that is perhaps particular to the Saudis and the Bahrainis. There is a deep sense of anti-Shiism and sectarianism in the Kingdom. So, the specter of Shia political power in Bahrain, so soon after Iraqi Shias came to enjoy predominance and power in Saudi Arabia’s most powerful northern neighbor, was too much for the Saudis to bear. And so, they preemptively intervened, militarily occupied Bahrain, in order to stamp out the possibility of Shia empowerment there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the issue of the U.S. relations, especially in view of the fact that the continuing total lack of rights for women in Saudi Arabia, that our government never mentions a word about or talks about that—how is the Kingdom able in this age, with all the modern communications that we have, to continue to suppress the rights of women and yet receive virtually no condemnation anywhere in the rest of the world?

TOBY JONES: Well, they certainly don’t receive political condemnation from the powers that be here in the United States or elsewhere. And it has to do with the Kingdom’s ability to supply the quintessential industrial resource—right, its role—and not only just providing oil, but in being the most important global producer of oil on the planet. It has the ability to shape markets, to make up for shortfalls, to exceed capacity, everywhere, makes it more vital than lots of other places. And this has long been most important and the single most important political priority for American policymakers, and for Western policymakers more broadly. Women’s rights, in the grand scheme of things, then, from the perspective of the State Department or the White House, they almost hardly matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Osama bin Laden and Saudi Arabia? You were talking about the empowerment of the clergy. Talk about his history. He is from Saudi Arabia.

TOBY JONES: Right. Well, his citizenship is contested by the Saudis, who claim that he’s actually Yemeni in origin. But his father was an important contractor in Saudi Arabia, ran a major construction business. He first came of age working for Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company, in Saudi Arabia, but then became a main contractor to the Saudi state. And bin Laden was one of his many children and sort of came of age in the Saudi political system and education system, grew up in the 1970s and in the 1980s, in a moment when Saudi Arabia was renewing its Islamic credentials, partly in response to a crisis in late ’70s, re-empowering the religious establishment and encouraging a certain interpretation of Islam, a particularly kind of virulent one. Bin Laden took note, traveled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to participate in the anti-Soviet jihad there, or at least to provide services, and was radicalized in the context of the Afghan jihad, returned to Saudi Arabia shortly after the conclusion of that war. In 1990 and 1991, actually offered his services and the services of the Mujahideen to the Saudi royal family to defend the Kingdom from Saddam Hussein, who had just invaded Kuwait. He was politely rebuffed, and then left the Kingdom and went to Sudan, eventually on his way to Afghanistan, where he formed al-Qaeda and began fighting the global crusade against—the global war against the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the U.S. support for the Mujahideen and Osama bin Laden, when they were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then, of course, they set their sights back on the United States.

TOBY JONES: That’s right. I mean, al-Qaeda, bin Laden and the phenomenon of global terrorism and global jihad is the direct outgrowth of the Afghan jihad. So the United States made a strategic decision in the late 1970s under the Carter administration, and then a set of policies that was accelerated under Reagan, to equip and aid the Mujahideen in rolling back the Soviets and pushing them back out of Central Asia, for lots of reasons, but most importantly, as Carter articulated in 1980, because they were too close to the Persian Gulf. That was the site of our vital interests, and we were willing to do whatever necessary to protect them. So the decision to support the jihad and the Arab Afghans, as well as the Afghani Mujahideen, is the context from which al-Qaeda and bin Laden emerged, along with a whole host of other folks.

That first generation of al-Qaeda jihadis, beyond 9/11, who began carrying out attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco and elsewhere, were trained on the battlefields in Afghanistan and in the camps there. It would be—it’s not entirely right that the United States directly armed bin Laden. They armed lots of other bad guys who had relationships with bin Laden. It is entirely appropriate to see bin Laden—to understand both his credibility, his legitimacy and the sources of his radicalization as being a product of American policy in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to go back to Saudi Arabia for one moment to talk about this whole issue of the government’s attempt to rehabilitate former fighters. Basically, it provides enormous leniency to those who turn in their weapons and agree to reintegrate into Saudi society. Could you talk about that, especially the numbers who have come from—those who have been released from Guantánamo that Saudi Arabia has accepted back and put into these reeducation programs?

TOBY JONES: Well, it’s remarkable. The Saudis, on the one hand, do in fact have—they fear the power of al-Qaeda to do harm, and they were confronted with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2003, 2004 and 2005, began a campaign inside Saudi Arabia. AQAP now continues to exist in Yemen and would like very much to do harm to the Saudis. So the Saudis are nervous about the power of terrorists to continue to do damage inside the Kingdom, both to threaten the royal family but also to potentially undermine its economy.

But it’s taken the path of dealing with these forces and these individuals by—precisely by rehabilitating them, by putting them in facilities that attempt to indoctrinate them. They bring in established clergy to essentially reeducate these folks, rehabilitate them. They’re provided with various subsidies and services, and then they’re reintegrated into family life, and into social life more broadly. So it’s a kind of catch-and-release program for suspected or for real terrorists.

One of the interesting paradoxes here is that when the Saudi state arrests liberals—not terrorists, but folks who demand things like constitutional monarchy, the creation of a constitutional monarchy, women’s rights, an end to corruption—those folks are imprisoned, and they’re left to stay there.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what Saudi Arabia is doing now? In the piece you wrote, “Counterrevolution in the Gulf,” you talk about it pursuing policies that could destabilize the whole Persian Gulf.

TOBY JONES: Right. Well, the intervention in Bahrain has got to be one of the most deeply troubling things that the Saudis—and they’ve done a lot of troubling things, right? But the decision to intervene, to militarily occupy Bahrain, has been justified. Although there are lots of different motives, it’s been justified as a response to what the Saudis claim is Iranian meddling. Much of the assumption—many Gulf Arabs assume, as do many American policymakers, that there are preternatural connections between Shias in the Arab world, whether they’re in Iraq, Bahrain or Iran, that because they’re co-religionists, they share a single political objective, and because we view Iran as the single most important bogeyman in the region, this matters. The Saudis have used this precisely to frame their intervention in Bahrain, that we’re taking out—we’re checking the possibility of Iran to establish either a fifth column or a front line so close to Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing region in the Eastern Province. So, by framing things both in sectarian terms and as a response to Iranian power, for which there is no evidence, the Saudis are in fact escalating and provoking a potential regional crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Toby Jones, I want to thank you for being with us, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, previously with the International Crisis Group, a political analyst of the Persian Gulf, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.

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Saudi Arabia’s Influence in The Middle East

Posted on 08 May 2011 by hashimilion

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Syria has again been in the headlines this weekend with yet more protesters shot after Friday prayers.

The EU has announced it’ll impose sanctions against Syria and the UN has sent in teams of people.

One rather large and influential country in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia.

Its influence in the region is considerable and it’s becoming increasingly nervous as its neighbours deal with these political uprisings.

Madawi Al Rasheed is a professor of social anthropology at Kings College in London.

I asked her about the influence of Saudi Arabia in the region.

MADAWI AL RASHEED: Saudi Arabia tries to project itself as a stabiliser, as a force that would stabilise the region, but this means that they interfere in a very big way in other countries’ affairs.

For example in Bahrain now, we know that Saudi Arabia was the first country to seize the opportunity and move its troops. The same thing happened in Yemen. Saudi Arabia had always interfered in Yemen, and again, the problem is you have a neighbour that is extremely vulnerable and poor in Yemen and a very, very wealthy, economically strong state like that of Saudi Arabia and therefore it is very easy for Saudi Arabia to interfere in Yemeni affairs and also play political game with the various tribal groups and with the regime.

So the imbalance at the economic level is bound to create a sort of Saudi hegemony and make it expand in the region. But Yemen is a very difficult terrain and Saudi Arabia will probably never be able to control what goes on in Yemen because Yemen has a long history of dissent and a weak state in a way and a very strong society.

A tribal society, they have much more freedom of speech in Yemen, they have the right to form political parties. Remember Yemen was two countries until very recently and all these kinds of freedoms that we see in Yemen are actually non-existent in Saudi Arabia.

And Saudi Arabia has always interfered in the affairs of its region because it fears that other countries, especially the ones that it has borders with, may develop certain political aspirations that would impact on its own community and on the Saudis.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Will Saudi Arabia be able to continue to exert that sort of pressure successfully on countries like Yemen and Bahrain?

MADAWI AL RASHEED: Obviously Saudi Arabia can continue to do that and one thing that has encouraged Saudi Arabia I think, especially in the last episode of the Bahrain situation, was that the Americans were supposed to be guarding the interests of the Gulf State, had not objected to Saudi troops moving into Bahrain and would not describe that as occupation.

So the double standard whereby the American administration could support change and democracy in other parts of the Arab world such as for example in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and even commit itself to military action in a place like Libya, whereas in Bahrain, where we have a pro-democracy movement that started as a peaceful movement, we have complete silence over that situation which, given the impression, given the clear message to the people in the region that democracy is a selective process.

So from the Western point of view it’s supported in some parts of the Arab world but it is not supported in other parts.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Do you think that we’re going to see the uprisings in Saudi Arabia?

MADAWI AL RASHEED: Obviously the country is affected by what is going on in the Arab world. At the same time it has similar conditions. For example, Saudi Arabia has an incredible youth population, it has a very high unemployment rate, it also has a very high corruption index.

So the conditions for political reform are there, but Saudi Arabia, or the Saudi regime to be more specific, has used three strategies to almost thwart any kind of political reform, and this is what people are asking for. They’re asking for political reform.

So the first strategy was to use heavy policing and security. Throughout the last two, three months, Saudis are subjected to heavy policing and so far in almost a month, 160 people were arrested and they are in prison according to Human Rights Watch, without trials simply because the regime thinks that they are planning a protest or have participated in a protest.

Second strategy was to use religion. Religion and the alliance between the Saudi regime and the religious establishment known as the Wahabi, they provide great services for the regime in the sense that they have been telling the population every Friday during Friday prayers and ceremonies.

But if you demonstrate, you’re actually committing a sin and demonstrating against God against the King, is almost a sin against God, and therefore they are preaching obedience to rulers. So that’s the second strategy.

And finally, the Saudi regime is using economic benefits and handouts to bribe the population into loyalty. And this is interesting because only recently, a month ago, the King return from New York and Morocco after having had two operations and he’s in bad health. But he immediately announced handouts worth over $36 billion

One way of absolving the high unemployment among young men is to recruit them into policing the rest of the population, which is really interesting. Increased policing, the militarisation of Saudi society is extremely dangerous. And in order to absolve unemployment, you recruit more policemen, more security forces, more intelligence services.

This economic side is possible because of oil and because of the high prices of oil and therefore this occasional handouts are important for the regime to absolve any kind of discontent or dissatisfaction. And therefore the trading, there is a formula, that you know, here are some economic benefits that the population can have, in return you have to be obedient and loyal to the regime. And this is basically the new contract that exists between society and the state in Saudi Arabia.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Madawi Al Rasheed, a professor of social anthropology at Kings College in London.

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Sword of Justice? Beheadings Rise in Saudi Arabia

Posted on 05 May 2011 by hashimilion

On November 25, 2007, a Saudi man was beheaded by sword for committing homicide. His execution brought the country’s official number of beheadings to 151. This number was a new record, standing in stark contrast to the 2006 total of 38 and far exceeding the previous record of 113 beheadings in 2000. Rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery, and drug trafficking are among the many crimes punishable by beheading in the oil-rich kingdom. Saudis point out that theirs is far from being the only country that maintains capital punishment. Yet, while it would be hypocritical as well as unreasonable to demand the kingdom to eliminate executions altogether, public beheadings are nonetheless cruel and unusual on a global scale. The discussion on this matter has shifted toward one on human rights–namely the right to die with dignity.

One of the primary reasons for the recent increase may lie in the psychological implications of beheadings. Some human rights experts argue that the kingdom’s powerful official clerics fear that they are losing their influence over the Saudi population. In order to achieve the fullest impact on the general populace, beheadings are often performed outside mosques in major cities after prayer services on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Much like the French use of the guillotine in the eighteenth century, a desensitized Saudi citizenry may have grown accustomed to and even expect beheadings. Repeated exposure to public beheadings has decreased their shock value and increased the public’s overall tolerance to them.

Social conditions also render the country particularly vulnerable to abrupt increases in fervor. Justification for capital punishment derives from the country’s conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Shariah, the set of Islamic religious laws. Yet these interpretations are by no means universally accepted in the Muslim world. Many clerics and scholars insist that the Quran makes no mention of the practice whatsoever. Of the roughly 57 Muslim-majority countries worldwide, only in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, and Qatar do national laws permit beheading. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is the only country that actually continues to behead its offenders, although both Iran and Saudi Arabia uphold the tradition of stoning adulterers to death.

Even with religious rationalization, significant ambiguity still surrounds the legal precedent for these execution practices. Although many of those beheaded are tried and convicted first, evidence suggests that many are neither explained their rights nor provided legal counsel. Most notable among this latter group are foreigners, typically migrant workers from South Asia, Africa, and the poorer areas of the Arab world. In November 2007 alone, those beheaded included citizens of Bangladesh, Yemen, Pakistan, and Ghana.

The imminent beheading of a 19 year-old Sri Lankan girl, Rizana Nafeek, received considerable international attention in 2007. Nafeek had left Sri Lanka to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia and was accused of murdering her employer’s infant child. She was tried without an attorney, apparently confessing to strangling the child under duress. Eventually, as the result of the efforts of international advocacy groups’ efforts, Nafeek received a lawyer in May, and the Sri Lankan foreign ministry attempted to intervene on her behalf. As of December 8, 2007, the country’s Appellate Court began hearing her case. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, Saudi police allegedly tortured a confession out of Nafeek, an accusation the Saudi judicial system has been forced to take seriously in light of international attention.

Despite this recent development, few outside Sri Lanka have maintained interest in the woman’s fate, and international attention to the case has waned. This is peculiarly indicative of Saudi beheadings as a whole. Since August 2007, there have been dozens of beheadings reported, but none have drawn any particular international outcry. The level of domestic criticism for beheadings, though not entirely negligible, is hard to assess given the kingdom’s tight control on media censorship. And while external human rights advocacy groups continue to demand an end to the practice, no one is encouraging Saudi Arabia to adopt a more structured, pragmatic approach–e.g., exercising greater discretion in choosing those to execute publicly or, better yet, transitioning toward a system of predominantly private, discreet capital punishment. With no end to beheadings in sight and with Saudi accusations of foreign critics’ moral relativism, promoting moderation is the only chance the international community has at swaying Saudi Arabia diplomatically.

By Jon Weinberg

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Saudi and Iranian Interests In Bahrain Conflict

Posted on 05 May 2011 by hashimilion

Rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia date back to the first Pahlavi monarch. Following the Islamic Revolution in the 1980s, Iraq waged war against Iran with the obvious support of the Saudis. At that time, tension in the bilateral relations was high.

Tensions decreased in the following two decades, but it seems that political rivalries between these regional players has entered a new phase following 9/11 terror attacks and the occupation of Iraq.

There are three main areas of competition between Tehran and Riyadh after 2003, which include Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf.

Areas of rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia

The Iraqi Baath party controlled Iraq for decades and posed a threat to the entire region, but the Saudis considered them a counterweight to Iran’s regional influence. Following the invasion of Iraq and the collapse of Baathist rule, new conditions were created. The shiites enjoyed a special position in the new political system because of democracy and the fact that they were the majority inside the country.

The Saudis could never accept the shia ascension to power. Therefore, Riyadh took a negative approach towards the new Iraqi government. Saudi officials believed that if the new relations between Iran and Iraq became powerful enough, the balance of regional power would be disturbed to their detriment. Therefore, they held a negative view of the Iraqi government and have never offered firm political support for the new government in Baghdad.

As for Lebanon and Palestine, new developments have quickly unraveled. In Saudi Arabia’s view, those developments both in were influenced by Iran and Riyadh spared no effort to thwart that influence. The war between the Hezbollah and Israel broke out in 2006 and was followed by the invasion of Gaza in 2008. The end result was the strengthening of the resistance axis. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia conducted clandestine efforts both in Lebanon and Palestine to undermine Iran’s role and influence.

The third area of rivalry, which is geographically closer to both countries and more sensitive, is the Persian Gulf. During the past few decades, Iran and Saudi Arabia have taken different approaches to the security arrangements in the Persian Gulf. While Iran has called for local security arrangements through the cooperation of regional players and opposes the presence of transregional powers like the United States, Saudi Arabia welcomed transregional powers to the Persian Gulf and signed various agreements allowing the establishment of new military bases in the region.

The crisis in Bahrain and Iran-Saudi rivalry

Given new developments and the popular uprisings, Bahrain has gained special prominence both for Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The small island is now an important arena in which Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for control. Although popular uprisings in Bahrain against Al-Khalifa regime were natural result of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, they were also rooted in the discriminatory policies adopted by the Bahraini government towards the Shia.

The Al-Khalifa proved incapable of curbing the street protests and turned to the Saudis for assistance. More than 1,000 security forces arrived in Bahrain to suppress its people in collaboration with Bahrain’s own security forces. At present, Saudi Arabia plays an axial role among the  Gulf Cooperation Council states and it seems that the recent espionage charges leveled against Iran by Kuwaiti government were a result of Saudi pressures.

The majority of Saudi Shias are concentrated along its eastern borders, which is close to Bahrain and is rich in oil reserves. Riyadh considers the collapse of the Al-Khalifa regime a red line. Saudi officials believe that regime change in Bahrain will increase Iran’s regional influence in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain’s uprising was a popular development with local causes, but the saudis talk about Iran’s influence in fostering unrest in Bahrain and try to depict it as a sectarian war. This policy aims to facilitate the suppression of people’s uprising while gaining regional and international support.

It seems that Saudi Arabia will continue to support the Al-Khalifa regime. Of course small concessions will be given to the Shia in Bahrain, but real reforms will not take place and the Al-Khalifa regime will remain in tact.

The way out

The crisis in Bahrain needs a broad-based solution which goes far beyond diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It seems that both regional and international mechanisms are needed to manage the crisis. Such mechanisms may involve Turkey, Qatar, and even the European Union. Therefore, to reduce the tension a broad-based mechanism is required.

By Dr. Ali Akbar Asadi, Researcher; Center for Strategic Research

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A Modernization Paradox: Saudi Arabia’s Divided Society

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

There is something profoundly paradoxical about the new Al Faisaliah shopping center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A sprawling, three-story compound complete with air-conditioning and wireless internet, the bustling shopping mall is chock full of US fast-food chains and swanky clothing shops boasting everything from bras to basketball shoes. And yet, these hallmarks of economic modernity and Western-style mass consumerism are strikingly juxtaposed with the rigidly imposed cultural mores that have changed only marginally since the days when Riyadh was little more than a collection of dirt streets and mud houses.


Indeed, government enforcement of social mores has set Saudi Arabia apart as one the world’s strictest and most traditional societies. The women roam from shop to shop clothed in full black abayas–garments that cover the entire body in order to disguise a woman’s form–and scan shelves of children’s clothes from behind face-covering niqabs. In the neighboring restaurants, unmarried men and women are not allowed to interact, and couples who choose to eat out are segregated by portable partitions. Women wishing to shop in the center or dine in these restaurants must rely on their male relatives to drive them, and they are not allowed to vote for the council members that advise the government on the development and establishment of these modern institutions. The enforcement of these and other rules, which generally mandate the segregation of men and women in all public arenas, falls under the responsibility of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a government agency whose “morals police” monitors public areas to ensure that the rules are upheld to the highest standards of Islamic decency.

A Society of Paradoxes

This tension between modernity and tradition in Saudi Arabia is perhaps most palpable with regard to these laws toward women, but it is a paradox that has also manifested itself in virtually every branch of Saudi society. As Saudi Arabia develops, it has witnessed an ever-increasing number of contradictions between its modern economic institutions and rigid political and social systems. In a country whose economy is considerably dependent on the presence of foreign laborers, not to mention the innumerable Western professionals that contribute to the oil sector, there is still no freedom to worship any religion but Islam. Despite being one of the newest official voting members of the WTO, Saudi Arabia has still never had a national election–making it one of the world’s ten least democratic states, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2007 Democracy Index. Part of a multi-decade effort to strengthen the private sector, the country now has the strongest stock market in the region, but the kingdom’s would-be entrepreneurs are graduating from universities that are ranked among the lowest in the world. Barriers to foreign direct investment, which until recently had been insurmountably high, have been significantly lowered, and yet the state still refuses to grant tourist visas to Westerners, opening its borders only to Muslims that travel to Mecca on the Hajj.

The reality today is that Saudi Arabia is being pulled in two different directions. What is significant about this struggle, however, is the degree to which modernization has failed to permeate Saudi society beyond the economic sphere. Indeed, conventional wisdom among Western governments and institutions holds that economic prosperity will inevitably set developing nations on a road away from backwards political systems and toward pluralism, democracy, and liberalism. The Western view holds that with the development of a thriving middle class comes internal pressure to reform, and when this pressure becomes strong enough, incumbent regimes have no choice but to bow to the wishes of their people and liberalize their socio-political structures. Such beliefs have been the basis of much Western activity abroad in the last 50 years, with great hope being placed in institutions like the IMF and World Bank to bring about economic stability and eventual democratization movements. The theory has held up relatively well in certain regions of the world, but the trend in Saudi Arabia has established a new paradigm–defying certain beliefs about a direct connection between economic and political liberalization. Indeed, the pattern of change over the years in Saudi Arabia has demonstrated that more economic success can breed greater political oppression, for it is only in times of financial hardship that the country has achieved even marginal changes. As a result, political modernization in Saudi Arabia has not kept pace with economic liberalization. Today the kingdom stands at the forefront of developing nations in terms of wealth and infrastructure, but close to last with regard to political openness.

In 50 Years, from Rags to Riches

When King Abdul Aziz signed the treaty with the British government in 1932 that established the Saudi state, he inherited a fractured and backwards country that had next to no unified economy or infrastructure. For six years Saudi Arabia’s economy limped along, when in 1938, a team of US geologists stumbled across what would later be deemed the world’s greatest supply of natural oil, launching Saudi Arabia on a 50-year ascent to economic prosperity and material wealth. By the 1970s, the Saudi government, which receives almost 75 percent of its budgetary inflows from oil exports and controls 95 percent of all domestic oil production, was beginning to accrue vast revenues from Saudi oil exports. A confluence of factors in the mid-1970s led to this sudden economic acceleration, the greatest of which was an exponential growth in world oil prices (from $0.22 per barrel in 1948 to over $10 per barrel in 1974) caused by the 1973 Arab oil embargo. The government used this sudden surplus in oil revenue to launch a series of five-year development projects that would completely transform the kingdom into a thriving, modern society.

Even when world oil prices decreased sharply in the 1980s, the government under King Fahd continued to invest heavily in development and modernization, running significant budget deficits to pay for its projects. When the King died in August 2005, his obituary in the London Daily Telegraph referred to him as the “mastermind behind the modernization of his desert kingdom,” and indeed during his tenure as Crown Prince and then as King, he successfully spearheaded a series of structural developments that brought Saudi Arabia into the modern age.

Since the 1990s, similar modernization programs have continued, as Saudi Arabia has redirected revenues from oil exports toward infrastructure development, privatization, and economic diversification. Recently, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, launched the construction of a US$6.7 billion financial district in Riyadh and partially privatized the Saudi stock exchange in the hopes of making Saudi Arabia the top financial center in the Middle East. The country joined the WTO in 2005, after the signing of the US-Saudi Trade Investment Framework Agreement, which forced it to dismantle many preexisting trade barriers. The regime has also begun to dismantle previously insurmountable barriers to foreign direct investment, which it hopes will further its goals of diversifying its private sector and becoming a leading financial player in the region.

Of course Saudi Arabia’s economy is still far from perfect. But in the last half-century the remarkable nature of the country’s economic transformation cannot be disputed. Funded almost completely by oil revenues, Saudi Arabia has gone from a country of fractured tribes living in sand-swept villages, to a thriving, industrial nation dotted with skyscrapers, superhighways, airports, and factories.

Setting a New Paradigm: Resisting Reform

And yet, despite the economic similarities between Saudi Arabia and the developed states of the West, the US House of Representative still voted on June 22 to withhold the minimal amount of foreign aid that the United States regularly grants to the kingdom, citing among its reasons Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights records and its lack of progress in liberalizing its political system. It was a tangible sign that, despite claims over the last two years that Saudi society is “changing,” the country still has a long way to go before its social, legal, and political structures begin to resemble the modern character of its economy.

Although much has changed in Saudi Arabia since the country’s founding in 1932, the Saudi government has remained remarkably consistent with regard to its policymaking vision. It seeks to improve the economic welfare of the country’s citizens while also enforcing (sometimes ruthlessly) the country’s customs and traditions. The first half of this policy has been rigorously pursued through the reforms described above, but the latter half has manifested itself in repressive laws and a closed political system that are always justified on the basis of protecting Saudi Arabia’s Islamic heritage.

But this still does not explain why Saudi Arabia has bucked the prevailing consensus on the integral link between political and economic reforms. It does not explain the paradox of why, as Saudi Arabia’s populace has become richer, better educated, and more diversely opinionated, there has been almost no internal pressure for political liberalization. But, in the end, almost every trend in Saudi society can be explained by the single most important factor that has shaped the Saudi state–oil. And the complacency of the new Saudi middle class is ultimately no exception. The government, through its pet company Saudi Aramco, controls virtually all oil extraction and refining in the country and maintains its profligate social and economic spending through revenues from this oil production. The result is an economic welfare state of the most bizarre type, so bizarre that it has been given its own name by experts in the region–a rentier state. In such a state, rather than imposing taxes on its populace to raise the necessary cash for public projects, the government relies on a system of continuous revenues to fund not only economic development projects, but also a unique “welfare” program that tends to manifest itself in the form of simple public handouts. As long as the government can maintain these handouts, most citizens simply ask no questions–with no taxation, they demand no representation.

This system has been the primary factor behind the Saudi regime’s ability to maintain the same closed structure and enforce the same oppressive laws since its inception, guaranteeing the Al Saud family almost full carte blanche as they shape the country’s future and insulating them against the ramifications of poor or careless economic decisions. The resulting paradox is that as Saudi Arabia gets richer, its rulers find it easier to guarantee absolute rule. Prosperity in this case does not breed democratic change, but rather pushes Saudi society in precisely the opposite direction.

This unique phenomenon is perhaps best observed during the times that the Saudi economy has faltered. In the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia experienced its first major economic slowdown, public clamoring for political change garnered a promise from King Fahd to establish a consultative assembly (Majlis Al Shura) that would act as an advisory body to the Al Saud government. The promise turned out to be little more than hot air, however, with Fahd preferring to handle political dissidents with swift, repressive, and often violent justice. Indeed it was not until the years directly following the Gulf War, when international oil prices collapsed and public spending was cut, that middle-class technocrats and young Islamic fundamentalists generated enough public opposition to pressure the Fahd regime to honor its promise and establish the Majlis Al Shura–with all delegates appointed by the government. Then in the late 1990s, shrunken oil earnings again motivated the Saudi populace to speak out. These calls for change coincided with increasing pressure from the West for Saudi Arabia to reform its repressive political structure, and culminated in the kingdom’s first elections in 42 years. In 2005 Saudi men (women were excluded) were allowed for the first time to vote for half of the members of their local town councils (which have only an advisory role in government planning)–the other half of the members were, of course, appointed by King Abdullah. Despite the fact that only 25 percent of eligible voters participated (part of that Saudi apathy that has been instilled by 30 years of government handouts), these elections were hailed around the world as a major first step away from authoritarianism and were construed as a sign that, finally, Saudi Arabia was making efforts to reform.

Four consecutive years of sky-high oil prices and unprecedented economic growth have demonstrated the opposite. Indeed, far from motivating further reform of the authoritarian bureaucracy, these revenues have allowed King Abdullah to consolidate his already tight grip on power. The “democratically elected” town councils have proven to be even more ineffective and powerless than predicted. A law enacted in 2005 prohibits any employees of the government (government workers comprise two-thirds of the native workforce) from speaking out publicly against the regime’s policies. The signatories of a 2004 petition advocating the transformation to a constitutional monarchy have been forbidden to travel, and the authors of a more recent petition advocating reform have been arrested on trumped-up charges of terrorism. Despite a slew of promises from the regime in 2005, there have been no discussions as of yet regarding the establishment of further elections, even for the toothless town councils. Maybe if oil prices suddenly fall again (which looks unlikely) there will be another round of internal pressures and, perhaps, another election, but current trends indicate that the Saudi regime is perfectly content to continue as it always has–developing its economy with all the latest in modern technology and structural reforms, while keeping a tight grip on political power.

Bridging the Gap: Options for the Future

The paradoxical combination of Saudi economic modernization and deficient socio-political reforms proves that the West cannot sit back and hope that further increases in Saudi prosperity will boost the strength and numbers of the Saudi middle class, resulting in internal pressures for the reform of the oppressive political system and its equally ruthless legal code. Nor, for that matter, can the world’s democracies rely on random economic slow-downs and unpredictable decreases in oil prices to be the impetus for reforms. Of course the Saudi economy cannot grow forever and there will inevitably be future recessions, but to expect that such downturns will be the transformative force in Saudi political society is both naive and irresponsible.

If the West is serious about pushing for democratization in the region, it must develop a more comprehensive and effective strategy than the passive waiting game that has been the policy until now. Unfortunately, there appears to be no way to combat the social welfare policies of the Saudi government that have been so successful in establishing the deep sense of complacency among the Saudi people. However, the last decade has demonstrated that opposition to the regime does exist–and the government has had to rely more frequently on direct methods of repression and political silencing to combat internal opposition to its policies. If these voices are allowed to speak out and maintain pressure on the Al Saud government, then there is a chance that Saudi Arabia’s future may be far more democratic than its past. As the 2005 elections demonstrated, the Saudi regime will bend under pressure–especially when that pressure comes both from within the state and from the international community.

Saudi Arabia’s Western allies, upon whom the kingdom depends for diplomatic, political, military, and even economic support, have the ability to push the Saudi regime toward real political and social reforms. Further, if such pressure can be sustained, with strong internal calls for reform being consistently matched by equally condemnatory external criticism, then the Saudi regime may have no choice but to take further steps toward liberalizing its political structure and amending its draconian legal measures. Indeed this may be the only way by which the Saudi government can be forced to bridge the ever-increasing gap between its modernized economy and its repressive socio-political institutions.

By Killian Clarke

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Saudi is Spreading Poison Throughout the World. Can Reform Save it?

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

At the end of last month, Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, son of the founder of Saudi Arabia and half-brother to its present king, made an astonishing call for reform. “We cannot use the same tools we have been using to rule the country [from] a century ago,” he told the Financial Times. “This region is roiling with turmoil and radicalism and the aspirations of a young population, and I’m afraid we are not prepared for that.”

The prince has long been a dissonant voice in a family that frowns on public dissidence, and has no decision-making power. But his words speak to a fundamental battle taking place behind the guarded walls of the kingdom’s palaces. Will King Abdullah’s tentative steps towards reform, attempting to take back control of the judiciary, education and the religious police (the notorious mutawa) from reactionary clerics, continue? Or will the king’s recent appointment of Prince Nayef, the arch-conservative interior minister, as deputy prime minister and third in line to the throne, bring them to a halt?

For the problem facing this absolutist monarchy, which has managed to function both as the custodian of the birthplace of Islam and as a US ally sitting on a quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves, is not its immediate overthrow. (It has already seen off a proto-insurgency by al-Qaeda followers.) It is that the very basis of the House of Saud’s legitimacy, the fusion of temporal and religious power which forms the bedrock of the Saudi state, rests on its alliance with the House of Ibn Abdul Wahhab. And Wahhabism, the puritan faith formulated by this 18th-century religious reformer, is, in its essentials, the totalitarian creed espoused by Osama Bin Laden to justify his murderous jihad.

For many years the Saudi ruling family, which is also dependent for survival on its 64-year-old alliance with the US, managed to keep any difficulties caused by its reliance on these two radically opposed sources of support concealed behind a brittle facade of modernity. All this began to change, however, after 11 September 2001.

At first the al-Saud were in denial that 15 of the 19 hijackers were their countrymen, and that the attackers had been inspired by Bin Laden, a member of one of the kingdom’s leading merchant families. A year later, Prince Nayef was still insisting to a Kuwaiti newspaper that the attacks were a Zionist plot. When five western oil executives were killed at Yanbu, the Red Sea port, on 1 May 2004, then Crown Prince Abdullah said he was “95 per cent certain” that Zionists were behind it. Such attacks turned international opinion against Muslims: so, what other explanation could there be?

Once the jihadis turned their gunsights on the heart of the kingdom, however, the al-Saud began to accept the possibility of there being other culprits. The turning point came with the 29 May 2004 attack at al-Khobar in the Eastern Province. This is the region that contains the largest oil deposits in the world and is, in addition, the homeland of Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shia minority. Islamist gunmen attacked two foreign oil company office blocks and an expatriate enclave, killing three Saudi and 19 foreign civilians as well as nine Saudi policemen. They sought out Christian, Hindu and Buddhist “infidels” to murder, while setting Muslim hostages free. As in Yanbu that same month, they were able to mount the spectacle of dragging the body of a westerner for more than a mile, spitting slogans as they went. Even though the attack turned into a siege, with Saudi security forces ringing the compound and commandos landing on the roof of a building where the gunmen were holding more than 40 hostages, three of the attackers were able to, or allowed to, escape.

The authorities finally had to acknowledge that al-Qaeda, incubated in good part by the fanatical Wahhabism the al-Saud imposed as the kingdom’s sole creed, was their problem, too. As the slaughter at al-Khobar was continuing, the then crown prince, now King Abdullah, vowed to crush “this corrupt and deviant group” in Saudi society. “Those who keep silent about the terrorists will be regarded as belonging to them,” he warned. The implication was that nothing less than a seismic reformation of the House of Saud’s relationship with the Wahhabi clerical establishment was required–a reforging of the historic agreement that is the foundation stone of the Saudi state.

This is, in fact, the third time the House of Saud has set up a state in peninsular Arabia. The epic begins in the mid-18th century, when an emir from the Nejd in central Arabia, Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Saud, took in an itinerant preacher by the name of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab. In 1744, the compact between the two houses was sealed by the marriage of al-Saud’s son and Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s daughter. This combination of Islam and the al-Saud has formed the basis of the Saudi kingdom ever since. Its essential promise is to banish chaos and darkness–an echo of the pre-Islamic jahiliyya, or epoch of ignorance, that God sought to end through his revelation to the Prophet Muhammad–and substitute order, both human and divine.

By this time, the al-Saud had become oasis settlers. Increasingly populous and “detribalised”, they were obliged to find an alternative formula to build up their political and military strength, both to resist the predatory tribes and to press their ambitions. The alliance with Ibn Abdul Wahhab gave them just that: the magic ingredients of religious reform and jihad -a holy war to reclaim the peninsula of the Prophet Muhammad and the birthplace of Islam for true believers.

Abdul Wahhab espoused probably the most literalist, rigorous, antique and exclusivist interpretation of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy ever attempted as a form of governance. The Wahhab-Saud forces came to be known as Wahhabis, but often refer to themselves as the Ahl al-Tawhid, people of the oneness (of God). They regard any apparent deviation from monotheism–particularly evident to them in the practices of the Christians and the “idolatrous” and “rejection-ist” (Rafadah) Shia Muslims, for whom they reserved the lowest circle of hell–as infidel or apostate. This (in the strict sense of the word) totalitarian creed anathematised all other beliefs as illicit. It defined everyone else as “the Other”, drawing up as broad a definition of “non-believers” as has ever been devised. Wahhabism thus provides limitless sanction for jihad (making it hard for jihadis or their victims to understand how al-Qaeda, as the al-Saud insist, is in any way “deviant” from this orthodoxy).

The Wahhabi claim is to have found Arabia in a tribal stew of idolatry and chaos, war and pillage, ignorance and vice. In effect, the Wahhab-Saud forces claim to have ended the second Arabian jahiliyya or age of ignorance. If true, that would put them on a par with the Prophet himself- a heady boast indeed. In fact, Saudi-Wahhabi propaganda is a mirror image of the orientalist discourse about the Hobbesian fate from which the west saved the east. It is a self-serving myth to justify the hegemony of the al-Saud and the Nejd over a regionally and religiously diverse nation, which was unified by force only after King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud fought 52 battles across a 30-year war of conquest, ending in 1932. Tawhid came to mean not just the “oneness” of God but the oneness of Arabia under Saudi hegemony.

In return for this religious cover, the Wahhabi clerical establishment was given decisive social control, not only over religion and public comportment, but also over education and justice. Above all, it derived power from conferring legitimacy on the Saudi rulers, who had now named the land of the Prophet after themselves. The politico-religious symbiosis of the House of Ibn Saud and the House of al-Sheikh, as it is now known, built the world’s first modern Muslim fundamentalist state.

The state created by Ibn Saud has remained essentially static, while its subjects have been dragged into a modernity that rests on the shakiest foundations, imported like the air-conditioners that cool the gleaming malls and gated residential compounds. Within loudspeaker distance of a fire-and-brimstone mosque in Riyadh, close to the hotels where I have stayed many times, a shimmering mall houses a Harvey Nichols emporium with an outlet for La Senza, the lingerie chain. It is identical, in all respects except the gaudier range, to a similar shop anywhere else. But there is one fundamental difference. Because women may not mix with men outside their family and are kept in a mixture of seclusion and segregation, it follows that they cannot work in a lingerie boutique–which is therefore staffed entirely by men.

Saudi businesswomen, who operate with signal success but in a more or less separate environment from men, have increasingly been calling for a boycott of these kinds of arrangements, which are beyond satire.

A similar absurdity arises from the ban on women driving, which in practice has required the importation of more than a million foreigners to serve as drivers. In other words, a prohibition supposedly intended to keep women from temptation by denying them any independence leads to them being thrown into. daily contact with male strangers. Only a society that has living memory of the social conventions of slavery could be capable of countenancing such a paradox.

But it is probably in the field of education that this schizophrenia is most vividly and wrenchingly lived out. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia has an educated middle class, almost one million of whom have studied abroad. The kingdom has schooled its girls for nearly two generations. Saudis often have an intellectual depth to them that is less readily encountered in many Arab countries, where political and commercial pressures have debased and ground down the currency of ideas to convenient and remunerative cliche and myth. “There is something curiously uncalloused about the Saudis,” says a veteran diplomat to the kingdom.

But then turn to school textbooks, drawn up under the authority of the Wahhabi establishment. These drill into impressionable young Saudi minds the religious duty to hate all Christians and Jews as infidels, and to combat all Shias as heretics. A theology text for 14-year-olds, for instance, states that “it is the duty of a Muslim to be loyal to the believers and be the enemy of the infidels. One of the duties of proclaiming the oneness of God is to have nothing to do with his idolatrous and polytheist enemies.” The history textbooks typically emphasise the al-Saud hegemonic myth, burying any attempt to weave regional specificity or religious breadth into national identity under a suffocating narrative of Nejdi supremacy and Saudi redemption.

“It is really not very difficult to understand how we got to where we are,” says one reformist intellectual, asking rhetorically if there was any difference between the sectarian bigotry of Osama Bin Laden and the intolerant outpourings of the Wahhabi establishment. Saudi Arabia is a laboratory for jihad–that is its strategic dilemma.

While mosques and classrooms continue to spew out this fanaticism, Saudi Arabia has also been exporting these ideas for decades. Just during the reign of the late King Fahd, Riyadh claimed to have established 1,359 mosques abroad, along with 202 colleges, 210 Islamic centres and more than 2,000 schools. In addition, it episodically supported pan-Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and sponsored jihad abroad from Afghanistan to Bosnia. Jihadis were able to establish a base in Iraq partly because Wahhabi proselytisers had established bridgeheads in cities such as Mosul in the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

As king, Abdullah has introduced some incremental change. He has started rewriting textbooks, changing teaching methods and vetting teachers. He demanded the active co-operation of the clerical establishment in curtailing the flow of Saudi volunteers to Iraq. He has instituted de-radicalisation programmes for groups of jihadi prisoners who are willing to reintegrate into Saudi society. The king has also built tentative bridges to the Shias, and tried to foster a more pluralist conception of Islam.

In 2003, he launched a “national dialogue”, which held out the prospect of more open government, tighter financial controls on the royal family’s share of national wealth, greater rights for women, even the gradual introduction of elections. The king at least appeared to recognise the need for a more open society. But his brothers (the succession has always passed along the line of King Abdul Aziz’s elderly sons) did not share this view at all. No sooner was the national dialogue under way than Prince Nayef summoned dissidents to his office where, according to one reformer present, they were told: “What we won by the sword, we will keep by the sword.” Crown Prince Sultan said publicly, in March 2004, that the kingdom was not ready for an elected parliament, because voters might choose “illiterates”. Sheikh Saleh bin Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, then minister of Islamic affairs, rejected even the term “reform” as being pregnant with liberalism and licentiousness.

It is inescapable, however, that the al-Saud need to curb the corrosive power of the religious establishment and lead the kingdom towards a form of modernity that its religious heritage can sustain. And the most feasible way forward is to enlist Islamist progressives.

This loosely connected group of Islahiyyun or “reformers” has rediscovered the thinking of Islamic revivalists and reformers of more than a century ago, and turned it into a devastating critique of Ibn Abdul Wahhab.

Encouraged by Abdullah, the newspaper al-Watan (the nation, or homeland) became a forum for this debate, as did internet discussion groups, such as Muntada al-Wasatiyya, set up by the dissident Islamist Mohsen al-Awajy.

This still embryonic force has already achieved three major changes. First, the groups have presented their demands collectively, instead of petitioning individually at the majlis or court of the prince. The turning point was a 2003 petition signed by leading Islamist reformers and liberals. Second, the document proposed allowing diversity in matters of faith and politics–in a country where uniformity on both has long been imposed. And third, it broke the taboo about speaking against Wahhabism, and implied that it was this distorted form of Islam that was preventing Saudi Arabia from becoming a successful modern state all its citizens could easily support.

It is important to realise that the petition, titled “A vision for the present and future of the homeland”, draws on sources of renewal that are and will remain Islamic and, in important ways, Islamist. However alien this fusion of religion and politics may seem to secular westerners, it is key to any possibility of change, because it provides reformers with an authenticity and a legitimacy that deflects charges of foreign influence and intrusion. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Qassim, a former Saudi judge and reformer, is an authority on this. “Al-Qaeda and the clergy are essentially doing the same thing in different ways–putting pressure on the House of Saud for being less devout than it should be. This paralyses reform,” he tells me. “The only way out is to dilute the link with Wahhabi fanaticism.

“The only way forward is to win the legitimacy of society itself- through political reform that does not depend on the approval of the clergy. If you make society part of reform you can overcome the clergy. It is the only way.”

The demands of the Islamist reformers include free elections, freedom of expression and association, an independent judiciary, a fairer distribution of wealth, and a clearer foreign policy arrived at through open debate–in short, a constitutional monarchy, if nowhere near a bicycling monarchy. “We are limiting our demands to very specific issues, and reiterating the al-Saud’s right to stay at the top of the tree,” says Mohsen al-Awajy. “They think it’s for tactical reasons, but the fact is there is no real alternative.”

Just how fundamental it is that liberals and Islamists take on Wahhabism cannot be overstated. But the liberals are an infinitesimal minority, tainted in the eyes of the masses with corruption and decadence. As one senior prince puts it, with a certain melancholy: “We liberals sit around a bottle of scotch and complain to each other, and then, the next morning, do nothing. Yet if we don’t get real progress, economically, socially and politically, we are going to be in a terrible mess in five to ten years.”

He, at least, shows an awareness alien to much of a bloated royal family that affects not to understand where a privy purse ends and a public budget begins, and continues to squander fabulous public wealth. Military spending, for example, is about three times the average for a developing country and is used as a mechanism for distributing power and wealth within the top ranks of the House of Saud–which is more than 5,000 princes strong.

No wonder that it is the Islamist reformers, numerically and ideologically, who are the real force for change. They can credibly argue that they intend no separation between mosque and state, but a redefinition of the relationship between the al-Saud and the al-Sheikh.

“Saudi Arabia has to be an Islamic state; it is the birthplace of Islam. The question is which Islam?” says Jamal Khashoggi, editor of al-Watan and adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington and London. “The alliance should be between the state and Islam, not between the House of Saud and the House of al-Sheikh.”

Awajy, whose candour lost him his job as a university professor, argues: “The contract between the two houses is no longer in the interests of the Saudi people; if we tolerated it in the past it does not mean we will in the future. Real reform cannot take place within the Wahhabi doctrine.”

The Wahhabi establishment has pumped the poison of bigotry into the Saudi mainstream throughout the existence of the kingdom. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, it became impossible to ignore that its ideas and al-Qaeda’s were pretty much the same. It is hard to imagine how the House of Saud will survive unless it breaks decisively with these ideas. Or, as one Saudi reformer put it: “If this clerical establishment is incapable of imagining the solutions we need to modern problems, then the answer is clear-we have to find another establishment.”

By David Gardner

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Befriending Saudi Princes: A High Price for a Dubious Alliance.

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

Nothing can justify the heinous terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Yet, some feel that U.S. policies have acted as the equivalent of poking hornets’ nests, turning Americans into targets for violence at home and abroad. Demanding reconsideration, therefore, is the promiscuous foreign intervention that has helped generate not just abstract hatred, but hostile passions intense enough to cause people to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings full of innocent people.

One of the worst aspects of U.S. foreign policy has been the tendency to prop up “friendly” autocratic regimes. Among Washington’s more-dubious allies is Saudi Arabia, a corrupt totalitarian regime at sharp variance with America’s most cherished values, including religious liberty.

The House of Sand has long leaned toward the West. Saudi Arabia grew out of the World War I defeat of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of the Central Powers, at the hands of Great Britain and various subject Arab peoples. King Abdul al-Aziz al-Saud, who briefly fought against the Turks and then defeated the Hashemite Dynasty and allied Arab families to take control of the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, proclaimed the modern Saudi Arabia in 1932. King Abdul al-Aziz, who fathered 44 sons before dying in 1953, was the fount of today’s royal family. His son, pro-American King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, suffered a series of strokes beginning in 1995, leaving another son, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, largely running the government.

Saudi Arabia would be unimportant to the U.S. were it not for the massive oil deposits sitting beneath its seemingly endless deserts. The advent of an activist Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), led by Saudi Arabia, which supported the oil embargo of 1973-74 against America, helped to raise oil prices and enrich the Saudi monarchy. Tensions with the West grew, and, for a time, a few analysts even advocated invading the Persian Gulf region to seize the oil. The latest round of worrying about Saudi stability has led some people to recycle that idea.

However, in the post-World War II era, U.S. policymakers have focused primarily on defending the Gulf region from other potential invaders–the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Islamic revolutionaries who seized control of Iran in 1979, and, most recently, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. To deter Moscow, Pres. Jimmy Carter created a rapid deployment force; to block Tehran, the Reagan Administration aided Iraq in its bloody and lengthy war against Iran.

Finally, America went to war with Iraq, with preservation of the House of Sand of far more concern than the liberation of Kuwait, the formal public goal. The U.S. and its allies easily defeated Iraq, but left Saddam in power. Ten years of desultory United Nations weapons inspections, economic embargo, “no-fly zones,” and frequent U.S. bombing followed.

America backed its military units in Turkey and carrier forces in the Persian Gulf with about 5,000 Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia as part of the Southern Watch command, comprising aircraft ranging from F-15s and F-16s to C-130s and KC-135s. Another 1,300 military personnel and civilian contractors worked with the Saudi National Guard. No mere temporary response to Saddam’s aggression, America’s presence has a “permanent feel,” as Howard Schneider of the Washington Post put it in May, 2001.

Although the relationship between Riyadh and Washington is close, it has rarely been easy. For American administrations that loudly promote democracy, the alliance with Saudi Arabia has been a deep embarrassment. As the Human Rights Watch reported in 2001, “Freedom of expression and association were nonexistent rights, political parties and independent local media were not permitted, and even peaceful anti-government activities remained virtually unthinkable. Infringements on privacy, institutionalized gender discrimination, harsh restrictions on the exercise of religious freedom, and the use of capital and corporal punishment were also major features of the kingdom’s human rights record.”

Repression and corruption. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, an almost medieval theocracy, with power concentrated in the hands of senior royalty and wealth concentrated among some 7,000 al-Saud princes (or more, by some estimates). Political opposition and even criticism are forbidden. In practice, there are few procedural protections for anyone arrested or charged by the government. The semiautonomous religious police, or Mutawaa’in, intimidate and detain citizens and foreigners alike. The government may invade homes and violate privacy whenever it chooses, and travel is limited. Women are covered, cloistered, and confined, much as they were in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The Saudi regime’s apologists, such as Abdulrahman al-Zamil, a member of the official 120-member Shoura (Advisory) Council, consider the lack of popular accountability a virtue, arguing that it ensures selection “unrelated to the influence of special interest groups and financial contributions.” Ultimate control, though, rests with the 75,000-man National Guard (run by the Crown Prince), which is as large as the army, not with any group of advisors. Command positions are reserved for the royal family, thereby strengthening its influence and creating further resentments. “Nobody climbs up into the higher ranks,” one Saudi complained to the Wall Street Journal in November, 2001. “Those are reserved for the royal family.”

It is perhaps no surprise that such a regime has an unenviable reputation for corruption. Western business partners are occasionally imprisoned to resolve disputes. The problem is so great that the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has acknowledged tens of billions of dollars in abuse and theft. Indolence is even more widespread. For years, every college graduate could expect a government position that provided a good salary (and many tea breaks) for little effort. More than a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s nearly 23,000,000 people are expatriates, many of whom are domestic workers. During the Gulf War, many Saudis expected others to do the dirty work of military combat, likening America’s presence to hiring mercenaries.

Religious totalitarianism. Most ugly, however, is the religious totalitarianism enforced by Riyadh. Citizens and foreigners alike are prohibited from engaging in non-Muslim worship as well as proselytizing. According to former foreign service officer Tim Hunter, fired by the State Department for his criticism of its timidity in dealing with the Saudis, Christian clerics, if discovered, are arrested, beaten and brutalized, and eventually expelled from the country. Conversion means apostasy, which is punishable by death. Private devotion is theoretically allowed, but homes are raided if worshippers gather together. Christians have also been punished for blasphemy. In this regard, Saudi Arabia follows much of the same policy as the Taliban (which Riyadh recognized and funded until recently), that was assailed by Pres. Bush for prosecuting foreign aid workers Who were accused of proselytizing.

Thuggish behavior alone is rarely enough to preclude diplomatic relations, but it should discourage the U.S. from affirmatively embracing the Saudi regime, even in the name of stability. After all, repression is not the only path to security. Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Kuwait has gained legitimacy by creating an elected legislature and considering giving women the vote, while Bahrain plans on holding parliamentary elections in 2003, a move that, in the words of analyst Joseph Shattan, “appears to have seriously blunted the anti-American rage that is currently sweeping through the rest of the Arab world.” In fact, the quick dissipation of fundamentalist street protests during the war in Afghanistan would appear to offer a propitious moment for Arab governments to adopt political reforms. Those autocratic regimes should be strong enough to risk reaching for long-term stability through democratic means.

American policies have identified Washington with the Saudi kleptocracy. As Richard Perle of the American Enterprise Institute observes, “We are associated with regimes that are corrupt and illegitimate.” Many average Saudis believe the U.S. is either serving as a pillar of the regime or taking advantage of its position to profit from the Gulf War. This has generated anger against America and support for sending home its troops, as well as the feeling that terrorism against the U.S. is legitimate. That phenomenon was evident after the bombing of the Khobar Towers military barracks in 1996, as well as after Sept. 11.

Americans are paying for Washington’s cozy ties with Riyadh. That association has made the U.S. a target of terrorists. Obviously, one must take Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden’s pronouncements with some grains of salt, but ending Washington’s support for the corrupt regime in Riyadh and expelling American forces from the Persian Gulf region appear to be his main goals. Since he lacks missiles, bombers, and carrier groups to achieve his end, he instead relies on terrorism.

Growing internal problems. The Saudi ruling elite is paying for its repression and links to Washington, especially when contrasted with its formalistic Muslim piety. With 70% of government revenues (and 40% of gross domestic product) derived from oil sales, the drop in energy prices since the early 1980s has caused economic pain in Saudi Arabia; per capita GDP has dropped from $28,600 in 1981 to less than $7,000 today. Unemployment is estimated at 15% overall and 20% for those under 30. That has helped generate deep undertones of unrest, but the discontented feel helpless to promote political change. Any criticism tends to be expressed through religious leaders. Novelist Abdelrahman Munif warns that the “situation produces a desperate citizenry, without a sense of dignity or belonging.” As Neil MacFarquhar of The New York limes observed in November, 2001, “In another country Mr. bin Laden might have become an opposition politician rather than a holy warrior. But Saudi Arabia brooks no dissent.”

Senior clerics live well on the government payroll and therefore lack credibility. Radical freelancers have developed a widespread following. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11 were from Saudi Arabia, and in January, 2002, Riyadh acknowledged that about 100 of the 158 alleged Al Qaeda prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay were Saudi citizens. One Saudi businessman told the Wall Street Journal: “Many young people are disgruntled and disenchanted with our society’s openness to the West and U.S. foreign policy. These people are frustrated and have nothing to do. They fall prey to people with agendas of their own. They are time bombs. They’re like the Japanese kamikaze.” With roughly half of the population under the age of 15, the potential for further unrest is substantial.

Soaring dissatisfaction with the regime due to slumping revenues and a slowing economy has merged with criticism of America. Numerous Saudis are angry about U.S. support for the House of Saud, and many students irrationally blame America for Saudi Arabia’s economic woes. Additional irritants include Washington’s support of Israel, attacks on Iraq (which are paradoxically seen as anti-Muslim now, a decade after that nation’s defeat), and the invasion of Afghanistan. Admiration for bin Laden is evident even among those who dislike his austere Islamic vision. Richard Murphy, a onetime U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia currently with the Council on Foreign Relations, worries that, “After 11 years, we’ve worn out our welcome on the popular level, though not with the leadership.”

Saudi obstructionism

The Saudi leadership has proved wary of aiding the U.S. despite direct attacks on Americans. The 1996 bomb attack on the Khobar Towers barracks in Dharan killed 19 Americans and wounded 372. It was the work of radical Islamists, who, like bin Laden, view Riyadh’s alliance with America as a defilement of holy lands. U.S. efforts to investigate the bombing were hamstrung by the Saudis, who refused to turn over relevant information or to extradite any of the 13 Saudis indicted by an American grand jury.

In the same year, the Saudis refused, despite U.S. urging, to take custody of bin Laden from Sudan. In 1998, he and several other extremist Muslim leaders issued a manifesto calling for a holy war to drive the U.S. from Islamic lands. Even so, American officials were unable “to get anything at all from King Fahd” to challenge bin Laden’s financial network, charged John O’Neill, a former FBI official involved with counterterrorism who died in the attack on the World Trade Center, where he was security chief.

Riyadh’s reluctance to risk popular displeasure by identifying with Washington continues, even after the deaths of several thousand Americans on Sept. 11. Observes Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum: “In 1979, when a group of extremists took over the Mecca Mosque, the Saudi regime called in French troops, infidels to go into Mecca and take it over. [In] 1990, when Saddam Hussein threatened, they called us in and we protected them. Now it’s our turn to call. We’re the ones who lost [more than 3,000] dead. We need them, they’ve got to be there.”

Privately, White House aides acknowledge that Saudi officials have not been as cooperative as the U.S. hoped. Riyadh has refused to run “traces,” involving background investigations, on its 15 citizens who committed the atrocities of Sept. 11, supply passenger lists of those on flights to America, and block terrorist funds flowing through supposed charities. (If the money goes awry, the regime explains, it does so outside of Saudi Arabia.) Riyadh has also pressed non-OPEC nations to cut oil production in an attempt to raise prices to buttress the cartel of which it is the leading member. It is no surprise, then, that Riyadh seemed to be one of the targets of Bush’s November, 2001, address to the UN General Assembly when he called for moving from “sympathy” to “action.” Publicly, however, Administration officials, including the President, laud Saudi cooperation.

The Saudis are, it is true, allowing use of the operations center at Prince Sultan Air Base, near Riyadh, but Saudi Arabia has joined its neighbors in attempting to keep its distance, ostentatiously announcing that no foreign troops would use Saudi facilities to stage attacks. One reason is concern about America’s strong support for Israel, but, more generally, Riyadh fears identifying with the U.S. By early November, 2001, some Saudi officials were at least willing to blame the Taliban and not America for civilian casualties in Afghanistan, though the Saudis failed to join other governments in marking the three-month anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Still, one anonymous official asked, “Does it matter what we are saying publicly?” Just as cooperation with the West generates unrest, the refusal to defend cooperation with the West aggressively encourages extremist sentiments to grow.

The lack of a public endorsement pales in comparison with Riyadh’s support for the very Islamic fundamentalism that threatens to consume the regime in Riyadh as well as to murder more Americans in future terrorist attacks. Al-Zamil criticized the U.S. for aiding Afghan guerrillas only in their fight against the Soviet Union, as if Washington could have subsequently imposed order on a land rent by warring, fratricidal factions, maintaining that “The Saudi volunteers, pure at heart and committed to high principles, could understand neither the opportunism nor pragmatism of U.S. foreign policy.” It is a curious criticisen for a Saudi official, given the rank opportunism and pragmatism of Saudi policy. Al-Zamil admits that “the U.S. military presence is very unpopular throughout Saudi society and is a liability rather than an asset,” raising questions about why American military personnel are there–other than as pragmatic protection from Iraq and perhaps Iran.

As MacFarquhar has observed in the Times, a charity telethon designed to channel funds to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers “perfectly mirrored the government’s way of doing business: throw money at nasty problems and leave the unpleasant details under the rug.” Riyadh’s strategy is to buy off everyone. It long subsidized Arab governments and guerrilla movements at war with Israel, and it opposed the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The regime was, along with Pakistan, the primary financial backer of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which provided sanctuary for bin Laden and his training camps. It is widely believed that even Saudi businessmen unsympathetic to his goals have made contributions to bin Laden in an attempt to purchase protection. There are serious charges of financial support from some members of the Saudi royal family itself for bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network.

The problem goes even deeper. The Saudi state, run by royals who often flaunt their libertinism, enforces the extreme Wahhabi form of Islam at home and subsidizes its practice abroad. Wahhabism derives from the practices of a fundamentalist 18th-century tribal leader whose followers helped the Saudi royal family consolidate power in the early 1900s. The practice is thought to dominate as many as 80% of the mosques in America. Within this sect, hostile to modernity, political extremism and support for terrorism have flourished in Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, the threat reaches beyond the Middle East to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. According to The New York Times, Riyadh “has also sponsored the fundamentalist academies known as madrassa in Pakistan. Many graduates of these madrassa have headed straight to Afghanistan, some to bin Laden training camps.”

In short, “these are SOBs who are barely even our SOBs,” complains National Review editor Rich Lowry. By any normal assessment, Americans should care little if the House of Saud fell, as have other illegitimate monarchies such as Iran’s Peacock throne, except for one thing: Saudi Arabia has oil. Quoted in Forbes in November, 2001, Saudi oil expert Nawaf Obaid worries that, if it fell to a fundamentalist revolution, the resulting government would be “ten times more powerful [than] Iraq or Iran.”

Contrary to popular wisdom, the Saudis’ trump card is surprisingly weak. Tree, with 262,000,000,000 barrels in proven reserves, Saudi Arabia has about one-quarter of the world’s resources and 8.7 times America’s supplies. Riyadh is not only the world’s leading supplier, but, as a low-cost producer, it can easily augment its daily exports, that totaled 9,100,000 barrels a day in 2001.

However, the reserves figure vastly overstates the importance of Middle Eastern oil to the U.S. (and Western) economy. Saudi Arabia accounted for about 12.3% of global production in 2000 (and closer to 10% in 2001); Riyadh plus Kuwait and the various sheikdoms came to 21.3%; and OPEC as a whole produced 41.5% of the world’s oil supplies.

By one estimate, zero Mideast production would push prices to $76 a barrel. The result in such a worst-case scenario would be severe economic pain in the short term, though the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which Bush has vowed to fill, would help moderate prices. With a one percent supply reduction estimated to influence a 10% price rise, zero Saudi production would push prices to $42 a barrel–a high, but hardly catastrophic, level. Moreover, the U.S. has survived high prices in the past. Between 1974 and 1985, real gasoline prices ranged between 1.4 and 2.3 times current prices.

The myth of the oil weapon

Were the Saudi regime to fail, prices would rise substantially only if the conqueror, whether internal or external, kept the oil off the market. That would be true especially if the other states in the region did not collapse as well.

Withholding oil, though, would defeat the very purpose of conquest, even for a fundamentalist regime. After all, the Iranian revolution did not cause Iran to stop exporting oil; production increased every year from 1990 to 1998 and rose again in 2000, almost returning to 1998 levels. In fact, even bin Laden urged his followers in late 2001 via videocassettes not to damage Saudi oil wells since oil is the source of Arab power.

If a new regime did halt sales, the primary beneficiaries would be other oil producers, who likely would increase exports in response to higher prices. A targeted boycott of only the U.S. would be ineffective, since oil is a uniform product available around the world. In fact, the embargo of 1973-74 had little impact on production. The global recession of 1975 caused a far-more-noticeable drop.

A new regime might decide to pump less oil in order to raise prices. Such a strategy would require international cooperation, yet the oil producers have long found it difficult to coordinate price hikes and limit cheating on agreed-upon quotas. Even if effective, restricting sales would have just a limited impact. A decade ago, when oil was selling for about $20 a barrel, David R. Henderson, former senior energy economist with Pres. Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers and now with the Hoover Institution, calculated that the worst result of an Iraqi seizure of the Saudi oil fields would be about a 50% price increase, which would cost the U.S. economy approximately one-half of one percent of GDP.

In any case, the economic impact would decline over time. Countries such as Kuwait, Iran, Nigeria, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates have the ability to pump significantly more oil than they are currently producing. As economist Susan Lee puts it, should Riyadh turn off the pumps, “the U.S. would find itself plenty of new best friends.”

Sharply higher prices would bring forth new energy supplies elsewhere. Total proven world oil reserves were 660,000,000,000 barrels in 1980, 1.009 trillion in 1990, and 1.046 trillion at the end of 2000. Yet, in the last decade alone, the world’s people consumed 250,000,000,000 barrels of oil. How could this be? A combination of new discoveries and technological advances increased the amount of economically recoverable oil. Reserves rose even as oil prices dropped. Between 1980 and 1990, proven oil reserves jumped by 62%, while prices for Middle Eastern petroleum were falling 43%. Prices eventually hit a dramatic low in 1998, down another 41%, before rising over the next two years.

America’s oil options. The U.S. is dotted with high-production-cost wells that could be unplugged. The nation’s outer continental shelf alone is thought to contain more than current proven reserves, though, since so little of the outer continental shelf–barely six percent–has been leased, those resources have not been proved. Some 15,000 acres of the 19,600,000-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could contain a similar amount of oil (as well as supplies of natural gas). Even the modest estimate of 5,000,000,000 barrels of recoverable reserves would be a significant addition to current supplies. However, it won’t be known how much is there without drilling, which could be conducted in an environmentally sensitive manner. Although some people might think the desire to lower the cost of gasoline an inadequate reason to develop those supplies, the prospect of terrorism and war related to America’s access to Persian Gulf oil should change the cost/benefit ratio considerably.

Further, approximately 300,000,000,000 barrels of unrecovered oil–10 times our proven reserves and more than known Saudi resources–lie in beds of shale under the U.S. They are not counted because they are not currently worth developing, but, as prices rise and new techniques are developed, they may become economically recoverable.

Moreover, energy companies are looking for new oil deposits around the world, including in the Caspian Basin, Russia, and West Africa. Estimates of as yet undiscovered potentially recoverable oil range from one trillion to six trillion barrels. The Energy Information Administration estimates that, at current consumption rates, we have enough oil for another 230 years and that “unconventional” sources, such as shale, could last 580 years. Even those figures are based on existing prices and technologies. Higher prices would stimulate exploration, as well as production of alternative fuels and conservation, reducing oil consumption.

In short, an unfriendly Saudi Arabia might hurt America’s pocketbook, but would not threaten America’s survival. Different would be the ascension of a truly terrorist regime, one dedicated to using oil revenues to undertake a campaign against the U.S. That is unlikely, however, if for no other reason than that Washington’s campaign against Afghanistan demonstrates that, in such a case, the new ruling elites would not long remain the new ruling elites. (Control of the Gulf region by a hegemonic rival, notably the Soviet Union, would have posed a significantly different, and greater, security threat, but that prospect disappeared with the end of the Cold War.)

Although in an unlikely worst case (the loss of most Persian Gulf oil) the cost hike might be significant, that risk must be balanced against the annual cost of maintaining forces to protect Saudi oil, estimated at $50,000,000,000. On top of that come the expenses of fighting terrorism, exacerbated by U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. The war in Afghanistan costs at least $1,000,000,000 a month, and then there are the likely civilian casualties from future attacks should the war on terrorism fail or prove just partially successful.

Severing the tie

Mentioning Saudi Arabia’s shortcomings or suggesting that the regime’s survival is not vital to the U.S. makes policymakers in Washington and Riyadh nervous. In particular, the House of Saud doesn’t take criticism well. Crown Prince Abdullah denounced the American media in a speech on state television, charging that they were damaging his nation’s reputation and driving a wedge between his government and Washington. In the Arab News, he blamed the American media campaign for expressing “its hatred toward the Islamic system.” His government diplomatically suggested that Riyadh’s problems were with the press, not the Bush Administration. (In November, 2001, the Saudi government bought a four-page advertisement in leading newspapers extolling the accomplishments of King Fahd, “a doyen of world statesmen.”)

In fact, there are rumors that policymakers in Riyadh, worried about domestic criticism of their ties to Washington, are considering ending America’s military presence. That naturally has been denied by Saudi and U.S. officials alike, but serious tensions obviously remain. In his letter to the President, Crown Prince Abdullah wrote, “It is time for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to look at their separate interests.” Al-Zamil suggested that “Saudi Arabia might well find it necessary to reassess its 70-year special relationship with the United States,” including pulling its students out of American universities, withdrawing financial investments from the U.S., and “playing a different role within OPEC.”

Those are empty threats, however, since America would not notice the departure of Saudi university students, and arbitrarily pulling out investments would hurt Saudi Arabia more than the U.S. Moreover, even in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Riyadh was lobbying non-OPEC oil producers to cut production, to America’s detriment. The House of Saud sets, and will continue to set, oil production on the basis of Saudi, not American, interests.

Washington should take the initiative. The country that should reassess the current Washington-Riyadh axis is the U.S. As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby observed on Nov. 18, 2001, “For years the United States has had an arrangement with Saudi Arabia’s rulers: They would sell us oil and we would pretend not to notice that they were intolerant dictators who crashed dissent at home while nurturing some of the world’s most violent fanatics abroad. But now we are at war with those fanatics and the old bargain cannot continue.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) has broken with the Washington consensus to make much the same point. The American commitment to the Saudi royal family is a moral blemish and a practical danger. It has already drawn the U.S. into one conventional war and has helped make Americans targets of terrorism, which generated far more casualties in one day than did the Gulf War, Kosovo conflict, and Afghanistan campaign (so far) combined.

The most important reason to withdraw U.S. troops is to eliminate a source of antagonism that has fostered the sort of virulent terrorism seen on Sept. 11. Nevertheless, Washington can ill afford to cite that as its justification, and it cannot pull out precipitously, lest the lesson learned abroad is that the way to change U.S. foreign policy is to slaughter innocent Americans.

Nevertheless, America has ample reason to make such a change on other, public grounds–Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian regime that has simultaneously fostered terrorism abroad and undercut long-term stability at home. The survival of the House of Saud should be left to itself.

Saudi Arabia’s oil is important, but who sells it to America is not. Indeed, although stability in the Persian Gulf is of value, the benefits of the U.S.’s presence are not so obvious. It is not clear that it increases Saudi stability. It is certain that the royal family will do whatever it takes to maintain its power and privileges against internal opposition. As analyst Simon Henderson puts it, “The House of Saud will be ruthless in preserving itself.” If that ruthlessness is inefficient, the American presence’ is not likely to help, unless the U.S. is prepared to commit ground forces–in addition to those presently on station–to prop up the monarchy, creating the prospect of a lengthy occupation and increased terrorist activity.

Of greater concern is the possibility of renewed external aggression, most obviously by Iraq, though it remains in a greatly weakened condition. Even before Sept. 11, the Gulf states were working to resolve conflicts and improve their ability to defend themselves without Washington’s help. Saudi Arabia spends more on its military than do Iran and Iraq combined, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, has a larger population than Iraq, but has yet to field a comparable military. The prospect of American disengagement would, like the prospect of a hanging, help concentrate the mind. Such a prospect would also increase pressure on the Gulf states to forge defensive relationships with surrounding powers–most notably Iran, Syria, and Turkey–and to inaugurate serious political reform to generate a popular willingness to defend the incumbent regimes.

If it fails to act, however, the U.S. shouldn’t worry unduly about the future of the Saudi regime. As National Review’s Lowry observes, “Dealing with these allies will require more cold-bloodedness and calculation than the U.S. has been capable of since the height of the Cold War.” Although Lowry opposes withdrawal of U.S. troops, that is the logical result of cold-blooded analysis. Badgering the Saudis to be more cooperative and to democratize, as has been proposed, is unlikely to succeed, since they would have done so already if they thought it was in their interest.

Expanding America’s military, going to war, and risking civilian casualties as a result of terrorism in order to defend Riyadh costs far more than stability in the Gulf region is worth. Forcibly ousting the House of Sand and imposing a puppet regime, whatever such a strategy’s apparent short-term virtues, would further entangle the U.S. in a virulent, hate-filled region made even more volatile by America’s action. The hysterical international reaction, by friend and foe alike, can easily be imagined.

Should the House of Saud fall or be overrun, Washington would finally be relieved of the moral dead weight of defending that regime. Consumers almost certainly would continue to purchase sufficient oil, if not directly from a hostile Saudi regime, then from other producers in a marketplace that would remain global. Americans would adjust to any higher prices by finding new supplies, developing alternative energy forms, and reducing consumption.

There were many causes of the Sept. 11 atrocity. Some, such as America’s status as a free society whose influence permeates the globe, reflect the country’s very being and cannot and should not be changed. Others–such as Washington’s willingness to make common cause with the morally decrepit, theocratic monarchy in Riyadh–would be of only dubious benefit even if they did not put Americans at risk. The U.S. must not retreat from the world, but it should stop intervening militarily and supporting illegitimate and unpopular regimes where its vital interests are not involved, as in Saudi Arabia.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, Washington, D.C.

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Al-Qaeda’s Affiliate Groups

Posted on 02 May 2011 by hashimilion

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a firefight with U.S. forces in Pakistan on Sunday, President Barack Obama announced.

Here are some details on Al Qaeda’s main affiliate groups in the Arabian peninsula, Iraq and North Africa.

* AL QAEDA IN THE ARABIAN PENINSULA (AQAP)

— Al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi wings merged in 2009 into a new group, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen. They announced this three years after a counter-terrorism drive halted an al Qaeda campaign in Saudi Arabia.

— AQAP’s Yemeni leader, Nasser al-Wahayshi, was once a close associate of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, whose father was born in Yemen, a neighbor of top oil exporter Saudi Arabia.

Nasser al-Wahayshi

 

— Yemen’s foreign minister has said 300 AQAP militants might be in the country.

— Nearly a year before the September 11, 2001 attacks, al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole warship in October 2000 when it was docked in the southern Yemen port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors.

— AQAP claimed responsibility for an attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner on December 25, 2009, and said it provided the explosive device used in the failed attack. The suspected bomber, a young Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had visited Yemen and been in contact with militants there.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

 

— AQAP staged several attacks in Yemen in 2010, among them a suicide bombing in April aimed at the British ambassador, who was not injured.

— The group also claimed responsibility for a foiled plot to send two air freight packages containing bombs to the United States in October 2010. The bombs were found on planes in Britain and Dubai. Last November AQAP vowed to “bleed” U.S. resources with small-scale attacks that are inexpensive but cost billions for the West to guard against.

* AL QAEDA IN THE ISLAMIC MAGHREB (AQIM)

Abdelmalek Droukdel

 

— Led by Algerian militant Abdelmalek Droukdel, AQIM burst onto the public stage in January 2007, a product of the rebranding of fighters previously known as Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).

— The Salafists had waged war against Algeria’s security forces but in late 2006 they sought to adopt a broader jihadi ideology by allying themselves with al Qaeda.

— AQIM scored initial high-profile successes with attacks on the government, security services and the United Nations office in Algiers in 2007. Since 2008, attacks have tailed off as security forces broke up AQIM cells in Algeria.

— Although concrete intelligence is scant, analysts say there are a few hundred fighters who operate in the vast desert region of northeastern Mauritania, and northern Mali and Niger. AQIM’s most high-profile activity is the kidnapping of Westerners, many of whom have been ransomed for large sums.

— AQIM has claimed responsibility for the abduction of two Frenchmen found dead after a failed rescue attempt in Niger last January and it is also holding other French nationals kidnapped in Niger in September 2010. A tape, released on Islamist forums late last month, showed pictures of each of the hostages.

* AL QAEDA IN IRAQ (AQI):

— The group was founded in October 2004 when Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged his faith to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

 

— An Egyptian called Abu Ayyab al-Masri but also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir is said to have assumed the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq after Zarqawi was killed in 2006.

— In October 2006, the al Qaeda-led Mujahideen Shura Council said it had set up the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an umbrella group of Sunni militant affiliates and tribal leaders led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. In April 2007 it named a 10-man “cabinet,” including Masri as its war minister.

— Fewer foreign volunteers have made it into Iraq to fight with al Qaeda against the U.S.-backed government but the group has switched to fewer albeit more deadly attacks.

— Militants linked to al Qaeda claimed bombings in Baghdad on December 8, 2009 near a courthouse, a judge training center, a Finance Ministry building and a police checkpoint in southern Baghdad. At least 112 people were killed and hundreds wounded. — On April 18, 2010 Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed in a raid in a rural area northwest of Baghdad by Iraqi and U.S. forces.

— A month later the ISI said its governing council had selected Abu Baker al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurashi as its caliph, or head, and Abu Abdullah al-Hassani al-Qurashi as his deputy and first minister, replacing al-Baghdadi and al-Masri.

— Last October gunmen linked to the Iraqi al Qaeda group seized hostages at a Catholic church in Baghdad during Sunday mass. Around 52 hostages and police were killed in the incident, which ended when security forces raided the church to free around 100 Iraqi Catholic hostages.

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