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The History of Hizbullah Al-hijaz

Posted on 09 May 2011 by hashimilion

 

From its inception in 1987, Hizbullah al-Hijaz was a cleric-based group aligned with Iran, modeling itself on the Lebanese Hizbullah. It advocated violence against the Saudi regime and carried out several terrorist attacks in the late 1980s. Due to an improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations, it shifted its activities more towards non-violent opposition. Although opposed to negotiations with the Saudi leadership, it benefited from a general amnesty in 1993. After Hizbullah al-Hijaz was blamed for the Khobar bombings in 1996, most of its members were arrested. The crackdown and the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement following the accession of Muhammad Khatami in 1997 led to the disappearance of the organization, although its clerical leaders continue to be popular in parts of the Eastern Province. While the Khobar bombings have been discussed widely, only a few academic studies deal partially with Hizbullah al-Hijaz. The founding of the organization, its ideology, its role in Saudi-Iranian relations, and the activities of its members before and after the Khobar bombings have never been the subject of a distinct study.

Saudi Shi’a Clerics in Qom: The Formation of Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz

In the 1970s, a group of Saudi Shi’a, who were studying in Najaf with Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, became acquainted with Khomeini’s teachings. After the Iranian Revolution they moved to Qom, where, in the mid-1980s, they formed Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz, which later became part of Hizbullah al-Hijaz. The clerical wing of the Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz operated out of the Hawza al-Hijaziyya (Hijazi seminary) in Qom. Their names indicate that, like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, they used the term “Hijaz” for the whole of Saudi Arabia to undermine the legitimacy of the Al Sa’ud. They also called themselves Hijazin or Khat al-Imam, the line of Imam (Khomeini), the name by which the group is still referred to colloquially in Saudi Arabia. Although there is a small Shi’a community in Medina, the founders of Tajamu’ and Hizbullah come from the Eastern Province, mainly from al-Ahsa, Safwa, and Tarut.

Husayn al-Radi

 

The biographies of the founders of the movement share some similarities: Husayn al-Radi was born in 1950/51 in ‘Umran in al-Ahsa. He studied in Najaf with Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and after the latter was killed in 1980, he moved to Qom. There he continued his studies with Hossein Montazeri and then became the supervisor of the Hawza for the Saudi students (al-Hijazin). In this position, he developed what he calls “special relationships” with Ayatollahs Hossein Montazeri – at that time the designated successor of Ayatollah Khomeini – and Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. Shahroudi was also a disciple of Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and left Najaf for Qom in 1979 to teach in the Hawza. Another leader of Tajamu’, Hashim al-Shakhs, was born in 1957 into a famous clerical family in al-Ahsa. His relative, Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Shakhs, was an early politically active Shi’a cleric and co-founder of the “Society of ‘Ulama’ in Najaf” in 1959/60. This connection facilitated his move to Najaf in 1972, where he became a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Hashim al-Shakhs

 

In the late 1970s, al-Shakhs returned to Saudi Arabia and started preaching in the village of Qarah in al-Ahsa. In the early 1980s, he went to Qom to study with Hossein Montazeri and to teach in the Hawza. It was only in Iran in the 1980s that he became politicized. Crucially, al-Shakhs and several other cadres of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, such as ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl and ‘Abd al-Jalil al-Maa, did not take part in the Shi’a uprising of 1979/80 in the Eastern Province and remained in Saudi Arabia for a while after the uprising. Just days after the occupation of the Grand Mosque of Mecca by a group of Sunni rebels led by Juhayman al-‘Utaybi, the Shi’a in the Eastern Province staged Muharam rituals in public, defying a ban on public Shi’a processions in place since 1913. The instigators of this uprising were a network of young Islamists led by Hasan al-Safar and Tawfiq al-Sayf. They were the leaders of the Saudi branch, founded in 1975, of the Movement for Vanguards Missionaries (MVM), which worked under the spiritual guidance of Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Mahdi al-Shirazi (1928-2001). Tens of thousands took to the streets between November 26 and 30, 1979 and clashed with the National Guard, leading to around two dozen fatalities. On the eve of the demonstrations, the group adopted the name Munazama al-Thawra al-Islamiyya fi al-Jazira al-‘Arabiyya (Islamic Revolution Organization in the Arabian Peninsula: IRO). Although some later members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, such as ‘Ali ‘Abdallah al-Khatim from Tarut, participated in the uprising, the “Intifada,” as the uprising was termed by the IRO, does not feature heavily in the discourse of Hizbullah al-Hijaz.

After the uprising, several hundred young Saudi Shi’a were brought to the Hawza al-Imam al-Qa’im of the MVM in Tehran. Immediately after the Iranian Revolution, the MVM and its leaders such as Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrasi were very close to the new Iranian leadership and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Muhammad al-Shirazi also had good relations with Khomeini, and he and the cadres of the MVM moved to Iran. Iranian support for the Shi’a movements in Iraq and the Gulf was implemented through the Office of the Liberation Movements, created in the early 1980s and first headed by Mohammed Montazeri and then Mehdi Hashemi. The political theory of Muhammad al-Shirazi and the MVM was quite close to Khomeini’s notion of velayet-e faqih (the guardianship of the jurisprudent), although al-Shirazi favored the theory that not a single cleric, but a council of scholars should govern the Islamic State (hukumat al-fuqaha’/shurat al-fuqaha’). Therefore, al-Shirazi had expected a bigger role in post-1979 Iran, and relations between him and Khomeini deteriorated in the early 1980s. He also continued to compete with Khomeini for the post of marja’ al-taqlid – the post of highest ranking authority for Shi’a Muslims.

Muhammad al-Shirazi

 

The MVM and its Iraqi branch, the Islamic Action Organization (Munazama al-‘Amal al-Islami), often acted rather autonomously, which led to conflicts with the Iranian government. The MVM saw armed struggle as a legitimate political tool and had a military wing, which was active in Bahrain until its coup attempt was foiled in December 1981, and in Iraq under Saddam. Although there was no such military branch for Saudi Arabia, the Iranian authorities repeatedly pressured the MVM and the IRO to intensify military efforts in the Gulf states. After the bloody crackdown on the “Intifada” in 1979/80, the MVM thought that military action was of little use in the Saudi case and rejected bombings and assassinations there. Yet, a number of Saudi Shi’a fought in the MVM’s military branches or opted to fight on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq War.

In contrast to the MVM and the IRO, the Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz initially did not have a defined organizational structure and focused on religious activities and the propagation of the marja’iyya of Khomeini. From about 1985 onwards, members of Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz came to Sayyida Zaynab, a shrine city outside Damascus, in addition to the Eastern Province, and started preaching the virtues of Khomeini. Sayyida Zaynab was an important transnational hub for the Gulf Shi’a, especially the ones following Ayatollah Shirazi. In 1987, they started their first publication, al-Fath, under the name of Hijaz Students Group (Jama’ min Talaba al-Hijaz). Some lay activists also started to work with Tajamu’, although its leaders remained clerics.

Sayyida Zaynab

 

Saudi-Iranian Rivalry over the Hajj and the Foundation of Hizbullah al-Hijaz

In the second half of the 1980s, Iran began to revise its policy of exporting the revolution, and the position of the MVM in Iran was severely weakened. The MVM was close to parts of the Iranian regime advocating the export of the revolution, namely Hossein Montazeri and Mehdi Hashemi. Yet, this faction was increasingly sidelined by people such as Sayyid ‘Ali Khamene’i and ‘Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who questioned the usefulness of this approach. The MVM was directly involved in the struggle between the different Iranian political factions, and a member of the MVM allegedly helped to leak the Iran-Contra Affair in late 1986. As a result, Mehdi Hashemi was executed in 1987, the Office of the Liberation Movements closed, and Hossein Montazeri was deposed in 1989 as the successor of Ayatollah Khomeini. Consequently, the MVM and the IRO had lost their main ally in Iran, and their leaders chose to leave Iran gradually. In addition, the Central Committee of the IRO made a decision in 1987 to soften its approach towards the Saudi regime after a general amnesty decreed by King Fahd. Thereafter, ordinary members of the MVM and the IRO began to be harassed by Iranian authorities. However, the IRO still had representatives in Tehran and Qom and maintained relations with the Iranians and with Hizbullah al-Hijaz.

On July 31, 1987, over 400 people, most of them Iranian pilgrims but also many Saudi policemen, were killed and many more injured at a demonstration that led to a stampede outside the Great Mosque in Mecca during the Hajj. Iran and Saudi Arabia blamed each other for the clashes, leading to a severe worsening of Saudi-Iranian relations. Although the incident mainly involved Iranians, some had alleged links to Saudi Shi’a organizations. As a result, both countries sought to influence Muslim public opinion abroad and discredit the other party. The weak relations of the MVM and the IRO to the new centers of power in the Iranian regime, their refusal to carry out military operations in Saudi Arabia, and the Hajj incident in 1987 were the main reasons for the formation and the strengthening of Hizbullah al-Hijaz. Iran wanted to have small, controllable organizations that could be used as pressure tools on the Al Sa’ud but would not endanger Iran’s foreign policy objectives.

1987 Mecca Demonstration

 

Founded in May 1987, Hizbullah al-Hijaz issued one of its first statements one week after the Hajj incident, vowing to stand up against the Saudi rulers. Among the founders of Hizbullah al-Hijaz were the leaders of Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz, Shaykh Hashim al-Shakhs, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl, and ‘Abd al-Jalil al-Maa. From the beginning, Hizbullah al-Hijaz had two wings: one for religious and political activities – Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz – and another one for military tasks. Some members of the movement came from Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz, but others were members of the MVM that wanted to use violence against the Saudi regime and preferred the marja’iyya of Khomeini. Ahmad al-Mughasal, who came to be the head of the military wing of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, was a former member of the MVM and had studied at the Hawza Imam al-Qa’im in Tehran. Furthermore, some Saudi Shi’a students who had studied in the US, who belonged to later generations of members of the MVM, joined Hizbullah al-Hijaz. This led to tensions between Hizbullah al-Hijaz and the IRO, which had hitherto been the only Islamist Saudi Shi’a opposition group. Hizbullah al-Hijaz’s long-term political goal was the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Arabian Peninsula after the Iranian model, and it advocated the overthrow of the Saudi regime through violence.

Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl

 

Escalation , Violence, and a Gradual Improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations

After the Hajj Incident in 1987, “many supporters of the Islamic Republic among the Shi’a were willing to pursue military means to retaliate against the Saudi regime.” In August 1987, an explosion occurred at a petroleum facilty in Ra’s al-Ju’ayma. Although the government claimed that it was an accident, it was later ascribed to Hizbullah al-Hijaz. In March 1988, the Sadaf petrochemical plant in Jubayl was bombed, an incident for which Hizbullah al-Hijaz claimed responsibility. A Hizbullah cell with four members from Tarut had carried out the attack. One of them had been an employee at Sadaf, while another, al-Khatim, had fought with Hizbullah in Lebanon and had received military training. Several bombs also detonated at the Ra’s Tanura refinery and one allegedly failed to explode in Ra’s al-Ju’ayma. Widespread arrests occurred, and when the security forces confronted three members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, several Saudi policemen were killed and injured. These three and another member of the cell were later publicly executed. The execution of the four was enabled by a fatwa from the Council of the Assembly of Senior ‘Ulama’ (Majlis Hay’a Kibar al-‘Ulama’) allowing the execution of dissidents convicted of “sabotage.” The IRO argued that the bombings were a response to Saudi assistance to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and that, while it did not claim responsibility for them, bombings were a natural continuation of the opposition’s activities. In response, Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz issued one of its first public statements, entitled “the execution of four fighters (mujahidin) in the Arabian Peninsula” and so did Hizbullah al-Hijaz. In addition, Ayatollah Montazeri condemned the execution while the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement denying any links to the executed.

In response to this escalation, members of the IRO, leftist groups, and leaders of Hizbullah such as ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl and Ja’far al-Mubarak were arrested. Four members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz were released in 1990 as part of a royal pardon but at least four other leaders remained in prison until 1993. Some Shi’a apparently blamed the opposition movements for the crackdown, and this was a reason for the IRO to abandon its revolutionary discourse.

Some members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz wanted to avenge the beheadings and assassinated several Saudi diplomats and agents abroad. It is possible that they were killing security officials that were trying to arrest and extradite them to Saudi Arabia. One report argues that the killings in October 1988 and January 1989 and the attempted killing in December 1988 targeted members of the Saudi Arabian intelligence services, working under diplomatic cover, who had been pursuing a group of about 20 Shi’a for their involvement in the bombings of oil installations in the Eastern Province.

Two groups, the Soldiers of Justice (Jund al-Haqq) and the Holy War Organization in the Hijaz, claimed responsibility from Beirut for an assassination in Bangkok in January 1989. The Holy War Organization in the Hijaz claimed that the killing was revenge for the execution of four of its members in Saudi Arabia, and Risalat al-Haramayn reported that an October 1988 killing in Ankara was also in retaliation for the executions in Saudi Arabia. Some sources assert that this was a new front organization made up of Lebanese and Saudi Shi’ites with links to Palestinian groups and factions inside Iran that were opposed to an Iranian rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. These two groups, probably related to the military wing of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, claimed responsibility – or were blamed – for the assassination of a Saudi diplomats in Ankara in October 1988 and in 1989, of wounding a Saudi diplomat in Karachi in December 1988 in addition to several bomb attacks in Riyadh in 1985 and in 1989.

In September 1989, 16 Kuwaiti Shi’ites were beheaded for smuggling explosives and placing them in the vicinity of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in July 1989. They were members of the group Hizbullah al-Kuwayt but were all Shi’a of Iranian or Saudi origin. Indeed, the family links between Shi’a from al-Ahsa and Saudi Shi’a emigrants to Kuwait are usually strong and continue to play a role in the development of Hizbullah networks in the Gulf. Some Shi’a from al-Ahsa were also arrested and members of Hizbullah al-Kuwayt and Hizbullah al-Hijaz jointly announced vengeance at a press conference in Beirut. In November 1989, the Holy War Organization claimed responsibility for the assassination of a Saudi diplomat in Beirut in revenge for the beheading of the 16 Kuwaitis and the four Saudis.

From the late 1980s onwards, several members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz travelled to Iran and Lebanon, where they likely received military training. They used Sayyida Zaynab in Syria as a hub for their travels to Saudi Arabia and for the recruitment of new members, who visited the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab on pilgrimage. Some Saudi Shi’a also fought with Lebanese Hizbullah against Israel in southern Lebanon.

Ideology and Propaganda: Risalat al-Haramayn

Saudi-Iranian relations gradually improved after the end of the Iran-Iraq War in August 1988, the death of Khomeini in June 1989, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Iran had, however, an interest in continuing to promote anti-Saudi propaganda and establishing a hegemonic claim over Mecca and Medina as well as portraying itself as the patron of Saudi Shi’a. This caused Hizbullah al-Hijaz to focus more on political and propaganda activities, such as the publication of a journal, Risalat al-Haramayn (The Letter of the Two Holy Places [Mecca and Medina]), at the expense of assassinations and attacks. It was published by the al-Haramayn Islamic Information Center and Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz from 1989 to 1995 in Beirut, although from 1991 it also had an office in London. The outreach of the journal was supposed to be the whole umma. It focused on the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini, and published statements by Hizbullah al-Hijaz and Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz. It was mainly written by a new group of non-clerical activists referred to as the effendiyya in Shi’a circles. Many of the activists behind Risalat al-Haramayn had been educated by the MVM in Kuwait and then in Tehran. Members of Iraqi and Lebanese Hizbullah also wrote in the journal.

Anti-Saudi propaganda, the creation of a martyrdom mythology, and the links to other movements were some of the main focuses in the journal. The first martyrs of Hizbullah al-Hijaz were the four “mujahidin” that were executed in 1988. As three of the four and some of the Saudis who fought on the Iranian side in the Iraq-Iran War were from the village of al-Rabia’iya on Tarut Island, this village was frequently described in the journal as the archetypical revolutionary village. The four also entered the martyrdom discourse of the IRO, and certain contemporary oppositional publications and websites still remember them as the “four martyrs.” The publication also tried to promote the legacy of Shi’a clerics in Saudi Arabia, something which Hashim al-Shakhs continued in his four-volume work on the Shi’a clerics from al-Ahsa.

Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah

 

In autumn 1989, members from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (SCIRI) and Lebanese Hizbullah gave speeches praising the four martyrs in Sayyida Zaynab outside of Damascus while Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah delivered a similar speech in Qom. In Baalbek, one member of Tajamu’, Muhammad al-Mubarak, denounced the Saudi regime in the presence of a representative of the Iranian Embassy in Damascus. The journal also reported meetings between delegations of Tajamu’ with Lebanese Hizbullah and Khamene’i. This made clear that Hizbullah al-Hijaz was very well connected to and supported by Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah, among others.

A cleric of Hizbullah al-Hijaz argued that there is no difference between the Hizbullah groups “in Hijaz, Kuwait, Lebanon or any other place.”

In addition, the organization accepted Sayyid ‘Ali Khamene’i as Khomeini’s successor, and the clerics began to assume a leading role in Hizbullah al-Hijaz, following Khomeini’s doctrine of velayet-e faqih. Furthermore, the journal stated that “there is no doubt that our links with the Islamic Republic are very strong, because it is a base for all the liberators and revolutionaries in the world.”

The discourse of the movement became increasingly anti-American from 1990 onwards. Hizbullah al-Hijaz and Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz both declared in 1990 that the deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia made jihad against the unbelievers a duty of Muslims. This discourse was, however, not unique to Shi’a Islamists; the deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia was one of the main reasons for the rise of the Sunni Islamist opposition. To a certain extent, the discourse in Risalat al-Haramayn shifted more towards human rights and freedom of speech, although the IRO’s switch towards a discourse of democratization was much more pronounced.

“The Regime swallows the Opposition:” Hizbullah al-Hijaz Publicly Opposes the Agreement between the IRO and the Saudi Leadership in 1993

In autumn 1993, the Saudi regime and some leaders of the IRO reached an agreement to abandon the latter’s political activities in return for a general amnesty. On the regime’s side, the main reasons for this agreement were the regional crises which occured after the invasion of Kuwait and reports about a possible alliance of Sunni and Shi’a Islamists. The IRO negotiated in the name of all Saudi Shi’a opposition groups, including Hizbullah al-Hijaz and the leftists that were active in Syria and Iraq. Some argue that the negotiations were also intended to isolate Hizbullah al-Hijaz and that they were not asked to take part in the negotiations.They were informed about the negotiations by the IRO, but Hizbullah al-Hijaz argued that it would only negotiate if there were an end to sectarian discrimination and real gains for the Shi’a. Although some in the IRO had voiced similar demands, al-Safar and other leaders of the IRO agreed that these things could not be done immediately by the government. Hizbullah al-Hijaz argued that the opposition would lose its strength if it ceased its publications and returned to Saudi Arabia, where it would be under tight supervision by the security services. The movement stated that the negotiations were intended to play out the Shi’a opposition against the Salafis. In addition, Hizbullah al-Hijaz would only change its strategy if the Shi’a were to be recognized as an official sect by the government. It vowed to continue on the path of jihad and revolution and invoked the example of the four martyrs of 1988. A reason for this official opposition was the dissatisfaction of the Iranian regime with the negotiations.

Hasan al-Safar

 

Eventually, the agreement included the release of all Saudi Shi’a political prisoners, many of whom were members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, and thus most members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz and Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz returned to Saudi Arabia. They suspended the publication of Risalat al-Haramayn in 1995 but – unlike the suspension of the IRO’s publication al-Jazira al-‘Arabiyya – this was not a condition of the agreement as the government thought its impact was limited. Iran apparently tried to persuade the members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz that it had played a role in the release of their prisoners, and that it was a result of the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the following years, the Hizbullah trend gained in prominence amongst those former activists and ordinary Shi’a that were dissatisfied with the agreement or had opposed it from the beginning.

After their return to Saudi Arabia in 1993 and 1994, many members focused on religious and social activities. The clerics became imams in their local mosques and started teaching in the Hawza in Mubarraz or Qatif. Ja’far al-Mubarak was released from prison in the summer of 1993 but was subject to intense surveillance and was not allowed to perform Friday prayers. This was used as an example in the movement literature that the opposition should not trust the Saudi regime. He returned to a leadership role in Hizbullah al-Hijaz and eventually became an imam in Safwa. Hashim al-Shakhs also became imam in a local mosque in his native village of al-Qarah, and like other clerics of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, started to work as a local representative of Ayatollah Khamene’i, gaining an income from the religious khums tax.

Ja’far al-Mubarak

 

The Khobar Bombings: Accusations, Arrests, and the Disappearance of Hizbullah al-Hijaz

 

On June 25, 1996, a tanker truck filled with several tons of TNT exploded near the Khobar Towers housing compound for the US Air Force in Dhahran, killing 19 US soldiers and injuring hundreds of others. Shortly afterwards, the Saudi government started to blame Hizbullah al-Hijaz for the attack and arrested hundreds of Islamists, both Sunni and Shi’i. Nearly everyone who was loosely affiliated with Hizbullah al-Hijaz was arrested in the crackdown. The prisoners included its main religious and political leaders such as Hashim al-Shakhs, Ja’far al-Mubarak, ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl, and Husayn al-Radi. Many were tortured and remained imprisoned for years. Sympathizers with the movement were arrested for the possession of books by Khomeini or Fadlallah or because they had attended mosques where Hizbullah clerics preached. Although several reports of the investigation were published, there were tensions between Saudi and American investigators. Some claim that strong evidence for Iranian involvement would have been used as a pretext for war against Iran, something the Saudis did not want. This would have destabilized the whole region and probably involved the redeployment of more American troops to Saudi Arabia. It took several years before the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was granted access to the suspects and almost five years until they were indicted in the US. The accused included Ahmad al-Mughasal, the alleged head of the military wing of the Saudi Hizbullah, Hani al-Sayigh, and ‘Abd al-Karim al-Nasir, whom the indictment described as the leader of Saudi Hizbullah. Especially after September 11, 2001, the theory that al-Qa’ida was involved in or responsible for the attack gained in prominence. Although Usama bin Ladin has repeatedly applauded the Khobar attacks, he did not take responsibility for them, and Thomas Hegghammer states that al-Qa’ida did not have the technical skills at the time to carry out such a large-scale attack. He also dismisses the idea of cooperation between al-Qa’ida and Iran.

In June 2002, a Saudi official said that a number of Saudis arrested after the Khobar bombings had been convicted110 and that nine Shi’a blamed for involvement in the preparation and the execution of the bombings remained imprisoned in SaudiArabia.

As a response to the indictment and the trials, al-Haramayn Islamic Information Center published a long report on the Khobar Bombings in June 2002. It attempts to prove that the investigations were flawed and implies that Hizbullah al-Hijaz was not responsible. In addition, it claims that blaming Saudi Shi’a and Iran was part of the American and “Zionist” agenda. The report implies that statements by Hizbullah al-Khalij, or “Saudi Hizbullah,” claiming responsibility for the attack, which appeared in Western and Arab media, are forgeries. The report states that although Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah had expanded to the Gulf countries, an organization called Hizbullah al-Khalij is not known. It adds that two other organizations also claimed responsibility for the bombing, while reproducing statements by Iran, Lebanese Hizbullah, and Hizbullah al-Hijaz rejecting any involvement in the attack. According to the report, the absence of Ja’far al-Shuwaykhat from the indictment is another major flaw. Al-Shuwaykhat was a student in the Hawza in Qom and was arrested in 1988 upon his return to Saudi Arabia. After six years in prison, he was released and went to Syria. A biography of the “martyr” al-Shuwaykhat posted on a homepage associated with the Hizbullah networks claims that he was involved in a number of military operations, that his main enemy was the Americans, and that he rejoined his former group in Syria after being released from prison. After the Khobar bombings, he was arrested by Syrian intelligence, apparently on the request of the Saudi government, but died in a Syrian prison only days later. Several interviewees pointed out that he could have provided vital information and that his sudden death and the absence of his name in the indictment were suspicious.

Ja’far al-Shuwaykhat

 

The report sees the American troops as occupiers and implies that the authors see American troops as a legitimate target. It urges the Americans to think about the reasons for the bombings, namely their occupation of Muslim lands and their arrogance towards other people. In a statement released in late 1996, Hizbullah al-Hijaz rejects any responsibility for the bombings but calls the US the “biggest satan.” A statement published after the US indictment in 2001 argues that “although we refute this indictment as a whole and in detail, we will continue on the path of Jihad until the expulsion of all occupiers from the land of the Arabian Peninsula.”

Hizbullah al-Hijaz’s ideology would, therefore, have permitted an attack on American soldiers in Saudi Arabia. In addition, members of Saudi Hizbullah wanted to continue an armed struggle against the Saudi regime as well as against its main backer, the US. They also may have wanted to demonstrate their strength and disapproval of the 1993 accord, hoping that the repression after an attack on a US target would be less harsh than after attacking the Saudi government directly. However, the Khobar bombings were much more sophisticated than earlier operations by the group. It is also puzzling why the group should, after an absence of attacks for over six years, return to violence as a political tool. Given the close relations with Lebanese Hizbullah, it seems plausible that, if Hizbullah al-Hijaz was behind the attack, it would have needed Lebanese technical assistance. The connection to Iran is impossible to assess through an analysis of open source material, but a faction inside Iran opposed to the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement could have masterminded the attack. It is also possible that the military wing of Hizbullah al-Hijaz acted with Iranian or Lebanese support but without the knowledge of the clerics of Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al- Hijaz.

After the Khobar Bombings: Online Propaganda, Social Activism, and Clerical Authority

The virtual disappearance of Hizbullah al-Hijaz as an organization after 1996 is due to the arrest of most of its members and a general Saudi-Iranian rapprochement leading to a security agreement in 2001. After the Khobar bombings, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed that while Saudi Arabia would not permit the US to launch attacks on Iran from the Kingdom, Iran would stop supporting Saudi Shi’a opposition activists. Although several of those accused in the indictment are believed to be in Iran, the agreement did not include the extradition of fugitives. On his historic visit to Saudi Arabia in 1998, ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani planned to call for the release of the Shi’a arrested after the Khobar bombings.It is not clear whether this influenced the gradual release of many high- and middle-ranking members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz. Thereafter, they refrained from openly political activities and renounced violence as a political tool.

They focused more on social and religious activities such as the organization of marriages, pilgrimages to Mecca, and public festivities during Muharam and the birthdays of the Imams. Young Qatifis point out that former movement members are active in schools and other gathering places for the youth. Its current leaders include Shaykh Hashim al-Hubayl, Sayyid Kamal al-Sada, and Shaykh Hasan al-Nimr, who hosts a diwaniyya in Dammam. Due to the improvement of Saudi-Iranian relations, the religious activities of the pro-Iranian clerics are increasingly tolerated. There continue to be roughly 200 Saudi students in Qom, although the majority of them do not follow Khamene’i, but rather follow Ayatollah ‘Ali al-Sistani. The religious connection to Iran, however, does not imply membership in the political organization Hizbullah al-Hijaz. Until 2008, Dr. ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Fadli was considered the main representative of Ayatollah Khamene’i in Saudi Arabia. Originating from al-Hasa, Al-Fadli had been one of the founding members of the Dawa Party in Iraq. He later became the head of the Arabic language department at King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz University in Jeddah and a follower of Ayatollah Khomeini. He is a mujtahid and a prolific writer and some consider him to have been a candidate for a local marja’iyya.

Dr. ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Fadli

 

Some former leaders of Hizbullah al-Hijaz such as ‘Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl have started a gradual rapprochement with the government, emulating the IRO. Hasan al-Nimr encouraged some supporters of Hizbullah al-Hijaz to stand in the municipal elections of 2004/5, although they failed to win a seat. Other former leaders of the Hizbullah, such as Husayn al-Radi, have participated in the National Dialogue. Contrary to the IRO, the Hizbullah has always emphasized the role of the clergy and lacks a mass following. On the other hand, some of the highest ranking Saudi Shi’a scholars such as ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Fadli and Hashim al-Shakhs – both considered to be mujtahids – are leaders of the Hizbullah. When the system of the Shi’a courts in the Eastern Province was reorganized in 2005, a former supporter of Hizbullah al-Hijaz, Ghalib al-Hamad, was briefly appointed as the Shi’i judge of Qatif. This shows that the Saudi regime thought it was useful to co-opt certain members of Hizbullah al-Hijaz with public posts and to allow its religious activities, including the collection of khums money for Khamene’i. The “al-Fajr cultural website” serves as a platform for their moderated discourse and the propagation of the marja’iyya of Khamene’i. It publishes the Friday prayers of Hashim al-Shakhs and others, provides guidance on religious matters and, since early 2008, publishes a journal dedicated to the spirit of Imam Husayn and Imam Khomeini.

The confrontational discourse of Hizbullah al-Hijaz is only present on the website of al-Haramayn Islamic Information Center. It seems that those people responsible for this website are outside of Saudi Arabia and that they no longer form one group with those former leaders that returned to Saudi Arabia. The Center, however, continues to issue statements by, amongst others, Hizbullah al-Hijaz, Tajamu’ ‘Ulama’ al-Hijaz, and the “Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in the Arabian Peninsula,” while also digitizing Saudi Shi’a opposition publications such as Risalat al-Haramayn.

Recent Hizbullah al-Hijaz statements dealt with Saudi Arabia’s condemnation of Lebanese Hizbullah’s activites in 2006 or the assassination of ‘Imad Mughniyya, the military leader of Lebanese Hizbullah. Some supporters of Hizbullah al-Hijaz started to express themselves through support for Lebanese Hizbullah. In July and August 2006, several demonstrations in support of Lebanese Hizbullah occurred in Qatif and surrounding areas and security forces arrested dozens. However, the demonstrations did not only involve supporters of Hizbullah but also other political groupings.

But the group also comments on domestic Saudi matters. In 2005, Hasan al-Safar implied in an interview that Hizbullah al-Hijaz had been part of the 1993 agreement and that it had abandoned its revolutionary discourse and organizational activities thereafter. Hizbullah countered with a long statement condemning the rapprochement between the IRO and the Saudi government and stating that its main political goals were “the military, economic and political liberation of our homeland (the Arabian Peninsula) from the American-Western Occupier” and the downfall of the Al Sa’ud. From spring 2008 onwards, a new weekly news survey – al-Rasid al-Sahafi – concerning Saudi Shi’a issues was published on the website. It also focuses on, for example, Saudi involvement in Lebanon, praising Hizbullah’s activities there, while reproducing statements by Khamene’i and Fadlallah.

Conclusion

From its inception, Hizbullah al-Hijaz has advocated armed struggle against the Saudi regime. After the Hajj in 1987 Iran wanted to retaliate against Saudi Arabia and created Hizbullah al-Hijaz as a pressure group that was integrated into the Hizbullah networks. Therefore, it was subject to changes in Saudi-Iranian relations, which partially explains the absence of attacks between 1989 and 1996 and its virtual disappearance after the Khobar Bombings. With the accession of Khatami as Iranian President, Saudi-Iranian relations ameliorated considerably, leading to a security agreement in 2001. Thereafter, most former members have abstained from politics but many are still deeply suspicious of the regime. In the local context, Hizbullah al-Hijaz has always positioned itself as the most radical Saudi Shi’a opposition group. So far, the Hizbullah trend has not managed to integrate itself into local Shi’a politics in the way the former leaders of the IRO have. Its former advocacy of violence, the political theory of velayet-e faqih, and the uncritical endorsement of the Iranian political system are the main reasons for its limited influence in contemporary Saudi Shi’a affairs. The Iranian model does not have the same appeal for Saudi Shi’a as it did in the 1980s. Yet, sectarian tensions in Saudi Arabia have increased following the clashes between Shi’a and Sunni pilgrims and riot police in Medina in 2009 and the subsequent demonstrations and arrests in the Eastern Province. It is not inconceivable that this broadens the appeal of groups like Hizbullah al-Hijaz that advocate an uncompromising approach towards the Saudi state.

By Toby Matthiesen

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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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