Mixed feelings in Saudi regime on US transfer of forces to Qatar

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rabi' al-Awwal 14, 1424 2003-05-16

Occupied Arab World

by Zafar Bangash (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 6, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1424)

The announcement on April 29 by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld that American troops and aircraft would be moved out of Saudi Arabia by the end of the summer does not mean the end of trouble for the ruling al-Saud family. Showing the Saudis’ schizophrenia, the news was broadcast on Saudi television although the government has never publicly admitted that foreign troops were present on its territory.

To its own public the Saudi government said that the Americans were leaving, and gave the impression that the Saudis had asked them to do so; to the outside world the government said that the Americans were not abandoning the ruling family, nor had they been asked to leave. During a press conference Saudi defence minister Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz was at pains to emphasize that the American role was over because the "threat" in the region had subsided. It was not clear where the threat was thought to come from but, like everything else in the kingdom, it must have been Washington that decided and decreed.

Having milked Saudi Arabia for decades, for both oil and money, the US is abandoning its favourite cash-cow because it has now gained a foothold in Iraq, whose oil-reserves are second only to those of the Arabian Peninsula. Speaking at the Prince Sultan air-base south of Riyadh, Rumsfeld said that the 10,000 troops and 200 combat-aircraft stationed in the kingdom would be relocated to al-Udaid airbase in neighbouring Qatar. It is interesting to note that Saudi Arabia has a long-simmering border-dispute with Qatar. Because the US military is now occupying Iraq and has a string of bases in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia’s usefulness to the US has diminished. The US’s military presence in the kingdom was regarded by most Saudis as provocative and insulting, leading to the emergence of such figures as Usama bin Ladin, the alleged mastermind of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre in September 2001.

Such resentment, however, is not felt only by the Saudis; Muslims all over the world consider the presence of US troops on the Arabian Peninsula as sacrilegious. While US-Saudi relations date back to the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, more than 60 years ago, the large military presence is more recent. Two events contributed to the Americans barging into the kingdom: the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 that toppled the Shah’s regime, depriving America of a major linchpin in the region, and the US-led war on Iraq in 1991. America’s army had already been dispatched to Saudi Arabia when then US defence secretary Dick Cheney (now vice president) arrived in the kingdom to tell king Fahd that the Americans were coming to "save" them. The startled Saudi monarch was simply presented a paper to sign. Unable to say "no" to the Americans, and with no popular support at home, the ruling Aal-e Saud submitted meekly to this blackmail.

Throughout the eighties, while Iraq was attacking Islamic Iran, American AWACS aircraft, stationed in the kingdom, provided military intelligence to the Iraqis. Saudi Arabia itself provided financial help to Iraq, as did other Arab regimes. For eight years Islamic Iran withstood this onslaught singlehanded, and successfully defended its territory and the Islamic Revolution. When the war ended in August 1988, Iraq (ruled by Saddam Husain) was left with enormous stockpiles of weapons, including weapons of mass-destruction (WMDs) that had been supplied by the US, Britain and Germany, in particular. As long as Saddam was fighting Islamic Iran, everyone backed and supported him; once the war was over, he was seen as a "threat," especially to Israel. He was foolish enough to allow himself to be lured into attacking Kuwait, thereby giving the US a pretext to invade and destroy Iraq’s military potential. While the US supported Saddam’s war on Iran, Kuwait was another matter.

The US occupation of Saudi Arabia – and that is in effect what it is – has exposed the Saudi government’s claim that it is a champion of Islamic causes. Much worse, it has also exposed its veneer of "Islamicity" with its own people. Resentment against the presence of US forces led to attacks against American soldiers, 24 of whom were killed in 1995 and 1996, forcing the US military to relocate to heavily guarded compounds away from populated areas. This state of affairs might have continued for a long time, but for the events of September 2001 in the US. It is alleged that 15 of the 19 hijackers that day were Saudi citizens. While Americans routinely dish out punishment to others, they have no capacity for their own medicine.

Soon after September 11 darks hints were dropped, none too subtly, that the Saudi regime must "do more" to protect American interests; decades of the Saudis’ making oil available at throw-away prices to keep the US economy afloat were taken for granted, discounted and ignored. As long as a large number of US troops remained on Saudi soil and Iraq was under Saddam’s control, there was little the US could do.

With Saddam toppled and Iraqi oil under American control, the Americans now have little use for Saudi Arabia and its "royal family". In fact, they have served notice that "political reforms" must be introduced in the kingdom, although for decades it is they that have assiduously subverted the people’s attempts to gain significant and meaningful political participation.

The New York Times of April 30 reported that Saudi officials have told them the departure of American soldiers will set the stage for a series of "democratic reforms", including an announcement that Saudi men (but not women) will begin to elect representatives to provincial assemblies, and then to a national assembly. The ruling family, these officials suggested, could more easily sell potentially unsettling reforms if it appears to be less dependent on the Americans. The Saudis have an enormous capacity for self-deception and double-dealing. For instance, in the recent war against Iraq, while publicly maintaining that they were not involved in it, the US air force maintained its headquarters at al-Kharj air-base south of Riyadh, from where attacks were launched against Iraq.

The Saudis’ predicament is the direct result of their being too close to the Americans. In the seventies and eighties, when they got billions of dollars in oil revenues, they accepted American advice to go for multibillion-dollar projects that were of little use to the Saudis. Such American corporations as Bechtel, Halliburton and the oil-giants made huge fortunes from such deals. This was not entirely a one-way street: American (and indeed British) corporations bribed members of the ruling family for contracts, while siphoning billions off for worthless projects. Also, massive military cities were built at the cost of between US$7 and $10 billion each, which could only be used by the Americans.

By the early nineties the Saudis were almost bankrupt; the estimated one trillion dollars they had stashed away in US banks were not available to them. Withdrawing such moneys would have undermined the US’s economy (and still would today), which is something the Americans will not allow. Until then, the Saudi citizenry was kept docile by bribery: there was money for education, a massive handout to buy a house, and a job in which the Saudi often did little or nothing, but got paid anyway. Those days are long gone; it is difficult to believe the levels of poverty visible in Saudi Arabia today. The late king Faisal used to warn his profligate kinsmen that, by the manner in which they were throwing money about, they would be reduced to driving camels instead of cadillacs in one generation. His warning has almost come true.

The restlessness within the kingdom is not likely to dissipate easily, despite the astonishing admission by one senior member of the House of Saud, who has participated in debates within the circle around crown prince Abdullah, that "We are fighting for our lives, and we are going to do what is necessary to save our behinds." Perhaps, but it will take a lot more to save them. The House of Saud is essentially trying to ride two camels at once: trying to appease Uncle Sam while claiming to be distancing itself from him; it is an awkward and unstable situation to be in. The humpty-dumpty of "royalty" is heading for a fall in which the Americans are certain to play a large part, not because they care about ordinary people but because the ruling family has outlived its usefulness.

Besides, the Saudi government has to be punished for not preventing its citizens from carrying out the attacks of September 2001. It is utterly irrelevant that the Americans almost certainly had prior knowledge of the plans, yet did nothing to avert the impending catastrophe.

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