Saudis’ reluctance to support US over Afghanistan shows their worry about domestic opposition

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Sha'ban 15, 1422 2001-11-01

Occupied Arab World

by Zafar Bangash (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 17, Sha'ban, 1422)

Whether the US-led war on Afghanistan will overthrow the Taliban is a moot point, but it has already caused tremors in Saudi Arabia. Not because the House of Saud is concerned about what happens to the Taliban or the Afghans; its worries cut much closer to home: the US has accused Saudi citizens of involvement in the attacks on September 11. Publicly, the Saudi regime says that it has “found no evidence” to support such allegations, as interior minister Nayef bin Abdul Aziz did at a Riyadh press conference on October 20, but the Americans have intensified the pressure, stating yet again “you are either with us or with the terrorists.” This was repeated on US television by two senators, Joe Leibermann and John McCain, as recently as October 21.

A week earlier, Nayef had said that he was “unhappy” about the bombing of Afghanistan and rejected claims that Usama bin Ladin was involved in the attacks on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Saudi papers have also carried reports, much to the annoyance of the US, that at least five of the alleged Saudi hijackers are alive; a sixth one — Amer Abbas — had died a year earlier. The Americans do not wish to hear anything that would undermine their carefully-crafted and tightly-controlled propaganda about the perpetrators of the worst incident in US history. But the Saudis face a different dilemma. Usama’s family have ties not only with business elites in the kingdom but also with members of the ruling family, although both have disowned him in public. There are also millions of people in the kingdom, and indeed around the world, who sympathise with Usama’s call to rid the Arabian Peninsula of American troops. This is because of the belief that the Arabian Peninsula as sacred territory is out of bounds to non-Muslims, which is reflected in the anti-American feelings now openly expressed in many mosques in the kingdom. The House of Saud, presenting itself as “Custodian of the Two Holy Places,” finds it virtually impossible to answer this challenge, and realizes the probable consequences of coming out too openly in favour of the US.

All this is made even worse by the ongoing brutality of the occupiers of Palestine, brought into the living rooms of every Saudi, and indeed of everyone throughout the Middle East, by al-Jazeera and al-Manar television networks. Muslims also know that the US supports and finances Israeli state terrorism while continuing to impose punishing sanctions that increase the suffering of Iraqi children, more than a million of whom have died since 1991 as a result. The US also turns a blind eye to the suffering of the people of Kashmir, Chechnya and now Afghanistan, where another 7.5 million have been turned into refugees, swelling their total to more than 10 million. Yet it launches a war against the poorest country in the world because it harbours an alleged mastermind of the attacks on September 11.

Having exploited the Saudis for decades, by forcing them to keep the price of oil artificially low and to finance America’s dirty wars in other parts of the world, the US now finds it unacceptable that the Saudis are not coming through this time. A decade ago, when a US-led coalition was being assembled against Iraq, the US forced Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to foot the bill. This time round, there is nobody to underwrite the cost; the Saudis have already been bankrupted by the Iraqi war-costs, but Americans are not used to taking no for an answer: hence the intense propaganda campaign revealing the wrongdoings of the House of Saud.

The US is using various tactics. One relates to the financial support the alleged hijackers and Usama’s organization al-Qaeda has received from Saudi citizens. The other is to expose the indiscretions of the House of Saud. There is no dearth of these and the Americans have no doubt videotaped the extracurricular activities of all the Saudi princes, starting with the ailing and now incapacitated king Fahd. Some American newspapers have hinted as much; others have exposed the misappropriation of state funds by the ‘royals’. A particularly nasty piece — from the Saudis’ point of view — was Seymour Hersh’s in the New Yorker on October 22, in which, quoting National Security Agency [NSA] and CIA intercepts, he gives details of the Saudis’ telephone conversations.

For instance, one NSA intercept reveals yet again the extreme hypocrisy of the Saudi ‘royal family’. While professing strict adherence to the fundamental precepts of Islam and using the mutawwa’een — religious police — to enforce prayers, the Saudi royals are caught liaising with prostitutes. In one call, interior minister Nayef (king Fahd’s brother), urges a subordinate to withhold from the police evidence of the hiring of prostitutes, presumably by members of the royal family. Nayef is quoted saying that he didn’t want the “client list” to be released under any circumstances. Such information has kept the western tabloid press in business, whetting the appetites of consumers steeped in voyeurism.

If Hersh thought he could embarrass the Saudis by such exposures, he had better think again; the House of Saud is becoming thick-skinned. In a PBS “Frontline” interview broadcast on October 9, Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to Washington, when he was asked about reports of corruption in the royal family, was almost upbeat in his response. The family had spent nearly US$400 billion to develop Saudi Arabia, he said. “If you tell me that building this whole country... we misused or got corrupted with $50 billion, I’ll tell you, ‘Yes.’. . . So what? We did not invent corruption; nor did those dissidents, who are so ingenious, discover it.”

Perhaps Bandar can afford to take this tone. The House of Saud and leading US political figures and companies are linked in an intricate pattern of business alliances. George Bush Senior is with the Carlyle Group which is involved in defence deals; Saudi Arabia is a major purchaser of American arms. Bush Sr is also a frequent flyer to the kingdom. Halliburton, the Texas-based oil-supply business formerly headed by vice president Dick Cheney, was operating a number of subsidiaries in Saudi Arabia. Fahd was a major financial backer of Ronald Reagan’s anti-communist campaign in Latin America, and the Saudis have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to charities in the US. American construction and oil companies do billions of dollars’ worth of business every year with Saudi Arabia.

So, if US officials have known the true nature of the Saudi royals all along, why are they being exposed now? The simple answer is that the US hopes to present them with the bill for its ‘war’ in Afghanistan. The unstated threat is that if they refuse to pay, more revelations will follow that will further fuel anger against the ruling dynasty, leading to its overthrow by a combination of religious groups and disgruntled elements in the armed forces. But the US is held back from going too far by another important consideration: the possibility of an interruption in the oil-flow. A former high-level US intelligence official described the Saudi rulers as nervously “sitting on a keg of dynamite” — that is, the oil reserves: “they’re petrified that somebody’s going to light the fuse.”

If the war in Afghanistan goes on, this doomsday scenario is likely to become reality sooner than it otherwise would have.

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