A Marriage Made in Hell
The basis of the U.S.-Saudi relationship is an urban myth promulgated by Al-Saud supporters in Washington that goes something like this: the Al-Sauds will keep oil flowing. If they are overthrown, “fundamentalists” will take over. They will blackmail the U.S.. The world economy will be held hostage and we will have to succumb to their demands. This myth has so many holes that it is tough to know where to begin. At the outset, we shouldn’t forget that it was King Faisal (an Al-Saud!) who put in place the Arab oil embargo in 1973. Neither the mullahs of Tehran nor the revolutionaries of Caracas have ever gone the embargo route. Saudi Arabia needs its oil revenues. Iran, Venezuela, Russia, Angola, and in fact all countries sell all the oil they can to whomever wants to buy it. There’s no reason to believe that whoever replaces the Al-Sauds will restrict supplies. There is no reason to believe that they will be anti-Western. Muslims don’t want a government like Iran’s; in fact, the disaster that is Iran has helped discourage theocracies in favor of democracies.
What about exports to Saudi Arabia? Is that so important to our economic existence? Sure, we might sell fewer arms. Selling fewer arms might just mean that fewer arms will get into the wrong hands that won’t be used by dictators to stay in power. That’s about it and that’s not all that bad. Saudi Arabia might then use its wealth to develop its own economy, to prosper, provide jobs and keep all its people happy.
With the outbreak of protests in Tunisia, Washington was initially cautious, calling for dialogue and an orderly transition. But when demonstrations picked up in Egypt and thugs attacked, injured and killed peaceful demonstrators, the Obama administration threw caution to the wind, calling for Mubarak to step down.
The Libyan uprising was different. With momentum from Egypt, with the early success of the opposition and without close ties to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, the U.S. administration’s rhetoric was strongly for the opposition. Even U.S. actions calling for asset freezes and sanctions were ahead of the curve. The Al-Sauds must have watched nervously as the Qaddafi regime initially appeared to collapse, but they must have breathed a sigh of relief when Qaddafi used his arsenal to massacre protesters and the world watched, talked, but did nothing. U.S. rhetoric changed to demands for a ceasefire. Demands for Qaddafi’s departure receded as quickly as they had appeared. The Al-Sauds learned an important lesson. Meet the protesters with overwhelming force. Crush them. If very little action was taken against Qaddafi, then absolutely nothing will happen to the Al-Sauds with their close ties to the U.S. and sitting on top of all that oil that the world needs. So they decided to go on the offensive in Bahrain. But first some background on Bahrain and the GCC.
When the GCC was formed in 1981, the picture presented to the world was one of an economic and political union. But clearly the political dimension was the overriding factor as their economies were complementary. The members were not equal. Saudi Arabia’s population was greater than the combined population of the other five. Still, Kuwait wanted to assert its importance and not submit to Saudi domination. Everything changed after the First Gulf War: the Al-Sabahs became little brothers to the Al-Sauds. Among the GCC, Qatar is today the only thorn in the Saudi side. Oman stays out of the limelight. The UAE tows the Al-Saud line. And the Al-Khalifas in Bahrain are Saudi puppet stooges, sharing a Saudi offshore oil field and getting additional financial support to tow the Saudi line. Why? Bahrainis are over 70 percent Shia, while ruling Sunnis make up less than 30 percent. The Shia in Bahrain have been subjugated and deprived economically and socially and the Al-Sauds have wanted it this way given the short distance on the causeway to Saudi Arabia and the high number of Saudi Shia living in their oil-rich Eastern Province. So after seeing Qaddafi use such overwhelming force with impunity, the Al-Sauds must have decided to follow in his footsteps. They sent troops into Bahrain to “restore law and order.” But they forgot a few facts. Iran cannot, and will not, let this go unchallenged. Under the shah Iran had historical claims to Bahrain. More recently, under the mullahs, influential regime members have made references to this claim. Although the shah agreed to abide by international arbitration, it was never his intention to allow Bahrain to become a Saudi puppet state. Moreover, the Shia, the majority in Iraq, suffered for decades under Saddam Hussein’s rule. They know what it is like to be subjugated by a brutal minority. Now that they have their rights restored, they cannot watch Bahraini Shia and those in Eastern Saudi Arabia suffer so. Even Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric alive, may be forced to voice his opinion.
While Saudi Arabia has opened itself to hostile relations with Iran and Iraq as never before, the Al-Sauds have also presented the U.S. with a quandary. On March 16, at least six peaceful protestors were killed in Bahrain. Most alarming was a video circulated on the Internet showing one innocent middle-aged protestor shot for no reason whatsoever. Surprisingly, Al Jazeera refrained from showing this inflammatory video; one must assume that even Qatar thought better of infuriating the Al-Sauds who may feel backed into a corner. If the Obama administration and the U.S. stand for anything, the administration must use the same level of rhetoric against Saudi Arabia and the Bahraini government that it used against Mubarak. To do otherwise will not be easily forgotten in Iran and Iraq. Even the UN’s human-rights chief branded Bahraini (that could very well have been Saudi) treatment of protesters as shocking and illegal and the military takeover of a hospital as a violation of international law.