While there may be truth to the adage that “opposites attract,” a happy and long lasting relationship must be based on common values, respect and shared interests. Do America and the absolute rulers of Saudi Arabia share such a basis for a long-lasting relationship? How will Muslims judge our marriage to the Al-Sauds in the current climate of protests against autocratic rule in the Middle East and North Africa?
There is certainly little to be put in the win column when it comes to shared values.
Political Freedom: Saudi Arabia has no constitution, no representative government, no freedom of the press and no freedom of assembly. The Saudi foreign minister recently said that Saudi Arabia will "cut off any finger" raised in protest. Who are the rulers of Saudi Arabia? In 1932, Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud used his sword, deception and treachery to unite a number of warring tribes. So the Al-Saud family sees Saudi Arabia as their ranch; as one Saudi prince said, “my grandfather took it with the sword. Others could have done it. But they didn’t. It is ours.”
Religious Freedom: Churches and synagogues are banned in Saudi Arabia, only mosques are allowed; in fact, foreigners have gone to jail for holding Christmas services in their home. With about 85 percent of Saudis professing the Sunni sect, Shia Muslims are subjugated, economically deprived and treated as apostates. It is Saudi fundamentalists who have financed madrassasto spread radical Islam with a hatred for all things American. None of this bothers the Al-Sauds because the U.S. and the Vatican don’t publicize this religious discrimination for fear of ruffling Al-Saud feathers. In the face of such discrimination, it is ironic that Al-Saud kings, beginning with Fahd and now Abdullah, refer to themselves as “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” while the Koran says, “Let there be no compunction in religion.” They claim legitimacy from Islam, while the unity of humankind and social and economic justice, the core of Islamic teachings, has been supplanted by its antithesis.
Economic Equality and Freedom: Contrary to everything in the Koran and from the example of the Prophet Mohammad, the Al-Sauds are the masters and have no equals. While the oil under the ground belongs to all Saudis of this and future generations, the Al-Sauds behave as if it was theirs and theirs alone. The king and senior princes take what they want from the treasury. All major government contracts have a Saudi prince as an agent, taking commissions that are at times obscene. In the case of at least one military contract that ran into the billions, the “add-ons” over a short span of time exceeded the original contract, something that dismayed the U.S. government military attaché in Saudi Arabia. As usual when senior Al-Sauds are involved, it was hushed up by the U.S. embassy. Are the Al-Sauds the best businessmen in the world or are they simply corrupt? While the Al-Sauds wallow in unbelievable opulence, some Shia don’t have running water and around 25 percent of the youth cannot find jobs. The Al-Sauds are wasting the heritage of all Saudis. What happened to the Islamic precept that rulers should live in the same manner as the poorest in their realm?
But perhaps America could stand to side with Saudi Arabia in the interests of national security. Try again.
The Saudi purchase of Chinese missilesmay provide the best example of Saudi Arabia’s unreliability as an ally and of U.S. reluctance to ruffle Al-Saud feathers no matter what the consequences. In the mid-1980s, two younger princes embarked on a secret mission to China, changing planes, etc., to evade U.S. detection. They bought long-range Chinese missiles that are designed for nuclear warheads. This was discovered by the U.S. in 1988. The U.S. was dismayed by what was seen as a new axis between Riyadh and Beijing. The U.S. State Department asked the U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, Hume Horan, to deliver a demarche (an official government representation) to the Saudi king. In the meantime, the Saudi ambassador in Washington (incidentally, one of the two princes who had travelled to China) had approached the administration unbeknownst to Ambassador Horan with some explanation of the incident and had in turn informed his uncle the king that the incident was being ironed out. When Ambassador Horan went to the palace and delivered the demarche the king went into a rage and referred to Horan as a Shia dog, telling him to leave his country. Horan left Saudi Arabia and was replaced. Why such kingly outrage? Horan’s biological father was a Shia and the king apparently had thought that Horan was delivering the demarche in contravention to State Department wishes. Ambassador Horan was told never to disclose this event as it might spark hostility against Saudi Arabia in the U.S. Horan’s career, the most accomplished Arabist in the State Department, was essentially destroyed. But not a peep from the State Department or the White House! Would the U.S. have accepted such treatment of its ambassador by any other country? Normally equipped to carry nuclear warheads, these missiles have a range of more than 1,000 miles, making them capable of reaching targets not only in Tehran but also in Israel. It is rumored that the Al-Sauds may have even purchased more accurate and reliable long-range models around 2005.
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.
As U.S. bullets, U.S. guns and U.S.-trained soldiers kill peaceful Bahrainis, the U.S. spring in the Muslim world is becoming the winter of its gloom that the administration never envisaged. It is largely because of the unsolicited involvement of the Al-Sauds. To say that the U.S. has no influence over the Al-Sauds is a lie. The Al-Sauds are kept as rulers of Saudi oil by the U.S. If we want democratic ideals to take root in the Arab and Muslim world, we have to begin with change in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. If other Arab dictators see Qaddafi stay in power, followed by the Khalifas and the Al-Sauds, then every Arab dictator will murder his subjects with impunity. What would keep Mubarak or his son from returning to Egypt? The U.S. will be hated as never before. Washington will become irrelevant in the affairs of the Middle East while the mullahs in Tehran and the likes of Muqtada Al-Sadr in Iraq become regional masters.
Why is the administration so wedded to the Al-Sauds and so hesitant to stand up for the legitimate rights of the majority in Bahrain, the Shia in Saudi Arabia or for all Saudi citizens who want representative rule? Simply said, it is the power of the Saudi lobby in Washington—the financial, oil and arms industries, the professional lobbyists, the most senior of U.S. officials and even the media. Where is the U.S. media that revealed the transgressions of Mubarak and his family when they fell out of favor and the billions stashed abroad by the Qaddafi clan? Why aren’t they reporting the deprivations of Saudis and Bahrainis, the Al-Saud plunder of Saudi riches, the obscene palaces and the stolen billions that make the Mubarak stash look like a pauper’s lot? It is time to admit that our marriage to the Al-Sauds threatens our national security.