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Whither Saudi Arabia?

One of the repeated questions is why the United States government looks so kindly on Saudi Arabia. After all, Bin Laden is (or, was) a Saudi. 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi. Most of the major terrorist attacks since 9/11 had some Saudi connection.

In fact, a lot of today's problems with terrorism can be traced back to Saudi Arabia. A long time ago the Kingdom found itself with a growing threat from militant Islam, and hit upon a solution: it would pay the troublemakers to go away and leave them alone. It worked pretty well -- the Kingdom has, largely, been untouched by large-scale terrorism (with a few exceptions).

And those troublemakers knew a good thing when they saw it. They took the Saudi's money and used it to foment their despicable ideology around the world. As I understand it, most of the Islamic schools in the United States receive a lion's share of their funding from Saudi Arabia -- especially those that preach the most fierce Islamist venom.

So, with Saudi Arabia being such a fount of trouble, why haven't we done anything about them?

I think I have an inkling. The Bush doctrine is a radical change from the past. Presidents such as Nixon, Ford, and Reagan practiced a sort of "realpolitik," where we allied ourselves with some of the most vile and despicable states, as long as they were anti-Communist. "HE may be an SOB, but he's OUR SOB" was the motto.

Other presidents, such as Carter, tried a different approach. He was a bit more idealistic. That led to such moves as encouraging the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, with Carter believing that Ayatollah Khomeini, as a deeply religious man, would be far more preferable. I think we all know how well that worked out.

Bush's plan seems to blend those two elements. He has his ideals, but he tempers them with pragmatism. We've maintained our alliance with Pakistan despite their own less-than-democratic government and their own role in the spread of nuclear technology. On the other hand, our push for democratic reforms has cost us the use of air bases in Uzbekistan.

But Saudi Arabia? They've been considerably less than helpful in the war, yet we still call them "allies" and overlook their repeated offenses. Why?

I can think of two reasons.

Two of the most sensitive matters in this world are economics and religion. Whenever you even think of tampering with either matter, you must tread lightly. And if both are involved, you find yourself tapdancing in a minefield.

Saudi Arabia is the home of the two holiest sites. The late King Fahd often said that his most important title wasn't King, but "custodian of the two holy mosques" of Mecca and Medina. In the aftermath of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the United States' military presence in Saudi Arabia (at the King's invitation) served as a rallying cry for the Islamists. And while the Islamists loathe the Saudi royal family and the current administration, they would gladly defend them against a Western intervention.

Secondly, Saudi Arabia is home to about 25% of the world's known oil reserves. Like it or not, for good or ill, our civilization is built on petroleum. Oil is our lifeblood. If our supply of oil were to be cut off (or even strongly impaired), our entire society would screech to a halt.

Saudi Arabia finds itself riding a tiger of Islamism, and at a loss to get off safely. They've paid the terrorists billions of dollars for the privilege of getting bumped down their list of priorities. But they haven't -- and can't -- buy their way off that list entirely, and cutting off the money would pretty much guarantee their promotion to the top of the list.

Yes, Saudi Arabia is critically flawed. Yes, their policies and actions have caused us enormous amounts of problems. Yes, many times it seems like they've been more interested in maintaining the status quo (terrorism is bad, but we'll keep paying them off to bother someone else and leave us alone for now) than actually fixing the problem.

Sooner or later, it's all going to come to a head. Sooner or later, the royal family will find it no longer able to carefully balance the incredible pressures from both within and without. Sooner or later, someone's going to light just the right match inside the tinderbox.

And when that happens, every single Muslim and every single person who depends on petroleum for their daily life (i.e, virtually every single human being on earth) will be watching carefully and hoping for the best.

Maybe there is a solution that will resolve the problems of Saudi Arabia without tossing a huge chunk of the world into chaos and turmoil. But I haven't heard of one yet.


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Comments (5)

I don't know how to ensure ... (Below threshold)
John:

I don't know how to ensure any agreement would be followed in the long run. But during the conflict itself, oil disruption is extremely likely. Watch the anti-war movement melt away after a couple of weeks of people walking to work.

"The spice must flow."

I believe the valuable substance in Dune, spice, was an allegory for oil. Basically, the substance was found only on a desert planet and was responsible for interstellar travel among other things.

Saudi Arabia's rule by royal family is likely to collapse if things stay headed in the same way for much longer. We could minimize the disruption by cutting a deal with one or more of the likely groups to rise to power. We could agree to stand by and do nothing, if they is a commitment to keep the oil flowing.

Incredibly sliming move, I know. But propping up the royal family isn't going to last forever.

We stood back and did nothi... (Below threshold)
Lew Clark:

We stood back and did nothing while the Shah of Iran was deposed by a group of really nice, highly religious gentlemen. And that didn't work out so well.
The trouble with Saudia Arabia is that you have a very large family with absolute power. And the corruption that comes with absolute power.
Then you have a group of religious fanatics wanting to reform the world in their image of "holiness".
In the middle you have a population with some technical training, but a culture that is almost 2000 years behind the "modern world".
Unlike Iran and Iraq that does have a pretty moderate, educated middle class, there just doesn't seem to be any group in Saudia Arabia that could take control from the House of Saud without things becoming worse.
So we're stuck with supporting the despots, because they find alliances with us to be useful.

I <a href="http://silverbub... (Below threshold)

I blogtificated on this a while ago. I came to the conclusion that it would be a bad idea to piss everybody in the ME off at the same time (factoring out Israel). Since the Sauds have a deathgrip on an important chunk of the world's oil, messing with them is like throwing a hot coal into a forest full of dry tinder.

Also, countries in the ME are just like kids on the playground (in fact, I submit that, when boiled down, all politics and all countries are just kids on the playground). You have the bullies backing each other up, but if you have one of the bullies that acts just enough like a two-faced bastard to keep both sides guessing, it throws the enemy off balance, which the US needs. Those two reasons are enough to keep the US off Saudi Arabia's back.

Besides, it takes a lot of resources to tackle SA on top of everything else, and since most of Europe is content to bitch about us while sitting back and watching, we have to focus on one thing at a time.

One of the factors you miss... (Below threshold)

One of the factors you missed in listing Saudi importance to the US is the matter of overflight privileges. The USAF--and CENTCOM--are up a serious creek if they have to go around the peninsula for refueling, supply, or restocking.

But you've bought into the CW that the "Saudis bought off the terrorists to go play in somonelse's backyard." Sounds reasonable, but there's absolutely no proof. I spent two years in the US embassy in Riyadh asking every FBI, Treasury, and other intell person assigned or just passing through, "Is there evidence of this?" They answer was a uniform "no, only a suspicion." I'm still waiting for evidence.

One of the reasons the Saudis may be getting what you think to be a "soft ride" is that they're actually doing what we'd like them to do, though perhaps not at all deliberate speed. (With the new king's pardoning reformers, that assessment of speed may need to be recalibrated.)

The Saudis provided far more help in OIF than the media ever reported. In fact, the entire war was run from Pr. Sultan Airbase in Kharj. Special Ops and refueling missions were also flown out of Saudi. The Saudis didn't want it publicized for their own, obvious, reasons. The USG saw no need to thwart the Saudi efforts to keep things low key.

The Saudis have also been fighting, proactively, against terror, not only in the own country, but also in providing good intell to other countries.

They've shut down their borders with Iraq, at least slowing the flow of would-be jihadists there. So now young extremists are having to go through Syria--which doesn't require visas of Gulf Arabs--via Yeman--which also doesn't require visas of Gulf Arabs. The only thing further the Saudis can do on that count is to ground all young males, preventing them from leaving the country.

The Saudi education system, a failure on all counts, has certainly led to extremism, but it's not the sole cause. If it were, then all Saudis educated at home would now be gravitating toward jihad. That's hardly the case. Schools, their curricula and their methodologies are being reformed. Late, but better than never. Extremist preachers are being removed from their pulpits, sometimes straight to jail. The Saudi media--in both Arabic and English--is quick to criticize the extremists and point out where they're coming from.

There is a solution to the problems of Saudi Arabia: Keep reasonable pressure on and let them fix their systems in their own ways. They know what needs to be fixed and appear to be fixing it. If they falter, then jack up the pressure.

On the subject of money, th... (Below threshold)
Mark:

On the subject of money, think about what happens in that part of the world when a: we actually drill in ANWAR and build more refineries and b: someone finds a real substitute for petroleum as a motor fuel(either full synthetic or a way to make it from organic material, in either case at same or less cost than oil). The economies of a number of countries are going to go in the toilet, and things will get real interesting from that point.




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