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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5 Comments

  1. John August 9, 2005
  2. Lew Clark August 9, 2005
  3. SilverBubble August 9, 2005
  4. John Burgess August 9, 2005
  5. Mark August 10, 2005