U.S. War Plans & The
Saudi Arabia Debate
U.S. ally an enemy?
by Larry Everest & Leonard
Z magazine, December 2002
This summer, the Rand Corporation gave
a secret briefing at the Pentagon on a certain Middle East country.
The briefing labeled the country under discussion an "enemy"
of the U.S., "active at every level of the terror chain."
It recommended aggressive U.S. actions in response. This briefing
might well have passed unnoticed, given the U.S. government's
near-daily warnings of another new "terrorist threat."
But instead it created big waves in the media because the country
being accused was not one of the usual "axis of evil"
suspects of the Bush administration, like Iran or Iraq. The subject
of this briefing was Saudi Arabia-long a reliable and valued client
In the wake of September 11, and with
war looming over the Persian Gulf, an unprecedented debate has
broken out within the U.S. ruling class over its relationship
with Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia's role in the global order.
For over six decades, protecting the corrupt and oppressive Saudi
state has been a pillar of U.S. strategy. Until September 2001,
criticism of the Saudi royal family was practically nonexistent
in the U.S. media and Saudi loyalty to the U.S. was never questioned.
The trigger for the recent barrage of U.S. criticism was September
11: 15 of the 19 reputed hijackers were Saudis, as is Osama bin
Laden. But the U.S. complaints go beyond Saudi connections to
The kingdom has been accused of being
"soft on terrorism"-or even funding "terror"
and promoting anti-U.S. hatred via Saudi-supported Islamic schools
across the region. The Wall Street Journal editorialized, "President
Bush has said repeatedly that countries must decide whether they
are for us or against us in the war on terrorism. So far, Saudi
Arabia hasn't made up its mind."
U.S. military commanders complain that
war preparations are being hindered because Saudi Arabia has balked
at supporting a war on Iraq and has imposed restrictions on U.S.
forces operating there. The New York Times reports a "growing
impatience among some segments of influential opinion that the
United States should take a much tougher line toward Saudi Arabia,
despite its status as a longtime ally."
Some of this criticism is clearly designed
to strong-arm the Saudis into more fully supporting the U.S. moves
against Iraq and the overall "war on terror." The Bush
administration has distanced itself from the harshest criticisms
of Saudi Arabia and the Saudis quietly told the Bush administration
that they would ramp up oil production when the fighting starts
to keep supplies flowing and prices under control.
But so far the Saudis haven't fully come
around. After having said that they would support a U. S. war
if the necessary UN resolutions were cooked up, in early November
the kingdom's foreign minister stated that bases on Saudi soil
could not be used for an attack on Iraq-UN resolutions or no UN
The Saudi-U.S. dispute is over much more
than war on Iraq. This debate, and Saudi Arabia's flip-flops on
the war, reflect the sharp contradictions roiling Saudi Arabia
and the Middle East, and the U.S.'s wildly ambitious, nakedly
imperialist, plans for dealing with them. These plans start with
war on Iraq, but don't end there. Rather, America's rulers are
scheming to then move to crush a host of anti-U.S. forces and
redraw the region's political map-possibly including Saudi Arabia.
To get a sense of the enormity of U.S.
goals in the Middle East and the risks U.S. elites might be willing
to take to achieve them, consider the huge stakes they have in
Saudi Arabia. This has been a long and toxic relationship. The
royal kingdom is economically, politically, and militarily dependent
on the U. S. for its functioning and survival and the U. S. in
turn extracts enormous benefits from its dominance of Saudi Arabia.
Oil is vital to the running of capitalist
economies and modern armies and is a source of enormous profit
and strategic power. Saudi Arabia sits on the world's largest
pool of oil-some 260 billion barrels, or a fourth of the entire
world total. Saudi Arabia pumps more oil than any other country
and it can quickly increase or decrease output to drive oil prices
up or down. This gives the U.S. great leverage over the world
Adding to its strategic significance is
Saudi Arabia's location--at the center of the region's oil fields,
along the petroleum transit routes of the Persian Gulf, and next
door to Iraq. The U.S. basically ran the 1991 Gulf War from bases
in Saudi Arabia. These bases are still occupied by 4,000 to 5,000
U.S. troops and are the launching pads for U.S. and British air
patrols and strikes over the "no fly" zone in Iraq.
Last year, the U.S. directed its air war in Afghanistan from the
Prince Sultan Airbase.
Saudi Arabia has carried out many dirty
deeds for U. S. interests around the world-from helping to fund
Nicaragua's counter-revolutionary contras in the 1980s to underwriting
the 1991 Gulf War to the tune of $50-$60 billion. The Saudis have
also wielded their financial and political influence against the
emergence of a revolutionary movement in Palestine.
Roots of the Saudi Crisis
In recent years U.S. domination of the
region-and especially its military presence--has increasingly
inflamed anti-U.S. sentiments in Saudi Arabia and intensified
deep stresses within Saudi society. These developments are limiting
the Saudi rulers' maneuvering room, forcing them to publicly distance
themselves from U.S. positions in the region and raising U.S.
concerns about Saudi Arabia's stability and reliability.
The growth of anti-Western Islamic trends
is an important part of these developments. Islam plays a central
role in Saudi society. The religion's two most sacred sites-Mecca
and Medina-are located in Saudi Arabia. Since its formation in
1932, the Saudi regime has been based on an alliance between the
royal al-Saud family and the clergy, which practices Wahbabism,
a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam. Wahhabism is Saudi Arabia's
official religion and the foundation of its social mores. The
royal family's "legitimacy" rests largely on its claim
to be the defender of the faith and guardian of Islam's most holy
Until recent years, the centrality of
reactionary, .conservative Islam and the kingdom's prominence
in the Muslim world had been a source of stability for Saudi Arabia's
rulers. It also made Saudi Arabia very useful in intrigues against
the U.S.'s former superpower rival, the Soviet Union, and in undermining
and attacking secular revolutionary and nationalist forces in
the Middle East.
But in some important ways, things have
turned into their opposite. Saudi Arabia's role in the 10-year
war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan is a case in point. During
the 1980s, Saudi Arabia organized and recruited many of the reactionary
Islamic groups who fought in Afghanistan. The Saudis and the U.S.
spent $500 million a year funding this war.
The Soviets were driven from Afghanistan
and handed a major defeat. However, the war also brought together,
armed, trained, and strengthened anti-Western Islamist forces
across the region. Among them was Osama bin Laden, who came from
a wealthy Saudi family closely connected to the Saudi royal family.
The defeat of the Soviets emboldened these fundamentalist forces.
But at the same time, they found they were no longer needed by
the U.S. Events soon led to bin Laden's transformation from a
CIA asset to a U.S. enemy.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin
Laden offered to organize new groups of Islamic fighters against
Saddam Hussein's secular regime. This bitter animosity between
bin Laden and Hussein is ignored by U.S. officials, who instead
have continually tried to claim some Iraq/al-Qaida "link"
to justify another war against Saddam.
Bin Laden and his followers were shocked
and outraged when the U.S. and the Saudis rejected their offer
to fight Iraq. Their anger grew when 500,000 U.S. and allied troops
were deployed on Saudi soil. They saw this as "infidels"
defiling holy territory.
Bin Laden and other Islamic fundamentalists
felt that the U.S. now sought to dominate Muslim lands. They accused
the Saudi royal family of complicity in the transgressions committed
by the U.S. troops on Saudi soil. They turned their "jihad"
on the U.S. and its allies, including the Saudi royalty.
Some prominent Saudi clerics also began
to speak out against the U.S., and they found an appreciative
audience. A few religious figures even argued that the royal family
had lost its legitimacy. The Saudi security services-including
the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), which was trained, organized,
and equipped by the Pentagon-cracked down hard. Hundreds of Islamist
activists were arrested. In 1994 the Saudi regime kicked bin Laden
out of the country and stripped him of his citizenship.
But anti-U.S. sentiments have only deepened.
Eric Rouleau, writing in the July/August 2002 issue of Foreign
Affairs, notes, "Despite official denials, the U. S. troops,
who have been in Saudi Arabia ever since the Persian Gulf war,
are highly unpopular...many Saudis complain that they consider
it a form of occupation--at best humiliating...at worst intolerable....
The U.S. presence undermines the government's legitimacy as well.
Sympathy for bin Laden apparently extends
to some members of the Saudi upper classes. In his book The Taliban,
Ahmed Rashid writes, "Osama Bin Laden's critique of the corruption
and mismanagement of the [Saudi] regime is not falling upon deaf
ears amongst the Saudi population." Rashid also reports that
Saudi officials did not want bin Laden falling into U.S. hands
in 1998 because he "could expose the deep relationship that
bin Laden continued to have with sympathetic members of the Royal
Family and elements of Saudi intelligence, which could prove deeply
The escalation of Israeli atrocities against
Palestinians and the launching of the second Palestinian intifada
in September 2000 further stoked the anger against the Saudi royalty
and their U.S. backers. Rouleau argues: "The deterioration
of the Arab-lsraeli situation has started to threaten the very
stability of the Saudi state in a way many Westerners, particularly
Americans, had not anticipated. In particular, outsiders have
underestimated the anger roused in the Saudi population by the
suffering of the Palestinian people-and the fact that this suffering
is blamed less on Israel than on its American protector. Given
the privileged nature of relations between Washington and Riyadh,
this anger has also started to focus on the House of Saud itself."
Rouleau contends that bin Laden "remains
widely popular in Saudi Arabia today-not for his crimes, but because
of the population's reflective anti-Americanism. "
Economic Strains and Repression
These developments are taking place against
a backdrop of extreme repression and growing economic difficulties
in Saudi Arabia which are adding to rising discontent against
the ruling order.
The extended royal family has dictatorial
power over the country's government, politics, and economy. Saudi
society is extremely stifling, public protest is rare, and political
liberty is basically nonexistent. The judicial system has been
described as one of the most secretive and oppressive in the world.
The list of discriminatory laws against
women is endless: women can't open bank accounts, purchase property,
work, or travel without the express approval of their "guardians."
Women aren't allowed to drive or leave their homes unless they're
veiled and accompanied by a male family member.
Foreign workers, who make up about a fourth
of the population, labor under extremely oppressive conditions,
have few if any legal rights, and are typically confined to the
worst jobs. Followers of the Shi'ite branch of Islam, some 10
percent of the Saudi population, face intense discrimination.
Stagnating oil revenues, huge outlays for U.S.-sponsored wars,
and soaring population growth have combined to cause a staggering
reduction in the average income per person, from $28,600 in 1981
(roughly the same as the U.S. at that time) to $6,800 last year.
Saudi Arabia's infrastructure is crumbling.
Saudis have invested between $700 billion and $1 trillion abroad,
mostly in the U.S. This recycling of oil revenues, or "petrodollars,"
is vital for the running of the world imperialist financial system.
The result, Rouleau notes, is that "there is not enough money
for local investment."
It is growing clearer to millions that
the U.S. is determined to wage a bloody and unjust war on Iraq.
They aim to overthrow the Hussein regime and install a pro-U.S.
government-run by an Iraqi puppet or directly by the U.S. military.
(This would put the U.S. in direct control of the world's second
largest oil reserves.)
A recent report in Oil and Gas International
(October 30) noted that plans are already developing for drastically
reorganizing the business relationship of a post-war Iraq: "The
Bush administration wants to have a working group of 12 to 20
people focused on Iraqi oil and gas to be able to recommend to
an interim government ways of restoring the petroleum sector following
a military attack in order to increase oil exports to partially
pay for a possible U.S. military occupation government.... According
to the source, the working group will not only prepare recommendations
for the rehabilitation of the Iraqi petroleum sector post-Hussein,
but will address questions regarding the country's continued membership
in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and
whether it should be allowed to produce as much as possible or
be limited by an OPEC quota, and it will consider whether to honor
contracts made between the Hussein government and foreign oil
companies, including the $3.5 billion project to be carried out
by Russian interests to redevelop Iraq's oilfields."
Iraq is only the beginning. The Boston
Globe (9/10/02) reports: "As the Bush administration debates
going to war against Iraq, its most hawkish members are pushing
a sweeping vision for the Middle East that sees the overthrow
of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq as merely a first step in
the region's transformations.... After an ouster of Hussein, they
say, the United States will have more leverage to act against
Syria and Iran, will be in a better position to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, and will be able to rely less on Saudi oil."
Various ex-officials and ruling-class
experts warn that waging war on Iraq and implementing such sweeping
transformations could trigger mass upheaval and destabilize U.S.
allies like Saudi Arabia. But the Bush team is pushing ahead in
the face of such warnings.
It is not that they're unaware of the
potential dangers. They are well aware of them and they are trying
to refine and sequence their horrendous project so that they neither
lose post-September 11 political "momentum," nor allow
events to escape their control. A Washington Monthly article gave
a glimpse into the dominant imperialist mindset these days. The
author asked one proponent of war on Iraq whether "wobbly
or upended regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia were worth the price
of removing Saddam. "
The war proponent responded, "All
the better if you ask me." The author concluded, "These
neoconservatives are not just being glib. They see toppling Saddam
as the first domino to fall, with other corrupt Middle Eastern
regimes following" (Joshua Marshall, "Bomb Saddam,"
The Rand Corporation's Pentagon briefing
echoed this theme: It called Iraq the "tactical pivot,"
Saudi Arabia the "strategic pivot," and Egypt "the
prize." In their view, the entire region should be reconfigured
to U.S. specifications.
War on Iraq is also intended to undercut
the regional maneuvers of other imperialist powers, such as Russia,
Germany, and France, and to force them to be subordinate to U.S.
U.S. rulers hope their war on Iraq will
intimidate the civilians throughout the region-especially the
Palestinians, who face escalating savagery of the Israeli military,
backed with billions of dollars in U.S. aid. There is open discussion
within Israeli and U.S. ruling circles of massive "transfer"-the
ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine. (Defense Secretary Rumsfeld
has called Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza legitimate
Israeli spoils of war; Dick Armey, the Republican Majority Leader
in the House, has spoken in favor of expelling Palestinians to
Rather than negotiate a resolution of
this struggle, powerful forces in the U.S. favor cutting this
knot, too, through war. The Wall Street Journal argued in a March
29 editorial that a U.S. defeat of Iraq would demoralize the Palestinian
people and force them to accept whatever "deal" the
U.S. imposed on them: "The path to a calmer Mideast now lies
not through Jerusalem but through Baghdad," the Journal editorialized
on March 29. A week later they added, "Only a seismic political
change in the Middle East will show the Palestinians that they
must come to terms with Israel's right to exist. A democratic
pro-western Iraq will do more for peace in Palestine than 100
trips by Colin Powell."
In the view of the "war party,"
defeating and "stabilizing" Iraq would give the U.S.
more freedom to push its client regimes in the region to clamp
down harder on anti-U.S. political forces.
The Rand briefing recommended that the
U. S. "demand that Saudi Arabia stop all anti-U. S., anti-lsrael,
and antiwestern rhetoric in the region; dismantle and ban the
kingdom's 'Islamic charities' and confiscate their assets; and
prosecute those involved in terrorism." If Saudi Arabia does
not comply, the briefing warned, the U.S. should "target"
Saudi oil fields, Saudi assets in the U.S., and holy places in
Another goal is to more thoroughly integrate
the Middle East into the U. S. -dominated global economy. Saudi
Arabia has come under criticism for putting roadblocks in the
way of global capital-such as limiting foreign ownership and forbidding
the charging of interest. If Saudi Arabia is going to survive,
the U.S. warns, it has to "modernize," open its economy
to the forces of globalization, and train its elite to operate
in the world capitalist market.
It is unclear just how far and how fast
the U.S. will go to revamp its alliance with Saudi Arabia or force
changes within Saudi society. But any U.S. attempt to "modernize"
the kingdom would probably entail reducing the role of traditional
Islam and the clergy and increasing the foreign presence there.
Such actions could further weaken key pillars of al Saud rule
and lead to greater instability. How would the U.S. respond then?
What would the fallout be among the world's billion-plus Muslims,
if the U.S. occupied or dismembered Saudi Arabia-the geographic
and historic center of Islam?
Bush I bragged that the Desert Storm slaughter
would usher in a "new world order" of unquestioned U.S.
dominance. But things didn't turn out as planned. For one, the
Hussein regime survived. For another, the war opened up deep fissures
within one of the U.S.'s most important and reliable clients-Saudi
The U.S.'s new, more arrogant, and more
brutal plans will undoubtedly leave the Middle East awash in even
greater human suffering. But they may also backfire in unforseen
ways. That may create openings for the people and turn the imperialists'
diabolical ambitions into their worst nightmares.
Larry Everest is a correspondent for the
Revolutionary Worker newspaper and author of Oil, Power &
Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda (Common Courage Press).
Leonard Innes is part of a Revolutionary Worker newspaper writing
Middle East watch