Saudi Arabia

excerpted from the book


How our covert wars have created enemies
across the Middle East and brought terror to America.

by Mark Zepezauer

Common Courage Press, 2003, paper


The name Saudi Arabia means that it literally belongs to that one family, the House of Sa'ud. They rose up out of the Riyadh area in the 18th century, hitching their wagon to the emerging Wahhabi movement. From the beginning, they showed a ruthless streak, massacring the village of Taif in 1802 on their way to looting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. It took 17 years for forces of the Ottoman Empire to crush the Saudi uprising. In 1902, they were at it again, when Abdul Aziz ibn Saud attacked and occupied the fortress at Riyadh, killing the Ottoman governor.

About this time, the British were looking for local proxy forces to help counter Ottoman influence, and found that their agenda neatly coincided with Ibn Saud's. The British were especially keen to have access to intelligence from Mecca and Medina, from which non-Muslims were excluded. Just to hedge their bets, Britain backed both ibn Saud and a local rival, Sharif Hussain, promising each of them control over the Arabian peninsula once the Ottoman Empire was broken up. The Saudis managed to consolidate power during World War I, and signed a secret friendship treaty in 1915, which effectively installed the Saudi monarchy into power. Ibn Saud assumed control over the holy cities in 1933.

That same year Saudi Arabia granted an oil concession to the U.S. company Socal, which grew into the jointly owned Arab-American Oil Company (Aramco). Following World War II, the Americans generally assumed control over most of Britain's imperial possessions in the Middle East (though not without some friction). The new relationship, guaranteeing Saudi security in return for oil rights, was cemented in the waning years of the war by a meeting between FDR and Ibn Saud. A U.S. airbase was built at Dhahran, a source of indignation to Arab nationalists to this day (to save face, the base was later nationalized by the Saudis, who promptly hired the same Americans to run it for them).

Neither the Americans nor the British were deterred by Ibn Saud's habit of laughingly beating his servants with a large stick in front of his visitors. Nor was the relationship impeded by the family tradition-celebrated to this day-of lopping off hands, feet and heads in public squares for various infractions. The first Saudi king seeded his dynasty with more than forty sons from upwards of 100 wives, concubines and slaves. Today the Saudi royal family numbers an estimated 5000 males, with 30 to 40 more born every month, each granted a half million dollar annual stipend at birth to get started in the world (Saudi princesses receive no such stipend, but rely on the generosity of their fathers and husbands).

Sons of ibn Saud rule the peninsula, and palace intrigue in the House of Sa'ud is of epic proportions. The eldest son Saud ruled from his father's death in 1953, until handing over power to Faisal in 1964. Faisal was assassinated by a nephew in 1975, and his successor Khalid was king in name only due to ill health. Crown Prince Fahd was the real power behind the throne until taking over formally in 1982, but now he too has been felled by illness, and a bitter succession struggle is under way. Pro- and anti-American forces are vying for control, with many, of course, playing both sides of the fence.

Crown Prince Abdullah, 77, is nominally in charge. Abdullah is a pious Muslim, unlike many of his siblings, and is not too deferential to American wishes, though he will of course be happy to continue selling us oil. On the other hand, he is in favor of closer security ties with Iran, is enraged by U.S. policy towards Palestine, and recognizes that greater profits could be made by selling oil to South Asian markets. Abdullah has also made some efforts to crack down on the pervasive corruption in the royal family, a campaign that has earned him many enemies. It's said that King Fahd, who cannot recognize even his closest friends, is being kept alive only to prevent Abdullah from formally assuming the throne.

The level of corruption in the House of Sa'ud is staggering. While they impose strict Wahhabi law on their subjects, with public beatings for alcohol consumption and amputations for thievery, the thousands of princes have siphoned off billions of dollars from the public treasury, wining and dining all over Europe and America, building lavish palaces and gambling away their stipends. A minor scandal ensued in Washington when some of the Saudi entourage's slaves tried to escape from a hotel suite by jumping out of windows. Meanwhile the standard of living for ordinary Saudi citizens has fallen dramatically over the past two decades, while annual budget deficits are soaring from the family's high living and the extraordinary level of military spending.

After the Iranian revolution in 1979, which was followed soon after by an Islamic uprising in Mecca, the Saudi military budget began to expand dramatically. Growing military ties with the U.S. were politically dicey for both countries. Pro-Israel members of the U.S. Congress were opposed to major weapons sales to the Saudis, while King Fahd had to placate the anti-Western faction led by Crown Prince Abdullah throughout the 80s. So a covert relationship was established that included privatized military training, oral agreements rather than written treaties, and breaking arms deals into smaller packages which would escape congressional review. The Saudis felt they could accommodate occasional U.S. military deployments but no permanent basing of U.S. troops.

To that end, Saudi Arabia spent nearly $200 billion from 1979 to 1989 on a network of secret military bases, which were characterized as a "freeze-dried" U.S. presence: just add personnel. The King Khalid Military City, just south of the Kuwaiti border, was expanded from a small outpost to a $6 billion megacomplex, complete with air-conditioned underground bunkers, and a nearby port, built from scratch, which instantly became one of the largest in the region. The Arabian Peninsula was divided into five sections, each with a state-of-the-art command and control center, all of them tied into Riyadh by digital satellite links.

Saudi Arabia is not only our principal oil supplier in the region but the keystone of a security arrangement involving the smaller Gulf sheikdoms, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. U.S. companies have nearly $5 billion in investments in Saudi Arabia; the [Saudi] royal family's investments in the U.S. are estimated in the hundreds of billions-perhaps half a trillion. The U.S. is also the regime's principal arms supplier, with more than $40 billion in purchases from Riyadh during the 1990s. Torture equipment has also been supplied by both U.S. and British companies, and according to Amnesty International, it is widely used against dissidents.

In order to placate Islamists, the regime has set up a chain of Wahhabi religious schools both at home and worldwide, and anti-Western rhetoric is commonplace. Schools set up in northern Pakistan trained the students who became the Taliban regime-which could not have come to power without Saudi assistance. Some 10,000 Saudi citizens are veterans of the U.S.-backed war against the Russians in Afghanistan during the 80s-and many are now opposing both the U.S. and the Saudi government. They are getting considerable assistance from wealthy Saudi citizens-including some within the royal family itself.

The Saudi government initially refused to freeze the assets of al-Qaida or assist U.S. investigators in following the money. According to the Boston Herald, banks controlled by bin Laden have "well-established ties to a prince in Saudi Arabia's royal family, several billionaire Saudi bankers, and the governments of Kuwait and Dubai." Likewise, the Saudi-funded International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), a Muslim charity, has given more than $60 million to the Taliban regime. The IIRO has also supported separatist guerrillas in the Philippines through bin Laden's brother-in-law, who headed the Manilla branch.

Prince Turkl al Faisal was forced to step down as chief of intelligence after the 9/11 attacks, due to his extensive links with the Taliban government and reputed sympathies for bin Laden. U.S. investigators are privately furious over Saudi foot-dragging in helping to investigate the backgrounds of the Saudi nationals involved in the hijackings. This mirrors earlier terrorist incidents on Saudi soil against U.S. targets. When, in 1995, five Americans were killed by a car bomb, immigrant workers who had "confessed" to the crimes were executed before U.S. agents could interrogate them.

The same thing happened a year later when the Khobar Towers apartments in Dhahran were bombed, killing 19 U.S. soldiers. Investigations eventually showed that Iran may have been responsible, but Saudi authorities let the trail go cold, fearful that U.S. action against Iran might stir up their own Islamic radicals. The split in the royal family reflects a debate within Saudi society on how much Western influence to accept, with those in favor generally the ones who are making a handsome living off their Western ties. Among the opposition, the argument was over whether to strike at the Saudi government, or its U.S. sponsor. The latter camp seems to have won that argument (at least for now), and the royal family apparently views this as a welcome reprieve. In their view, anti-Western agitation serves as a safety valve, letting off steam that would otherwise be directed at the government. Needless to say, this is not a picture of a healthy alliance.

As a result, our national security has been endangered by powerful Americans who are making a handsome living off their Saudi ties. Among them, unfortunately, are the current President of the United States and his father, the former president. The elder Bush is a senior advisor to the Carlyle Group, an investment bank whose major shareholder included the bin Laden family of Saudi Arabia (at least until the 9/11 attacks made their participation an embarrassment, after which they quietly cashed out). The younger Bush has also served on the board of a Carlyle subsidiary, and received a loan from a bin Laden family representative to start his first oil company, Arbusto Energy. Many of the current president's closest backers have ties to the wealthy and influential Saudi businessman Khalid bin Mahfouz, known as a backer of Osama bin Laden (as well as his brother-in-law). Vice President Cheney's old firm, Halliburton Co., has hundreds of millions of dollars in Saudi contracts, and numerous other Bush family friends and colleagues do extensive business with the Kingdom.

As if all that were not disturbing enough, BBC investigator Greg Palast has reported that after taking office, the second Bush Administration told the FBI and military intelligence to "back off," from investigations of bin Laden's relatives. The administration also quashed investigations into the Islamic charity WAMY, which links both to al-Qaida and to key GOP strategist Grover Norquist. And shortly after 9/11, when all commercial air traffic in the U.S. was grounded, members of the bin Laden family were flown out of the U.S.-without being questioned by the FBI-reportedly at the behest of the president's father. FBI agent John O'Neill, the government's top al-Qaida hunter, resigned in protest over the cover-up of the corrupt U.S.-Saudi connections. O'Neill told French journalists that the main obstacles to investigating Islamic terrorism were "U.S. corporate interests and the role played by Saudi Arabia in it."


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