SAUDI ARABIA: The US-Saudi schism
Erich Marquard

As British influence began to wane in the Middle East during the twentieth century, it was supplanted by US influence.

Encouraged by the huge quantities of oil on the Saudi peninsula and other strategic considerations, the United States began to increase and strengthen its ties with Saudi Arabia. In 1951, an agreement between the two countries paved the way for the first US military air base, in the city of Dhahran.

The new relationship proved beneficial for both the Saudis and the Americans: Saudi leaders wanted to modernize their country, and US companies were only too ready to help.

This cooperation peaked with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. This event, coupled with other developments in the region such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, made it difficult for the Saudi leadership to openly continue to indulge its Western leanings. The success of radicals preaching Islamic values – primarily in Iran and Afghanistan – put pressure on the leaders of Saudi Arabia, specifically King Fahd Ibn Abdel Aziz, to support more Islamic traditions and to increase the political distance between his country and the West.

This new paradigm put the Saudi leadership in a difficult position. On one hand the leadership relied on the United States for its external protection. But on the other, this relationship deeply angered its population, which viewed US-Saudi links as unacceptable.

In the early 1990s, the first Gulf War had a significant impact on this tender relationship. The war greatly increased US influence in the kingdom, with the Pentagon sending some 500,000 troops to the country in 1991. Despite the ruthlessness of Saddam Hussein’s Baath government in Baghdad, many regional onlookers saw the US invasion in terms of a Western power subjugating a Muslim one.

The Gulf War also greatly weakened the leverage of the Saudi monarchy, if only because Washington dumped a huge portion of the war bill in the hands of Riyadh – some $70 billion – which even an oil rich country such as Saudi Arabia had difficulty paying.

Nevertheless, despite these developments, the Saudi leadership was able to keep a fairly tight rein on the country, thus maintaining a prosperous relationship with the United States while at the same time shielding itself from criticism at home.

The 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington may have permanently altered this relationship, ushering in a new phase of hatred and fear of Islamic values both within the US population and its government. This backlash surfaced in the frequent claims that the Saudi leadership had some role in the attacks, despite the fact that this would be clearly contrary to Saudi interests.

For example, in July 2002 Laurent Murawiec, an influential analyst with the Rand Corporation told the Defense Advisory Board: “The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader. Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies [and is responsible for a] daily outpouring of virulent hatred against the US from Saudi media, ‘educational’ institutions, clerics, [and] officials. Saudis tell us one thing in private, [and] do the contrary in reality.”

The backlash against Saudi Arabia within the United States; the accusations from Washington over Saudi complicity in the 9/11 attacks; and the tough US reaction in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other largely Muslim countries all worked to strengthen the hand of Islamic radicals who had been preaching for decades against cooperation with the West and the United States in particular.

This reverse backlash began to manifest itself in attacks against the leaders of Muslim countries, especially Saudi Arabia. The indirect targeting of the Saudi leadership by internal militants marked a dramatic change in the tactics of Islamic radicals. All the same, this change in tactics was inevitable. The fact that the United States had greatly increased its influence in the Middle East and had engaged in bombing campaigns against Muslim countries made it impossible for the Saudi leadership to support Washington without that support resulting in a reaction from its own society.

This trend manifested itself in the many domestic attacks that occurred within Saudi Arabia. On May 12, three car bombs killed 35 people at complexes housing Westerners, mostly defense contractors and advisors to the Saudi Arabia national guard. On November 8, a car bomb in a mostly Arab neighborhood killed 17 people in an attack that the Saudi leadership believes was intended for Americans.

In an effort to alleviate some of the strain on the government in Riyadh, Washington announced last year that it would be relocating troops stationed at Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan Air base. Indeed, a keynote of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden’s grievances with the West and the Saudi leadership has been US troops stationed in the kingdom. During an interview with CNN in 1997, Bin Laden argued: “The country of the two holy places [Saudi Arabia] has in our religion a peculiarity of its own over the other Muslim countries. In our religion, it is not permissible for any non-Muslim to stay in our country.”

Washington also decided to relocate US troops in Saudi Arabia simply because it would be in its strategic interests to do so. Since the first Gulf War, the Saudi leadership had become progressively more strict about what US troops could and could not do while operating out of the Prince Sultan Air base. Their refusal to allow their territory to be used during the 2003 invasion of Iraq proved to be the catalyst that convinced Washington to relocate its troops in the Middle East. By moving its troops to Qatar and Iraq, the Pentagon will probably find it much easier to engage in military operations in the region.

However, this decision will likely have little effect on the domestic security situation in Saudi Arabia. As Thomas Lippman of the Washington-based Middle East Institute recently said in Chicago, the removal of US troops from Saudi Arabia “removes sort of a thumb in the eye irritant, but it doesn’t remove the problem.” Indeed, the US and Saudi Arabia will be permanently linked due to the two countries’ firm economic relationship and Washington’s reliance on Saudi oil.

As increased US influence and involvement in the Middle East – including the insurgency in Iraq – concentrate attention on US involvement there, anger toward Washington and its regional allies is likely to increase.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is flirting with economic disaster. Its population growth stands at about 3.5 percent a year, exceeding GDP growth and creating high levels of unemployment for its large population of young people. These realities threaten to turn Saudi Arabia into an even more fertile breeding ground for extremists bent on breaking all ties with the United States.

Finally, Saudi Arabia faces a real dilemma over the question of who should succeed King Fahd. Looking past Prince Abdullah and Prince Sultan, both of whom are in their elder years, the line of succession is murky – and worrisome for the future stability of the region.

Erich Marquard is an analyst with Power and Interest News Report (PINR). Courtesy of Yellow Times