The Saudi Arabia kingdom can be the poster child for a characterization of the Middle East as an area that contains despotic governments and deprives its peoples of freedom and basic human rights. Let's add that most of the 9/11 conspirators and other al-Qaeda members, including bin Laden, were of Saudi origin. Saudis have been accused of financing terrorist activities, and the Saudi government's support of worldwide Islamic charities and schools, which have questionable links to terrorism, has been criticized. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has had friendly relations with all U.S. administrations, is a major customer of U.S. military weapons, and receives its principal economic support from sales of petroleum to U.S. oil companies. The U.S. comfortable relationship with Saudi Arabia mocks U.S. plans for international peace through promotion of democracy and defeat of terrorism by attacking the sources of terrorism. Just the opposite: The flow of excessive capital to Saudi Arabia in exchange for oil supplies to the western world strengthens the authoritarian regime, enables it to finance the spread of its intolerant form of Islam and provides it with capital for massive investments. The dependence of western nations on Saudi oil has made Saudi Arabia a Middle East powerhouse that is now able to shape Middle East policy and lead U.S. foreign policy down another path of confusion, counterproductive actions and eventual regret. This path starts by being blind to the warning signs that demonstrate the nature, despotism and intolerance of the Saudi regime.
The Saudi Regime
The Saudi kingdom can be considered one of the youngest of the oldest kingdoms in the world. Its establishment and operation recalls the reign of the Spanish Catholic monarchy of the 15th century. Similar to the Ferdinand and Isabella pact with the Catholic church to gain recognition for their kingdom in return for sole approval of the Catholic church in Spanish lands, Arabian chieftain Mohammed ibn Saud, in 1744, allied himself with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, leader of the Wahhab sect. The Wahhabis backed the Saud families in their methodical conquest of the entire Arabian peninsula, and, in turn, were allowed to control Saudi social society as the dominant and only fully recognized religion. Believing in the basics of Islam, they enforced a strict interpretation of the Koran.
King Ibn Saud, a descendant of Wahhabi leaders, seized Riyadh in 1901 and eventually conquered almost all the peninsula. By 1933, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia finally coalesced close to its present form. Ibn Saud established an absolute monarchy and ruled it by an all encompassing Sharia; the body of Islamic religious law which regulates public and private life.
The Spanish royalty went from near bankruptcy to extended riches because of voyages that brought them yellow gold. The Saudi monarchy went from rags to riches with the discovery of black gold. Since the 1940's, oil revenue has powered the Saudi kingdom to tremendous wealth and, similar to the Spanish experience, has brought it adversaries and continuous recurrences of inflation.
Islam remains a double-edged sword for the Al Saud. It grants them legitimacy as protectors of the faith, yet it constrains their behavior to that which is compatible with religious law. When members of the family deviate from that straight path, they are open to criticism since the regime's "right to rule" rests largely on the alliance with the al-Wahhab family. Today, the "alliance" between the regime and official clergy is much contested by dissidents because the parties no longer serve as "checks" on each other.
Understanding Political Dissent in Saudi Arabia, Gwenn Okruhlik, Middle East Report Online, Oct. 24, 2001.
Ferdinand and Isabella had an Inquisition. The Saudi family, although more lenient now, have had their severe human rights abuses.
Intolerance and Despotism
A legal system based on sharia religious laws and a rule almost entirely delegated to the Saudi royal family doesn't give confidence that human rights or political freedom exist in Saudi Arabia.
It is alleged that capital punishment and other penalties are often given to suspected criminals without due process. The government of Saudi Arabia has also been criticized for its oppression of religious and political minorities, homosexuality, and women. Although human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly expressed concern about the states of human rights in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom denies that any human rights abuses take place.
Saudi women face severe discrimination in many aspects of their lives, including education, employment, and the justice system and are clearly regarded as inferior to men. Although they make up 70% of those enrolled in universities, women make up just 5% of the workforce in Saudi Arabia, the lowest proportion in the world.
Freedom of speech and the press are restricted to forbid criticism of the government or endorsement of "un-Islamic" values. Trade unions and political organizations are banned. Public demonstrations are forbidden.
Political parties are banned, but some political dissidents were freed in the 1990s on the condition that they disband their political organizations. Only the Green Party of Saudi Arabia remains, although it is an illegal organization. The 1990s marked a slow period of political liberalization in the kingdom as the government created a written constitution, and the advisory Consultative Council, the latter being an appointed delegation of Saudi scholars and professionals that are allowed to advise the king.
Jewish, Christian or Hindu houses of prayer are not allowed. Unofficially the government acknowledges that many of the foreign workers are Christian and on Aramco civilian compounds, foreign Christians are generally allowed to worship in private homes or even hold services at local schools provided that it is not spoken of in public. This is a degree of unofficial tolerance that is not given to Judaism, Hinduism or atheism.
Wikipedia, Human rights in Saudi Arabia.
Authoritarianism and human rights violations doesn't stop western money flows to the Saudi family.
The Money Flow
Oil revenue in 2007 supplied the desert kingdom with 194 billion dollars. If oil prices remain at about $140/barrel, combined revenues for 2008 and 2009 will increase to 700 billion dollars. A nation of only 27 million that imports most of its goods is actually the fourth leading nation in trade balance, with a trade surplus of $88.9 billion.
Unlike the oil producing nations of the Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia does not have a sovereign capital fund. Instead of exporting, and thus recirculating much of their capital, the Saudis have retained much of the surplus for internal investment or have established companies that mainly allow only Saudi investors. Nevertheless, Saudi oil revenue is flowing outwards.
Some noteworthy examples:
As a major partner of The Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ICCI), Saudi Arabian capital will be flowing throughout the world, but not the western world. ICCI has started Foras Investments, whose purpose is to create international companies that will manufacture low-cost cars, aircraft and satellites for and in more deprived nations.
By a strange twist, New York's famous Plaza hotel has become co-owned by Israel's Elad Group and the Saudi-based Kingdom Holding Co.
Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, world's fifth richest man on Forbes World's Richest People list, bought 5.46% of voting shares in News Corp, which made him the fourth largest voting shareholder in News Corp., the parent of Fox News.
Attempts to have the Saudis recycle more western capital reached an embarrassing level when British prime Minister Gordon, before attending an energy summit during late June, 2008, appealed to the Saudis "to buy up Britain's nuclear industry and recycle their riches." Gordon compounded his pandering by referencing the Persian Gulf and naming it the Gulf of Arabia. In a speech, Brown said “the North Sea, which has passed its peak in terms of oil and gas supplies, will be turned into the equivalent for wind power of what the Gulf of Arabia is for oil.”
The one way flow of capital, due to oil exports, disturbs western nations. Saudi Arabia's possible export of terrorism is more disturbing.
The Saudi Arabia government and the king's extended family are not and have not been directly linked to international terrorist financing or activities. Just the opposite - the Saudis are aggressively combating terrorism.
Nevertheless, the Saudi Arabia continent is considered a probable major ground for financing of terrorists, enlisting of terrorists, training of terrorists and the disbursement of terrorists to Iraq and Afghanistan - and for good reason - past performance of the Saudi government and presence of terrorists on Saudi territory arouse suspicion.
During the 1980's the Saudis supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran and had friendly relations with the Taliban until the 9/11 terrorist attack. The Saudi monarchy, as part of its commitment to Islam, funds Islamic schools and charities, some of whom have been accused of fomenting anti-Western attitudes, contributing to terrorist organizations and developing terrorists. Most damaging is evidence that linked the wife of the Saudi ambassador to Washington to the family of a Saudi man in San Diego who befriended and assisted two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Princess Haifa al-Faisal, the wife of Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan, provided tens of thousands of dollars in what she believed were charitable gifts for medical care to Osama Bassnan. The F.B.I. questioned Mr. Bassnan and a Saudi neighbor, Omar al-Bayoumi, after learning they had befriended and assisted two of the Saudi hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi. Reports of the FBI meetings have been classified, but The New York Times, August 2, 2003, claims the two Saudis might have been Saudi intelligence agents.
By JAMES RISEN and DAVID JOHNSTON
WASHINGTON, Aug. 1 - The classified part of a Congressional report on the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, says that two Saudi citizens who had at least indirect links with two hijackers were probably Saudi intelligence agents and may have reported to Saudi government officials, according to people who have seen the report.
Many of the Al-Qaeda operatives in post-Hussein Iraq originate from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Yemen. These terrorists, as well as those training and operating on Saudi soil are undoubtedly receiving funds from a close source. Considering the vast and unchecked funds flowing through Saudi banks and institutions, it's reasonable to assume that some of the oil revenues are unknowingly being siphoned to illicit activities and arrive in terrorist hands. The Saudi Ministry of Interior recently detained 520 terror suspects, who they claimed had targeted an oil facility. One of them admitted to receiving an equivalent of $133,000 (from who?) and Saudi security forces seized another equivalent of $400,00 cash, which was hidden in remote desert areas. Although Mauritania, Yemeni and Iraqi nationals, some of who had university degrees and came to the Kingdom on private drivers’ visas, composed the terrorist cell, Saudis composed the majority of those detained.
The most serious element in Saudi Arabia for creating terrorism is Saudi Arabia. Combine Saudi society,the contradictory actions of the government with the large and mostly barren landscape and Saudi Arabia is a perfect situation for all types of dissent and allied terrorism.
Although claiming to adhere to Koran principles, the desert kingdom allows the United States, a hostile and non-Muslim nation, to construct bases on its territory, has accumulated vast wealth for one family, has not sufficiently attended to income distribution and uses oil revenue to support the lifestyle of group of jet setters. These operations enrage Islamist extremists, who sense the Saudi family is hypocritical and violates religious tradition. On the other hand, the authoritarianism, political persecution and extensive human rights violations fuel a bubbling dissent that is prepared to explode. The vast and barren areas are not easily controlled and terrorists have both internal support and places to hide. It is certainly not deliberate, but Saudi Arabia is fertile ground for developing and exporting terrorism.
This feature concerns the Saudi government and they know it concerns all governments. However, they also know the western world is more concerned with their energy sources. The Saudis realize that having oil is having control and they are starting to use that control.
Shaping Middle East Policy to Saudi Wants
Aware of internal antagonisms that threaten the regime, the Saudis have shaped policy to prevent external assistance to dissidents who might topple the regime. The policy tends to counter Shiite power and indicates the delicacy of the Saudi government. The monarchy is most concerned with Iran, Iraq and Lebanon and their Shia populations.
About two million Shiites, who compose 8% of the population, live in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunate for the Wahhabi clerics, "most Saudi Shiites reside in the oases of Qatif and al-Hasa in the Eastern Province, which is also home to the world's greatest concentration of oil assets and about 90 percent of Saudi Arabia's oil production. Given the extraordinarily tight world oil supply and demand balance, the kingdom's critical role as a swing producer, which enables it to quickly increase output above normal production levels to reduce the risk of an energy shock in the event of a supply disruption, makes conflict between Salafi-Jihadists and Shiites in the oil-rich province a disturbing scenario not only for Saudi Arabia's oil industry, but also for the world economy."
Saudi Arabia's Shiites and their Effect on the Kingdom's Stability, John Solomon, the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor.
The Saudis fear the Shiite dominated Iranian theocracy will assist the Saudi minority Shiite population to rebellion - and for good reasons - the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia is greatly repressed, Iran resents the Saudi alliance with the Great Satan, the United States, Iran needs other powerful Shiites to reinforce its authority and Iran senses that Saudi Wahabbism, Saudi royalty and Saudi mal-distribution of oil wealth, betray the beliefs in Islam. Add to the mix, Saudi Arabia's suport of Iran's foes; Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war and the Taliban of the late 1990s, and hostility between the nations is more due to Saudi actions than Iranian actions.
Of course, the United States aggravates the antagonisms between the two Muslim nations. While punishing Iran for pursuing needed nuclear technology, the U.S. administration has offered to assist Saudi Arabia in developing nuclear reactors, training nuclear engineers, and constructing nuclear infrastructure. Saudi fear is a major driving force of U.S.policy towards Iran.
U.S. and Saudi policies towards Iraq have tracked each other. Both nations supported Saddam Hussein against Iran in the 1980s, cooperated in the Gulf war against Iraq in the 1990s, remained belligerent towards Saddam Hussein and favored the eventual invasion of Iraq. After realizing that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein allowed a Shiite majority to gain control and another Shiite dominated Iraq government, which could ally itself with Iran, bordered on Saudi Arabia, panic reversed policies. Abruptly, U.S. shifted its alliances to the Iraqi Sunnis, many of whom had been associated with Saddam Hussein. The U.S. is now guided by a Saudi stated policy: "If the U.S. leaves Iraq we will arm Sunni militias."
While the Sunni Saudis vocally attack Shiites and claim the Shia are "destabilizing the Arab world and are hostile to Sunnis," the Wahabbi leaders continually destabilize the Middle East and remain hostile to all Shia. Unproven accusations that Iran leads Hezbollah into disturbing Lebanon politics are countered by accusations that the Saudis provide support for Sunni Prime Minister Siniora's position. Why the Saudis are concerned with Lebanon and are hostile to Hezbollah, the only Arab group that has successfully confronted Israel, an enemy of the Saudis, is a mystery. The Wahabbis evidently believe that elevating Shia power reduces their power. That belief is shared by al-Qaeda, who also rail against the Shia and are a sworn enemy of Iran.
Ancient Saudi Arabia spurred the growth of the Arab world. Modern Saudi Arabia has left the Arab world. Its self-centered struggle for survival has alienated most of the Arab states, especially Libya and Syria. Contradictory policies make enemies of those who can most assist Saudi Arabia in fighting one of its stated enemies, which is Israel, and make friends with the U.S., whose closest ally is Israel.
Colonial America spurred the growth of political and religious freedom, of democracy and economic liberty. Modern America has betrayed its founding fathers. Its self-centered struggle for obtaining oil has permitted it to contradict its beliefs and excuse the Saudi monarch's legal, political, social, cultural, economic and moral systems, all of which are anathema to U.S. positions.
The Saudis have defined their freedom - free from western dictates and undue western influence - not what the Bush doctrine envisioned. They serve U.S. interests in the Middle East, by assuring oil supplies. The U.S. serves their interests, mostly in furnishing their weak military with a supporting army that is ready to fight the Saudi battles, from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq and to Iran. Saudi power is shaping other U.S. foreign policy misadventures.