Nov 29, 2002
Americans used to take for granted that Saudi Arabia was one of their most faithful, obedient, and useful allies. The 7,000 or so princes of the Saudi royal family who control 30% of the world's proven petroleum reserves could always be counted on to support American interests in the Mideast, buy lots of US arms, and sell their oil at low prices.
That was until the attacks of 11 September, 2001, when 15 of the 19 aircraft hijackers turned out to be Saudi citizens. Angry Americans accused Saudi Arabia of being a hotbed of Islamic fanaticism and main paymaster of militant anti-American groups. Conservatives and Israel's partisans unleashed a stinging campaign in the media and Congress against the Saudi royal family, calling for `regime change' in Arabia as well as Iraq. Arabia's oil, warned Washington's oil imperialists, was too precious to be left to the Saudis - or to any Arabs, for that matter.
Then came week's huge embarrassment. Princess Haifa, the wife of Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia's high-profile ambassador to Washington, was alleged to have given thousands of dollars of private charitable donations for medical care to individuals she did not know that may have ended up in the hands of two of the US-based 9/11 hijackers.
Prince Bandar and his wife insist they had no knowledge their largesse would go to the hijackers, which sounds credible. The Bandars appear to be victims of exceptionally bad luck - if the story is even true. True or not, the allegations further enflame anti-Arab feeling in the US and are giving Israel's partisans in the media and Congress more ammunition to shoot at the Saudis. The White House is using the nasty episode to increase pressure on Riyadh to reverse its refusal to allow US forces to use Saudi bases to attack Iraq.
So are the Saudis in fact responsible for financing what Americans call terrorism? It depends what one calls terrorism. The Saudis were the main financiers of the Afghan mujihadin in the 1980's, in a secret alliance with the United States. During the same era, the Saudis covertly joined the US in financing Saddam Hussein's war against Iran. Saudi money went to the US-backed Nicaraguan contras, and to the UNITA forces of Jonas Savimbi in Angola - all `freedom fighters.'
The Saudis also bankrolled small, militant Islamic groups - often with full US backing - provided they stayed far away from Arabia. In Afghanistan, Saudi money financed Taliban, which warred against Afghanistan's communist Northern Alliance, Wahabi fighters battling pro-Iranian Shia groups, and militant Wahabi missionaries.
Individual Saudis, a few of them princes, and some Saudi religious charities, gave millions of dollars to groups they held to be freedom fighters: notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine (branded `terrorists' by the US and Israel). Financial aid to the needy and oppressed is a basic tenet of Islam.
Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, has long received funds from a small number of wealthy Saudis who see him as the Che Guevara of the Arab World battling US domination. However, the Saudi regime had nothing to do with these contributions. At the time they were made, the Saudi government was trying to assassinate bin Laden. Most of the funds came from foreign bank accounts over which the Saudi government had no control.
The Saudi royals are now in a dangerous predicament. They depend on American military power for protection against Iraq and Iran - and their own people. The 5,000 US troops based in Saudi Arabia and 40,000 American civilians there are regarded by many Saudis as an army of occupation. Most Saudis idolize America, but are furious at Washington for its unquestioned support of Israel and impending war against Iraq, which they view as naked aggression.
So the royal family must play a risky game, balancing their people's growing anti-Americanism, which is mirrored across the Muslim World, with their military and political dependence on the US, and need to stay in Washington's good books.
But the US also needs the Saudis. First, foremost, they supply oil to the US, Europe, and Japan in great quantity, at very low price. Today, oil sells for US$25 a barrel. Bin Laden asserts the west is robbing Arabia's resources: oil, he insists, should cost $300 a barrel.
The Saudis buy huge quantities of advanced US arms they cannot use and mostly keep in storage: US $40 billion from 1993-2000. These purchases keep US military production lines open, reduce costs of US weapons, and employ large numbers of highly paid defense workers in key electoral states. The Saudis keep at least US$100 billion in the US financial system, with big chunks in government debt.
No matter how dismayed Americans are with Saudis - and vice versa- they need each other. Sweep away the royal family and a Col. Khadaffi or Saddam Hussein would likely seize power who will not so readily answer Washington's beck and call. Or, if true democratic elections are ever held, Islamists might win. They hold the outrageously subversive idea that Arabia's vast oil wealth must serve all the Muslim World and not just 7,000 pampered princes.