28 June 2004
LONDON - The spreading violence in Saudi Arabia is not simply `terrorism' perpetrated by al-Qaida, as the Bush Administration and its Saudi allies claim. It's the latest sign of a long developing, low intensity rebellion in this nation containing 25% of the world's oil reserves.
Saudi Arabia is a feudal monarchy owned and run by 6-7,000 royal princes. The de facto ruler is Crown Prince Abdullah; the ailing king, Fahad, is a figurehead. The royal family has responded to the growing violence in the kingdom by insisting it is the work of a small number of `al-Qaida terrorists.' While the overthrow of the Saudi royal family is a key objective of al-Qaida, al-Qaida is not the only insurgent organization bent on revolution.
Saudi Arabia has been a US oil protectorate since the late 1940's under the following arrangement: the royal family supplies cheap oil to the US and allies Europe and Japan. The billions earned by the Saudis are recycled into US and western financial institutions and commercial projects, or spent on huge amounts of advanced weapons ($9 billion in recent years) the Saudis cannot operate. Saudi arms purchases are used to support friendly US and European politicians in politically sensitive states or regions.
In return, the US supplies the royal family with protection against its own increasingly restive people and covetous neighbors, like Iraq. The small Saudi Army is denied ammunition to prevent it staging the kind of coup that overthrew Iraq's British-run puppet monarch in 1958. A parallel `White Army,' composed of loyal Bedouin tribesmen led by US `advisors, watches the army. The US Air Force, now based in Iraq and the Gulf emirates, is ready to intervene to protect the royal family in the event of a coup attempt.
After 9/11, America's pro-Israel neoconservatives launched violent political and media attacks against the Saudi regime, accusing it of being in league with Saudi militant Osama bin Laden. The neocon's objective: bring down the Saudi government, a key financial backer of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.
But far from being an enemy of the US, Saudi Arabia is almost an overseas American state. A third of the population of 24 million is foreign. Some experts believe that of the 16 million native `Saudis,' 4-5 million may actually be immigrants and guest workers from neighboring Yemen, the ancestral home of the bin Laden family.
Saudi defenses, internal security, finance, and the oil industry are still run by some 70,000 US and British expatriates. Some 8 million Asian workers do the middle management and donkey work.
The royal family is intimately linked to Washington's political and money power elite through a network of business and personal connections. The Bush family, and its entourage of Republican military-industrial complex deal makers, led by the Carlyle Group, has been joined at the hip for two decades with Saudis power princes and their financial front men.
As this column has long maintained, Saudi Arabia did not finance or abet Osama bin Laden it tried repeatedly to kill him. Bin Laden's modest funds came from donations by individual Saudis, wealthy and poor, who supported his jihad against western domination, as well as from other Gulf Arabs.
The violence now erupting across the kingdom is partly the work of small al-Qaida cells. Bin Laden's charges that the royal family debases Islam, squanders the nation's oil billions on useless arms, luxury prostitutes, and the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, resonate across Arabia.
Anti-royalist jihadi groups, many veterans of the 1980's Afghan War, have joined in the revolt with young Saudis fed up by their nation's medieval society, corrupt regime, brutal repression, and subservience to Washington. Half of Saudis are under 16. The kingdom is undergoing the same kind of generational revolt that brought down the Soviet Empire.
These anti-feudal rebels cannot all be dismissed as `terrorists.' Many want genuine democracy and modernity; others, a truly Islamic state, or, simply, change. Al-Qaida are likely a small minority. The ground is shaking in Saudi Arabia.
The recent beheading of an American military worker by al-Qaida extremists horrified westerners. Interestingly, the Saudi regime publicly beheaded 53 people last year, many opponents of the regime, without a peep from the western media.
In spite of the recent killing of senior al-Qaida operatives, the spreading revolt is likely to continue and intensify. Al-Qaida is trying to stampede foreign workers out of Saudi Arabia. Without them, the kingdom would collapse and revert to desert.
But while some westerners may flee, millions of capable Asians will likely remain. Oil production is thus unlikely to suffer very much, at least short term. Physical sabotage of the vast oil infrastructure, while possible, would be very difficult.
Still, the Saudi royal family's days appear numbered. What replaces them civil war between royalist factions, an Iraqi-style US-imposed puppet regime, an Islamic republic, or a new firebrand Col. Nasser remains the 64 billion riyal question.