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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis

What's Next For Saudi Arabia?

Copyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005

August 8, 2005

NEW YORK - In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that Saudi Arabia has never been one of my favorite places. I’ve spent some of my most memorably miserable times in Saudi Arabia, including being arrested and jailed by the notorious `muttawa,’ or religious police, threatened with confiscation of my precious exit visa, and whipped by airport police during a riot.

That was two decades ago. Saudi Arabia has changed a lot since then, and rather more for the better, but it still remains a feudal monarchy run by 7,000 princes protected by the United States.

The death of King Fahd, and the accession to the throne of his 81-year old half brother Abdullah, has provoked a lot of nonsense in the western media about the possibility of democracy and women’s rights in Saudi. In fact, has Abdullah run the kingdom for the past decade after Fahad was sidelined by a serious stroke, so there’s little reason to expect any major changes, particularly since policy in Saudi is made through a length process of consensus among the senior royal family members and tribal chieftains.

Simmering rivalries between various senior princes has now broken into the open. The powerful defense minister, Prince Sultan, has moved up to Crown Prince, but he’s also 81. Princes Nayef, interior minister, and Salman, governor of Riyadh, are vying for the line of succession. Younger princes are jostling for the second tier power slots: Turki, the wily former head of Saudi intelligence; and Bandar, who just resigned as long-term ambassador to Washington and returned hotfoot to the kingdom.

While personal, family and clan rivalries will roil Saudi Arabia over the coming months, major changes in political or oil policy seem unlikely. That is, unless the low-intensity uprising against the royal family that has been underway in Saudi for the past few years intensifies.

Composed of al-Qaida, other Islamist jihadis, democratic reformers, and anti-American nationalists, the Saudi underground resistance is fragmented and so far mostly ineffective, but it has terrified the ruling family and its American patrons, who routinely dismiss its activities as `terrorism.’

Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, declared war on the royal family’s deep corruption, grotesque prodigality, and embarrassing subservience to the US. His jihad has found deep resonance among Saudi youth, who make up a majority of the population of 23 million.

The Bush Administration and its Israeli mentors have concluded the Saudi royal family may not be able to suppress the Islamist rebellion much longer. While deepening intimate relations with the royals, Washington is also casting about for political alternatives.

Neoconservatives have been urging the US to establish direct rule over Saudi from its bases in Iraq. A military coup by Saudi officers would be difficult since the army is denied ammunition and watched by a heavily-armed Bedouin tribal militia known as the White Army.

The royal family too well recalls how the British puppet king of Iraq, Faisal, made the fatal error in 1958 of allowing a brigade of his soldiers a clip of ammunition each, ostensibly for target practice. The troops, under a renegade officer, Abd el-Karim el-Kassem, marched into Baghdad, and overthrew the royal Regime. Faisal and strongman Nuri as-Said eneded up hanging from lampposts in downtown Baghdad.

To prevent such a scenario, US armed forces based in the Gulf and Iraq stand ready to protect the royal family from its own restive people.

Bush Administration’s efforts to `promote democracy’ in Saudi are a charade. The royal family relies for legitimacy on the ultra-conservative Wahabi faith, a narrow-minded, rustic form of Islam that sees many other Muslims as infidels. A prime tenet of Wahabism, like medieval Catholicism or communism, is total loyalty to one’s rulers. So the Wahabi establishment will keep supporting the Saudis who, in turn, will keep enforcing the Wahabi’s social strictures and obscurantism.

The Saudi royal family and the most powerful elements of the US Republican Party are joined at the hip. A thick network of hugely lucrative business partnerships ties the Bush family and Washington’s powerful Carlyle Group to the Saudi royals.

Princes Turki and Bandar have worked hand in glove with CIA for decades. Turki was the liason between the Saudis and Osama bin Laden during the 1980’s Afghan War. The Saudis, at Washington’s behest, fueled Iraq’s aggression against Iran during the same period, to the tune of US $27.5 billion, and Saddam’s abortive nuclear program.

The Saudis keep $100 billion dollars in US banks with Republican connections. Saudi’s military keeps buying advanced arms it can’t use but which keep arms plants humming in politically important American states. Saudi bases still quietly serve the Pentagon’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Saudi money continues to pour by devious routes into some Republican campaign coffers.

So don’t expect Washington to risk change in Saudi. Window dressing, like empty elections and gushy US prime time TV about Saudi women finally learning to drive, is fine.

The old deal will continue: the royals sell oil cheap to the west in exchange for US protection. US domination of Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading oil producer, means it controls the economies of Europe, Japan and, to a growing extent, China and India. So Saudi is about much more than just oil. It’s all about raw geopolitical power.

But a note of caution to the wildly spending Saudi, who have been running government deficits for years. Back in 1974, the last really respected Saudi ruler, King Faisal, warned that the way the royals were squandering the nation’s oil wealth, the next Saudi generation might be back riding camels.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2005

Writer’s Notebook

I mourn the loss of two fine men this week. First, former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who died at 59 while hiking in the Scottish Highlands.

Cook was one of only two senior British officials who refused to go along with PM Tony Blair’s lies that led to the war against Iraq, preferring, instead, to resign and become a back-bench MP. Cook showed courage and integrity that has been unseen in the Bush Administration. I salute this gallant gentleman.

Also mourned, Peter Jennings. I did not know ABC’s anchor well, and, in fact, he more or less appropriated without credit a number of ideas from my book on Afghanistan, `War at the Top of the World,’ while doing his own reporting from the area, but I considered him the leading TV journalist in the US.

Jennings had the guts to feature news stores that irritated a lot of viewers and strive to bring out some truth among all the lies fed to Americans about the Mideast. He stood out from today’s Soviet-style `journalists’ in America who parrot back government pr releases. Rest in peace, Peter.

Published at Bigeye.com since 1995 with permission, as a courtesy and in appreciation.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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