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Why The Sauds Behave As They Do

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A couple of weeks ago, on my weblog, Dean’s World, we played host to a discussion: Why do the Saudi Arabians act sometimes like our enemies, and sometimes like our allies? In answer, I wrote the following:

The biggest issue that I think most people don’t get is that the House of Saud is afraid.

The Royal Family of Saudi Arabia has no particularly strong historical position for claiming sovereignty over “Arabia.” “Arabia” was essentially created by the British less than a century ago, and the Saud family got control of it in large part through luck, political maneuvering and trickery. They have little ancient claim over most of that land. They were, essentially, anointed by the British. Moreover, they have little historical claim to be the proper people to oversee Mecca and Medinah.

In order to gain “legitimacy,” one thing the ruling family did generations ago was to embrace a fundamentalist variant of Islam called Wahhabbism. At the time it made sense; as a very fundamentalist variant of Islam, it seemed a respectable choice. No one could ever accuse the House of Saud of “liberalizing” and therefore destroying the “traditional” faith.

But if you read much about the House of Saud, you’ll know that among the thousands of Princes who make up the Royal Family, few are very devout–no moreso than Saddam Hussein, anyway. For generations they’ve promoted Wahhabbism with money and other resources to make themselves seem more legitimate to the people they ruled, and to their Muslim neighbors. However, as Wahhabbism has grown more reactionary against the West, they’ve wound up stuck between two conflicting forces: a West they depend on for money and protection, and a rabidly anti-Western religious zealotry which hates the West but which the House of Saud helped to nurture.

Now some of the zealots have become even more radicalized and have begun blowing up Americans as well as Israelis. Leaving the Sauds stuck between their Western sugar daddy and the religious extremists who they helped nurture.

Adding further injury has been that oil prices have been slowly declining for decades. Many Americans are startled to hear that, but different analysts have done the math and have come to the same conclusion: in inflation-adjusted dollars, oil has been trending downward in price for decades. There may be upward spikes now and then, but oil mostly just gets cheaper and cheaper.

The Sauds were at their wealthiest in the 1970s, when price controls imposed by the U.S. government made them able to sell less oil for greater profit. Those price controls were abolished in 1981, and within a year or so prices (and their profits) resumed their downward trend. The OPEC cartel and its production quotas are merely a band-aid used to stanch a pumping hemorrhage.

This is a major problem because the middle class Saudi Arabia (such that exists) has long been bought off by the House of Saud with a long list of “free” government services paid for by oil money. Yet their oil revenues have been steadily declining for the last generation.

So. Where is the House of Saud today?

1) Steadily losing money, no matter what they do.

2) Facing a restless middle class that’s having to adjust to steadily worsening government “services” brought to them “free” by steadily decreasing oil revenues.

3) Facing an internal group of religious zealots who have grown, like Frankenstein’s Monster, beyond their control.

4) Facing a maniac named Saddam Hussein next door who would love an excuse to declare them lapdogs to the infidel Americans and “rescue” Mecca and Medina (and the rest of their country) from their rule.

5) Facing an irate America that knows their funding of radical Islam is partly what’s fueled the terrorist movement.

On the last, while America has troops protecting them, they have no reason to believe right now that we’ll protect them beyond a certain point. If they face internal revolt, or an attack by Saddam Hussein, many of them will die and those who don’t face poverty and/or exhile and/or both. Given the wobbly support for the war among Americans, and the dovish reactionaries of the EU and the UN, they have no reason to be confident that the American Cavalry would come to their rescue–not on time to save them from extinction as a ruling house, anyway.

So what do they do?

1) Continue to try desperately to make themselves look like good Wahhabbists not acting as lapdogs to the Americans,

2) Continue to try desperately to pacify the Americans without looking like they’re pacifying the Americans,

3) Continue to try to pacify their increasingly irate citizenry,

4) Continue to blame Israel for everything, in order to deflect attention from themselves, and

5) Give us what small or covert assistance they feel they can–mainly by avoiding opposing us outright, and giving us minor things like flyover rights.

Note on #5 that they could easily pressure regimes like Qatar not to assist us. They could easily ask us to remove all our troops and attempt to raise oil prices to harm us (although that hurts them even more than us). They could even expel our ambassador, seize all our assetts, and attempt to unite the entire Muslim world against us. Just by doing that they might be able to cause Musharaaf to be overthrown, causing us to lose Pakistan and most likely Afghanistan.

The Sauds’ current stance cannot be maintained forever. At the same time, it goes far to explain why we engage in these strange games with them. It’s why you see people like Rumsfeld and Powell at press interviews saying stuff like this:

Rummie: “The Saudis have helped us.”

Reporter: “How so, Mr. Secretary?”

Rummie: “They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do, of course. Next question!”

Not long ago I said that Saudi Arabia is both our enemy and our ally. Bill Quick pooh-poohed this and said that it is simply not true. Well, it simply is true. They’re doing small things to help us, and avoiding doing huge things that could cause us no end of harm. They’re playing both sides of the fence until they are sure which is their safest course.

Basically, they’re pigs. But for the moment, we have to lie down with them. Whether we like it or not.

In short: They won’t let us use their bases to launch sorties or other attacks but will quietly give us flyover rights. They’ll help us catch terrorists, but only halfheartedly and grudgingly. They’ll stand next to us in press conferences and pretend to be our friends, hoping it doesn’t look too bad to the Wahhabbist lunatics at home, all while they bash Israel and feed the anti-Israel media machine.

Internally, the Crown Prince will also continue to ride herd on the forces who want us to stay out of Iraq, but will still make occasional outbursts saying he hopes we won’t take Iraq. Even while he does little things to help us do it anyway.

Nothing changes until they are 100% sure Saddam Hussein is going down. After that, don’t be surprised if suddenly there’s a “near miraculous” change in their attitude. On almost everything.

I’ll burn no candles for them when they finally fall.

For further discussion on this matter, click here. Also, for a terrific article that examines the history of the Saud family and how they got into power, see Lawrence’s Folly, as written by Paul Fallon.

For further reference, you may also want to see some of the books listed below. And for more analysis like what you’ve read here, please feel free to drop by Dean’s World any time.

Dean Esmay, 25 September 2002.

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