'Saudi Arabia is a good and dependable friend to the civilised world.' That is how Tony Blair referred to the West's key ally in the Middle East last week. The US is desperate to maintain that relationship with Saudi Arabia during the war on Afghanistan.
Meeting Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and crown Prince Abdullah was a crucial part of Blair's tour of the Middle East last week. But the US and Britain do not mention that this 'friend to the civilised' is a dictatorship run by the super-rich al Saud family.
An Amnesty International report last year said, 'Secrecy and fear permeate every aspect of the state structure. There are no political parties, no elections, no independent judiciary, no independent human rights organisations. Anyone living in Saudi Arabia who criticises the system is harshly punished. Torture is endemic.'
The country has one of the highest execution rates in the world. Last year 123 people were executed for 'crimes' including witchcraft and sodomy. Amnesty International reported 34 cases of amputations as punishment last year. Seven were cases of 'cross-amputation' where the right hand and left foot are cut off. A man had his eye surgically removed as punishment.
The Tory government of Margaret Thatcher tried to suppress a documentary, Death of a Princess, in the 1980s which revealed the brutal execution of a Saudi princess after she was accused of adultery by a rival royal faction. Amnesty International also reports that women in Saudi Arabia face 'effective imprisonment in the home, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and the death penalty'.
The Western powers are not bothered by these abuses because Saudi Arabia is at the centre of US policies in the Middle East. It has the highest proven oil reserves in the world-some 25 percent of the global total.
The US imported oil to meet 57 percent of its needs last year and is increasingly reliant on foreign oil. US troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War in 1991. Those US military bases, along with 20,000 troops are still there.
There were $23 billion worth of arms agreements between the US and Saudi Arabia from 1991 to 1997. Margaret Thatcher's son brokered the £20 billion Al Yamamah arms deal, the biggest in history, with Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. A US official let slip the relationship between the West and Saudi Arabia, saying, 'There have been and still are two pillars of the relationship: oil and security. Oil runs the world and the Saudis are the lynchpin of oil production.' That relationship is not as secure as it used to be.
Saudi's rulers have been forced to be critical of the US because of people's opposition to the war on Afghanistan. Ten years of economic crisis in Saudi Arabia have seen unemployment hit 18 percent. It is still rising.
Just a decade ago most Saudis were guaranteed government jobs. But this is no longer the case even for the educated middle classes. More than half of Saudi Arabia's population is under 25 years old.
Now they face trying to find other work in other areas. Some of the jobs on offer are those that migrant and immigrant workers (who make up 35 percent of the population) have traditionally been recruited to do-the dirty jobs that no one else wanted.
Members of the royal family, whose numbers add up to an incredible 30,000, are still enjoying their lavish lifestyle. They fear that unemployment and disillusion could turn many young people towards radical religious groups. One economist quoted in the Financial Times said, 'In economic terms unemployment is now a concern, not a crisis. But in political terms it is a crisis because it's a breeding ground for Osama Bin Laden.'
Some 15 of the 19 men the US claims hijacked the planes on 11 September were from Saudi Arabia. Deep divisions are emerging in a country that is a bedrock for the domination of the Middle East by the oil multinationals and Western governments.
It's a family affair
The Saudi state is virtually a family run firm. Power lies in an absolute monarchy.
- Prime minister-King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.
- First deputy prime minister-Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.
- Second deputy prime minister-Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.
- Minister of foreign affairs-Prince Saud Al Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.
- Minister of the interior-Prince Naif Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.
- Minister of public works-Prince Met'eb Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.
- General president of youth welfare-Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.
- Ministers of state-Prince Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and Prince Abdulaziz Ibn Fahd Ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud.