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Saudi Arabia — a house built on sand

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The recent death of King Fahd has focused attention on the tensions in Saudi Arabia. Anne Ashford looks at the kingdom’s history
Issue 1963
King Fahd ruled over a repressive regime backed by the West
King Fahd ruled over a repressive regime backed by the West

The House of Saud’s long career in the service of imperialism began in 1913, when King Abd al Aziz, the ruler of the Najd area of the Arabian peninsula, came seeking a British subsidy for his kingdom. His first request was unsuccessful, despite winning the backing of the British government’s India office.

The foreign office vetoed the request, worried that supporting Abd al Aziz would jeopardise Britain’s relations with the Turkish Ottoman empire, the nominal overlords of Arabia.

The outbreak of the First World War, in which the British fought the Ottoman empire, changed the situation.

British officials, hoping to weaken the Ottomans by encouraging an Arab revolt, were buying up sheikhs and princes by the dozen. By 1917 Abd al Aziz had taken delivery of 3,000 rifles and was receiving a monthly payment of £5,000 from the British.

Abd al Aziz did little to fight the Ottomans. Instead he set about expanding his kingdom by attacking his rivals — including Britain’s favoured local clients, the Hashemite family.

What started out as a turf war between two British government

departments became a struggle for Arabia. After the First World War the Hashemites were packed off to rule the newly created British mandates in Transjordan and Iraq, while Abd al Aziz’s feared religious warriors, the Ikhwan, swept across the region.

When the Ikhwan rebelled against him, Abd al Aziz turned to Britain for help. The British air force went in and subdued his own tribal allies.

He had still to solve the problem of finance, however. Even as Saudi Arabia was born Abd al Aziz teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

Revenues from the pilgrimage to the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina were falling as pilgrim numbers dwindled.

An oil concession provided much needed cash. The signing of the agreement with Standard Oil of California (Socal) in 1933 was a turning point in the fortunes of the House of Saud.

When it became clear that the oil reserves under the Saudi desert were among the largest in the world, the royal family, Standard Oil and its sister companies, and the US government created the Arab-American Oil Company (Aramco).

Production leapt from 0.1 million tonnes of crude oil per year in 1938 to 47.5 million tonnes by 1955.

The end of the Second World War saw the influence of the old colonial powers, such as Britain and France, waning in the Middle East.

Pro-British regimes were overthrown in Egypt and Iraq.

Both the US and the Saudi royal family had a common interest in halting the tide of change.

Worried by the growth of radical parties and national liberation movements, the Saudi rulers and the US worked in tandem, promoting Islamic unity against pan-Arab nationalism and undermining leaders such Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt.

When Egyptian forces intervened in the Yemeni revolution of 1962, which overthrew the hereditary Imam, Saudi arms and funding propped up the royalist side, leading to a bitter civil war.

The Saudi rulers also faced challenges at home. Strikes swept through the oil industry during the 1950s, as Saudi Aramco workers protested at the preferential treatment given to US employees.

In 1956, when King Saud visited the oil works in Al Hasa, striking workers took up nationalist and anti-imperialist demands in the face of fierce repression.

In June 1960 a group of princes signed a memorandum calling for a constitutional monarchy. Six of them later fled to Nasser’s Cairo, where they set up a National Liberation Front in exile.

Since the late 1970s Islam, rather than Arab nationalism, has been the rallying call of most of the Saudi opposition. At the heart of the Saudi state lies the contradictory relationship between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi religious movement.

Many observers have commented on the paradox of an alliance between a line of monarchs, notorious for their commitment to self-enrichment and the pursuit of luxury, and an austere brand of Islam which calls for a return to the simplicity of the prophet Muhammad’s time.

Social crisis

Juhayman al Utaybi, who led an Islamist group which briefly seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, wrote, “The royal family is corrupt. It worships money and spends it on palaces not mosques. If you accept what they say, they will make you rich. Otherwise they will persecute and even torture you.”

While the high oil prices of the 1970s lasted, the Saudi regime was able to spend enough on welfare to limit the appeal of radical ideas to Saudi citizens.

For decades the Saudi economy has been kept afloat by the labour of non-citizens, who formed a permanent layer of misery at the bottom of society.

Saudi Arabia’s current social crisis has given new life to the Islamist opposition. Average incomes have slumped from $16,000 a year in the early 1980s to $7,000 by 2001.

Power cuts and water rationing are a regular feature of life for many Saudis.

The port city of Jeddah, with three million inhabitants, has 300 palaces for royalty but no sewage system.

Unemployment has soared as a population explosion over the last 30 years means that around 100,000 young Saudis are entering the labour market each year.

The long decline in oil prices coincided with a period when Wahhabism became Saudi Arabia’s most important ideological export.

Saudi rulers have poured millions of dollars into Islamic colleges, madrassas, across the world.

Following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Saudi funding, backed by the US, went to the emerging Islamist opposition and paid for the recruitment of Arab fighters for the war against the Soviets.

Osama bin Laden, son of a wealthy Saudi businessman, was one of those whose career as an international fighter for the faith was kickstarted by the House of Saud’s intervention in Afghanistan.

The turning point came during the Gulf War of 1990-91, when King Fahd not only backed the US-led coalition which forced Iraq to abandon its occupation of Kuwait, but invited US forces to build permanent military bases on Saudi soil.

For Osama bin Laden and his generation, the House of Saud had betrayed Islam.

It was one thing to accept US help in the struggle against Soviet Communism in Afghanistan, but another to invite the US army into the land of Islam’s most sacred shrines.

Over the following decade, the Saudi royal family’s open association with the US in the face of a new uprising in Palestine and growing evidence of massive suffering in Iraq as a result of economic sanctions added to their anger.

Working together

Unlike the earlier period in their relationship, the US government and the Saudi royal family were openly working together.

The US wanted to consolidate its military presence in the Middle East as an assertion of its superpower status following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Saudi rulers at first feared an attack by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and then faced growing discontent at home.

Radical Islamists returning from Afghanistan began to put the skills they had learned in the war to use again in Saudi Arabia itself, carrying out bomb attacks on US bases.

They have appealed both to Saudis’ sense of outrage at US imperialism and their anger at their own government’s failure to provide jobs and services.

Bin Laden declared in 1996, “The ordinary Saudi knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world, yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services. Our country has become a colony of America. The Saudis know their real enemy is America.”

The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the occupation of Iraq in 2003 have added to the appeal of the radical Islamists.

It is not just armed groups which have found new supporters. In 2002 thousands mobilised in solidarity with the Palestinians.

For some, the focus was a boycott of US goods, but in Dhahran the solidarity movement spilled onto the streets as thousands attempted to march on the US consulate in the aftermath of the Israeli attack on Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric of the US “war on terror” has produced uncomfortable moments for the Saudi royal family.

A number of US neo-conservatives have said that the House of Saud has supported terrorism.

Ironically, the House of Saud and the US remain more dependent on each other than ever before.

The Saudi regime needs US backing precisely because of the growing danger that a domestic opposition with a broad social base will emerge, rather than a cabal of disaffected princes.

Writing in 2001, the respected writer Dilip Hiro described how in the case of an armed uprising against the Saudi royal family, “the presence of US military officials at key Saudi defence facilities, often in civilian clothes… is regarded as indispensable in order to ensure swift coordination and secure communications in such an emergency”.

Meanwhile, the US still needs Saudi oil, particularly while the reconstruction of the Iraqi oil industry — and its exploitation in US interests — is hampered by the insurgency.

Even setting aside the disaster in Iraq, for the US government the collapse of the Saudi regime would be a catastrophe on the scale of the fall of the Shah in the Iranian revolution of 1979.

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