Imperialism, oil and the House of Saud

Saà¯d Aburish - The rise, corruption and coming fall of the House of Saud - Bloomsbury 1994, £8.99, pp326

Almost a year ago, September 11 briefly put Saudi Arabia in the international spotlight. The man that was most likely behind the attacks, Osama bin Laden, is a member of a prominent Saudi family and most of the plane hijackers were also of Saudi descent. More recently, the silence of the British government over the Saudis' detention and torture of four Britons on trumped up charges of being behind a rash of explosions has once again raised questions about the murky nature of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the western world. Origins Comparatively little is known about Saudi Arabia and its House of Saud rulers by most westerners. However, they are hardly ideal partners in a 'war on terrorism' that, ideologically, has been wrapped in 'democratic' packaging. Yet western imperialism - first Britain, then the United States - has been instrumental in elevating the House of Saud to the position of power it currently occupies and in maintaining its rule against all odds. In return, the House of Saud has acted in support of western policy objectives in the region and, crucially, helped to ensure an almost constant flow of cheap oil. All this belies its rather humble origins as merely one tribe amongst the many vying for power and influence on the Arabian peninsula. Certainly, the Al-Sauds have always been ambitious. In 1744 Muhammad ibn Saud, a tribal chief and ruler of Dir'aiyah (a village now on the outskirts of the current Saudi capital, Riyadh), allied himself with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a conservative religious thinker. Wahhab gave his name to Wahhabism, a particularly puritanical version of islam that put a stress on the purity of religious practice, conservative social standards and the unity of one god. This alliance was to prove highly significant, although it did not fully fructify until nearly 200 years later. From their base in Dir'aiyah the Saudis (here meaning members of the Al-Saud tribe, not Saudi Arabians) expanded their influence steadily through the region. A clutch of cities fell under their domination. However, the area was under the sway of the Ottoman empire. A system of direct and indirect rule ensured its hegemony and it was not about to let it slip. Muhammad Ali, a governor of Cairo and Ottoman satrap, was instructed by his masters to put down the irksome Saudi insurgency. Eventually his son, Ibrahim Pasha, drove the Saudis back to Dir'aiyah, which in 1819 was razed to the ground. Though the Al-Sauds surfaced again in 1845 - ruling Riyadh until 1891, when it fell to the Al-Rashid family - they were eventually driven into exile in Kuwait. However, by the end of the 19th century the star of the Ottomans had waned. All of its borders were threatened. The Balkan countries rose in open revolt and, encouraged by the big European powers, started to create a whole patchwork of rival nationalist states. To the east, tsarist Russia was encroaching on its territory, defeating the Ottomans in 1877. Britain and France looked to extend their empires in the near east. Britain successfully invaded Egypt in 1881 and France invaded Tunisia during the same year. Internally, the Caliphate was wracked by dissent and bureaucratic intrigue. Thus, by the time World War I broke out in 1914, the 'sick man of Europe' was already on its last legs. The eventual victory of France, the United States and Britain against the Triple Alliance sealed the Ottoman Empire's fate. Its territory was part of the spoils of victory. The Middle East was divided into British and French protectorates. First contact Meanwhile, the eventual founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdel Aziz Abdel Rahman Al-Saud (or Ibn Saud), had begun to claw back the land lost by the Al-Sauds. He recaptured Riyadh in 1902. In doing so he gave an early indication of his personal ruthlessness and the carnage that was to follow his ascension to power. He spiked the heads of his enemies on the city gates and burned over 1,000 people to death. Despite this early success, Ibn Saud recognised that he needed sponsorship from a major imperial power if he was to prevent a repeat of the debacle of the previous century and finally defeat the Al-Sauds' tribal enemies. Initially, he sought sponsorship from the sultanate of Turkey, but he was rebuffed and forced to look elsewhere. Britain had signed a treaty with Faisal Al-Saud, Ibn's grandfather, in 1865, and so it had had some contact with the Al- Sauds previously. Now, Britain wanted allies in the region to give it a foothold within the territory of the decaying Ottoman empire. The more allies it had, the greater its share of the Ottoman booty would be. Ibn needed Britain's logistical and military aid to decisively defeat and subjugate his enemies. From the point of view of both parties it was a marriage made in heaven. Contact was thus established in 1904. Britain agreed to advance Ibn Saud small subsidies, but beyond that did little with its new creature. These subsidies were used to expand and maintain colonies of Wahhabi fanatics, the Ikhwan, which would later form the backbone of Ibn Saud's conquering army. World War I saw the Al-Sauds' tribal enemies, like the Ibn Rasheeds, siding with Turkey. Ibn Saud thus attacked them with Britain's blessing. Small subsidies became larger and a gaggle of advisers, alongside what was then advanced military equipment, were despatched to assist Ibn Saud's advance. Afforded a decisive advantage by Britain's backing and able to make use of Ikhwan fanaticism, Ibn Saud was able to bring the whole of eastern Arabia under his control by 1917. Britain's vision of Arabia's fate following Turkish defeat was clear: in the words of Lord Crewe it wanted "a disunited Arabia split into principalities under our suzerainty" (p 21). For his part, Ibn Saud, was, by and large, happy to acquiesce. However, another British protégé in the region, the Hashemite monarch, King Hussein, was far from content. He had taken western Arabia, but was less servile than Saud and was not keen on British "suzerainty", much preferring to exercise his own over an enlarged, independent and unified Arab nation. Rather than directly attack its erstwhile ally, Britain gave Ibn Saud free reign to do the job. As Britain had pledged itself in 1915 to defend Ibn Saud's territory, he was fighting a war that he could not lose. By 1925 the Hijaz, an area that included Mecca, Medina and the most urbanised parts of Arabia, had succumbed to his armies. Bloodbath Ibn Saud now ruled over a people with a myriad of different tribal and religious identities. To add to his problems, the social base that he could claim among the ruled was thin. If the new territory were to be governable, then the creation of a unified identity was required. Given the fact that the new entity was created by conquest, with not a hint of any movement from below, this would have to come from above. In short, everything pointed to a bloodbath and that was exactly what happened. Wahhabism was a minority religious sect that viewed intolerance of other strands of thought as a religious duty. They were 'heretics' and therefore their treatment as sub-human was more than justified. As an ideology it was therefore well equipped for the task in hand: the unleashing and justification of mass terror. The Saud loyalist Ikhwan were the obvious choice to carry out that terror. They formed the core of the Committee for Advancement of Virtue and Elimination of Sin (Caves), a body which exists to this very day. Religious and non-religious dissenters were butchered, as the Ikhwan murdered their way across the newly acquired territory. Houses were ransacked and whole towns were razed to the ground. Singing was forbidden, flowerpots were smashed, and telephone lines were cut because they were the work of the devil. In other words not just human lives were destroyed but the very fabric of higher culture was attacked in an orgy of barbarism. Shades of Afghanistan under the Taliban. Eventually Saud became weary of their growing power. In turn they questioned his close relationship with Britain. Saud, however, had no intention of ending his reliance on Britain and the stage was set for the inevitable showdown. They rebelled against Saud, but the support of the British gave him the edge. Having served their purpose and secured the House of Saud's domination, the Ikhwan were massacred (though they were reintegrated as the White Guard - later the National Guard). No doubt some on the modern left might have seen something 'anti-imperialist' or even 'progressive' in this rebellion of reactionary fanatics against a despotic British puppet. However, the kind of 'progress' offered by the Ikhwan opposition can be seen in the intensity of the regime of terror inflicted upon the Saudi people by Caves. Oil Saudi Arabia is, of course, known for one thing above all others. That is the vast quantities of oil that the country produces. In terms of capacity it has no equal among the Gulf states. There are 264 billion barrels of proven oil reserves (more than a quarter of the world total) with up to one trillion barrels of oil probably being ultimately recoverable (Energy Information Administration report, January 2002). Not only is it present in vast quantities, but it is also cheaply produced due to flat land and huge deposits at shallow depths. However, Saudi Arabia's vast oil-producing potential was not recognised at first. The first oil concession was granted to a British company, Eastern General Syndicate, in 1923. Though Eastern General did confirm the existence of "some oil", it sat on it. Britain itself was hardly in desperate need of a new source, possessing as it did access to ample supplies in Iraq, Iran and Bahrain; what is more, it was in decline as an imperial power. In contrast, America was in desperate need of a foreign supplier of oil and was in the ascendant. In 1933, Standard Oil, a Californian company, won the concession for the bargain price of $250,000. Having attained his dominant position by aligning himself with what was then the world's foremost power, Ibn Saud was not slow to recognise the shift that had taken place in global politics post-World War II. Writing in the margins of an agreement to lease the Dhahran airbase to America, he urged his descendants "to maintain the friendship of our American brothers" (quoted on p161). The "American brothers", in the course of time, made Ibn Saud himself and his successors fabulously wealthy. Previously they had been reliant on British subsidies and revenue generated from muslims making the Hajj pilgrimage. Now, the opportunity to make money existed on a truly mind-boggling scale. An unnamed prince, who allegedly gave away a new Cadillac when the petrol tank was empty and bought another with a full tank, is pretty mild example provided by the author of the House of Saud's profligacy. As Aburish states, "Without the west there would be no House of Saud" (p148). We have already seen how Britain's backing was instrumental in clearing Ibn Saud's road to power. Nowadays there is a relationship of even greater co-dependency. On the one hand, the western world in general and America in particular benefits from cheap oil, with prices not just being kept down by the low extraction costs due to nature, but also by the active connivance of the Saudi regime. During the period of the cold war, Saudi Arabia also provided a counterweight to Arab nationalist regimes like that of Gamal Abdul Nasser, regimes that tended to lean towards the USSR. It also lavished money on anti-communist forces in the region such as the mujahedin. Now, however, despite this role being much diminished, it remains a key, and usually loyal, US ally in the region (though Saudi Arabia finances Hamas, it promotes disunity amongst other Arabs and would not dream of attacking Israel directly - anti-jewish propaganda is as far as it goes). In return America provides it with an overarching protection against the numerous internal and external threats to its existence. An obscene oil for arms system has developed. In return for cheap oil the military industrial complex of the US and Britain supply vast quantities of the latest sophisticated weaponry - battle tanks, surface-to-air missiles, fighter-bombers, ships, etc. However, this is not for the defence of Saudi Arabia or the house of Saud. There is too much hardware for the Saudi armed forces to use. Much of it simply rusts. Furthermore the royal family does not trust its own people nor even the officer caste. For example, only those closely related to it are permitted to fly armed aircraft. In other words, the whole system - worth billions every year - involves the destruction of value on an enormous scale. British prime ministers - Labour and Tory, US presidents - Democrat and Republican - happily connive in this colossal waste of productive resources. The Saudi regime has barely extended its social base beyond that which it enjoyed at its inception. Though George Bush and Tony Blair claim to be crusaders for democracy, their ally in Saudi Arabia is run as a family concern. No political parties are allowed, let alone free elections to a sovereign parliament. Women are, of course, second class subjects and suffer all manner of humiliating restrictions and punishments. And around half the country's sparse population consists of foreigners - Indians, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Filipinos, etc, who are treated little better than slaves. They are economically vital and do all the menial work - a ready source of revolt. Those in and around the house of Saud have amassed fortunes worth billions. Up to their necks in corruption, they squander the country's wealth on countless palaces and gambling binges in London, Las Vegas and Monte Carlo. Despite imposing their fundamentalist version of islam on the mass of population, the princes and kings of Saudi Arabia use - and abuse - high class prostitutes and consume alcohol to the point of addiction. All this is common knowledge amongst the people. Thus, while having all the appearances of immense strength, the house of Saud is in fact highly vulnerable. They are hated and despised. Bin Laden is just the tip of the iceberg. Opposition - to the extent that we know of it - is far from progressive. Left and secularist forces are, for the moment, less vocal than those of such fundamentalist demagogues, who offer nothing, apart from the promise of further horror and repression. James Mallory