House of corruption

Eddie Ford takes a critical look at the 'reform attempts' of the Saudi ruling elite and its strategic importance to the US

Last week, the Saudi regime and imperialism were in a bit of a panic when the permanently ailing king Fahd, now in his early 80s, was rushed to hospital complaining of breathing problems. This has been a common pattern since 1996 when Fahd suffered a stroke, and ever since then crown prince Abdullah has been the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. News of Fahd's latest bout of ill-health sent the value of Saudi stocks tumbling by 5%. However, according to official Saudi television, the king is now recovering again. Of course, this could be just propaganda to disguise the true state of Fahd's condition - after all, we all remember how long it took the Soviet authorities to admit that Leonid Brezhnev was dead. Saudi Arabia stands as a living indictment of United States foreign policy. Recall the inauguration speech of George W Bush in January. The re-elected president solemnly declared that the central mission of the US was "ending tyranny in our world" and lighting the "untamed fire" of freedom "in the minds of men" - a fire, Bush hyperbolically added, that "burns those who fight its progress" and which "one day" will "reach the darkest corners of our world". Here is US imperialism's big lie - that its non-stop, rolling 'war against terrorism' is a global crusade for democracy. Of course, such a claim is staggeringly hypocritical, and nowhere can this be clearer than when we look at Saudi Arabia. By any reasonable standards, the monarchist tyranny of Saudi Arabia sits rather oddly with a 'war on terrorism' that comes wrapped in 'democratic' ideological packaging. If anything, Saudi Arabia has to rank as one of the "darkest corners of our world". Indeed, you could easily call it one of the of the most grotesque societies on earth. Strict sharia law - enforced by totalitarian means - is imposed on the masses by an extended royal family clique who are notorious for their preference for whisky, casinos and expensive prostitutes over the Koranic strictures on prayer, alms and fasting. Gross inequality characterises the country. Princes build ever more extravagant and obscene palaces - from income generated by the oil industry - while the real work is done by foreigners. And at least half the country's sparse population consists of foreigners - not only the well paid Americans and British ex-pats, but a mass of Indians, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Filipinos, etc, who are treated little better than slaves and do all the menial work. They are simultaneously economically vital to the regime and a potential source of unrest. Women are, of course, second class subjects and suffer all manner of humiliating restrictions and punishments. Hardly surprisingly, within the country - and elsewhere in the islamic world - the Saudi royal family and its corrupt state apparatus is widely loathed and it is not for nothing that the increasingly isolated monarchical regime lives in mortal fear of revolution. Tellingly, the quite justifiably paranoid royal family does not even trust its own officer caste, with only those closely related to it by birth and marriage being permitted to fly armed aircraft - otherwise there might well be smouldering royal palaces and governmental buildings. In other words, the Saudi royal family is only too aware that even the smallest spark could ignite an "untamed fire" that could sweep them and their fortunes away - with maybe no time for a quick exit and a luxurious life of exile in Paris or Monaco. That is why there was such scare over the health of king Fahd. Revolutions begin above. And Saudi Arabia is exceptionally unstable. Even a minor argument that pitted members of the ruling family against each other has the danger of spiralling out of control. However, what begins above can only be completed by those below. Besides splits in the house of Saud, at the moment what both the Saudi and US intelligence agencies particularly fear is discontent amongst the lower sections of the aristocracy and the nouveaux riches. Accordingly, there is a ban on political parties and absolute control of the media - no formal or organised opposition to the royal family is allowed. Groups or even individuals that urge the introduction of some measure of open expression, or accountability, are spied upon, intimidated, harried or simply thrown into jail. Thus a Saudi court recently sentenced three activists, originally arrested in March 2004, to jail terms of between six and nine years for "stirring up sedition and disobeying the ruler" - that is, outrageously, the jailed trio were urging the royal family to transform themselves into a constitutional monarchy and generally appealing for an acceleration in what purports to be a programme of reforms. These conditions breed terrorism. Scions of some of Saudi Arabia's most established families have embraced jihadi ideology. Most famously Osama bin Laden, of course. So, although a police state, Saudi Arabia is a powderkeg. The only question is, who will be the first to light the fuse? True, Saudi Arabia has just undertaken its first ever nationwide municipal elections. But only a small proportion of the population took part in this first, very limited, exercise in 'controlled democracy' - some 300,000 men voted. Women were not allowed to vote and only half of the council's members were up for election, with the other half being directly appointed by the authorities. Most of those who won seats had been approved by conservative muslim scholars. Naturally, all manner of flunkies and apologists for the Saudi regime have attempted to argue that these municipal elections show that the kingdom is taking the first, faltering steps towards democracy and even remind us that it took centuries for bourgeois democracy to emerge from feudal Europe - hence the Saudi royal family should be the object of patient encouragement, maybe even faint praise, not admonishment or scorn. Just be patient, wait a while, and maybe in a few centuries or more Saudi Arabians will be enjoying a western type of liberal democracy. This 'long view' is of course sheer bunkum. It is a complete fallacy to believe that capitalism and democracy somehow naturally evolved together, in an incrementalist, almost 'organic', manner - though such a Whiggish view is virtually holy writ amongst certain schools of thought, not least 'official communism' and the cruder version of biblical Trotskyism, which foolishly peddles the idea that democratic tasks are the responsibility of the bourgeoisie and not the working class. No, in reality, all democratic reforms and gains - no matter how inadequate, partial or transitory - have had to be fought for in the face of bitter and determined opposition from above - the bourgeois and aristocratic classes. Self-evidently then, only popular organisation, struggle and determination has seen the ruling class concede democratic reforms. Obviously, the Saudi royal family has absolutely no intention of introducing any measure of real or substantive democracy - just perhaps a vague or ghostly semblance of openness in order to gain, or so it hopes, a slightly greater degree of political and moral legitimacy, both internally and externally. Yet it almost goes without saying that the royal clique would immediately suspend, if not speedily reverse or crush, even these very small half-reforms, if it felt remotely threatened by them. The royal regime in Saudi Arabia, like many others, is anti-democratic to its very core and any real, lasting, genuinely democratic reforms will only be won by mass, consciously organised struggle, not reformist patience. Throughout its history, the Saudi elite has been 100% dependent on great-power sponsorship - first colonial-imperial Britain, then US superimperialism. The imperialist powers elevated the House of Saud to the position of power it currently occupies, propped it up and now maintains its rule against all the odds. (What was that about "ending tyranny in the world", Mr Bush?) In return, the Saudis have acted as a conservative brake throughout the region and, crucially, helped to ensure an almost constant flow of cheap oil - the regime has usually acted to hold down prices. On top of all this, a thoroughly obscene 'oil for arms' system has developed. In return for the oil, the US and Britain supply vast quantities of the latest sophisticated weaponry - battle tanks, surface-to-air missiles, fighter-bombers, warships, etc. However, at the end of the day, this is not for the defence of Saudi Arabia or even the house of Saud itself. There is too much hardware for the Saudi armed forces to use. Most of it simply rusts in the desert sands. Monstrously, the whole system, worth billions of dollars every year, involves the destruction of value on an enormous scale. British prime ministers and US presidents alike - of whatever political stripe - have happily connived at this colossal waste of wealth. When Fahd finally dies, it is not guaranteed that the transition to prince Abdullah will be smooth. Given the regime's deep unpopularity, and the total lack of any sort of social base in Saudi society, even the slightest wobble could send it spiralling into crisis, if not crashing to a well deserved death. Under these conditions, it is vital that democratic and secularist roots are planted in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East as a whole, if we are to avoid the prospect of fundamentalist or Talibanite counterrevolution. Eddie Ford