Blogs > Liberty and Power > US-Saudi Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Jul 1, 2004

US-Saudi Chickens Coming Home to Roost

As the winds of change batter the regimes of the Middle East, from Iraq to Iran—Saddam Hussein himself being arraigned today on charges for" crimes against humanity"—fundamental questions are being raised about the state of Arab culture and politics. Fareed Zakaria has written a thought-provoking article,"Islam, Democracy, and Constitutional Liberalism," in the Spring 2004 issue of Political Science Quarterly. (Zakaria, who initially favored the war in Iraq, has been doing a lot of interesting writing of late; see especially his essay,"Reach Out to the Insurgents," which Justin Raimondo discusses here.)

In the PSQ essay, Zakaria is still wedded to the unfortunate idea that the US has a role to play in the folly that he dubs"a serious long-term project of nation building" in Iraq. But Zakaria puts his finger on the significant obstacles to this project. He writes:

The Arab rulers of the Middle East are autocratic, corrupt, and heavy-handed. But they are still more liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic than those who would likely replace them. Elections in many Arab countries would produce politicians who espouse views that are closer to those of Osama bin Laden than those of Jordan's liberal monarch, King Abdullah. Last year, the emir of Kuwait, with American encouragement, proposed giving women the vote. But the democratically elected Kuwaiti parliament—filled with Islamic fundamentalists—roundly rejected the initiative. Saudi crown prince Abdullah tried something much less dramatic when he proposed that women in Saudi Arabia be allowed to drive. (They are currently forbidden to do so, which means that Saudi Arabia has had to import half a million chauffeurs from places like India and the Philippines.) But the religious conservatives mobilized popular opposition and forced him to back down.

These tendencies, says Zakaria, illustrate the fact that

[t]he Arab world today is trapped between autocratic states and illiberal societies, neither of them fertile ground for liberal democracy. The dangerous dynamic between these two forces has produced a political climate filled with religious extremism and violence. As the state becomes more repressive, opposition within society grows more pernicious, goading the state into further repression. It is the reverse of the historical process in the Western world, where liberalism produced democracy and democracy fueled liberalism. The Arab path has instead produced dictatorship, which has bred terrorism. But terrorism is only the most noted manifestation of this dysfunction, social stagnation, and intellectual bankruptcy.

One could certainly take issue with Zakaria's maxim, especially the belief that"democracy fueled liberalism"—unless one identifies"liberalism" with today's corrupt version of interest-group politics, rather than with yesteryear's classical, laissez-faire ideal. But Zakaria asks a legitimate question:"Why is [the Middle East] region the political basket case of the world?" Railing against those who would use"Islamic,""Middle Eastern," and"Arab" interchangeably, Zakaria argues that the"Arab social structure is deeply authoritarian" across religious, political, social, economic, and even educational-pedagogical spheres. Politically, many regimes in the Arab world embraced a" coarser ideology of military republicanism, state socialism, and Arab nationalism." Zakaria rejects unequivocally the view that poverty breeds terrorism, since too many terrorists emerge from such wealthy oil-rich countries as Saudi Arabia,"the world's largest petroleum exporter." Bin Laden himself"was born into a family worth more than $5 billion."

If anything, the problem is not poverty, but wealth, specifically wealth achieved by what Franz Oppenheimer used to call the"political means." It is wealth achieved by coercive, statist, monopolistic control, in this instance, of"natural resources," whereby the regimes that exercise control over them"tend never to develop, modernize, or gain legitimacy," as Zakaria puts it."Easy money means little economic or political modernization," observes Zakaria. With"no real political parties, no free press and few pathways for dissent," authoritarian Arab societies have fomented the development of dissident Islamic fundamentalist movements, spearheaded by thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb, who used religion as"the language of opposition ... This combination of religion and politics has proven to be combustible." (Not only in the Middle East, I might add, but in the USA as well; I discuss this combustible American constellation in my forthcoming Free Radical essay,"Caught up in the Rapture," which I'll excerpt here in due course.)

The fundamentalists got their biggest break when the Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the pro-US regime of the Shah of Iran. But the most"dangerous game," says Zakaria, is being played by the Saudis. For those of us who have never been fond of the House of Sa'ud, Zakaria reminds us that"the likely alternative to the regime is not Jeffersonian democracy but a Taliban-style theocracy." He explains:

The Saudi regime ... has tried to deflect attention away from its spotty economic and political record by allowing free reign to its most extreme clerics, hoping to gain legitimacy by association. Saudi Arabia's educational system is run by medieval-minded religious bureaucrats. Over the past three decades, the Saudis—mostly through private trusts—have funded religious schools (madrasas) and centers that spread Wahhabism (a rigid, desert variant Islam that is the template for most Islamic fundamentalists) around the world. Saudi-funded madrasas have churned out tens of thousands of half-educated, fanatical Muslims who view the modern world and non-Muslims with great suspicion. America in this world-view is almost always uniquely evil. This exported fundamentalism has infected not just other Arab societies but countries outside the Arab world.

In this sense, the Saudis have emboldened the very forces that are now clamoring to undermine their power. Their"financiers and functionaries" were responsible for bolstering fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed,"[w]ithout Saudi money and men, the Taliban would not have existed, nor would Pakistan have become the hotbed of fundamentalism that it is today." Until or unless the Saudis"do more to end ... governmental and nongovernmental support for extreme Islam, which is now the kingdom's second largest export to the rest of the world," this situation is not likely to change.

Thus, ideological corruptions are mirrored by economic corruptions. Indeed, the Saudi business elites owe their"positions to oil or to connections to the ruling families." Their wealth is derived from"feudalism, not capitalism," and the"political effects remain feudal as well." Zakaria argues persuasively that"[a] genuinely entrepreneurial business class would be the single most important force for change in the Middle East." This is the kind of social institution that is, thankfully, not foreign to Arab culture, which has,"for thousands of years ... been full of traders, merchants, and businessmen." Indeed, observes Zakaria,"[t]he bazaar is probably the oldest institution in the Middle East."

Unfortunately, the Saudi's quasi-feudal, neo-mercantilist regime has been fully encouraged, sanctioned, and legitimated by US foreign policy. Whatever the specific connections between the Bush family and the Saudis—and Michael Moore, Craig Unger, and Kevin Phillips have had a field day speculating about these connections—the truth remains that the United States has had an incestuous relationship with the House of Sa'ud for nearly sixty years. As I wrote in my essay,"A Question of Loyalty":

US corporations engage in joint business ventures with the Saudi government—from petroleum to arms deals—utilizing a whole panoply of statist mechanisms, including the Export-Import Bank. The US is Saudi Arabia's largest investor and trading partner. Historically, the House of Sa'ud's alliance with—and exportation of—intolerant, fanatical Wahhabism has been strengthened by the US-Saudi government partnership with Western oil companies, especially the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), a merger of Esso, Texaco, and Mobil. This is precisely the kind of"pull-peddling" that [Ayn] Rand condemned as"the New Fascism"—a US-Saudi-Big Oil Unholy Trinity that sustains the undemocratic Saudi regime. ...
[That] regime ... depends upon a barbaric network of secret police and sub-human prisons, using the kinds of torture tactics that would have made Saddam proud: routine floggings, rotisserie hangings, amputations, penis blocking, and anal molestations. Such is the"pragmatic" nature of official US government policy, which goes to war for"human rights" in Iraq, while tacitly sanctioning their eradication in Saudi Arabia.
It's this kind of pragmatism that has been the midwife to anti-American terrorism—from US support of the Shah of Iran that led to the establishment of an anti-American Islamic theocracy to US support of the Afghani mujahideen that led to the establishment of an anti-American Taliban.

Eric Margolis extends these points further in his recent discussion of the inner machinery of the US-Saudi relationship. He writes:

Saudi Arabia is a feudal monarchy owned and run by 6,000-7,000 royal princes. ... Saudi Arabia has been a U.S. oil protectorate since the late 1940s under the following arrangement: The royal family supplies cheap oil to the U.S. and its allies Europe and Japan. The billions earned by the Saudis are recycled into U.S. and western financial institutions and commercial projects, or spent on huge amounts of advanced weapons ($9 billion in recent years) the Saudis cannot operate. Saudi arms purchases are used to support friendly American and European politicians in politically sensitive states or regions.
In return, the U.S. supplies the royal family with protection against its own increasingly restive people and covetous neighbours, like Iraq. The small Saudi Army is denied ammunition to prevent it staging the kind of coup that overthrew Iraq's British-run puppet monarch in 1958. A parallel"White Army," composed of loyal Bedouin tribesmen led by U.S."advisers," watches the army. ... [F]ar from being an enemy of the U.S., Saudi Arabia is almost an overseas American state. One-third of the population of 24 million is foreign. Saudi defences, internal security, finance and the oil industry are still run by some 70,000 U.S. and British expatriates. Some eight million Asian workers do the middle management and donkey work. The royal family is intimately linked to Washington's political and money power elite through a network of business and personal connections. The Bush family, and its entourage of Republican military-industrial complex deal makers, has been joined at the hip for two decades with Saudi power princes and their financial frontmen.

Margolis maintains correctly, however, that the Saudi state, as such,"did not finance or abet Osama bin Laden—it tried repeatedly to kill him. Bin Laden's modest funds came from donations by individual Saudis, wealthy and poor alike, who supported his jihad against western domination." What Margolis does not recognize, however, is that the fundamentalist ideology that the House of Sa'ud has long funded and exported is now undermining its very rule. While the failure of the Saudi state at this point in time would be an utter catastrophe, those who would take power—the fanatical fundamentalists among them—are, to borrow a Randian phrase,"the distilled essence of the [Saudi] Establishment's culture ... the embodiment of its soul" and its"personified ideal."

I have long argued that radical social change in the United States depends upon the uprooting of both the politico-economic system and the ideas that nourish it and sustain it. This dynamic is global in its implications, and no less operative in the context of the Saudi monarchy, one of the United States' prime"allies" in the Middle East. Fundamental change is not likely to come through further military intervention, which will only destabilize the region and further empower the fanatics. Ultimately, this is a philosophical and cultural war that must be fought at home and abroad.

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