Issue 258 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Saudi regime is staggering from crisis to crisis. Clare Fermont argues that this causes huge problems for the west and oil interests which created this monster
|Winston Churchill was happy to do business with the Saudi rulers|
It's madness! That thought must have occurred again and again to anyone who watched those planes plunging into the Twin Towers on 11 September. And so it proved. It quickly emerged that at least 15 of the 19 hijackers were highly educated and relatively wealthy men from Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world and a staunch ally of the US. The supposed terrorist mastermind himself, Osama Bin Laden, was also born and raised in Saudi Arabia. The origins of the madness suddenly became clear--the mad society of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia was created by Britain. At the beginning of the 20th century Britain was trying to get hold of the Arabian peninsula from the Ottoman Empire. Ibn Saud, a Bedouin leader, was the perfect henchman for the British. He was a bloodthirsty and simple minded autocrat who was willing to serve anyone who would pay him.
From 1902 to 1925 Britain paid Ibn Saud, a member of the puritanical Wahhabist Islamic sect, to lead a series of bloody wars against more established tribes across the peninsula. The brutality and fanaticism of Ibn Saud's Wahhabist followers (known as the Ikhwan) knew no limits. The Ikhwan spiked the heads of their enemies at the gates of conquered cities. They burned the victims of their conquests and routinely raped and enslaved girls. They systematically massacred Shi'a Muslims and desecrated Islamic sites they decreed insulting to Wahhabism.
After Ibn Saud had conquered the tribes allied to Turkey, Britain bribed him to attack territory controlled by the Hashemites of Jordan. The Hashemites had foolishly trusted British promises, delivered by TE Lawrence, that their independence and their leadership of an extended Arab territory would be respected as a reward for their loyalty during the First World War. Lord Crewe, a minister in the Liberal government in Britain, summed up the real colonial aim: 'What we want is not a united Arabia, but a disunited Arabia split into principalities under our suzerainty.'
By the time Britain had helped Ibn Saud 'subdue' the peninsula's 4 million inhabitants, 400,000 people (10 per cent of the population) had been killed and wounded, and 40,000 people had been executed in public. More than a million people had fled to neighbouring countries. The Ikhwan-run religious police maintained a climate of terror by administering instant and cruel punishments for 'crimes' such as wearing western clothes, not having a beard, and singing. Women suffered worst.
Ibn Saud declared himself king and in 1932 modestly named the new country after himself. As Said Aburish writes in his book, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud, 'It was as if the Moonies had turned violent and taken over the whole of America.'
The discovery of oil provided the corrupt and autocratic 'royal' Saud family with unparalleled wealth. The Sauds began a 60-year crazed spending spree, flaunting their stolen riches with preposterous palaces and grotesquely luxurious lifestyles. At the same time, most of the people of Saudi Arabia remained poor. The Sauds also became infamous for their debauchery, drunkenness, gambling and greed. Simultaneously, they ruthlessly enforced strict and puritanical Islamic rule.
Such obscene contradictions and injustices can only be maintained through the most brutal and suffocating repression, and in this area the Sauds have excelled. They allow no political parties, no elections, no trade unions, no alternative religions, no independent judiciary, no independent media. Any transgression from the largely unwritten moral and criminal codes is punished by floggings, amputations, torture, imprisonment and death. On average, two people a week are publicly beheaded. The state of terror is run by ubiquitous secret and religious police.
Life for most people in Saudi Arabia is grim. Saudi women are virtual prisoners in their homes, are forbidden from driving and are barred from most jobs. Slavery, officially abolished in 1962, continues through the enslavement of the country's 7 million migrant workers (a third of the population). These workers are often not paid, and are frequently beaten and sexually abused, and deported or imprisoned if they complain.
Much of the craziness of Saudi Arabian society is down to what the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described as 'combined and uneven development'. Some areas developed at breakneck speed while others remained virtually unchanged. In 1970 a quarter of the population lived in cities--20 years later three quarters of the population lived in cities. State of the art industrial complexes, infrastructure and weaponry sit side by side with Bedouin culture. Just south of the glistening air-conditioned tower blocks, marbled palaces and pristine hospitals of central Jeddah are sweltering sprawling slums where prostitution, drug and alcohol addiction, destitution and disease are rife.
One of the richest states in the world, whose economy is fully integrated into international capitalism, is run by an absolutist feudal monarchy. The ruling class consists largely of the offspring of lecherous kings. The working class is almost entirely migrant labour. A vast pool of educated Saudis are as bored as they are ludicrously controlled by the state.
The Sauds have bought their freedom to maintain their obscene and undemocratic state by guaranteeing cheap oil to the world's proudest democracies. The oilfields of eastern Saudi Arabia have a quarter of the world's known reserves and are by far the cheapest to exploit. The oil is at shallow depths, under flat land with no vegetation, and near the sea for easy transportation. In exchange for US protection and petrodollars, the Sauds at first allowed US oil companies to pump out oil for ridiculously low payments, and then acted as the US's policeman in Opec to ensure that Saudi oil is extracted at the 'right' pace and price for western interests. The Saudi people have never figured in the calculation, let alone the Arab masses.
Not satisfied with draining Saudi Arabia's oil wells on the cheap, western governments have ensured that most of the money paid to the Sauds comes straight back through commercial and arms deals, and through servicing debts. They have encouraged and exploited the Sauds' vanity by pushing through contracts (with outrageous profit margins and bribes) for skyscrapers, motorways and other projects that are way beyond the needs of ordinary Saudis. Most of the weaponry bought by the Sauds can't even be used. There are too few military personnel to use it and the diversity of suppliers means that the equipment cannot be integrated. The arms sales con was exposed in 1990. For all the billions of dollars spent on the latest weaponry, when the Saudi rulers felt threatened by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, their only reliable defence was US troops.
Anything that has threatened the interests of the US in the Middle East or the Sauds has been opposed by policies drawn up in Washington and funded by Riyadh. In general, this has involved support for states or Islamic movements that oppose these threats. In the 1950s, for instance, a mass anti-imperialist pan-Arabist movement was inspired by Egypt's leader Gamal Abdul Nasser. Not only did he nationalise the Suez Canal and defeat western armies. He also had the cheek to describe the vast oil deposits in the Gulf as 'Arab oil for Arab people'. In response, Saudi Arabia initiated or funded 'conservative' Muslim groups across the region, including in Saudi Arabia itself.
The policy of promoting pan-Islamism at the expense of Arab nationalism was formalised through the Saudi-financed World Muslim League. Its first proclamation stated, 'Those who distort Islam's call under the guise of nationalism are the most bitter enemies of the Arabs whose glories are entwined with the glories of Islam.' Sayed Kuttub, leader of the Saudi- backed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, said that during this period 'America made Islam'.
The next serious threat came with the Iranian revolution, which stirred up Shi'a Muslims against their dictators in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. In response, Saudi Arabia bribed Iraq to start the Iran-Iraq war, paying Saddam Hussein $30 billion and other countries at least $60 billion. When Russia invaded Afghanistan later in 1979, the Sauds seized the moment to prove their Islamic credentials to those inspired by events in Iran, while simultaneously joining the Cold War campaign of their masters in Washington. They poured money into the Afghan Mujahadeen, particularly the Taliban, and encouraged Saudi citizens to join the 'jihad'. It never seemed to occur to the Saudi despots and their US backers that the Muslim groups they had backed would turn against their sponsors.
All capitalist states are unstable, but the Saudi state is more unstable than most. That is why the Sauds have had to rely on the most extreme forms of oppression backed up by imperialism. But this reliance on the 'infidel' and pro-Israeli forces of imperialism increases the instability by enraging the majority of Saudis. An indication of the strength of such feelings was the Sauds' recent refusal to allow air raids on Afghanistan to be launched from Saudi soil.
The distorted state of Saudi Arabia has resulted in distorted forms of resistance. Saudis do not relate to the working class because they see that class as basically manual workers who are overwhelmingly foreign and easily defeated by a combination of punishment and deportation. Secular opposition has been further weakened by repression as well as by the defeats of Arab nationalism and Stalinism.
With no democratic outlet and every form of non-Islamic thought banned, it is not surprising that the frustrations of Saudi Arabia's swelling mass of young people (half of the country's 14 million nationals are under 18) and the politically powerless middle and business classes have increasingly found expression in extremist forms of Islam.
The Sauds themselves have unwittingly fuelled this opposition. Some of the militant Islamist cells in the country have their origins in the Muslim groups funded by Saudi Arabia to counter Arab nationalism. In addition, the government, worried by the democratic heresies brought back by students studying abroad, has increasingly sent young Saudis to local universities dominated by Islamic studies. Among such students was Osama Bin Laden. Steeped in Islamic teachings and a member of one of the country's richest families, he was a natural choice for the Sauds when they were recruiting Saudis to fund and fight alongside the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan.
When Osama Bin Laden and many other similar Saudi men returned home from Afghanistan victorious, they joined the vast ranks of educated and unemployed Saudis who were disgusted at the greed, corruption and hypocrisy of the Sauds. Their anger was intensified when the Sauds allowed US troops to be stationed on Islam's holiest land after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Fearing imprisonment or worse for their dissent, Osama Bin Laden and fellow Saudi members of al-Qaida fled abroad. Isolated from any mass movement, fired up by hatred of their government's betrayal of Islam and brutalised by their years in Afghanistan, they turned to terrorism. And so 4,000 people in the Twin Towers were killed.
There are many signs that the Islamist opposition in Saudi Arabia is growing in strength and confidence. There is, for example, a mass circulation of cassettes, pamphlets, books and copies of petitions--many demanding democratic reforms--most promoting an Islamic revolution to 'purify' Saudi Arabia and rid it of royalty. Much of this originates from the Najd region, the tribal base of the Sauds, and the ulama (the guardians of Islamic doctrine), both of which have been central to defending the Sauds in the past.
Osama Bin Laden's calls for the ruling Saudi elite to be overthrown have widespread support, including from elements of the secret police and business community that funded him in Afghanistan. The country's Shi'a Muslims, around 10 percent of the population concentrated in the oil rich eastern region, are violently antagonistic towards the Sauds due to the systematic discrimination and persecution they suffer. Hostility to the US's continued presence in the country remains strong, highlighted by two bomb attacks on US military installations in the mid-1990s.
The opposition is being fuelled by Saudi Arabia's growing economic and social crisis. Despite the vast oil incomes and the lack of welfare spending, royal excesses have meant that Saudi Arabia has run a budget deficit since the early 1980s. In 1982 it had £106 billion reserves. Today it has debts of double that--an amount greater than its GDP. Per capita income plunged from £9,600 in 1980 (higher than the US) to £3,650 in 1999 (a fifth of the US). Crucially, the debts and economic slowdown mean that graduates can no longer be absorbed into the state bureaucracy. Already around a third of Saudi men (400,000) are unemployed, as are 95 percent of Saudi women. Every year 100,000 more Saudi males need jobs that simply do not exist.
The Sauds are trapped. They can't raise revenue through income tax for fear that would lead to greater demands for political representation. Vast sums are pledged for years to come on multibillion dollar arms deals with the west and debt servicing. Attempts to cut back on the millions given to the royal princes and princesses every week have been met with angry resistance, threatening to split open divisions already festering within the royal family over who will succeed the ailing King Fahd. On top of all this, in October oil prices slumped to $17 a barrel. Saudi Arabia needs $21 a barrel without any cutback in production just to meet the state budget and a much higher price to service its debts and pay all the other bills.
The Sauds cannot buy off the opposition this time. They are fixed in the vice of their own greed, corruption and subservience to the US. However, the opposition is fragmented--between Wahhabis as against other Sunnis and the Shi'as, between regions, between the cities and rural/Bedouin communities and between the Islamists and the secularists. The opposition is also hampered by its petit bourgeois leadership which fears popular mobilisation.
Nevertheless, the US authorities are watching nervously as their bombardment of Afghanistan threatens to further destabilise its key ally in the Gulf. They acknowledge that action may be needed to defend what they consider to be their oil. A Pentagon spokesman recently said the US would 'take over the oilfields' if the Sauds were toppled. What the US authorities are less likely to acknowledge is that their unwavering and largely uncritical support of the Sauds for the past 60 years perpetuated a state of madness that led directly to the atrocity of the Twin Towers.