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Saudi Arabian Blowback: Promoting Al Qaeda in Pursuit of Cheap Oil

Posted July 8th, 2011 at 12:57 PM by Gile na Gile
Updated July 10th, 2011 at 04:24 AM by Gile na Gile

What could be more inherently corrupt than a single family, the House of Saud, owning and controlling an entire country's resources? Even more staggering when it is considered that the country's economic output consists of one eighth of the globe's annual oil production and consumption. We have not the slightest rudiments of a burgeoning democratic movement, no freedom of the press, the absence of any competent system of due process, allied with the periodic and brutal crushing of internal dissent and all carried out within the matrix of an institutionalised nepotism. The regime is kept alive through lucrative defence contracts with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and British Aerospace with democratic reforms under King Abdullah occurring at a snail’s pace. Only last week a father of two young boys was sentenced to death for “sorcery” and women are still compelled to wear the all over body chador, barred from driving and, among the elite, bought and sold like cattle to satisfy the lusts of princes. For Saudi citizens life under the Iranian theocracy must appear positively enlightened by comparison.

As far as I can tell, there are three main reasons for the relative silence of the world’s press on these infringements of human rights and the lack of progressive reforms. First, Saudi oil money buys the silence of many morally defunct newspaper owners and editors either through direct bungs, shareholding leverage or advertising ties. Secondly, the political will to pressurise the regime is notoriously absent because of the power of US military contractor lobbyists and the thousands of American jobs that are sustained by servicing these contracts. Third, the regime shores up the US trade deficit by producing 11 million barrels of crude daily thereby keeping the price of oil artificially low. In fact, this is an arrangement which suits all of the world’s major oil importers including most of Western Europe, China and the US which goes a long towards explaining the lack of Security Council pressure being brought to bear on the regime.

But we have already seen the fallout from this 'special relationship' in the 9/11 attacks with most of the hijackers being disaffected Saudi citizens. The principal gripe of the original Al Qaeda cell attached to Bin Laden, himself a Saudi citizen, was the presence of US troops at the Riyadh air base which was ostensibly mobilised originally to protect Saudi Arabia from an attack by Saddam’s forces during the Gulf war but is also used by the Sauds as a disincentive to quell any further internal revolt from would-be dissidents. And for confirmation of the chronic state of human rights within the kingdom we need look no further than the exhaustive reports compiled over the years by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

So how did these tribal warlords emerge as the dominant force in the Arabian Peninsula to begin with? At the time, there were at least several influential tribes besides the Sauds to whom the Wahhabists religious fundamentalist could have aligned during the early 19th century. On the other hand, established families such as the Al-Rasheeds and the Hashemites could have nothing to gain one imagines from associating themselves with a lesser known fundamentalist offshoot. The Sauds appeared to have been very marginal to the main players in the Arabian penisula during this time as the Al-Rasheeds power was based in the east around Halil. On the other hand, it was the Al-Rasheeds who had control of important trade routes and had treaties with the Ottomans whilst the Hashemites with their attested lineage to the Prophet had been the established guardians of Mecca and Medina for hundreds of years. How the ancient Hashemites were allowed to be muscled out of their stewardship of the holy sites is something that looks remarkable at first glance until one considers the geopolitical significance of the region.

What precise role the Wahhabist fundamentalist element played in this growing Saud predominance is difficult to say but it is clear that the Ikhwan, the Wahhabist army associated with the Sauds, found ready recruits from young disaffected tribesmen perhaps excluded from the riches associated with the Hadj. Maybe they were repulsed by the blatant display of opulence which contrasted sharply with their own meagre possessions - they certainly destroyed enough graves of eminent Imams on these grounds - but the Hanbali school of jurisprudence which has emerged is the most conservative in the Islamic world and has only taken firm root in one other place; Taliban controlled Afghanistan (the Saudi religious police - the Committee for the Advancement of Virtue and Elimination of Sin (CAVES) have even lent their name to the Talibani equivalent).

From what is known it appears Wahhabi himself was something of a prodigy who memorised the Koran at aged ten and made important contributions to an intellectual movement already in full flow within the Islamic world which had begun with the revisionist introspection occasioned by the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols. Some blamed this cataclysmic event on the corruption of the caliphates and urged a more minimalist and authentic reading of the Koran which concentrated solely on those aspects of scripture which were directly
revealed to the prophet Mohammed. Whereas other schools of Islamic jurisprudence in the Maghrab, Asia, the rest of the Middle East and within Shi'ia Islam used extraneous sources, Haddiths etc., to develop their rulings, the Hanbali school concentrates solely on the words of God as revealed to the prophet. There is apparently some degree of cross-pollination with each of the varied schools open to interpretations of law provided by eminent Islamic scholars belonging to different denominations but because of it's restrictive source material (some would claim this to be an advantage) the Hanbali is regarded as the most hidebound and resistant to change.

It's difficult to know what to make of the early Wahhabist conversion. This is around 1740 when the original bin Saud patriarch was chief of the small market town of Dir'iyah which lies some miles south and therefore marginal to the lucrative pilgrim routes to the holy cities of the Hejaz. The Sauds developed an unsavoury reputation amonst the elite muslim families of the peninsula for their raids both on these routes and on vulnerable towns and villages.
Combined with the Wahhabist Ikhwan soldiers they managed to take Mecca for a brief period (c.1806) before being forced out by the Ottomans who reinstalled the Hashemites as principal guardians. For the next hundred years the Sauds are marginalised from controlling the pilgrim routes which is in the hands of the Rasheeds whom bin Saud would eventually marry into after WWI to tighten his control of the region. But before the war the Sauds are only one of the main tribes in the Arabian peninsula; one, in fact, of T.E. Lawrence's four “precarious princes”.

Conversely, the Hashemite patriarch Husayn appears to have had good reason to style himself 'king of the Arabs' being a direct descendent of the Prophet and belonging to a family who were the historic guardians of the holy cities. One of his sons, Faisal (famously played by Alec Guinness in David Lean's epic) installed himself as King of Syria when Lawrence's Arab army swept into Damascus with the collapse of the Ottomans. But he was eventually ousted by the French who were given the League of Nations mandate only to be later propped atop the Iraqi throne in 1924 by the British who, in their desperate attempts to quell a domestic rebellion opted for a figurehead who had at least some legitimacy in local's eyes. The grandson of Husayn's other son, Abdullah, is still sitting on the Jordanian throne and in fact directly after 9/11 the Hashemites declared their readiness to retake their ancient role of guardians of the holy cities. In this calculation, they must have assumed the Sauds would have been unable to contain the fallout. Sorely mistaken as it turned out.

This is what explains Saudi predominance after WWI and how the British allowed them to retake Mecca in 1926. Husayn was a major figure in 1925 (see the Husayn-McMahon correspondence) with sons atop the Jordanian and Iraqi thrones and would have been a powerful focal point around which Arab nationalism could unite - anathema to French and British interwar interests in the region. Even still, up until 1933 (with the discovery of oil) the Arabian peninsula was considered a wasteland but had nevertheless strong strategic interest for the British; to the east it looked over the Strait of Hormuz where the Anglo-Iranian oil company extracted its lucre from Persia and the Gulf states and to the west the Gulf of Aden was the main transit route to India; the “pearl of the Empire”. Further north lay Suez, 'the gateway to Europe' and as a burgeoning Egyptian nationalism needed to be quelled clearly the strategic imperative was to pre-empt some kind of pan-Arab nationalistic revolt and the chosen vehicles to perform this task were the rootless Saud nomads who through monthly stipends from the British government eventually attained a position of primacy over their familiar rivals, the Rasheeds and the Hashemites.

The Sauds then, were originally certainly looked down upon by other ruling families within the region; their pillaging, their coarseness, their reliance on the ghazza, or raid, as a source of income, their general lack of culture and connections all placed them outside the loop within the wider Islamic and Arabic world. Of Abdel Aziz bin Saud's one hundred odd children only half a dozen were ever given a secondary level schooling and he himself remained illiterate until he died in 1953. Likewise, the legendary drinking, carousing and womanising have been the reserve of the Saudi princes whilst the rest of the population can be whipped to death for minor infringements of Shar'ia which explicitly condemns all of this behaviour. The Hashemites, by contrast, were, in line with their position, extremely cultured (or at the very least aspired to be), being fully integrated for centuries among the highest echelons of Ottoman Arab society. So, the installation of the Sauds after the First World War by the British was obviously intended to break the back of a rising Arab nationalism by diluting the power of the Hashemite figureheads, thereby forestalling independence in the mandate countries whilst oil could be extracted on terms favourable to the Western powers.

I think it's well known that the vast bulk of the monies used to fund madrassas across Pakistan and Afghanistan have come from Saudi sources. There are thousands of princes descended from the bin Saud (Abdul Aziz) who swept into Mecca in 1926 - he had over a 100 children from dozens of wives - and each of them and their sons in turn who have continued his profligacy are all entitled to a monthly cut from the millions of barrels of oil that are shipped out of the gulf every day; it is impossible to monitor what they choose to finance as the system has no accountability built into it. I think the price being paid to exclude the religious Wahhabist order from more direct control in the daily affairs of the country - which is exactly what the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence demands (look at the control the much more moderate Shi'ia system exercises in Iran) - has resulted in the export en masse of Saudi petrodollars into the promotion of it's dogma abroad; the tail has recently turned to Somalia whilst the Pashtuns of Afghanistan are reaping the whirlwind.

Now, Osama Bin Laden (while he was alive) provided a momentary focal point for aspiring jihadists once he held the purse strings and could fund their ventures but are the actual motivations of those within Al Qaeda characterised by a shared political rather than a shared religious ideology. It's an interesting distinction to ponder and it is one which the mainstream media have singularly failed to identify. In Robert Fisk's interviews we may recall there were a very specific set of political grievances voiced by Bin Laden. These were, in no particular order, the presence of US military bases in the holy land of Mecca and Medina (i.e Saudi Arabia) and the ongoing unconditional US support for Israel. Clearly from the American perspective there was no negotiating at this point as he too much blood on his hands, but what of the military entanglements to which he referred? Though they'd be loathe to admit it, British Aerospace and Lockheed Martin keep the Al-Qaeda-funding, Saudi Wahhabist gerontocracy in power in exchange for jobs and contracts, but most importantly, for the governments concerned, low oil prices. In fact, if it's cheap oil we are looking for then the Saudi kleptocracy are our greatest allies in the Middle East. With the solitary exception of the 1973 oil embargo where they could not risk an internal revolt the Saudi dictatorship has always used its influence within OPEC to maintain high production quotas thus ensuring low pump prices.

Military contractors on both sides of the Atlantic make a fortune from this arrangement; first they keep the nepotistic Saudi regime afloat with billions of dollars worth of military hardware and secondly they get to supply the NATO and US armies who are engaged with the very Islamic crusaders whom the renegade Saudi princes have originally supported via their funding of the Wahhabist madrassas peppered across the Pashtun provinces of Afghanistan. Of course, there isn't a snowball's chance in hell of the media covering this story, which is a pity, given our much vaunted obsession with "objectivity".

Now, if we are dealing with a set of political grievances; ie a substantively alterable situation in this world as opposed to a fundamentalist religious ideology which merely opposes ('they hate us for what we are, our way of life etc..) then at least it is known that there are means available to stop the haemorrhaging of Islamic youth into the arms of terrorist networks - should we so desire; a Palestinian State, a shared Jerusalem and the evacuation of US troops from the Arabian peninsula. Of course there are a multitude of Islamic terrorist groups - in Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen - not all of which align themselves with Bin Laden's political viewpoints and this further complicates the matter as they are all quite often conflated together and held under the singular rubric, Al Qaeda. I remember reading of a Saudi political opposition group - [their presence alerted to me by a well known and respected Palestinian journalist] - who had sought asylum in Britain after their criticisms of human rights abuses in the kingdom as well as other matters relating to the practice of Shar'ia had led to their banishment by the Sauds. I had taken an interest in how this group managed to effect a viable opposition from London. They used cellphones and the internet to disseminate and organise a coherent counter-Royal movement within Saudi Arabia which appeared entirely focused on positive chage within the kingdom, yet was surprised to read that it's leader (a prominent doctor) was now placed on the US list of suspected Al Qaeda members. As a result of this designation this apparently effective (and popular) pro-human rights Saudi opposition group were forced to close down their offices in London and cease all their publications. So, there is a considerable degree of latitude being utilised and perhaps exploited for no better ends other than the maintenance of a domestic tyranny within Saudi Arabia - as a consequence of our media-led fuzzy definitions and concepts.

As for the pursut of cheap fossil fuels; in terms of peak oil and anthropogenic climate change the sooner the markets settle on a realistic price for oil the better. You don't want a price so high it plays havoc with economic growth but one that is artificialy low, as it is at present, acts as a disincentive to pursue alternate fuel strategies. The US-Saudi 'special relationship' has on the other hand, all along been predicated upon the supply of cheap oil in exchange for security. This 'cheap oil' doesn't come by way of bilateral trade (America gets more oil from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela) but by the Sauds ability to influence oil prices on the international spot market through the regulation of supply and no country bar Russia has a similar capacity for influencing price. Saudi oil ministers have often protested (in response to this charge) and somewhat unconvincingly, that no single country is capable of altering the price of oil.

But merely by cutting production by 10% (ie. depriving the market of 1.5 million barrels a day) the value of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate will jump from say $50 to $65. When Chavez became President of Venezuela in 1997 oil was less than ten dollars a barrel but their policy, which became influential within OPEC for a while, was for constraining production. Within the next few years the price of oil leapt forward stabilising in the $40 - $60 range even though only a handful of countries allowed production cuts. Venezuela is an interesting example of what might happen in an oil rich state which democratises. The oil majors there who, prior to 1997, had de facto control over Venezuela's oil, didn't particularly care that this was a finite resource belonging to the Venezuelan people. What mattered to them was to get as much of it out of the ground as quickly as possible and to sell it on. Now when you have a presidency that treats the oil as a precious and finite national resource it chooses to lower production rates which in turn raises the international price and as a consequence the same gross oil income is achieved despite selling less barrels. Makes much more sense.

Who knows how the movements for change, or the 'Arab Spring' as it is now called, will evolve in the Middle East but it stands to reason that the oil policy of a family run oligarchy will differ substantially from a properly democratic government. Interesting too that one of the things that really annoyed the Sauds about Nasser's pan-Arabic nationalism was his claim that Saudi oil was 'Arab oil' and should be distributed accordingly. The kingdom's territorial stretch is a pretty arbitrary one defined by the old Ottoman sphere of influence and were an internal heave to occur it may have to be sponsored by a 'friendly' neighbouring Arab state (such as Egypt) who may then make either fresh territorial claims or else lay claim to shares in oil revenues.

We have the luxury of dealing in hypotheticals of course. As regards fundamentalism, the Wahhabhist religious police or Ikwhan were used initially by the Sauds to gain control over rival dynasties in the Arabian penisula. They quickly dispensed with their servives when they were no longer needed - eliminating them in their turn - but the Wahhabhist fundamentalist brand of Islam which took root acted as a useful tool for social control and has remained so to this day. It is worth repeating that under the current arrangements the massive extended family of the descendants of Bin Saud, the 1,000 or so 'Princes' all receive monthly allocations of oil wealth which is subject to zero regulation. This amounts to billions of dollars worth of wealth being transferred annually into the hands of scions of the House of Saud many of whom wish to promote the radical fundamentalist Wahhabhist doctrine abroad.

There is often a fine line between promoting bona fide madrassas and other pro-Wahhabhist institutions and the support of organisations with questionable credentials; (ie associations that are fronting as terrorist groups) as membership of these groups in reality often overlap. Each of the princes are independent actors who act outside of Saudi royal family oversight so the 'official stance' of the kingdom is almost irrelevant here. Anyway, 'Saudi' financing for CIA designated terrorist groupings based in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia have been well documented - a democracy here would, theoretically at least, make accountable to the public the vast streams of wealth emerging from oil revenue and thereby shut off terrorist funding from its source.

Also, it should be recalled that Bin Laden's two principle grievances were the presence of American troops in the land of the holy sites of Mecca and Medinah and America's hitherto unilteral support for Israeli expansion in the West Bank. Would a democracy in the Arabian peninsula tolerate this troop presence? Unlikely. Another reason, therefore, not to join Al-Qaeda.

Finally, in so far as democracies cater for the needs of their people and address issues of poverty and social exclusion we may see an amelioration of those conditions which ultimately provide a breeding ground for 'terrorism' as nothing breeds discontent quicker than having your hopes for advancement crushed in a country whose government, in addition to being a dictatorship, is perceived to be in the pocket of 'the West'.
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