In Bed with the Reactionary Saudis

The U.S.-Saudi alliance is no longer just an anachronism. It has become a dangerous anachronism with the Saudis implicating the United States in their brutal sectarian conflicts, such as the wars in Yemen and Syria, and in their reactionary human rights policies, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Saudi King Salman visits Washington amid disagreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia on a broad range of issues. Moreover, the disagreements are rooted in fundamental characteristics of the anachronistic Saudi regime.

Many regimes around the world, and the political and social systems of which they are a part, are markedly different from what is found in the United States, but the Saudi polity is one of the most different. The anachronism that is Saudi Arabia represents a major problem for U.S. foreign policy, both because of the impact Saudi-related matters have on the Middle East and beyond and because of the close association between Saudi Arabia and the United States that has come to be taken for granted.

King Salman the President and First Lady to a reception room at Erga Palace during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

King Salman the President and First Lady to a reception room at Erga Palace during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Little of this has anything to do with the just-completed agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program, despite the attention that subject has been receiving. Riyadh is more likely to accept the agreement as a done deal, and already has publicly indicated its formal acceptance, than the accord’s opponents in the United States and Israel.

The Saudis will continue to look for ways to discourage others, including the United States, from developing warm relations with their rival across the Persian Gulf, but this will not preclude the Saudis themselves, along with the other Gulf Arabs, from undertaking their own rapprochement with Tehran, just as they have done in the past.

In hot spot after hot spot in the Middle East, U.S. and Saudi objectives and priorities diverge, even if in some loose sense they are considered to be on the same side. In war-torn Syria, the United States and Saudi Arabia have never agreed on whether the ouster of the Assad regime or the containment of ISIS should be the main objective.

Saudi priorities are based on a variety of considerations that are specific to it and not to the United States, including hatred of the Assads for whatever role they may have played in the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri, a special friend of the Saudis. Reflecting the different priorities and objectives is disagreement over selection and vetting of Syrian rebels to be deemed worthy of support.

In Iraq, Saudi priorities are influenced by some of the same sectarian motives that shape Saudi policy toward Syria. And again, such motives are quite different from U.S. interests. Desired overthrow of the regime is not the factor that it is in Syria, but distrust of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is a major part of the Saudi approach toward Iraq.

In Yemen, the United States has allowed itself to become associated with a destructive and misguided Saudi military expedition, and thus also with the humanitarian tragedy that the operation has entailed. The main Saudi objective is to show who’s boss on the Arabian Peninsula, another objective not shared with the United States. Saudi Arabia’s operation has shown itself, more so than Iran, to be a destabilizing force intent on throwing its weight around in the neighborhood.

In his most recent column Tom Friedman identifies what may be the most worrisome thing about Saudi Arabia for U.S. interests: “the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam, the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shiite versions, and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.”

Friedman notes that Islamist extremist groups that the United States has come to consider preeminent security concerns, including Al Qaeda and now ISIS, “are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.”

The specific terrorist consequences of what the Saudis have done is justifiably an immediate concern for U.S. policy-makers. But the underlying bargain that Ibn Saud, the founder of the current Saudi kingdom, reached years ago with the Wahhabis also underlies much else that makes Saudi Arabia what it is today, and makes it the problem that it is. The kingdom’s troublesome characteristics are inextricably linked to how Ibn Saud’s offspring are trying to claim legitimacy and thus to cling to power.

Consider some of the chief characteristics of the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is a family-run enterprise in which the distribution and exercise of political power are every bit as medieval as they ever were in any country ruled by the Plantagenets. There is no religious freedom. Human rights in many other respects are sorely lacking. Women are still subordinated. It was considered a big deal when they recently were told they could vote and run as candidates, in elections to local councils with scant power and in which the king will still appoint half the members, but women still cannot function as independent persons in many aspects of daily life. They still are not allowed to drive.

It ought to be astounding that a place this far removed from the liberal democratic values with which the United States likes to be associated, even without considering the aforementioned divergence of objectives elsewhere in the region, still is considered a close partner of the United States. The usual, and to a large degree valid, explanation is that, as Friedman puts it, “we’re addicted to their oil and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.”

But there is another American attitude involved, which persists even in the shale-fracking era. Once a nation is considered a partner or ally in a region that is perceptually divided into allies and adversaries, the perceived line-up tends to stay fixed until and unless there is a political alteration sufficiently great to be labeled regime change.

And regime change would be the most troubling chapter of all in the Saudi story. Some Saudi leaders, including the late King Abdullah, seem to have recognized the need to move in the direction of modernization and liberalization, even if only at the glacial pace that is possible in a Wahhabi-committed family enterprise.

It is an open question whether the regime will be able to keep this kind of change ahead of demands for change of a more drastic and radical sort. If it fails to do so, and the revolution comes, then the association of the United States with the ancien régime will an even greater problem for U.S. policy-makers than what they face now.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

image_pdfimage_print

10 comments for “In Bed with the Reactionary Saudis

  1. September 7, 2015 at 14:50

    while this article is interesting for ‘now’, it misses the darker future that will be Saudi.
    Right now Saudi has to burn a third of its oil to sustain itself.
    In less than 30 years Saudi will have run out of oil, having grown its population from 1 million to 30 million, on the back of prosperity entirely dependent on oil.
    when the Saudi rulers can no longer hand out freebies to their young men to keep them happy, all hell is going to break loose across the entire region—it will make Syria look like a minor dispute.
    And nothing will stop it—because 30 million Saudis are going to be facing starvation when they have no oil to buy food (or anything else for that matter) The Saudi desert simply cannot support 30 million people
    Their towers of vanity in the desert are going to be shown for what they are–colossal follies.

  2. Enrique
    September 7, 2015 at 14:28

    Irrespective of Saudi influencing leaders of USA/NATO to war for its sectarian regime changes, the USA has acted against its Constitution, our own leaders have become enemies of the 1st Amendment, by changing regimes from secular regimes to sectarian regimes. We see the horrible consequences that the 1st Amendment was written to avoid.

    US leaders do not speak against establishment of religion it has achieved in Iraq and is seeking in Syria. US leaders have been establishing religion and are enemies of the US Constitution.

  3. SaraElisabeth
    September 6, 2015 at 18:59

    My question is what are the goals of US policy in the middle east? Our leaders cannot be entirely out of touch with reality and incompetent and since the US has become the top world oil producer claims that our alliance with Saudi Arabia is for their oil seem illogical. So is it the US working with Saudi to maintain the petro dollar, is it for corporate interests, maintaining us hegemony, simply for the benefits of conflicts and weapons sales to the military industrial complex, or other regional/global interests?

  4. Peter Loeb
    September 5, 2015 at 05:47

    “SECTARIANS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!”

    The analysis of “sectarianism” is appropriate. In a religious sense
    it involves Wahnabism in Saudi Arabia as mentioned above.

    There are other forms of “sectarianism”

    1. Zionism/ Israel: “…That feeling of national ego is deeply ingrained
    in a man’s ‘blood’; in his racio-physical type (sic), and in that alone,” wrote
    Vladimir Jabotinsky in 1904. (This view is, of course, little more
    than an echo of similar views in German ideology where Aryans
    were the superior “racio-physical” type..) This view has predominated
    the Zionist project from its inception. As in other anti-Semitism
    of which National Socialism was hardly the only example but all of which
    were based of Volkish philosophies of the 19th and 20th centuries,
    the ends justified the means. Both the policies of Saudi Arabia and
    those of Zionist Israel are now rooted in religious beliefs which
    protect the actions from scrutiny.

    2. So too, the end justifies the means for another “sectarian group”,
    the American belief in its own “liberal” superiority. This is expressed
    clearly in claims that US (Western) heroes are mysteriously “defending
    our freedom” and in the US push toward total world hegemony.

    3. As regards the “Iran-deal”, it includes nothing about the containment
    of any other sovereign nation’s right to make common cause with those
    of similar beliefs. To make such a claim is disingenuous to say the least.
    Such a claim is being used to fool the public and US Senators. If
    US Senators are indeed not “fooled”, as perhaps they are not, they
    are complicit.

    These “strange (political) bedfellows” are in fact not “strange” at all.

    Meanwhile, there is no mention of the war crimes and crimes
    against humanity by Israel on a daily basis. After all,
    these “oppressors” are “our allies”.There is, of course, silence
    about the overwhelming decisions of the UN General Assembly
    that Israel must bedemilitarized and be obligated to sign the NPT,
    eliminate all nuclear sites etc. under the IAEA (2014).
    (See the most recent article by Noam Chomsky in many electronic
    newsletters.)

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  5. Abbybwood
    September 5, 2015 at 01:37

    Observing the Saudi king coming to the United States, taking over the Four Seasons hotel in D.C. (which involves removing current registered guests to “other hotels”), then demanding that a RED CARPET be place in the parking structure! is just a tad too much for this American to stomach:

    http://dailycaller.com/2015/09/04/saudi-king-takes-over-swanky-dc-hotel-requires-red-carpet-in-parking-garage/

  6. Joe Tedesky
    September 4, 2015 at 23:01

    Doesn’t it strike you a little odd that Tom Friedman is knocking a U.S. Middle East ally? Oh sure, even sometimes Friedman and the NYT scribbles in a little truth in order to stay somewhat inside the lines of believable, but is Friedman a hired gun for the Whitehouse? Not long ago the 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui make statements alleging that there was more to the Saudi involvement in regard to the 9/11 attacks. Moussaoui is in federal lockup so how could his statement not be a purposeful leak? Leaked in such away as to implicate Saudi Arabia to the 9/12 attacks. Then there were those congressional representatives who got to read the undisclosed 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report. The congressmen made comments to how if the American public were to read these 28 pages, that learning what was inside this report would truly be a game changer for most people. Were these congress people just being good public servants, or was something else afoot? Was the Saudi sale on crude oil meant to hurt Russia? Were the American oil/gas frackers just somekind of collateral damage, as a result of this Saudi fire sale? Between disobeying Netanyahu, and getting all prickly with Saudi Arabia, this all makes me wonder what is coming next. I guess we will just need to continue watching this show.

  7. dahoit
    September 4, 2015 at 18:11

    What Tom flat earth Friedman figured out yesterday,US realists knew years ago.
    To hell with imposing our mores on them,it’s up to those citizens to control their leaders,and for they to decide their own social issues.
    See Prime Directive.

    • Mortimer
      September 7, 2015 at 09:35

      I’ll see your Prime Directive, Dahoit and present to you a clear case of DETERMINISTIC CHAOS.

      Excerpt:

      Meanwhile, the US and its British ally are back in Iraq carrying out air strikes against the very same terrorist groups that are financed and armed by our so-called Gulf allies.

      The hypocrisy of this is breathtaking. Never mind the fact that the air campaign has been a failure and is provoking opposition from the Shiite militias leading the fight against IS in Iraq.

      The insanity of the war against IS is shown most clearly by the US/UK bombing IS while their NATO partner Turkey bombs Kurdish forces who have been the most effective opponents of IS on the ground. We should not forget that Turkey a key NATO ally is openly facilitating IS by allowing its supply lines to run across it border into Northern Syria and operate training/recruitment camps on its territory.

      Cameron and the corporate puppets who make up the majority of MPs in the House of Commons ignore the recent history of bloody interventions by the US and Britain into the Middle East which have left millions of people as displaced refugees and left over a million people dead.

      In March of this year the the medical-political peace organization Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War issued ajoint report Body Count:Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the ‘War on Terror’ which noted how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are responsible for the deaths of between 1 and 2 million people in the Greater Middle East. This massive use of violence that is responsible for death on a monumental scale has been ignored by the mainstream media and majority of our lawmakers in Parliament. The report made the salient point that:

      A politically useful option for U.S. [and UK] political elites has been to attribute the on-going violence to internecine conflicts of various types, including historical religious animosities, as if the resurgence and brutality of such conflicts is unrelated to the destabilization caused by decades of outside military intervention. As such, under-reporting of the human toll attributable to ongoing Western interventions, whether deliberate, or through self-censorship, has been key to removing the “fingerprints” of responsibility.

      The so called ‘War On Terror’ in which the UK has played an active role has led to death, destruction and suffering on a massive scale. The numerous military interventions across the Greater Middle East have helped foster and create terrorist groups such as IS. The independent advocacy group CAGE has observed that:

      “The British Government has always been reluctant to look to its own violence and policies in the Muslim world for inspiring Muslim violence. As such it cannot be a neutral arbiter in analysing and dealing with conflicts, as it is itself all too often a party to them.”

      http://www.globalresearch.ca/preventing-terrorism-or-preventing-opposition-imperialist-wars-reveal-who-the-real-extremists-are/5474146

    • Enrique
      September 7, 2015 at 14:18

      Their leaders are in control of our leaders, by a reward system.

    • Mortimer
      September 8, 2015 at 03:34

      Prime Directive??? — How about US/UK Deterministic Chaos ?!?!
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
      Excerpt:

      We could then move on to the US-UK illegal invasion of Iraq which various estimates hold responsible for the deaths of between 500,000 and a million Iraqis. This intervention based on lies and falsehoods helped shatter the country’s infrastructure leaving behind the toxic legacy of sectarian civil war which rages to this day. TheUS-UK intervention in Iraq destabilised the country to such an extent that it is directly responsible for the emergence of the IS bogeyman which the media hysterically claims is a direct threat to our society.

      We could then move on to the US/NATO intervention in Libya which has helped create a failed state. AsSeamus Milne has observed the Western intervention in Libya while dressed up in humanitarian terms signally failed to save lives. In fact it helped create a situation where the civil war that followed Gaddafi’s overthrow killed up to 50,000 people. Islamic fundamentalist groups have flourished in Libya since the ‘humanitarian intervention’ of the Western Imperialist powers. These groups are fuelling the horrendous civil war in Syria and responsible for numerous massacres of civilians. Libya has now become a safe haven for Al-Qaida, Ansar Al-Sharia and IS all of which are targeting Europe.

      We could then move on to the civil war in Syria where a myriad of Islamic fundamentalist groups are waging war against the forces of the Assad regime. These groups are financed and armed by the Gulf allies of Britain and America. This is something that Cameron’s government will not publicly acknowledge. Yet IS and Al Nusra and the myriad of other Sunni terrorist groups that carry out massacres of civilians from different religious and ethnic groups in Syria are funded by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The British government turns a blind eye to the large sums of money poured into London real estate by the various Gulf dictatorships while it encourages British arms sales to the same dictators whose hands are covered in the blood of their own people.

      Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British army summed it up nicely when he commented:

      It is not acceptable, for example, to welcome large capital injections into prestige projects like The Shard in London while not exerting the strongest pressure on the Qatari Government to crack down on some of their own citizens. Such potential hypocrisy runs the risk of undermining many of the other political and military actions being taken to discredit and destroy the caliphate ambitions of the jihadists.

      Meanwhile, the US and its British ally are back in Iraq carrying out air strikes against the very same terrorist groups that are financed and armed by our so-called Gulf allies. The hypocrisy of this is breathtaking. Never mind the fact that the air campaign has been a failureand is provoking opposition from the Shiite militias leading the fight against IS in Iraq.

      The insanity of the war against IS is shown most clearly by the US/UK bombing IS while their NATO partner Turkey bombs Kurdish forces who have been the most effective opponents of IS on the ground. We should not forget that Turkey a key NATO ally is openly facilitating IS by allowing its supply lines to run across it border into Northern Syria and operate training/recruitment camps on its territory.

      Cameron and the corporate puppets who make up the majority of MPs in the House of Commons ignore the recent history of bloody interventions by the US and Britain into the Middle East which have left millions of people as displaced refugees and left over a million people dead.

      In March of this year the the medical-political peace organization Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War issued ajoint report Body Count:Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the ‘War on Terror’ which noted how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are responsible for the deaths of between 1 and 2 million people in the Greater Middle East. This massive use of violence that is responsible for death on a monumental scale has been ignored by the mainstream media and majority of our lawmakers in Parliament. The report made the salient point that:

      A politically useful option for U.S. [and UK] political elites has been to attribute the on-going violence to internecine conflicts of various types, including historical religious animosities, as if the resurgence and brutality of such conflicts is unrelated to the destabilization caused by decades of outside military intervention. As such, under-reporting of the human toll attributable to ongoing Western interventions, whether deliberate, or through self-censorship, has been key to removing the “fingerprints” of responsibility.

      The so called ‘War On Terror’ in which the UK has played an active role has led to death, destruction and suffering on a massive scale. The numerous military interventions across the Greater Middle East have helped foster and create terrorist groups such as IS. The independent advocacy group CAGE has observed that:

      The British Government has always been reluctant to look to its own violence and policies in the Muslim world for inspiring Muslim violence. As such it cannot be a neutral arbiter in analysing and dealing with conflicts, as it is itself all too often a party to them.

      The Prevent counter-terrorism strategy will do nothing to address the root causes of the violence that is tearing apart the Greater Middle East. The military interventions of the imperialist powers have helped create jihadist groups that have murdered British citizens and continue to pose a threat to the public.

      http://www.globalresearch.ca/preventing-terrorism-or-preventing-opposition-imperialist-wars-reveal-who-the-real-extremists-are/5474146

Comments are closed.