Desert Storm

Desert Storm

This might be a good time for the Bush Administration to step up its reading on Saudi Arabia, starting with these three books.


Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran in February 1979, the last act in the dramatic overthrow of the Shah of Iran, presented Washington with a major policy quandary. Until the 1960s, the United States had relied on British imperial forces to safeguard the West’s crucial oil interests in the region. Its own Gulf flotilla–based at a modest facility in Bahrain–did little more than show the flag. As long as the cold war lasted, the superpowers, wary of provoking each other, had by tacit agreement stayed clear of each other. But the Shah was the chief US client and military surrogate, and when Khomeini took his place, he neutralized America’s defensive capacity in the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia was the logical fallback. US involvement with the Saudis dated back to World War II, when President Roosevelt declared the kingdom strategically important, thus eligible for lend-lease. In 1945 Roosevelt held a celebrated shipboard meeting with the Saudi king, Abdul Aziz, which came to symbolize the bond between the countries. Oil was Roosevelt’s chief interest, of course, but military strategy also played a role. Late in the war, the United States built an airfield at Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia, which emerged in subsequent years as a base that permitted US planes to reach deep into Soviet Asia.

After World War II, President Truman went a step further by certifying the kingdom’s eligibility for military training and equipment. As petrodollars poured in, the Saudis deposited tens of billions, through purchases and investments, into the coffers of American industry. In the 1950s, when Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was cozying up to Moscow and was sweeping through the region, the Saudi government stood as a bulwark at America’s side. The Sauds’ hostility to Nasser was in part a product of inter-Arab rivalry. No less important, it derived from the royal family’s religious beliefs, impregnated with a deep aversion to the atheism at the core of Soviet Communism.

But like their social system, the Saudis’ religion–the puritanical Wahhabi version of Islam–made America uncomfortable. Unaccountable to their subjects, the Sauds, tribal despots, spent lavish sums not just on themselves but on mosques and madrassahs across the Muslim world, promoting the anti-Westernism that was inherent in their faith. Their missionary efforts did not save them from widespread criticism from their own subjects for ties with the Western heathens. But the United States, obsessed with communism’s threat, chose to overlook the possibility that Wahhabism might itself be dangerous. Even after Iran exploded, introducing America to the perils of Islamic extremism, the United States professed to see little in common between Khomeini’s anti-Western values and the Saudis’.

The lesson intruded brutally in November 1979, during Islam’s annual hajj, when some 250 heavily armed Islamic warriors seized the Great Mosque in Mecca and took thousands of pilgrims hostage. The attackers were Sunni fanatics with no obvious link to Shiite Iran, but they were clearly inspired by Khomeini. They denounced the royal family’s lack of Islamic rigor, its ties to America, its extravagance. After weeks of combat, producing heavy carnage, the Sauds emerged victorious, ending the struggle with a flourish by beheading sixty-three rebels. The United States, which had long expected democratic reform in Saudi Arabia, was shocked at a popular uprising based on anti-Western jihad. But the monarchy’s reaction to the challenge was to push back all promise of democratic reform and to embrace an even more conspicuous Islamic piety.

Still, strategically Washington saw no choice but to support the only candidate available to fill the Shah’s shoes. It was not that the Sauds had much military potential, despite their acquisition of huge stocks of weapons. In Riyadh a few years ago, I asked Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, why the country’s armed forces were, despite a rough equivalence in population, so much weaker than Israel’s. He bristled at the comparison, muttering, “Building an army takes time…. We have to develop our human resources.” But Saudi officials, when pressed, admitted that the royal family had no appetite, especially after the Mecca insurgency, for developing a standing army that might wind up one day turning against it. It preferred relying on the United States for its security. Given the oil involved, Washington accepted the arrangement, and during the 1980s its relationship with Saudi Arabia’s royalty grew more intimate, more paternal.

Then in 1990, after months of turbulence, the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the cold war. Its demise upset longstanding strategic calculations. As the surviving superpower, the United States no longer had to factor Soviet power into its decisions–not in the Persian Gulf, not anywhere. It acquired a free hand in protecting, or advancing, its interests, oil and otherwise. It no longer needed a surrogate. It could do what it wanted on its own.

As the decade opened, Saddam Hussein was the only dissenter to US pre-eminence in the Gulf. The Reagan Administration had supported Iraq–with a conspicuous lapse in the Iran/contra fiasco–during its eight-year war against Khomeini. But the fit between the United States and Iraq had never been good, and after Saddam’s victory in 1988 neither made much effort to preserve the friendly ties it had cultivated. Saddam’s propaganda emphasized a heritage going back to ancient Babylon, conveying a dream of personal leadership of a new Arab empire. His success at stopping Khomeini’s ambitions had swelled his sense of himself and his power. At a minimum he wanted to be recognized as the dominant leader in the Gulf, a notion that was starkly at odds with Washington’s. The next two years were marked by rising tension between the two countries.

Saddam flexed his muscles in 1990, a bad time to provoke a dispute over Kuwait. The subject was Iraq’s war debt, which, he argued plausibly, Kuwait should forgive, in whole or in part, in consideration of the blood Iraqis had spilled in its defense. But Kuwait–at US instigation, some Middle East officials insist–did not yield. To Washington, Kuwait was vital in its emerging Gulf security system, a buffer against aggression by either Iraq or Iran on the Saudi oilfields. The United States had pledged to protect Kuwait during the Iran-Iraq war but left its postwar position unclear. When it took no public stand in the debt quarrel, Saddam concluded the United States was indifferent. Persuaded he could invade with impunity, he stumbled into disaster.

Saddam’s army seized Kuwait on August 1, 1990, which placed it in position to advance into Saudi Arabia. Intelligence in US hands left serious doubt about whether this was his intention, but the war hawks in Washington led by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney pressed for action, and the royal family was not disposed to gamble with its fate. In the tit-for-tat of the US-Saudi alliance, the monarchy invited the first President Bush to use its soil as a staging ground to liberate Kuwait. The Sauds seemed unable to perceive that in doing so they might be igniting a force more powerful than Saddam Hussein.

To counter Saddam, President Bush organized a powerful coalition consisting not just of Western but also Arab states stunned by Saddam’s transgression of Arab sovereignty. The strong international response to the aggression contrasted starkly with the feeble response a decade later to the second President Bush’s plan to launch a war on Iraq. Saddam’s worn anti-Western and anti-Zionist slogans fell flat in 1990, and the Arabs who urged restraint were shouted down. Few observers even noticed that Osama bin Laden, a Wahhabi who had helped defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, offered the Saudi monarchy an army of 100,000 holy warriors to liberate Kuwait, on the condition that the Sauds agreed to keep out infidel troops. The royal family declined the offer.

The Bush coalition’s victory simply re-affirmed the Saudi monarchy’s dependence on US control of the Gulf. At the same time, the coalition’s use of Saudi bases to invade Iraq, as well as its decision to retain them after Saddam’s defeat, inflamed many Saudis and provided bin Laden with justification for jihad against both America and his homeland.

Two years after Bush’s victory, bin Laden’s agents, organized as Al Qaeda, exploded a bomb beneath New York’s World Trade Center in what was later recognized as a test run. In the succeeding years, Al Qaeda spread its offensive in a range of attacks. It took nineteen American lives in a bombing of Dhahran in 1996, caused serious losses in assaults on US embassies in Africa in 1998 and finally hijacked four airliners on September 11, 2001, crashing two of them into New York’s Twin Towers, a third into the Pentagon and a fourth into a field in Pennsylvania. Of the nineteen hijackers on board, fifteen were Saudi, and in attacks since then, Saudis–though surely not Saudis alone–have been deeply involved. The Pentagon has admitted the presence of at least 120 Saudis at Guantánamo. It took two more years of denial before the royal family acknowledged that the kingdom itself was in jeopardy from bin Laden.

Numerous writers–American and European, journalists and academics–have tried to make sense of these attacks. Under public pressure President Bush himself, though disdainful of knowledge that is not politically useful, appointed the bipartisan 9/11 commission to make a study. Much of the research has positioned the attacks within the context of the American-Saudi relationship, in recognition of its ambivalent, mutually harmful and beneficial, nature. Most works ask whether the benefits outweigh the costs for the United States. The body of literature that has emerged, whatever the instances of partisanship or xenophobia, has produced a substantial increase in popular knowledge, though it is not nearly as much as the public needs.

In House of Bush, House of Saud, journalist Craig Unger outlines a conspiracy theory worthy of the culture of the Middle East. But, as a prominent Iraqi once said to me, “just because we Arabs are addicted to conspiracy theories doesn’t mean we are always wrong.” As an example Unger sketches some rather shady ties between George W. Bush’s Harken Energy, the source of his oil wealth, and BCCI, the Saudi-dominated bank that triggered a major scandal in the 1990s, when the first Bush was President. His account contains more information than the public ever received from the Justice Department or the press. If Unger’s material, delivered with the breathlessness of a TV reporter, often seems off the charts, that does not mean it is without truth.

Unger argues that 9/11 must be understood within the context of the ties between the Bush and Saud families. “These two dynasties,” he writes, “had a history dating back more than twenty years. Not just business partners and personal friends, the Bushes and the Saudis had pulled off elaborate covert operations and gone to war together. They had shared secrets that involved unimaginable personal wealth, spectacular military might, the richest energy resources in the world, and the most odious crimes imaginable…. Horrifying as it sounds, the secret relationship between these two great families helped to trigger the Age of Terror and give rise to the tragedy of 9/11.”

With indignation, Unger links items of circumstantial evidence to conclude that immediately after 9/11, the second President Bush acceded to a Saudi request to repatriate planeloads of Saud and bin Laden family members without interrogation by US authorities. That such planes flew to Saudi Arabia is not in dispute. But the 9/11 commission asserts that the flights were authorized at an administrative level and “we found no evidence of political intervention.” It adds that “our own independent review of the Saudi nationals involved confirms that no one with known [my italics] links to terrorism” was aboard. One must ask why such a momentous decision was reached by mere functionaries, if it was. The commission’s own words, if carefully examined, convey skepticism about the claims of Bush Administration officials.

The Bushes, no doubt, brought to government a commitment to the creed of the oil industry, which has weighed heavily in their Middle East thinking, but this is not the same as a conspiracy. The huge Saudi military expenditures began after the Shah’s fall, when Reagan was President. Only the Israelis–convinced that Arabs are by nature more dangerous than Iranians, with whom they had a productive relationship before Khomeini–raised a significant protest. Unger has good reason to lament the absence of strategic debate among Americans. But Reagan did not need a Bush to convince him that Saudi help was required for the Gulf’s defense.

Thomas W. Lippman, in Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership With Saudi Arabia, approaches the problem differently. For a longtime journalist in the Middle East, he is surprisingly thin on politics. Instead, he goes back to the early days, when the first oil producers arrived on Saudi soil, and takes a friendly walk down memory lane to tell us about the seed time of the American-Saudi relationship.

It opened with CASOC, soon to be called Aramco, which began delivering oil in 1938. Lippman writes, with seeming naïveté, “Even Aramco’s critics acknowledge that the company labored mightily to improve the living standards and health of the Arabs, to educate them and to impart the technical skills they would need to advance in their new careers as oil workers. The Arabs learned to operate and repair equipment they had never heard of a few years before. They learned to read, to drive, to use slide rules, to agitate the water in their canisters so that mosquitoes would not settle and breed. Aramco taught them to wear Western-style clothing and boots so they could work safely, their robes no longer prey to fast moving machinery and their toes no longer exposed.”

Only as an afterthought does he tell us that in time Aramco grew complacent about its relations with the Saudis. “It assumed they were happy,” he says, “because Aramco thought it was treating them well.” But “the Arabs wanted something less easy to deliver than trucks and generators: They wanted respect.”

Even Washington, not often so vigilant, recognized all was not in order. In 1951 a State Department memo proposed to “encourage Aramco to pursue progressive and enlightened policies in connection with wages, housing for Arab employees, training and education.” Notwithstanding this urging, the Saudi work force remained concentrated in the ranks of the unskilled and, “by 1953, when Arab nationalism inspired by the republican revolution in Egypt [Nasserism] was stirring anti-foreign sentiment throughout the Arab world,” 95 percent of Aramco’s 13,555 Saudi employees were still in the lowest pay grades.

In a little-known incident, Aramco’s Saudi workers went on strike for higher wages and better housing in 1953. The monarchy was stunned by their presumption. When a workers’ delegation brought its case before the government authorities, they were arrested, and when the strike spread to the airbase at Dhahran, the state sent in troops and forced the workers to return to their jobs. The royal family left no doubt whom it favored in the contest. Even when it nationalized Aramco twenty years later, its objective was to raise its own income, not provide a better life for its citizens. Though Lippman draws no conclusions of his own, he reveals much about the rising bitterness among the population toward the monarchy, which surely tells us something about why bin Laden found Saudis so easy to recruit.

Consistently, US officials expressed their apprehension over America’s role in aggravating the alienation between Saudis and their rulers, particularly as rising nationalism began threatening US interests. Lippman quotes a warning contained in another State Department memo, this one dated 1961: “The very presence of United States military personnel in Saudi Arabia… disturb[s] Saudi and Arab nationalists.”

This memo circulated in an era when Arab nationalists were secular. Arab nationalism intensified in the 1980s, when it started to overlap with religious extremism. By the time hundreds of thousands of Western soldiers landed to save their country from Saddam, Saudis were feeling surly. To avoid offense, the US command set rules for its troops–no alcohol, no female entertainers or lewd magazines, no T-shirts on female soldiers, no open worship by Christians or Jews. But the extremists were implacable: The very troops that assured the royal family’s rule were also subverting it. Even though the United States agreed to withdraw most of its forces, extremist attacks on the monarchy continued.

John Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis deals with these attacks with unusual insight. An Arabic-speaking ex-editor of the English-language Arab News, he uses a graceful journalist’s pen to write with scholarly authority. He lived for several years in Jeddah, in the Hejaz, a sector of the peninsula that has resisted Wahhabi puritanism since the Sauds conquered it nearly a century ago. Bradley’s work shows a sensitivity rare for a Westerner, reaching directly to the society’s core.

Bradley recognizes, for example, the dangers to social stability of the 60 percent of Saudis who are under 21. Poorly educated, living at home where they are coddled by parents and foreign servants, without qualifications for administrative jobs but refusing manual work, they are utterly directionless. All contacts with the other sex are forbidden. These youth spread their discontent over the Internet, but otherwise boredom hangs over them “like a toxic cloud.” Crime among the young and jobless has risen nearly fivefold since 1990. Their life, Bradley says, promotes feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, leading “some to wantonness and others to the straight and narrow of fundamentalism.”

Bradley also writes shrewdly of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites, a substantial minority nationally but a majority in the oil-rich Eastern Province. The government, pressed by its Wahhabi constituency, has always treated them as infidels, forcing them to conduct their religious observances in secret. Historically the Shiites have been passive, but since the Shiite victory under Khomeini in Iran, and more recently since the rise to power of Iraq’s Shiite community, they have become more assertive, arousing in the monarchy a fear that they might be developing a power base in the oil region. Whenever the monarchy has made some effort to appease them, it has provoked the ire of the Wahhabi establishment. Squeezed by the two sides, it is being undermined by both.

Whatever his other strengths, Bradley is at his most impressive in dealing with the subtle political ramifications of Saudi Arabia’s tribal system, about which Westerners know almost nothing. He reminds us that more than once in the past century or so, the Sauds have had to face tribal uprisings, which they suppressed brutally, and that tribal rivalry is far from over. As a sign of growing awareness by US diplomats, he tells us, a Saudi who applies for a visa must now provide a tribal affiliation, but Bradley is skeptical about whether American officials can tell the difference between friendly tribes and hostile ones.

To me, the book’s most significant revelation is that most of the fifteen Saudis who hijacked planes on 9/11 were not Wahhabis at all but rather tribesmen from the southern province of Asir. Like Hejazis and Shiites, he writes, Asiris “have always been reluctant partners in the Saudi state.” Interestingly, Asiri women, unique among Saudis, are allowed to drive cars, but Bradley warns that this freedom does not suggest a pro-Western tilt. On the contrary, bin Laden, who knows Asir well, found eager recruits on personal missions there. What he and the Asiris shared was contempt for the monarchy’s high life, and so the two had common cause to inflict injury on the Sauds and their protector. Such observations lead Bradley to conclude that 9/11, far from being the product of recent events, was inevitable from the start of the American-Saudi alliance that was born six decades ago.

All of these books appeared, of course, before the accession to the throne of Prince Abdullah, who had been exercising executive authority in the kingdom since a stroke incapacitated King Fahd, his half-brother, in 1995. Saudi opinion seems to hold that Abdullah’s accession will change little, largely because he, though perhaps a shade more reformist, remains subject to the consensus of the circle of senior members of the royal family. More mysterious was the abrupt replacement a few weeks earlier of Prince Bandar, ambassador to Washington for the past twenty-two years, by Prince Turki al-Faisal, an ex-head of Saudi intelligence. Some observers expressed disquiet over the change on the grounds that the new envoy recruited mujahedeen and maintained contacts with bin Laden during the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. But so did the CIA. At best, it is likely to take a while before a new pattern emerges in the US-Saudi relationship.

That is precisely why this might be a good time for the Bush Administration to step up its reading on Saudi Arabia, including these books. Unfortunately, this Administration takes pride in not reading books or learning lessons from the past. In response to critics who warned that in invading Iraq the United States was failing to take reality into account, the Administration answered that it made its own reality. The consequences in Iraq have been catastrophic, and as long as the Administration ignores the reality of Saudi fragility, it not only risks losing a vital ally but undermines its own prospects for defeating global terrorism. To be sure, no power on earth is strong enough at this point to dislodge the United States from the Persian Gulf, or deprive it of the oil it consumes so greedily. But the Administration’s persistent dismissal of Middle East reality will surely doom us to more physical destruction and the loss of more American lives–maybe even worse.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy