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Saudi Arabia: American policy impaled on the horns of a dilemma

02/10/2004

Which is the most important country in the Middle East? Probably it is Saudi Arabia, the birthplace and center of Islam, as well as the birthplace of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire. For the USA, it is certainly Saudi Arabia and the surrounding oil-rich Gulf states. Saudi Arabia has one third of the worlds proven oil reserves. This oil is cheap to extract, at a dollar a barrel, it can easily compete with US oil which costs $10 to $12 dollars, and Russian oil, which costs up to $18 dollars a barrel to extract. The US and Saudi Arabia have long been bound together in a close if sometimes uncomfortable relationship

It is very probable that the USA went to war in Iraq in part to protect its interests in Saudi Arabia, and to protect the Gulf region from the spread of radicalism. Saudi Arabia also has one one of the most problematic regimes in the Middle East. Religious police (mutawa'een) impose a harsh and repressive form of Islam, thieves have their hands cut off, women cannot get drivers' licenses, a somewhat corrupt monarchy tries to balance reform against the threat of takeover by even more extremist elements, and Saudis (though not necessarily the government) have been extensively implicated in sponsoring Islamism and Al-Qaida activities, including the 9-11 attacks on the USA. The Saudi Arabian government is also the target of Al-Qaida terror activities, including several recent bombings. Though Al-Qaida attacked the USA in September 2001, many analysts agree the the real target of the attacks was the Saudi regime, a rich prize for any bandit. Osama Bin Laden's rhetoric certainly indicates that Al-Qaida was, and is, targetting "apostate" regimes who cooperate with non-Muslims. In Osama-talk, these regimes are like the Gassassinah, Arabs who were Greek Christians and refused to accept the rule of Islam.

Saudi Arabia has become one of the focuses of concerted criticism by neoconservatives in the USA, who argue the case for imposing reforms on the regime and even for regime change. An infamous presentation in the State Department, sponsored Pentagon consultant Richard Perle, argued that regime change in Saudi Arabia is the key to implementing democracy in the Middle East. The conservative press is full of rather undiscriminating and uncomplimentary references to Wahhabis, the Islamic sect that is the backbone of the Saudi regime, who are blamed for all the evils of Islamist extremism.

Cooler headed analysis suggests that regime change in Saudi Arabia would probably be a disaster for the United States and for friends of democracy in the Middle East. If the Saudi monarchy falls, it would most likely be replaced not by moderates, and certainly not by friends of Israel, but rather by really wild Wahhabi extremists allied to Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Even less inviting is the prospect that the oil rich south east provinces, which are home to a dissastisfied Shi'ite minority, would secede from Saudi Arabia and form a separate Shi'ite state, which would probably bolster the Iranian concervatives. The paradox (or paradoxes) of Saudi Arabia is pointed out by Michael Doran, in a thoughtful article in Foreign Affairs .

Doran's seminal article has attracted a great deal of attention by Saudi watchers, and is likely to be the basis of much debate about policy. Some analysts have questioned a major premise of that article, which casts Crown Prince Abdullah in the role of a "reformer" amd "good guy" and Interior Minister Prince Nayef as a "bad guy conservative." They point out that not long ago the roles seem to have been reversed, and that the positions they take may be a function of their respective political exigencies. However, there is wide agreement about the basic paradoxes and problems that Doran points out. Saudi political reality is complex. The monarchy of the Saud family rests on a two century old relationship with the Wahhabi sect, and derives its legitimacy from the Wahhabis. Therefore, they cannot very easily disown the Wahhabis or minimize their role in the state. On the other hand, the need for reform is urgent. According to Michael Doran, Crown Prince Abdullah's "national dialogue" is aimed at bringing about enfranchisement of the Shi'ite minority. This has provoked an even stronger reaction from the more militant factions of the Wahhabis, who are striving to radicalize the state and threatening the monarchy and its relationship with the USA. If either Shi'ites or conservatives bring about the regime change beloved of neo-conservatives, the result will not be good for the USA. President Bush should be careful of what he asks for in wishing for democracy in the the Middle East, because providence often grants the wishes of those it hates. Likewise, the neoconservatives might not be happy with regime change, if and when it comes. When navigating in this china shop packed with nitroglycerin, the neoconservative bulls should step carefully.

Ami Isseroff

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