NOTE: This article first appeared in the
Wall Street Journal Europe.
state of confusion in Saudi Arabia is coming to a head. There are
intimations of a revolutionary rift with the United States, and
with it the possible collapse of what hitherto has been one of America's
indispensable allies in the Middle East. Overall, the desert kingdom
bears on it the manufacturer's stamp "Made in Britain, about
1925," and that is no guarantee of endurance.
The country and its ruling family have had a bad war. Relations
with the United States have been tested and found wanting. Though
continuing to speak politely through tight lips, the Bush administration
is far from pleased. It senses that the Saudi rule is being pushed
to breakpoint by its internal inconsistencies. Sources inside the
administration report that the utterances of the ruling princes
have become even more mystically opaque than usual.
All of this
has an impact on the continuation of American bases in Saudi Arabia.
These exist in the country as a protection against invasion and
occupation by Saddam Hussein, and although the Saudi regime sided
with the United States verbally after September 11, in practice
it placed restrictions on the full use of these facilities for operations
in Afghanistan, obliging the American military to improvise far-fetched
and expensive alternatives.
Saudi Arabia has broken with its native son Osama bin Laden and
the Taliban regime, but failed to examine its own previous sponsorship
of these extremists or to stop surreptitious support for them, financial
and moral. It has been, and still is, the source of much of the
Islamic radicalism now destabilizing the world far and wide. That
remains to be dealt with.
The Saudi confusion
has several facets. First and foremost, the country is in the hands
of an infirm monarch, his successor Crown Prince Abdullah and a
handful of royal princes, most of them elderly men, self-selected
by seniority among the four or five thousand available members of
the royal family. The country's oil revenues are theirs to do with
as they choose. Their notorious corruption and extravagance are
evident for all to see. Their privileges place them above the law.
At a whim they can make or break others.
nothing but the daily clashing of the personal ambitions of this
ruling handful. Unable to agree among themselves, some take a view
that their future lies with the United States; others that they
must drop this strategic alliance and mend their fences with hostile
Iraq and equally hostile Iran. This explains the spate of contradictory
press reports about the closing of the bases. The Washington
Post, the Guardian, the Associated Press, only to cite
a few, have recently quoted Saudi sources as saying that the United
States will shortly be asked to withdraw its forces on the grounds
that they are a "political liability." Secretary of States
Colin Powell says the base closure is not currently being discussed.
In favor of
the bases staying, at least for some time, is the fact that Saudi
policies have a habit of canceling each other out. About the only
two things the family members seem to agree on are that their brand
of Islamic radicalism is the right one, and that paying subsidies
to like-minded groups, whether terrorists or not, is the approach
to take. Money for them is a tool for buying friends and buying
off enemies, but in their part of the world friends and enemies
change places rapidly and unpredictably.
One of the
reasons the Saudis may not be able to sustain this model much longer
is that money at the moment is scarce; the economy is shrinking
and unemployment is reported to be 30 percent. Elections and opinion
polls are unthinkable in this society, but if there were such things
they would reveal that Osama bin Laden is a national hero, far more
popular than the monarchy.
escape so far from capture or death gives him legendary status.
His career rests on primitive anti-Americanism. To him, the presence
of American bases has been sacrilege in a holy Islamic land, and
the Americans have to go. Behind the rhetorical aim of destroying
the United States was evidently his own bid to seize power at home
from the royal family. And he has energized his fellow-countrymen
in his cause. It was mostly Saudi citizens who carried out the September
11 attacks. As many as 25,000 Saudis have left the country to fight
for one or another Islamist terror group.
In the aftermath
of the Afghan campaign it is no longer possible for the Saudis to
continue double-dealing, offering the Americans a disdainful lip-service
loyalty while also tolerating, or worse encouraging, anti-American
extremism. A choice has to be made, and it will determine the future
of the region. The Saudi rulers could crack down on the Islamist
extremists, arresting the many sheikhs who preach in favor of bin
Laden and destroying the networks of his supporters. Or they can
delude themselves that the cause of present distress is not their
own corruption and privilege and incompetence, but the presence
of American bases in the country, and the bases will accordingly
have to close.
The Saudi princes
should remember, however, that this has been bin Laden's particular
demand, so that such an outcome would be a meaningful victory for
him and his cause. In the ability to have his way even though he
is absent and possibly dead, the Saudi population would find confirmation
of the man's heroic stature.
As the ruling
princes meet in secret family conclaves in their Riyadh palaces,
they will have another consideration to bear in mind. They know
that they have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on military
equipment, but to no avail. The Saudi army is not an effective fighting
force, and many, if not most, of the airforce pilots are only mercenaries
on hire from other Islamic countries such as Pakistan. Maintenance
and morale are equally poor. In their one and only experience of
battle, Saudi soldiers ran away from the Iraqis during Desert Storm
in 1991. Had the American military not been present, Saddam Hussein
could have captured Saudi Arabia as swiftly and easily as Kuwait.
The withdrawal of American bases consequently would expose Saudi
Arabia once more to that existential threat. And just over the horizon
is Iran, acquiring weapons of mass destruction as busily as Iraq.
The Saudi rulers may well prefer to have America with them when
the time comes to confront these dangers. They are in the process
of weighing up whether they are most afraid of bin Laden's shadow,
and so need to propitiate their people by removing the American
presence; or whether they are most afraid of Saddam Hussein and
Iran and so must keep the American protective shield. Fear is famously
a bad counselor, particularly for a body of timorous old men with
a long track record of misjudgment. One last consideration for them:
Iraq or Iran could well precipitate a crisis in which the United
States would have no choice but to occupy at least Hasa, the Saudi
province where the oil fields are, putting on the country the new
manufacturer's stamp of "Made in America."