The Arab uprisings, democratic demands and the Saudi payroll
Hillary Clinton (centre) meets King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (right) in Riyadh to discuss Syria. Photograph: AP.
By Rupen Savoulian
May 21, 2012 -- Antipodean Athiest, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author-- In April 2012, a number of high-level political officials attended conferences in Paris and Istanbul organised by the Friends of Syria group. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton attended these meetings, and joined the foreign ministers from the NATO powers and Arab Gulf monarchies in denouncing the killings committed by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The Friends of Syria meeting brought about greater collaboration between the various imperialist countries and the Syrian rebel forces. One of the main attendees at these meetings, and now major sponsor of the Syrian rebel groups, was Saudi Arabia. Clinton and her Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, now former French President Sarkozy and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan all expressed their commitment to "democracy" and vowed to do all they could to topple the Ba’athist dictatorship in Damascus. Saudi Arabia, and its Gulf ally Qatar have led the charge to arm and finance Syrian rebel forces.
It is worthwhile to take a closer look at the history of cooperation between the imperialist powers and Saudi Arabia. Claims by Clinton, Sarkozy and Erdogan that democracy is uppermost in their minds are absolutely ludicrous. Last year, Amnesty International issued a report on the Saudi Arabian government called Saudi Arabia: Repression in the name of security. The report details the many crimes of the Saudi Arabian government, specifically its total repression of political dissent, the imprisonment and torture of dissidents, the repeated crackdowns on freedom of expression, and the broad and sweeping definition of terrorism as a way to suppress a wide variety of political groups.
Saudi Arabia, ruled by a dictatorial royal family, has been at the forefront of opposition to democratic and revolutionary movements throughout the Arab world. While the Syrian uprising has received extensive media coverage, the conduct of the Saudi ruling elite, its repressive policies and its close ties to the United States receive scant attention. Saudi Arabia has been, and continues to be, a key pivot of US foreign policy, coordinating efforts to destabilise and undermine any Arab regime or group that espouses Arab nationalist, secular or revolutionary demands.
The Saudi regime is currently the base of US-sponsored manoeuvres to oppose the growing tide of uprisings and demands for democratisation in the region. The ruling clique in Riyadh espouse a particularly fanatical, puritanical version of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. The Riyadh regime spends billions of dollars each year on campaigns to promote fundamentalist doctrines, broadcasting and propagating its version of Islamic creationism and reactionary royalism to counter the surge of Arab nationalist, secular and democratic protests.
Saudi forces have actively intervened in neighbouring Bahrain and Yemen to assist those authoritarian regimes suppress pro-democracy protests in their respective countries, with the full compliance and permission of Washington and other imperialist powers. Its enormous oil wealth is used to enrich a tiny minority elite, and the Shia minority suffers from harassment and discrimination. Nearly 6 million workers are migrant labourers, mainly from South-East Asia, who work the most dangerous and menial jobs with little regard for their rights.
Since its founding in 1932 as a united country, Saudi Arabia has countered the spread of secular, socialist and democratic ideas throughout the Arab world. As Charles Allen documents in his book God’s Terrorists, countering non-religious forces, such as the Arab nationalist and semi-socialist Egyptian regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, was a top priority. The ruling Ibn Saud family pushed to establish organisations such as the Founding Committee of the Muslim World League, the Supreme Committee for Islamic Propagation and other similar bodies specifically to promote the Wahhabist denomination of Islam and counter socialist and secular tendencies.
These initiatives were welcomed and promoted by the ruling class of the United States, as a counter to any moves by Arab countries to move away from the US sphere of influence and set up an alternative, non-aligned political and economic orientation. Egypt’s Nasser, after having been rebuffed by the US and Britain, opened up to the socialist bloc for economic development and political support.
Saudi Arabian state is formed
In 1932 the emirates of Nejd and Hijaz, created by Ibn Saud, were united into one political federation. The founding doctrines of the Saudi emirate go back to the mid-18th century and the campaigns by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab to purify Islam; rescue it from what he saw as its atrophy and deterioration. Wahhab advocated a particularly strict and literalist interpretation of Islam, and sought to combat what he determined were corrupting outside influences. Forming an alliance with a tribal chieftain in eastern Arabia, Muhammad ibn Saud, he launched a series of military and religious campaigns to stamp out any practices and influences deemed to be heretical. Wahhab made a political alliance with one of the main clans in the Arabian peninsula, al-Saud. This alliance formed the basis for continued cooperation, merging religion and the state into an emirate.
The House of Saud captured the city of Riyadh in the early 1900s, and this city became the eventual capital of a unified Saudi state.
In the early part of the 20th century, the al-Saud and various clans in the Arabian peninsula were courted by the British, through the emissary of Harry St. John Philby. The British wanted to foment an Arab uprising that would drive out the Ottoman Turkish rulers of the Arabian lands and install a friendly pro-British regime. The Wahhabist ideology, and its Saudi backers, formed useful allies for the cause of the British empire. The Arab revolt against the Turkish empire succeeded in installing a new Saudi emirate, with Ibn Saud as the first recognised king.
The new kingdom of Saudi Arabia was one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, but in the mid-1930s, vast commercially viable quantities of oil were discovered in the Arabian peninsula. While the British wished to exploit these oil reserves, and extend their business interests which were already significant in Iraq and Iran, it was the Americans who moved into Saudi Arabia expeditiously. In 1933, the Saudi government granted an oil concession to the US company Standard Oil of California. The latter company has since been absorbed into Chevron corporation. The Saudi Arabian National Oil Company, Aramco, is owned by the Saudi regime and was an estimated net worth of US$781 billion dollars back in 2005. The Saudi regime ensures the flow of oil to the imperialist countries is uninterrupted. In 2010, the revenue of the Saudi Aramco company was $210 billion. All this wealth has enriched a tiny minority of princely families, while the majority of workers in the country, mostly foreign nationals, labour in appalling conditions for pitiful wages. In 2011, Saudi Arabia was poised to overtake Russia as the world’s leading exporter of oil.
US President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Saud aboard the warship USS Quincy in 1945, signs military and commercial agreements to exploit Saudi Arabia’s massive oil reserves. The US ruling class had begun on a course of active collaboration with an Islamist fundamentalist rightist regime. This meeting was pivotal in developing ties between the two states. The United States began its long and active flirtation with rightist Islamism, and continues until the present day.
In the late 1940s, US military personnel turn in the kingdom to provide training and technical military assistance. Riyadh and Washington start to cooperate in the Cold War. In 1951, the US and Saudi Arabia signed and implemented a mutual defence agreement, and the US established a permanent military presence in the country. It was President Eisenhower, in the 1950s, who expanded and consolidated the support of US imperialism for Saudi-style Islamist fundamentalism. Eisenhower and the US government reasoned that with the Cold War, it was imperative to combat the spread of pan-Arab nationalism and socialism in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia formed the perfect candidate to provide the antidote, radical rightist Islamism.
The US ruling elite welcomed the Saudi kingdom as a necessary and valuable partner in the Cold War. Eisenhower noted that the Saudi regime’s militant religiosity and strident anti-communism made it an indispensable partner in countering the spread of secular, socialist ideas and movements in the Arab world.
In 1952, when the pro-British monarchy of Egypt was toppled in a revolution by the Arab nationalist Free Officers Movement led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saudi Arabia became the focal point of intrigues against that country, to combat the rise of socialistic, Arab nationalist ideas. Nasser gravitated towards the Eastern bloc, and the Arab monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, launch concerted efforts to stifle the Egyptian, pan-Arab revolutionary movement.
In the 1960s, a number of pan-Islamic institutions are formed to combat the rising ideology of secularism in the Arab countries, all with the backing of the United States. The Islamic University of Medina and the King Abdel Aziz University are formed in the 1960s to become intellectual centres for rightist political Islamism, and inculcate the ideas of the puritanical Wahhabist creed in its students. One of the leaders of the Islamic institutions, Sheikh Abdel Aziz bin Baz, was a fanatical Wahhabist who insisted on the literal interpretation of the Quran. He announced in 1966 that the Copernican world-view – that the earth and planets revolve around the Sun – was heretical and contrary to the teachings of the Quran. From Saudi Arabian universities, thousands of mullahs were turned out to spread political Islamist doctrines. The US has helped to train and arm fundamentalist Islamism in the Arab world.
Saudi role in Syria’s rebellion
Saudi Arabia is currently leading efforts to arm and train its favoured factions of the Syrian rebels to impose a strict fundamentalist political agenda on that country’s rebellion. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have supported US plans for military confrontation with the Iranian regime. The royalist dictatorship in Riyadh has played a pivotal role in gathering support among the Arab world for the US designs on the region, including escalating tensions with Iran.
There was a time when Saudi Arabia funded and trained groups of rebels to fight against a progressive, socialist government. Back in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia, along with other reactionary Islamic states, funded and trained Afghan rebel groups to fight against the secular, socialist government of Afghanistan. The Islamist groups spent most of their time fighting and destroying other Afghan rebel groups, thus promoting a political agenda of the former reactionary mullahs and landlord class dispossessed by the Afghan socialist government.
When the masses of Bahrain rose up in 2011 in protest against the royalist dictatorship in that country, the Saudi regime sent thousands of troops to violently suppress the rebellion. Bahrainis were killed and wounded, but the military contracts, and supply of military equipment, that Riyadh depends upon from the various imperialist powers continued unhindered.
The US and imperialist countries have continuously relied on the Saudi state to crush any pro-democracy uprisings, support reactionary Islamist groups and steer any political movements in the Arab world in a direction friendly to the US and its interests. The political leaders of the US, Britain, France and other powers shed crocodile tears for the casualties of the Arab Spring, but completely ignore the total lack of democratic freedoms in their own key ally in the region. Maintaining close relations with Riyadh involves guaranteeing the steady flow of oil and profits from the Saudi state, and the latter performs its role as the ‘policeman’ in the Persian Gulf region.
While using its oil wealth to cultivate Wahhabist groups and finance religious education in the Arab world, Saudi has played a key role in supporting plans to promote US economic and political interests in the region. While the imperialist countries disguise their interventions in the Middle East in a 'humanitarian" garb, they actively cooperate and support repressive, anti-democratic regimes such as the Saudi state.