A house of cards

America's tense relations with Saudi Arabia.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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As he surveyed the carnage after suicide bombers blew apart a Western living compound in the Saudi capital Riyadh, an ashen-faced secretary of state Colin Powell vowed to help the Saudi authorities catch the perpetrators.

It is reported that 29 people were killed in the attacks, including 10 Americans, and a further 150 injured. Powell’s visit had been intended to repair relations with the Kingdom after recent tensions – but now it seems that the USA has yet more reasons to distrust its once most-trusted ally in the Middle East.

In the 1970s, the US military developed the ‘three pillars’ policy in the Middle East. The first pillar was Israel, whose ties to America were cemented in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. The second was Iran, where US Special Forces had restored the Peacock throne of Shah Reza Pahlavi, overthrowing the elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh. And the third was Saudi Arabia, the monarchy established under the House of Ibn Saud, when Britain armed the Arabs to fight against the Ottoman Empire.

The three pillars were conservative allies in a region rocked by radical Arab nationalism, inspired by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and other popular leaders. But the long decline of Arab nationalism has meant that traditionalist allies have been less important to the USA.

Before the end of the 1970s, America had failed to defend the Shah of Iran against a popular uprising that led to the establishment of an Islamic republic under the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Israel continues to enjoy American support, though its use as a regional policeman has been much diminished. Israel was active against Arab armies in the Golan Heights and Sinai in the 1960s and 70s, and occupied southern Lebanon in the 1980s; today it defends its military presence in Gaza and the West Bank.

The third pillar, Saudi Arabia, continued to play a key role in US foreign policy right through to the election of President George W Bush in 2000. Despite the much-talked up conflict between the Organisation of Oil Producing Countries (OPEC), led by Saudi Sheikh Yamani in 1973, and the West, Saudi Arabia remained a key American ally. The Saudis’ vast oil production guaranteed that no radical power would monopolise this key resource for the West.

Bent to oil, Saudi Arabia’s development was peculiarly skewed. The oil industry concentrated great surpluses of wealth in the hands of the vast House of Saud, but created relatively few opportunities for gainful employment among the Saudi population.

This one-sided development was useful to the Saudi royal family, because it limited the pressure for popular change felt in more populous Arab countries, like Egypt and Algeria, just as it was useful to the West. The severe Wahhabi Islam peculiar to the region suited the demands of social conservatism in the Kingdom. King Feisal, who ruled from 1962 to 1975, established Islamic universities to channel the Islamist sentiment.

American and Saudi interests coincided with the export of conservative Islamic influence in the region – at least they did in the period of rising secular nationalism. Saudis funded conservative schools and welfare groups throughout the Middle East, with the blessing of the USA. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980, Saudi Arabia bankrolled the mujahideen fighters, whose ranks were swelled by young Saudis and trained by CIA operatives. In the early 1990s, this emerging Islamic international brigade sent volunteers to fight in Bosnia. Then in 1994 the Saudis bankrolled the Taliban, in cooperation with the Pakistani Secret Services, to stabilise a divided Afghanistan.

The decline of secular nationalism in the Middle East shifted the balance of US policy. Islamic fundamentalism, which had proved useful as an alternative to more radical movements, was beginning to look like a problem – especially after the foundation of the Islamic republic in Iran. At the same time, US policymakers were emboldened by victory in the Cold War against the Soviet Union to deal with the Middle East directly, instead of through proxies.

Saudis were shaken by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and grateful for the US action against Saddam in 1991 – though they came to regret its consequences. US troops were for the first time stationed on Saudi soil after Saudis supported the allies. In time these troops became a source of tension, and a target of terrorist attacks. The al-Qaeda network, in substance the Saudis’ own clandestine foreign policy operation, was now operating on its own.

While Bill Clinton’s administration dealt directly with the two sides in the Palestine-Israel conflict, a bored Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan complained that he had nothing to do in Washington. Following the change in American administration in 2000, the Saudis were even more frustrated. Kept out of the loop, they were increasingly angered by the new Bush administration’s apparent endorsement of Israeli premier Ariel Sharon’s aggressive policy in the occupied territories – a conflict that threatened to heighten popular dissatisfaction with Arab leaders in the region.

In August 2001, Crown Prince Abdallah sent a blistering note to George W Bush, threatening a breakdown in relations: ‘A time comes when peoples and nations part. We are at a crossroads. It is time for the United States and Saudi Arabia to look at their separate interests.’ (1) An emollient reply was dispatched, promising movement on the Middle East (2) – but then the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked by a group of Saudi-led Islamists.

Conservative commentators and some junior policymakers turned on Saudi Arabia. The demand for action against terrorism suddenly put the long-standing alliance in a new light. People were asking what the USA was doing endorsing this reactionary feudal regime (forgetting that it had relied on the same regime to stabilise the Middle East for decades).

Was the Saudi regime secretly operating Al-Qaeda, US policymakers wanted to know? And how was it right that US service women were made to
wear the veil to acquiesce to Saudi sensibilities? When the Saudis responded with full-page advertisements in the US press, Americans were more appalled by the authoritarian style of the message than its supportive content. Saudi contributions to the reconstruction of New York were refused.

US intervention in Afghanistan and later Iraq further threatened relations between America and Saudi Arabia. With the USA acting with impunity in the Middle East, the Saudis were surplus to American requirements, except as oil exporters. The bullish rhetoric about democratising the region no doubt caused alarm in the House of Saud. With US troops stationed in Iraq, the need for the unpopular bases in Saudi Arabia was over, and – by mutual agreement – they were to be closed, until the latest attack happened (3).

When the announcement of the withdrawal of US troops was made, a few wags suggested that this meant that the ground was clear for an American invasion. Today that looks less like a joke. Tensions are no doubt high and the long-term trend is for a cooling of relations between the USA and Saudi Arabia. In itself, that is destabilising for the Saudi regime. But the USA has little to gain from further involvement in the region, and might come to regret its willingness to knock down another pillar.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

Read on:

Reading everything into Riyadh, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) ‘Saudi Leader’s Anger Revealed Shaky Ties’, Washington Post, 10 February 2002

(2) ‘The Scandal of US-Saudi Relations’, Daniel Pipes, The National
, Winter 2002/03

(3) ‘Saudis plan to end US presence’, New York Times, 9 February 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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