Sidestepping Washington's Saudi landmines


Saudi Time Bomb?
WGBH Frontline
Tuesday, February 5, 8.30pm


This program opens with US President George Bush's famous September 20 warning that justified Washington's war on Afghanistan: "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists". Will Saudi Time Bomb expose Saudi Arabia as a leading sponsor of terrorism? Will it detail how the Saudi ruling class and US imperialism spawned the international terrorist network that became al Qaeda? Don't hold your breath.

Saudi Time Bomb is almost entirely framed by the debate within the US ruling class over whether Washington should urge its repressive Saudi client to "reform" itself or continue "business as usual" with the 5000 oil-rich princes who hold virtually every position of power in the kingdom. It is only in this context that Riyadh's sponsorship of fanatical religious terrorists since at least 1978 is canvassed.

Some in US ruling circles see the spectre of the 1979 Iranian Revolution hovering above the decadent Saudi autocracy. They fear that the House of Saud's foundations are shakier than ever and, unless a moderate bourgeois opposition is promoted and embraced within reformed state institutions, more extreme anti-Western opposition forces will harness growing popular discontent and topple the monarchy.

Should that happen, Washington would lose its key client state in the Middle East and its control of the vast oil reserves upon which the developed capitalist countries rely. It is this that explains Washington's belated hostility to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist followers. What Saudi Time Bomb makes apparent is that a key component of Washington's "war on terrorism" is to defend its Saudi clients.

Decades of unwavering US political, economic and military support for the corrupt rule of the Saudi sheikhs has led to mounting anti-US sentiment in the cities and provinces — further magnified by Washington's support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the misery that sanctions have inflicted on poor Iraqis.

Critics of the regime also charge that the gap between rich and poor is widening and that unemployment is above 20%. Political parties are banned, there is no parliament and no right of free speech or assembly.

Bin Laden was a billionaire member of the Saudi Arabian capitalist class who fell out with the royal family over its decision to station US troops in Saudi Arabia during and after the 1990 Gulf War. While he clothes his opposition in the garb of Islam, his main gripe was that Riyadh did not employ the mercenary army he had organised, supplied and trained during the civil war in Afghanistan — backed and funded by the Saudi rulers, the CIA and the Pakistan military.

It is a badly kept secret that sections of the Saudi ruling class and especially segments of Saudi Arabia's anti-democratic Wahhabi religious establishment — which rules in alliance with the sheikhs — sympathise and collaborate with bin Laden. Little wonder that some in Washington question Saudi Arabia's "reliability" as an ally.

Bin Laden's opposition to the presence of more than 5000 US troops on Saudi soil, his calls for the overthrow of the Saudi regime and other US puppets in the region and his commitment to an austere and rigid form of Islam — in stark contrast to the corruption and extravagance of Riyadh's rulers — have won him support within Saudi Arabia.

Saad al Fagih, from the Movement for Islam Reform in Arabia, told Saudi Time Bomb that many in Saudi Arabia were "jubilant and happy" when news of the September 11 attacks arrived. They looked at bin Laden "as a hero". Fifteen of the 19 September 11 hijackers were believed to be Saudi citizens.

Former US secretary of state (1989-92) James Baker, when asked whether those seeking change in the kingdom see US troops as "mercenaries who are defending the royal family", readily admits: "Some people do see that and for them it's the crux of their objection".

Brent Scowcroft, US national security adviser (1989-92) to President George Bush senior, went further: "Look, the Saudis are very worried because Osama bin Laden is probably a deeper threat to Saudi Arabia, to Egypt, to Jordan ... than to the United States. Osama bin Laden is going after [the US] to get us out of the region, so he can deal with the corrupt regimes that he sees in the region, or replace them with pure Islam."

But Baker also makes clear that Washington will not abandon the Saudi aristocracy: "Why are we [the Saudi rulers'] security? Because we have a self-interest in making sure that those energy reserves of the Persian Gulf don't fall under the control of a country that is adverse to the United States. I worked for four administrations, under three presidents, and in every one our policy was that we would go to war to protect [those] energy reserves."

Saudi Time Bomb reveals that the network of religious fanatics that includes bin Laden's al Qaeda, the Taliban and the perpetrators of recent acts of terrorism were — and continue to be — inspired and funded by the Saudi rulers through "charities" and hundreds of subsidised religious schools around the world.

However, a glaring omission is the fact that, throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, this was a joint covert operation with the CIA and approved at the highest levels of the US government. Its purpose was to recruit and train Muslim anti-communist terrorists (they were "freedom fighters" then) for action against the left-wing government in Afghanistan. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, US officials also encouraged these religious extremists to infiltrate the majority-Muslim Soviet republics.

The US government — and it seems the makers of Saudi Time Bomb — is acutely embarrassed by the defection of its jihadi terrorists and prefer that its responsibility for their creation be whited-out of the history books.

There is indeed a time bomb ticking in Saudi Arabia as popular opposition mounts, but it should also be recognised that it was the US and Saudi Arabia that helped plant numerous "landmines", in the form of the al Qaeda terrorist network, across the globe.

From Green Left Weekly, January 30, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.