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Getting Serious About Saudi Arabia

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If nothing else, the events of the Arab Spring in the Middle East have served as a wake-up call for U.S. policy in the region, and demonstrate a compelling need to examine our relationships there. At the top of the list should be a realistic assessment of the role and future of Saudi Arabia. This is not a partisan issue -- both parties have assiduously avoided dealing honestly with the matter for decades, for economic and political reasons that amount to an ongoing state of denial. Leaving aside politically correct language, that nation remains a corrupt, 12th-century feudal monarchy that is a minority government fueled by billions of petrodollars, and making no serious contribution to the planet other than more oil and money. Decades of billions have enabled the Saudis to purchase a veneer of culture and science, touted by equally well-paid public relations firms, but the simple facts remain.

For decades now, any analysis of the viability of the Saudi regime has been a taboo subject in Washington. If any intelligence estimates have been done, they rank among the country's best kept secrets; and clearly none of the nation's leaders have seen them. This is in no small part due to the efforts of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, for many years the Saudis' long-time ambassador to the U.S., and close friend to five Presidents and numerous CIA directors. Not surprisingly, there was an unwritten rule in government to never speak evil of the Saudi regime, let alone discuss its hatred for Israel and the Jews; support for terrorists; abuse of women; or even speculate about long-term threats to the regime's viability. To make matters worse, the army of experts and consultants who inhabit the Beltway have fallen prey to the same delusion. Most are directly or indirectly supported by Saudi money, or derive their incomes from U.S. government officials who do not want to hear ill of the Saudis or even of the possibility that the regime may be in trouble.

Since the emergence of "modern" Saudi Arabia in 1932, U.S. interests in the kingdom have been almost entirely tied to oil, developed by U.S. corporations in the mid-1930s and resulting in a partnership known for most of its existence as "Aramco." Between 1973 and 1980, the Saudis basically stole the U.S. half of the Aramco partnership, keeping ever-increasing billions of petrodollars for themselves. Indeed, the Tea Party might consider championing the return of the U.S. half of Aramco -- it would be more than enough to bail out the health care system and then some. Alas, this theft of the American interest has been relegated to being an historical artifact, and nobody seems to care any more. Saudi royals continue to convert the billions into more palaces and other forms of grossly opulent spending unseen since the time of Nero's Rome.

Since at least 1973, U.S. policy has consisted of either treading very lightly, or of outright sucking up to the Saudis no matter what the actual politics or morality might be, largely in fear of another oil embargo lest the Saudis be in any way offended. Promising change in government, the new President Obama quickly rushed off to Saudi Arabia to kiss up to the King, but has yet to visit Israel, America's only democratic ally in the region. An honest assessment might show that such U.S. efforts are sadly misplaced. Saudi Arabia is increasingly vulnerable and needs the U.S. a great deal more than the U.S. needs the Saudis. The Saudi regime faces increasing external and internal threats, and desperately needs both intelligence and possibly military support. The U.S. should be in the driver's seat and not continuously begging this aging and crooked regime with a tin cup.

If the Saudi regime were to fall, the needed oil would continue to flow. Other than sand, it's all the country has; and no successor government could survive by cutting off their national income. Were a new regime to try and do so, military action by the U.S. to restore the flow of oil would be quick and decisive. Forget Afghanistan, where that nation's only economic contribution is an endless supply of illegal drugs -- oil is serious business, and without question any President would be forced to keep the oil coming.

Following 9/11, the U.S. looked to the Saudis as another ally in the "Global War on Terror." Far less attention was paid to the facts that some of the 9/11 al Qaeda terrorists came from Saudi Arabia and that Saudis have long been major financial sponsors of terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda. The U.S. and other allies refuse to declassify information documenting these links, while heroic independent researchers such as Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of Funding Evil, have been endlessly harassed in court by the Saudis when they expose these links. To its credit, the government has made some effort to stem this embarrassing and lethal flow of Saudi petrodollars to terrorists, but success here is far from complete. The time is long past to make information public, without going through WikiLeaks, and to demand that the Saudi regime stop these flows or face some realistic consequences.

Since the 1973 Middle East War, the U.S. has half-heartedly attempted to enlist the Saudis in the process to achieve an Arab-Israeli peace, with limited success at best. For a nation that does not recognize Israel, and has an overt national policy of anti-Semitism, it would be silly to expect more. As a U.S. "ally" they probably could have and should have done more. At a minimum the Saudis might have been urged to stop funding organizations seeking Israel's destruction, and play a more positive role with their Arab allies in the region. But remember, this is Saudi Arabia, whose long-standing national policy is to fling money at anybody and everybody in the hopes that it will buy short-term peace for the regime.

The Arab Spring of late 2010 and early 2011 came as a shock to almost everybody, including the U.S. and the Saudis. Interestingly the movements that began in Iran and Tunisia, and which quickly spread to Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan and elsewhere, are not anti-Israel; anti-U.S; nor are they a further manifestation of Islamic extremism. In all cases, they are local reactions to aging, despotic, and corrupt regimes that have forestalled democratic processes and failed to deal with increasingly severe economic issues. None of these nations have Saudi Arabia's small population and huge oil revenues, yet there is substantial reason for the Saudis to take great pause at these events and seriously question when and if their time is coming.

There is simply no escaping what Saudi Arabia is, and what it is not. The nation has no political parties; national elections are not permitted; and, according to The Economist's 2010 Democracy Index, the Saudi government is the seventh most authoritarian regime from among the 167 countries rated. No amount of political spin by Obama or Clinton can change this fact. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive cars; to go outdoors without a male escort; or to do much of anything else. The Saudi record on human rights is appalling to say the least. Saudi justice still consists of chopping off hands and heads as part of Sharia law. Any pretense of that nation evolving into a modern democratic state under the present regime is not a credible proposition.

As the U.S. must now look to a broader and more realistic strategy in the Middle East, a serious approach to Saudi Arabia must be an essential element of the process. Critical here is an intelligence estimate of the near and longer-term viability of the Saudi regime, not unlike that undertaken with respect to Yugoslavia before the death of Tito. A public version of this estimate should also be made available to inform public debate. Clearly change is coming, whether by death or revolution. King Fahd, never an enlightened or benevolent monarch, suffered a stroke in 1995 and has not been "dealing with a full deck" in years. His relatives and potential heirs aren't much better.

Bearing in mind that change is inevitable, the U.S. needs to look seriously at opposition groups and potential rivals for power, expanding contacts where they appear to be potentially useful. The U.S. needs to face the fact that this king, as well as his gluttonous and greedy family may not be the Saudi leadership forever. All good things come to an end, and their end may be coming sooner than anybody now thinks. As the Arab Spring has shown, there are many forces at work, driven by Twitter, Facebook and the modern news media. Ignoring these forces and their result is not a basis for sound policy in the Middle East or anywhere else.

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