Of all the client regimes of the U.S. around the globe, the House of Saud is arguably the most important one. According to the Wall Street Journal, the traditional security arrangement with Washington is “based on the understanding that the kingdom works to stabilize global oil prices while the White House protects the ruling family’s dynasty”. The Kingdom is the only oil producer with excess production capacity. This means it is the only actor in the energy market that can apply any downward pressure whatsoever on the price of crude.
This is not the most important reason for U.S. patronage. Saudi Arabia is crucial to U.S. strategic plans–it underwrites the veto. Control of the Persian Gulf was recognized by U.S. planners as a “stupendous source of strategic power” as far back as the inter-war period. The idea being that having the ability to cut off access to Gulf oil endows the United States with an effective veto over potential challengers like China.
To be sure, ensuring the steady flow of oil from the Gulf is hugely important for the global economy. It is, in fact, a central reason why there is a Business consensus behind U.S. control of the region, and also the reason for across-the-board support for current levels of Pentagon spending, support for Israel et cetera. In other words, one shouldn’t expect defense spending to come down if ostensible major threats evaporate, say if the Islamic regime falls in Iran and is replaced by a friendly one. Similarly, dismantling AIPAC and the Israel lobby will have a marginal effect on U.S. policy vis-a-vis Israel.
The Saudi-U.S. client-patron relationship goes all the way back to the establishment of the Saudi regime in 1932. It was the first regime to come under U.S. protection in the region. Most regimes before the Second World War were under British protection but the Americans were the first to realize the emerging value of oil. Oil was discovered in Bahrain in 1932 and shortly after in the Kingdom. Standard Oil moved in very quickly to acquire rights and the Arabian American Oil Company was established in 1933. Its descendent today, Saudi Aramco, is the largest company in the World with total value estimated by the Financial Times to be as high as 7 trillion dollars.
No one denies that Saudi Arabia is a U.S. client state but there is a lot of misunderstanding about what exactly this means. In particular, how much autonomy does the regime enjoy? For instance, the New York Times editorial board insists that Obama “got nowhere” when he tried quietly to persuade the al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain to engage the opposition and ease up on the brutal crackdown. The newspaper of record has a page devoted to Saudi Arabia which states that the Saudis are angry with Washington’s response to the Arab Spring and have questioned their reliance on the United States to protect their interests. Although they concede that “suggestions that Riyadh was ready to go it alone seem at least partly a display of Saudi pique, since the oil-for-protection exchange that has defined relations between the two for the past six decades is unlikely to be replaced soon.”
The United States has approved a $60 billion sale of advanced weapons to the regime and there are plans to further deepen security cooperation. Obama did not mention Saudi Arabia in his speech on the Arab Spring but he did express concern over Bahrain. Given that we understand that the Saudi invasion was under U.S. authorization, it is better to see Obama’s pronouncements as hedging: Saudi brutalization of Shi’ite protestors directly bolsters Iran’s power, Washington cannot be seen to be authorizing it.
The Counter Revolution
A month ago, the Saudi dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) invited Jordan and Morocco to initiate membership talks. The GCC is the club of oil rich Arab monarchies in the Arabian peninsula. Besides Saudi Arabia, it includes the Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait. Marc Lynch has a hilarious article about it in Foreign Policy titled The What Cooperation Council?. The only thing Jordan and Morocco have in common with the GCC is that they are also Sunni Arab monarchies allied to the United States. Far more important than who is included is who is not. Egypt is not not invited because this is a Club of Kings.
In effect, the House of Saud sees itself as being the leader of a counter revolution in the Arab world. They are leading a region wide effort to contain the Arab spring. Analysts reckon we are back to the 1950s and 60s when the Saudis scrambled to contain the influence of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt who led a revolutionary pan-Arab movement and challenged the West and Israel. But they are wrong.
The Arab Spring is not about pan-Arabism and not necessarily antagonistic to the West. In particular, the import-substitution driven, autarchic, state-led model of industrialization and economic development is widely seen to have failed. No one is campaigning to revive it. Neither is anyone eager to challenge Israel or the United States. This is about political liberty and representation.
In other words, there is a real dilemma here for U.S. policy makers.
The Emerging Order
Things are not going well for the Saudi princes. To the South, civil war rages as Ali Abdullah Saleh refuses to cede power. To the East, a sectarian time bomb is ticking in Bahrain where seething anger threatens to boil over among the Shi’ite subjects of the Sunni al-Khalifa regime. To the West, revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia are moving towards democracy and popular representation, while American bombers pound Libya into a democracy. To the North, the Assad regime is tottering in Syria while Iraq is threatening to become a stable Shi’ite majority democracy. Turkey’s influence is growing in leaps and bounds. Erdogan is poised to come back to power with a huge majority next Sunday.
Its clear that a dual system is going to emerge in the Greater Middle East. Turkey and Egypt will lead a bloc of democracies which will certainly include Tunisia and Libya and maybe even Syria. The Arabian peninsula will be home to the counter revolution, led by the reactionary regime in Saudi Arabia.
Western commentators and pundits have convinced themselves that the United States is squarely on the side of democracy. This is such an article of faith that no amount of evidence can convince them of the contrary. We have seen how the U.S. has tried to contain the revolution in Egypt, and authorize Saudi domestic suppression and terror in Bahrain. Its naive to think that U.S. policy makers care about democracy and human rights. This is no state secret, they are realists.
But there is an inherent contradiction in U.S. Middle East policy. The more it supports the counter revolution the less leverage it will have with the revolutionary regimes. It will have to decide which side of the fence it will sit. Fortunately, for American policy makers there is a way out. But it requires being honest about their relationship with the Arab petro-dictatorships.
The House of Saud is protected by the United States. Well, who is the U.S. protecting the regime from? In the best Catch-22 style, the answer is that the United States protects the House of Saud from the United States. In other words, this is a protection racket. Once we understand that, we can truly comprehend how much control the U.S. exercises over the House of Saud.
Now, spare us the garbage about the regime threatening to leave the U.S. orbit and tell them to behave themselves or else.
[Update: Someone thought that I was advocating that the U.S. threaten to invade Saudi Arabia. That is not my position. Simply put, I am advocating that United States reject Saudi claims over its sphere of influence, say in Bahrain and the rest of the Arabian peninsula that the Saudis dominate in the current framework of regional power. If it came to choosing between U.S. protection and Saudi alliance, we all know where Kuwait is going to go. Actually, its pretty obvious that all the other seven sisters will fall in line. What U.S. planners ought to be thinking about is an alternative regional power structure in the Persian Gulf. They can’t afford to have the Saudis jeopardizing American and Western relationship with the democratic half of the Greater Middle East. Which is exactly what will emerge with current policy.]