A House Built On Sand
By Anne Ashford
13 August, 2005
House of Sauds long career in the service of imperialism began
in 1913, when King Abd al Aziz, the ruler of the Najd area of the Arabian
peninsula, came seeking a British subsidy for his kingdom. His first
request was unsuccessful, despite winning the backing of the British
governments India office.
The foreign office
vetoed the request, worried that supporting Abd al Aziz would jeopardise
Britains relations with the Turkish Ottoman empire, the nominal
overlords of Arabia.
The outbreak of
the First World War, in which the British fought the Ottoman empire,
changed the situation.
hoping to weaken the Ottomans by encouraging an Arab revolt, were buying
up sheikhs and princes by the dozen. By 1917 Abd al Aziz had taken delivery
of 3,000 rifles and was receiving a monthly payment of £5,000
from the British.
Abd al Aziz did
little to fight the Ottomans. Instead he set about expanding his kingdom
by attacking his rivals including Britains favoured local
clients, the Hashemite family.
What started out
as a turf war between two British government
a struggle for Arabia. After the First World War the Hashemites were
packed off to rule the newly created British mandates in Transjordan
and Iraq, while Abd al Azizs feared religious warriors, the Ikhwan,
swept across the region.
When the Ikhwan
rebelled against him, Abd al Aziz turned to Britain for help. The British
air force went in and subdued his own tribal allies.
He had still to
solve the problem of finance, however. Even as Saudi Arabia was born
Abd al Aziz teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.
Revenues from the
pilgrimage to the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina were falling as
pilgrim numbers dwindled.
An oil concession
provided much needed cash. The signing of the agreement with Standard
Oil of California (Socal) in 1933 was a turning point in the fortunes
of the House of Saud.
When it became clear
that the oil reserves under the Saudi desert were among the largest
in the world, the royal family, Standard Oil and its sister companies,
and the US government created the Arab-American Oil Company (Aramco).
from 0.1 million tonnes of crude oil per year in 1938 to 47.5 million
tonnes by 1955.
The end of the Second
World War saw the influence of the old colonial powers, such as Britain
and France, waning in the Middle East.
were overthrown in Egypt and Iraq.
Both the US and
the Saudi royal family had a common interest in halting the tide of
Worried by the growth
of radical parties and national liberation movements, the Saudi rulers
and the US worked in tandem, promoting Islamic unity against pan-Arab
nationalism and undermining leaders such Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt.
When Egyptian forces
intervened in the Yemeni revolution of 1962, which overthrew the hereditary
Imam, Saudi arms and funding propped up the royalist side, leading to
a bitter civil war.
The Saudi rulers
also faced challenges at home. Strikes swept through the oil industry
during the 1950s, as Saudi Aramco workers protested at the preferential
treatment given to US employees.
In 1956, when King
Saud visited the oil works in Al Hasa, striking workers took up nationalist
and anti-imperialist demands in the face of fierce repression.
In June 1960 a group
of princes signed a memorandum calling for a constitutional monarchy.
Six of them later fled to Nassers Cairo, where they set up a National
Liberation Front in exile.
Since the late 1970s
Islam, rather than Arab nationalism, has been the rallying call of most
of the Saudi opposition. At the heart of the Saudi state lies the contradictory
relationship between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi religious movement.
Many observers have
commented on the paradox of an alliance between a line of monarchs,
notorious for their commitment to self-enrichment and the pursuit of
luxury, and an austere brand of Islam which calls for a return to the
simplicity of the prophet Muhammads time.
Juhayman al Utaybi, who led an Islamist group which briefly seized control
of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, wrote, The royal family
is corrupt. It worships money and spends it on palaces not mosques.
If you accept what they say, they will make you rich. Otherwise they
will persecute and even torture you.
While the high oil
prices of the 1970s lasted, the Saudi regime was able to spend enough
on welfare to limit the appeal of radical ideas to Saudi citizens.
For decades the
Saudi economy has been kept afloat by the labour of non-citizens, who
formed a permanent layer of misery at the bottom of society.
current social crisis has given new life to the Islamist opposition.
Average incomes have slumped from $16,000 a year in the early 1980s
to $7,000 by 2001.
Power cuts and water
rationing are a regular feature of life for many Saudis.
The port city of
Jeddah, with three million inhabitants, has 300 palaces for royalty
but no sewage system.
soared as a population explosion over the last 30 years means that around
100,000 young Saudis are entering the labour market each year.
The long decline
in oil prices coincided with a period when Wahhabism became Saudi Arabias
most important ideological export.
Saudi rulers have
poured millions of dollars into Islamic colleges, madrassas, across
Following the Soviet
Unions invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Saudi funding, backed
by the US, went to the emerging Islamist opposition and paid for the
recruitment of Arab fighters for the war against the Soviets.
Osama bin Laden,
son of a wealthy Saudi businessman, was one of those whose career as
an international fighter for the faith was kickstarted by the House
of Sauds intervention in Afghanistan.
The turning point
came during the Gulf War of 1990-91, when King Fahd not only backed
the US-led coalition which forced Iraq to abandon its occupation of
Kuwait, but invited US forces to build permanent military bases on Saudi
For Osama bin Laden
and his generation, the House of Saud had betrayed Islam.
It was one thing
to accept US help in the struggle against Soviet Communism in Afghanistan,
but another to invite the US army into the land of Islams most
Over the following
decade, the Saudi royal familys open association with the US in
the face of a new uprising in Palestine and growing evidence of massive
suffering in Iraq as a result of economic sanctions added to their anger.
Unlike the earlier period in their relationship, the US government and
the Saudi royal family were openly working together.
The US wanted to
consolidate its military presence in the Middle East as an assertion
of its superpower status following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Saudi rulers
at first feared an attack by Saddam Husseins Iraq, and then faced
growing discontent at home.
returning from Afghanistan began to put the skills they had learned
in the war to use again in Saudi Arabia itself, carrying out bomb attacks
on US bases.
They have appealed
both to Saudis sense of outrage at US imperialism and their anger
at their own governments failure to provide jobs and services.
Bin Laden declared
in 1996, The ordinary Saudi knows that his country is the largest
oil producer in the world, yet at the same time he is suffering from
taxes and bad services. Our country has become a colony of America.
The Saudis know their real enemy is America.
The US invasion
of Afghanistan in 2001 and the occupation of Iraq in 2003 have added
to the appeal of the radical Islamists.
It is not just armed
groups which have found new supporters. In 2002 thousands mobilised
in solidarity with the Palestinians.
For some, the focus
was a boycott of US goods, but in Dhahran the solidarity movement spilled
onto the streets as thousands attempted to march on the US consulate
in the aftermath of the Israeli attack on Jenin refugee camp in the
Meanwhile, the rhetoric
of the US war on terror has produced uncomfortable moments
for the Saudi royal family.
A number of US neo-conservatives
have said that the House of Saud has supported terrorism.
House of Saud and the US remain more dependent on each other than ever
The Saudi regime
needs US backing precisely because of the growing danger that a domestic
opposition with a broad social base will emerge, rather than a cabal
of disaffected princes.
Writing in 2001,
the respected writer Dilip Hiro described how in the case of an armed
uprising against the Saudi royal family, the presence of US military
officials at key Saudi defence facilities, often in civilian clothes...
is regarded as indispensable in order to ensure swift coordination and
secure communications in such an emergency.
Meanwhile, the US
still needs Saudi oil, particularly while the reconstruction of the
Iraqi oil industry and its exploitation in US interests
is hampered by the insurgency.
Even setting aside
the disaster in Iraq, for the US government the collapse of the Saudi
regime would be a catastrophe on the scale of the fall of the Shah in
the Iranian revolution of 1979.
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