Most Westerners know comparatively little about Saudi Arabia and its House of Saud rulers. Yet Western powers — first Britain, then the United States — have been instrumental in elevating the House of Saud to the position it currently occupies and in maintaining its rule against all odds. In return, the House of Saud has acted in support of Western policy objectives in the region and, crucially, has helped to ensure an almost constant flow of cheap oil.
However, they are hardly ideal partners in a “war on terrorism” that, ideologically, has been wrapped in “democratic” packaging. It is a cruel despotism and worse it provides ideological and logistical succor to the most extremist forms of Islam.
All this belies the House of Saud’s rather humble origins as one tribe amongst the many vying for power and influence on the Arabian peninsula. In 1744 Muhammad ibn Saud was a tribal chief and ruler of Dir’aiyah (a village now on the outskirts of the current Saudi capital, Riyadh). He allied himself with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a conservative religious thinker; Wahhab gave his name to Wahhabism. Wahhabism was and is a particularly puritanical version of Islam that puts a stress on the purity of religious practice, conservative social standards, and the unity of one god.
From their base in Dir’aiyah the Saudis (here meaning members of the Al-Saud tribe, not Saudi Arabians) expanded their influence steadily through the region. A clutch of cities fell under their domination. However, the area was under the sway of the Ottoman Empire. Muhammad Ali, a governor of Cairo and Ottoman satrap, was instructed by his masters to put down the irksome Saudi insurgency. Eventually his son, Ibrahim Pasha, drove the Saudis back to Dir’aiyah, which in 1819 was razed to the ground. Though the Al-Sauds surfaced again in 1845 — ruling Riyadh until 1891, when it fell to the Al-Rashid family — they were eventually driven into exile in Kuwait.
However, by the end of the 19th century the star of the Ottomans had waned, and all the borders of the empire were threatened. The Balkan countries rose in open revolt and, encouraged by the big European powers, started to create a whole patchwork of rival nation states.
To the east, tsarist Russia was encroaching on its territory, defeating the Ottomans in 1877. Britain and France looked to extend their empires in the near-east. Britain successfully invaded Egypt in 1881 and France invaded Tunisia during the same year. Internally, the Caliphate was wracked by dissent and bureaucratic intrigue.
Thus, by the time World War I broke out in 1914, the “sick man of Europe” was already on its last legs. The eventual victory of France, the United States and Britain against the Triple Alliance sealed the Ottoman Empire’s fate. Its territory was part of the spoils of victory. The Middle East was divided into British and French protectorates.
Meanwhile, the eventual founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdel Aziz Abdel Rahman Al-Saud (or Ibn Saud), had begun to claw back the land lost by the Al-Sauds. He recaptured Riyadh in 1902. In doing so he gave an early indication of his personal ruthlessness and the carnage that was to follow his ascension to power. He spiked the heads of his enemies on the city gates and burned over 1,000 people to death. Despite this early success, Ibn Saud recognized that he needed sponsorship from a major imperial power if he was to prevent a repeat of the debacle of the previous century and finally defeat the Al-Sauds’ tribal enemies.
Initially, he sought sponsorship from the sultanate of Turkey, but he was rebuffed and forced to look elsewhere. Britain had signed a treaty with Faisal Al-Saud, Ibn’s grandfather, in 1865, and so it had had some contact with the Al- Sauds previously. Now, Britain wanted allies in the region to give it a foothold within the territory of the decaying Ottoman Empire. The more allies it had, the greater its share of the Ottoman booty would be. Ibn needed Britain’s logistical and military aid to decisively defeat and subjugate his enemies. From the point of view of both parties it was a marriage made in heaven.
Contact was thus established in 1904. Britain agreed to advance Ibn Saud small subsidies, but beyond that did little. These subsidies were used to expand and maintain colonies of Wahhabi fanatics, the Ikhwan, which would later form the backbone of Ibn Saud’s conquering army. World War I saw the Al-Sauds’ tribal enemies, like the Ibn Rasheeds, siding with Turkey. Ibn Saud thus attacked them with Britain’s blessing. Small subsidies became larger and a gaggle of advisers, alongside what was then advanced military equipment, were despatched to assist Ibn Saud’s advance.
Afforded a decisive advantage by Britain’s backing and able to make use of Ikhwan fanaticism, Ibn Saud was able to bring the whole of eastern Arabia under his control by 1917. Britain’s vision of Arabia’s fate following Turkish defeat was clear: in the words of Lord Crewe it wanted “a disunited Arabia split into principalities under our suzerainty.” For his part, Ibn Saud, was, by and large, happy to acquiesce.
However, another British protege in the region, the Hashemite monarch, King Hussein, was far from content. He had taken western Arabia, but was less servile than Saud and was not keen on British “suzerainty,” much preferring to exercise his own over an enlarged, independent and unified Arab nation. Rather than directly attack its erstwhile ally, Britain gave Ibn Saud free rein to do the job. As Britain had pledged itself in 1915 to defend Ibn Saud’s territory, he was fighting a war that he could not lose. By 1925 the Hijaz, an area that included Mecca, Medina and the most urbanized parts of Arabia, had succumbed to his armies.
Ibn Saud now ruled over a people with a myriad of different tribal and religious identities. To add to his problems, the social base that he could claim among the ruled was thin. If the new territory were to be governable, then the creation of a unified identity was required. Given the fact that the new entity was created by conquest, with not a hint of any movement from below, this would have to come from above. In short, everything pointed to a bloodbath and that was exactly what happened.
Wahhabism was a minority religious sect that viewed intolerance of other strands of thought as a religious duty. People of other religious backgrounds were “heretics” and therefore their treatment as sub-human was more than justified. As an ideology it was therefore well equipped for the task in hand: the unleashing and justification of mass terror. The Ikhwan were the obvious choice to carry out that terror. They formed the core of the Committee for Advancement of Virtue and Elimination of Sin (Caves), a body which exists to this very day. Religious and non-religious dissenters were butchered, as the Ikhwan murdered their way across the newly acquired territory. Houses were ransacked and whole towns were razed to the ground. Singing was forbidden, flowerpots were smashed, and telephone lines were cut because they were the work of the devil.
Eventually Saud became weary of their growing power. In turn they questioned his close relationship with Britain. Saud, however, had no intention of ending his reliance on Britain and the stage was set for the inevitable showdown. They rebelled against Saud, but the support of the British gave him the edge. Having served their purpose and secured the House of Saud’s domination, the Ikhwan were massacred (though they were reintegrated as the White Guard — later the National Guard).
Saudi Arabia is, of course, known for one thing above all others. That is the vast quantities of oil that the country produces. In terms of capacity it has no equal among the Gulf states. There are 264 billion barrels of proven oil reserves (more than a quarter of the world’s total) with up to one trillion barrels of oil probably being ultimately recoverable (Energy Information Administration report, January 2002). Not only is it present in vast quantities, but it is also cheaply produced due to flat land and huge deposits at shallow depths.
However, Saudi Arabia’s vast oil-producing potential was not recognized at first. The first oil concession was granted to a British company, Eastern General Syndicate, in 1923. Though Eastern General did confirm the existence of “some oil,” it sat on it. Britain itself was hardly in desperate need of a new source, possessing as it did access to ample supplies in Iraq, Iran and Bahrain; what is more, it was in decline as an imperial power. In contrast, America was in desperate need of a foreign supplier of oil and was in the ascendant. In 1933, Standard Oil, a Californian company, won the concession for the bargain price of $250,000.
Having attained his dominant position by aligning himself with what was then the world’s foremost power, Ibn Saud was not slow to recognize the shift that had taken place in global politics post-World War II. Writing in the margins of an agreement to lease the Dhahran airbase to America, he urged his descendants “to maintain the friendship of our American brothers.”
The “American brothers,” in the course of time, made Ibn Saud himself and his successors fabulously wealthy. Previously they had been reliant on British subsidies and revenue generated from Muslims making the Hajj pilgrimage. Now, the opportunity to make money existed on a truly mind-boggling scale. An unnamed prince, who allegedly gave away a new Cadillac when the petrol tank was empty and bought another with a full tank, is a pretty mild example of the House of Saud’s profligacy.
Those in and around the House of Saud have amassed fortunes worth billions. Up to their necks in corruption, they squander the country’s wealth on countless palaces and gambling binges in London, Las Vegas and Monte Carlo. Despite imposing their fundamentalist version of Islam on the mass of the population, the princes and kings of Saudi Arabia use — and abuse — high class prostitutes and consume alcohol to the point of addiction. All this is common knowledge amongst the people.
We have already seen how Britain’s backing was instrumental in clearing Ibn Saud’s road to power. Nowadays there is a relationship of even greater co-dependency. On the one hand, the Western world in general and America in particular benefits from cheap oil, with prices not just being kept down by the low extraction costs due to nature, but also by the active connivance of the Saudi regime. During the period of the cold war, Saudi Arabia also provided a counterweight to Arab nationalist regimes like that of Gamal Abdul Nasser — regimes that tended to lean towards the U.S.S.R. It also lavished money on anti-communist forces in the region such as the mujahedin. Now, however, despite this role being much diminished, it remains a key, and usually loyal, U.S. ally in the region.
An obscene oil for arms system has developed. In return for cheap oil the military industrial complex of the U.S. and Britain supply vast quantities of the latest sophisticated weaponry — battle tanks, surface-to-air missiles, fighter-bombers, ships, etc. However, this is not for the defense of Saudi Arabia or the House of Saud. There is too much hardware for the Saudi armed forces to use. Much of it simply rusts. Furthermore the royal family does not trust its own people nor even the officer caste. For example, only those closely related to it are permitted to fly armed aircraft. British prime ministers — Labour and Tory, U.S. presidents — Democrat and Republican — happily connive in this colossal waste of productive resources.
It is not hard to see where Osama Bin Laden and Al-Quaeda’s interpretation of Islam comes from following a closer study of Wahhabism. Wahhabism was a reform movement that began 200 years ago to rid Islamic societies of cultural practices and interpretation that had been acquired over the centuries. The followers of Abdul Wahab (1703-1792) began as a movement to cleanse the Arab bedouin from the influence of Sufism.
Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab formed his ideas as a rebellion against what he saw as a laxity in religious practice. He focused on the Muslim principle that there is only one God, and that God does not share his power with anyone. From this unitarian principle, his students began to refer to themselves as muwahhidun (unitarians). Their detractors referred to them as “Wahhabis” — or followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, which had a pejorative connotation.
The idea of a unitary god was not new. Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, however, attached political importance to it. He directed his attack against the Shia who revered Imams, even after their death.
His instructions in the matter of extending his religious teaching by force were strict. All unbelievers were to be put to death. Immediate entrance into Paradise was promised to his soldiers who fell in battle, and it is said that each soldier was provided with a written order from Ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab to the gate-keeper of heaven to admit him forthwith. Of course, Bin Laden’s jihad started in opposition to the Saudi regime, but his terms of opposition to it and the West are clearly the ideological spawn of Wahhabism. Furthermore, Al-Quaeda’s vicious campaign against Shias in Iraq can be seen in a new context; that of a centuries old ideological feud.
Indeed, 30 top Saudi clerics released a statement last December calling on Sunnis throughout the region to back the Sunni insurgents in Iraq against Shiites. This was followed by a fatwa from prominent cleric Abdul Rahman al-Barak on Dec. 29 attacking Shiites: “The rejectionists [Shiites] in their entirety are the worst of the Islamic nation’s sects. They bear all the characteristics of infidels.” he said in the religious ruling, according to a translation from Reuters.
Saudi Arabia erected a number of large global charities in the 1960s and 1970s whose original purpose was to propagate Wahhabi Islam, which became penetrated by prominent individuals from al-Qaeda’s global network. Furthermore its involvement in the emergence of the Taliban and numerous allegations of ties to Hamas are well-documented. In short, as a country it has done more than any other to earn the moniker as the crucible of terrorism. However, it is not surprising that this country has produced desperate and dangerous people when one considers that even a modern-day Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive regimes on the planet’s surface.
The Saudi regime has barely extended its social base beyond that which it enjoyed at its inception. Though George Bush and Tony Blair claim to be crusaders for democracy; their ally in Saudi Arabia is run as a family concern. Article six in the Saudi constitution puts it thus: “Citizens are to pay allegiance to the King in accordance with the holy Koran and the tradition of the Prophet, in submission and obedience, in times of ease and difficulty, fortune and adversity.”
No political parties are allowed, let alone free elections to a sovereign parliament. Women are, of course, second class subjects and suffer all manner of humiliating restrictions and punishments. They are unable to drive, vote, or access medical attention without permission from their male guardian and are strictly segregated from men in restaurants, hospital waiting rooms, and buses.
Religious minorities are forbidden from openly practicing their religious rituals. No expression of dissent is tolerated and critics of the state are regularly arrested and held without charge or basic due process guarantees.
Birthdays, weddings and anniversaries cannot be celebrated publicly, as they are considered “inventions” of the infidels, and therefore, are not tolerated. Deviation from the government’s edicts can result in public flogging, the loss of work and total social isolation. Free and independent thinking is made even less possible by the economic dependence of the Saudi people on its government.
It controls all public utilities, the oil industry, religious and educational institutions, ground and air transportation, and virtually the entire health care system. All the money from oil sales goes directly into the King’s coffers; who then allocates funds in consultation with senior members of the Royal family.
Despite all this, the West continues to fete the Saudi regime and even behave with toe-curling subservience to its whims and concerns. After visiting Afghanistan last month the new U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert Gates visited Riyadh and “briefed” the Saudi monarch, Abdullah on the current situation.
Concerned about the situation in Iraq, the Saudi King apparently “wanted to hear reassurances from us that we have a strategy, and they expressed their strong hope that we succeed.” Gates was more than happy to oblige his host .
By no means is America alone in its courtship of the despotic House of Saud. Despite being critical of American foreign policy, Russian President Vladimir Putin met King Abdullah in Riyadh during a high level delegation visit on Feb. 11-12.
The next time you hear George Bush or Tony Blair decrying the anti-democratic nature of a regime ask yourself this question; how can we confidently claim to stand for democracy and human decency while our governments continue to support regimes like this?