By R. Upadhyay
Saudi-US alliance which is primarily a bargain of oil for security for over half a century is perhaps the most improbable engagement between the two socially, politically and religiously opposite societies in the modern world.
Saudi Arabia claims to be a true Islamic state but its strategic alliance with an infidel “Crusader” may be against the Islamist doctrine of Wahhabism which is the political ideology of the Saudi Monarchy. Similarly United States which is a democratic Super Power having alliance with an authoritarian Islamist Monarchy that is ideologically opposed to the modern world view and is also known as a financial and ideological source of the on going global terrorism is nothing but an example of political opportunism. Although it is hard to imagine a close relation between the religiously intolerant and xenophobic Wahhabi monarchy against non-Muslims and a democratic Christian power believing in modern worldview, their self-seeking interest over ideology was a common ground for this still going alliance. If successive Saudi kings using their oil wealth in winning over the Mullhas and Islamic scholars interpreted Islam according to the security needs of the kingdom, the successive US presidents since 1940s too ignored the direct or indirect Saudi support to the Islamist terror groups.
Historically, the might of sword and opportunistic alliance have all along been the decisive factor in the politics of Middle-East. Saudi King Abd al Aziz also became the custodian of the two holiest shrines of Islam not due to any spiritual background but only with the might of the sword power of his Wahhabi militia known as Ikhwan when he conquered Hijaj province for the second and the last time in 1924. After conquering the two shrines from the agent of Ottoman Caliph, he became the self-made guardian of Islam and started consolidating his monarchy through a strategic pact with infidel British power in 1927 and put restrictions on any further Jihad in the region particularly against the protectorates of the British.
Ikhwan militia however revolted against the alliance with Christian infidel which they considered un-Islamic. With the support of the British the Saudi King crushed the revolt in the battle of Sibila in 1929 and established Saudi Arabia in 1932 as a sovereign monarchy. Since his sword power was found losing its sharpness due to Ikhwan revolt and he was always afraid of the militant character of his neighbouring war lords due to his incredible history of grabbing the guardianship of the two holiest shrines, he was much concerned of the political stability and territorial integrity of his kingdom than to continue the Wahhabi mission of Jihad. Therefore, with a view to defend the kingdom from his rivals, he had an opportunistic alliance with infidel British. Although, he betrayed his own Wahhabi militia Ikhwan, he tried to justify his alliance with infidels declaring, “the Prophet Mohammad had sought the help of infidels when it was needed” (Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia – Edited by Mohammad Ayoob and Hasan Kosebalaban, Lynne Rienner Publisher, London, 2009 page 123). Even though Islamist scholars did not approve such interpretation the Saudi kings continued to treat the Christian infidels as their valued allies.
With the end of World War II and beginning of Cold War, international political scene was primarily focussed around the rivalry between the two super powers the United States and the Soviet Union. Initially, the Saudi Monarchy tried to remain outside the arena of the direct confrontation between Washington and Moscow but when the divided Wahhabi group in the country had relatively been losing their hold the prime strategic concern of Saudi Monarchy was the encirclement of the region by Soviet Union and the security of its biggest treasure oil. Accordingly, it preferred to have a strategic alliance with another infidel Christian power United States to defend the kingdom from Soviet Union and other hostile neighbours. Since Saudi Arabia does not share any border with United States, it eliminated the chance of any trans-border problem from America.
Although, the official position of Saudi Arabia was against the presence of any infidel forces in the kingdom, its suspicion over the nature of Soviet threat in the region compelled it to allow the US Air Force to use Dahran Air base temporarily in 1946. Subsequently, the mutual defence assistance agreement in 1951 steadily expanded the relation during the Cold War. Under the agreement while US provided military equipment to Saudi Arabia, the latter authorized the former to establish a permanent United States Military Training Mission in the kingdom.
Since the discovery of oil resources in the kingdom oil remained the cornerstone of Saudi’s foreign as well as security policy. It therefore gave contract to American companies for exploration of oil. Wahhabism believes in Darul Islam and therefore any friendly relation with infidel countries like United States which is Darul Harab (Land of War) is un-Islamic. However with the objective to protect the kingdom from hostile neighbours and Soviet Union Saudi Monarchy compromised its Wahhabi ideology with a bargain of oil for security. Wahhabism remained its policy only for domestic affairs and for the Muslim world. Such a double standard of the custodian of the holiest shrines of Islam which attracts the daily ovation of Muslim world suggests that Saudi Monarchy has been using the tools of Islamist orthodoxy only to control the people of the kingdom and for furthering the personal agenda of the huge royal family members in Muslim world.
Saudi Monarchy had strong reservations against establishment of Israel in former Arab-dominated territory of Palestine. However, despite periodic strains in Saudi-US relationship caused by differences over latter’s close strategic relation with Israel since its establishment in 1948, Saudi-US relationship continued due to their mutual interest even though the monarchy did not extend any diplomatic recognition to Israel. In fact during Cold War era Saudi regime was more concerned of its security primarily against pro-Soviet Egypt, Syria, and South Yemen known to be the champions of Arab nationalism than US relations with Israel.
Although, the US Congressional leaders were opposed to the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia apprehending their use against Israel, the US Government did not stop it and kept its commitments. Thus, the nascent alliance since mid 1940s between the two countries based on bargain of oil for security is still continuing. Even the close relation of Israel with United States never came in the way of Saudi’s defence assistance agreement with the latter. In fact despite a significant section of US Congress, media and think tanks were opposed to the Islamist design of Saudi Arabia, the relation between the two worked out for more than half a century without any major problem due to pressure from US petroleum companies which had huge financial contracts for developing oilfields in the kingdom and needed its security and political stability. Accordingly, the US army provided training to the Saudi army and also constructed the airfield at Dhahran.
In fact, Since 1940s, the successive US presidents not only valued Saudi Arabia as an important base in handling Middle East political game and also as a fortification against Soviet Union Communism but also for their economic benefit through various contracts in modernisation of its airports, hospitals, electric power stations, military bases and other development related projects. Americans may declare of their concern for human rights but they looked other way seeing the judicial actions of even the public display of severed hands and other punishments like whipping of women and stoning to death of persons violating Islamic laws. They also took a stand not to interfere even in the prevailing bigotry in this country against the non-Muslims. Ironically, despite the consistent efforts of United State to convert Saudi Arabia to a most developed state consistent military support to it against Egypt in 1963, Iran- Iraq war in 1980 and quick response by dispatching about a half million troops to ward off potential threat from Iraq in 1990, Saudi Arabia never allowed any societal change as per American modern world view.
The first dent on Saudi-US special relation by US people was only after September 11, 2001 terror attacks in their land in which 15 out of 19 terrorists were Saudi citizens. In a televised address to the joint session of US Congress on September 20, 2001 Bush declared, “Our ‘war on terror’ begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated”. Similarly, on January 20, 2009, his successor Barack Obama said, “Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” In this high voltage campaign with the stated objective to eliminate this global menace, the US Presidents might have tried to convince the world in general and their own people in particular spelling out their determination to fight against terrorism but in absence of any action oriented programme against the Jihadi ideology of their trusted allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the main power behind the on going terror war they failed to achieve any effective result. What to talk of any action, Barack Obama was so soft in his campaign that instead of using the word terror, he replaced it with “violence and hatred” against the heinous and inhuman crime like Islamist terrorism.
Despite the US media hype questioning the role of Saudi Kingdom in war against terrorism, US administration is still not clear about the future of its ties with this Islamist Monarchy. Boston Herald in its report dated October 12, 2001 just after a month of terror attacks in US quoted some experts saying “Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi Arabia has been a reluctant ally, refusing to let the U.S. use Saudi bases as staging areas for military operations in Afghanistan. The Saudis have also balked at freezing the assets of organizations linked to bin Laden and international terrorism, some of which are Saudi-run.” Similarly, Los Angeles Times in its issue dated March 8, 2003 reported, “The 27 classified pages of a congressional report about Sept. 11 depict a Saudi government that not only provided significant money and aid to the suicide hijackers but also allowed potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups through suspect charities and other fronts, according to sources familiar with the document.”.
Since Middle East oil and huge business with Islamist countries are more important for Americans, they hardly take any interest in crimes against humanity so long it does not affect their country. US had enlisted Iran as sponsor state of International terrorism and George Bush had named Iran, Iraq and North Korea as axis of evil. Even though 15 out of 19 terrorists involved in September 11 attack were Saudi citizens he neither included Saudi Arabia in the US list of the sponsor states of Islamist terrorism nor in the axis of evil. Such double standards of US Government in dealing with terrorism by ignoring Saudi Arabia and Pakistan which are known as main sponsor states for terrorism exposed its so called commitment to eliminate this global menace. They remained satisfied that there was no repetition of September 11 in their country and therefore, former President’s commitment for the total elimination of terrorism from the world was kept in a cold storage because they don’t want to annoy Saudi Arabia. A Harvard International Review report says, “Saudi Arabia imports more than US$4.5 billion per year from the United States and the links between the two countries involved tens of thousands of Saudis and US citizens working together”.
Although, Saudi Arabia criticised terrorism for public consumption, it did not co-operate with American agencies investigating the involvement of Saudi citizens in September 11 terror attacks. In fact the Saudi citizens from all walks of life are still carrying negative perception against United States. During Gulf War (1990-91) when Iraq attacked Kuwait and Saudi Arabia was at receiving end, arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia protected the latter from the army of Saddam Hussain. However, US invasion of Iraq was viewed in Saudi Arabia “as a neo-conservative plot by Washington and Israel to weaken the Arab world”. Islamist monarchy used more US goods, its management systems and benefits of modern technology than other countries and also got protection from hostile neighbours. US too earned billions of dollars through oil exploration and contract work for industrial developments in this country. But even though the relation between the two countries had benefited both, United States is still paying a heavy price.
Today you ask any Muslims in any profession from a taxi driver to university professor to fix responsibility for the on going Islamic terrorism; they will not name Saudi Arabia or Pakistan but accuse America in one voice due to its relation with Israel. Like Osama bin Laden even a defiant Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad who pleaded guilty in US court and boasted himself a “Muslim soldier” to fight against America would become the hero of Muslim world. Despite the on going hate-America campaign launched by the Islamist world, hardly they have put pressure on Saudi Arabia to break its cosy relation with Washington which was consolidated with Defence Assistance Agreement in 1951 only three years after the establishment of Israel in Arab land in 1948. Ironically, even the Wahhabi Mullhas do not oppose Saudi-US relation as Saudi Monarchy has been hugely spending oil-earned money for the cause of Wahhabi Islam. Such mental frame of Muslim world suggests that the followers of Islam in general and its so called guardian Saudi Arabia in particular can never do a wrong. However, financial links between the royal family of Saudi Arabia and US authorities and military cooperation between Riyadh and Washington which translated into fabulous oil wealth conversion in dollar deposits in US banks are so strong that despite strains from time to time between the two countries their relation hardly faced any major problem during their decades old relationship.
It is a fact that the September 11 incident had adversely affected the old trust between the two countries and US is no more so liberal in granting visas to Saudi citizens. The compulsion of its economic and strategic interest however, is a major reason which does not allow weakening the relation to a breaking point. Apart from it, major increase of imports from China into Saudi Arabia is also a signal that the latter has kept its option open for its import requirements even from other countries which will not be in the interest of America. Mutual interest between the two which extended into economic, political and military affairs is the main reason that Washington is now found compelled to maintain a low profile on its pledge for a decisive war against Islamist terrorism which is a part of the religio-political agenda of Islamist world prominently funded by Saudi Monarchy and strongly supported by its ally Pakistan.
Amazingly, despite the Jihadi threat Saudi Arabia is also facing, it does not want to take the risk of annoying the terror groups by providing active co-operation to US in its fight against terrorism. But due to huge commercial transaction in US dollar, the ruling royal family with deposits in trillions in US banks will think twice to break its relation with America. Thus, on surface Saudi Government may try to maintain smooth relation with America but gradually it will minimize its dependence on it. Besides, it is now improving relations relatively with its neighbouring regional powers and no more fully depending on America for its defence. It may not cancel the old military agreement but will not be ready to assist America in its war on terrorism.
If the remark of Saudi Prince Turki last month in Riyadh characterizing America’s policy in Afghanistan as “inept” and advising it to “hunt down terrorists on both sides of Afghanistan and Pakistan border and get out and let Afghan people to deal with problems” (Pioneer dated June 24) is believed it is apparently a reflection of Saudi mind against US, its old dependable ally. United States therefore, must try to understand that if the Saudis could ditch their trusted Ikhwan fighters who played prominent part in creation of the new Saudi regime, they will never think twice if they get favourable opportunity to join Jihad against the Crusaders which is the ideological focal point of Wahhabism. Saudi Prince might have given statement for public consumption that creation of Taliban in Afghanistan was not in the interest of the kingdom but the whole world is aware that there is no ideological difference between Wahhabism and actions of Taliban. Since the Saudi-US alliance is not congenial to the settled world order as the strategic alliance between two has posed a major obstacle against a decisive war on terrorism.