The princes of Saudi Arabia are obsessively following every tittle and nuance of the argument going back and forth between defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld – backed from the wings by vice president Richard Cheney – and secretary of state Colin Powell over how long and how deeply Washington should be involved in Iraq’s future. Of burning interest to the watchers in Riyadh are clues on the fate of the US guarantee to Saudi security, the next moves in regard to Iraq’s oil resources, its place in OPEC and the prospective form of government in Baghdad.
How Secure is US Security Guarantee?
Rumsfeld inaugurated his first triumphant Gulf war with an announcement that the United States would evacuate its military presence from Saudi Arabia and move its 100 warplanes and forward air command out of the Prince Sultan air base by the end of August. The decision was mutually agreed under a new accord the only section of which published allowed the base to remain available for emergencies and military exercises. But the key issue of the longstanding US guarantee of Saudi security was not publicly addressed, Does it still stand? Do the Saudis want it to? Both parties seem to be carefully skirting this loaded issue.
Seen from the Cheney-Rumsfeld perspective, the guarantee should be relegated to the dustbin now that the epicenter of American regional interests can be relocated from Saudi Arabia to Iraq and bases provided by acquiescent local hosts such as Qatar, Oman and Kuwait. This shift would go down well with Americans who since the September 11 terrorist attacks – most of whose perpetrators turned out to be Saudi nationals – have urged the administration to turn a cold shoulder to an ungrateful oil kingdom.
Another consideration would be the fear that American soldiers and defense personnel are under constant threat from terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. Last week, a US defense contractor’s representative was shot and injured at the Al Jubail King Abdul Aziz naval base in the eastern port city. The assailant was described as wearing the uniform of a Saudi naval officer. Just before the attack, the US embassy quietly warned the 30,000-40,000 American citizens in the kingdom against terrorist threat, while Saudi interior minister Prince Naif denied knowledge of any such threat.
However, on Wednesday May 7, a far more serious outbreak of violence occurred, this one directed against the Saudi regime. A large gang linked to al Qaeda attempted to assassinate a senior Saudi official on the streets of Riyadh. In the subsequent shootout, both sides suffered loss of life and nineteen members of the gang – 17 of them Saudis – got away. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources, this is the fourth street battle to take place with Islamic terrorists in the Saudi capital in two months. The Saudi interior minister admitted a series of terror attacks had been foiled. A search of the gang’s hideout turned up 55 hand grenades, 377 kilograms of explosives, Kalashnikovs, ammo, cash, travel documents and disguises.
The photos of the 19 wanted men were published and the public asked to assist in their capture. Publication of this kind of sensitive intelligence is unprecedented in Saudi Arabia and an appeal to the public unheard of. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources account for this uncharacteristic conduct as a sign of desperation. Whether or not it was meant as a warning to the hunted terrorists is less clear, but US intelligence has been aware for some time that al Qaeda and its linked fundamentalist groups are deeply embedded in Saudi society and their infiltration of Saudi armed forces is more extensive than suspected. Even the handful of American defense personnel staying on in the kingdom after the general withdrawal of US forces will be at great risk.
Cheney and Rumsfeld are by and large dead set against crown prince Abdullah whom they view as innately anti-American. The decision to pull American forces out of the kingdom is tantamount to downgrading its standing in the United States. The two US officials are determined to prevent Abdullah from ascending the throne and have been in dialogue with his half-brother Sultan and his faction in recent months. Abdullah knows where he stands in that particular Washington corridor of power and is trying to pick his way around this landmine.
Saudi financing of Hamas wins a black mark in Washington
But Washington has a second black mark against the Saudi regime. For the second time in two years, the Americans have pinned down an Islamic terror group fully funded by Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian fundamentalist Hamas, and are preparing to extend their global war on terror to this group.
Riyadh denies its regular stipend to Hamas is spent on terrorism, protesting that it supports sick funds, charities and schools. Washington had found evidence that Saudi cash infusions sustain the medressas established in Damascus by the Hamas and Jihad Islami, which are beginning to take the place of the religious academies al Qaeda ran in Peshawar to indoctrinate its followers. Two early students of the Damascus medressas, the British terrorists Asif Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif were recruited by Syrian-based Hamas spotters and given their mission of blowing up the US embassy in Tel Aviv or a crowded Israeli location – which they did on April 30, killing three Israelis and injuring 60 at Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv.
Before Powell went to Damascus last Saturday, May 3, Washington asked crown prince Abdullah to persuade Assad to cooperate with US demands and avert a showdown. The prince’s aides talked to Assad but not seriously. Abdullah was ready to invite the Syrian president for a visit, but encountered a lack of response.
At the same time, despite the demerits accumulated by the Saudi de facto ruler, Rumsfeld though covered with laurels is in no position to dictate policy on the delicate question of US-Saudi defense relations and the US guarantee for Saudi Arabia. The decisive voice will come from the White House after the president has canvassed his advisers.
In any case, even if the guarantee comes online, the strife-torn Saudi princes are not of one mind over whether or not they want to log on. The pro-American defense minister Prince Sultan would like to see American troops staying on. But he like Rumsfeld is not free to make that decision on his own and must defer to Abdullah, whose views are not entirely clear. His rivals in Riyadh cite him as opposed to the invitation to American forces to take up positions in the kingdom in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait and triggered the first Gulf War. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Saudi experts, Abdullah was widely misunderstood. He did not object to the US military presence so much as to Washington taking this action without prior consultation with Saudi rulers. In any case, the fissure in Saudi-US relations effected by the 9/ll calamity gave the crown prince a good shaking. Since then, he appears far more amenable to close military relations with the United States, although Washington remains to be convinced that this change of heart is genuine.
But Abdullah can no more force his will on his government than his half brother Sultan. The way the kingdom is run, both must round up a consensus among the senior princes. For the time being, both are keeping their powder dry and watching to see how the Americans handle the complexities of Iraq’s reconstruction and their impact on the region before deciding whether to press forward or back away.
Saudi oil primacy threatened
The Saudi royal house is even more on tenterhooks over US plans for developing Iraqi oil. It is beginning to transpire that Iraq could double its production capacity to 5-6 m bpd over the next six to seven years. During that period, American geologists would carry out surveys of Iraq oil reserves with a view to their exploitation from the end of this decade. The Saudis see their doom writ large before then, from the moment Iraqi output climbs to the 4 million bpd mark. From then on the Saudi role as the world’s biggest oil producer will go into decline, as will also its standing as world’s major holder of spare capacity against the bad times.
Here too Rumsfeld and certain American business leaders are not averse to distancing the United States from Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, the defense secretary never echoed the mantra often repeated by President George W. Bush, Powell and British premier Tony Blair that Iraqi oil must be used to serve the needs of the Iraqi people. Rumsfeld wants to develop Iraq’s potential to reduce American and global dependence on Saudi oil. Even more, he aspires to transform Iraq into a showcase for American Middle East strategic development, a central oil reservoir at the service of America’s global interests and a primary source of financing for Iraq’s own reconstruction and for defraying the costs of the US presence to oversee Iraq’s transformation. The last thing the US defense secretary wants is to have Iraq re-admitted to the Organization Petroleum Exporting Countries. For that very reason, Saudi voices are clamoring for Iraq’s return to the cartel where its production would be controlled by the quota system and Saudi Arabia’s primacy of the oil market escape diminution.
The divergent voices in Riyadh over this issue have more to do with politics and the balance of power in the royal house than profit and loss factors. The conservative-leaning crown prince Abdullah would happily go along with Rumsfeld’s aspirations because he wants to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on a single source of revenue. For one thing, his foremost rivals in the royal house, the Sudeiri brothers led by the ailing King Fahd and defense minister Sultan, exert a virtually monopolistic control of the nation’s oil industry. For another, Abdullah has fought for years to limit Saudi society’s exposure to Western society and its ways. Yet he also advocates a fairer distribution of wealth and the broadening of the country’s employment base that would reduce the 30-40% unemployment rate among men by opening up job opportunities outside the oil industry to Saudis who would take over from the ubiquitous imported workers – especially in industry, business and commerce. Abdullah sees in this gravitational shift a means of undercutting the Sudeiris’ power base.
He tried to achieve this three years ago by opening the country’s energy resources to foreign investments, making the announcement in Washington. Upon his return home, he was forced to backtrack under pressure from oil minister Ali al-Naimi – a Sudeiri appointee – and limit the multibillion dollar offer to exploration and production in the gas sector alone. Even so, contracts have yet to be signed with the international firms who won stakes in the gas-rich regions. These delays have held up Abdullah’s hopes of a lever against the Sudeiri energy monopoly and gaining enough clout to force the key industry to reforms.
Saudi Shiites Find Their Voice
After standing up to half a century of pressure to give ordinary Saudis a say in government, the princes are far from eager for a full-blown democracy to develop next door in Iraq. So far, they have got away with marginal concessions. A decade ago, they created a Majlis Shoura (and unelected consultative council) the closest approximation to a parliament they were willing to go. But the same statute perpetuates the rule of the House of Saud and limits the council’s powers to consultative functions. Nonetheless, parts of the population never before represented did gain a voice in government although that will not be good enough if a government representing all parts of the Iraqi nation rises in Baghdad.
First signs of the outside and domestic pressures in store have come from Saudi Shiites under the influence of the broad prerogatives the Americans are preparing to confer on their Iraqi coreligionists. On April 23, the Washington Post ran an open letter signed by 13 prominent Saudi Shiite clerics celebrating Saddam Hussein’s downfall and calling on Iraqis to embrace the path of dialogue and unite behind their national religious leaders. Foreign occupation must end and Iraqis left to govern themselves freely and independently, said the letter.
The subtext of this statement was read correctly in Riyadh as a Saudi Shiite cry for attention.
The Shiite minority – no more than 7-8 percent of Saudi Arabia’s largely Sunni Wahhabi population of 14 million – has plenty to complain about. Its leaders often petition the government in Riyadh for equal rights in the distribution of national wealth, recognition for their religious leaders and ritual laws, freedom of religious practice and an end to discriminatory employment policies. They also claim a bigger share in the oil revenues produced by the oil wells of the Eastern Provinces where most of the Shiite population lives.
Usually, their grievances are brushed aside and some of their ringleaders arrested. But since the Iraq War, the Shiites are beginning to be heeded. Although no real remedial action for their problems has been promised, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Riyadh say Saudi rulers cannot pretend to be blind to the new liberties the Americans are handing out to the Shiites of Iraq and the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.
According to our Saudi experts, Abdullah may be the first to bend to some of their demands. He also believes that in doing so he will serve his own interests and enlarge his popular support. However little he gives, his lenience towards the Shiites will compare favorably with the repressive treatment meted out to them for two decades by the Sudeiri governor of the Eastern provinces, King Fahd’s son Mahmud.
As things stand today, the infighting at court over the Iraq War’s import for Saudi policies in a wide range of fields has only just begun. It is likely to gain force as the Iraqi scene fights clear of the muddle of transition and the argument within the Bush team over America’s Iraq strategy is resolved. The more liberal elements in the kingdom are likely to be encouraged by Iraq’s transformation to speak with a louder voice. However, after giving them the first innings, the dominant conservatives and clerical establishment will not miss the chance of hitting back. The ding dong over Saudi national policies will in the final reckoning depend on the balance of forces in the royal house and be determined through the traditional accommodations among the senior princes.