War Drums Beat out a Threat

Last month, a Rand Corporation analyst, Laurent Murawiec, presented an influential Pentagon think tank with a briefing depicting Saudi Arabia as an enemy of the United States and recommending an ultimatum from Washington to Riyadh: Either stop backing terrorism – and “prosecute or isolate those involved in the terror chain, including in the Saudi intelligence services” – or face seizure of the Saudi oil fields and financial assets invested in the United States.

This week, on August 6, The Washington Post published excerpts of the briefing that was delivered to the Defense Policy Board, a group of prominent intellectuals and former senior officials that advises the Pentagon on defense policy.

The newspaper commented that the view voiced in the Rand Corp. briefing is popular among some neo-conservative thinkers, among them officials close to vice president Dick Cheney.

The report’s interest lies not so much in that it covered new ground. On April 26, 2002, after Cheney’s 10-nation round of the Middle East and Gulf, DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue 58 reported:

US vice president Dick Cheney, on a visit to Riyadh… pulled no punches with the Saudi ruler. “You, the Saudis,” he rebuked Abdullah, “are jeopardizing the survival of the Saudi royal family and the security of the kingdom’s oil fields. If you carry on with this policy, you will lose those fields and be left without oil.”

What is significant is the timing of its publication, the morning after a devastating US air raid on Tuesday, August 5, against Iraq’s air control and command center at al-Nukhaib (see previous article). DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources reveal that some of the American bombers in that raid took off from the Prince Sultan air base in western Saudi Arabia, about 35 miles (55 miles) northeast of the capital Riyadh.

The air strike was a new stage in the preliminary US military activity leading up to its full-scale offensive against Iraq. But it also signposted a policy shift by governments that adamantly refused to stand up in public and be counted in favor America’s global war on terror or allow US air strikes to be launched from their territory.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt are four such nations.

But behind their public protestations, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported in edition 71 on August 2, each of those four governments is taking part quietly in America’s military preparations to attack Iraq, and also turning a blind eye to the use of their bases.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is letting America use his country’s biggest air base, Cairo West, and the Suez Canal to carry out military missions. Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit is permitting the US air force to turn the sprawling Incirlik air base in southern Turkey into a launching pad for strikes against Iraq. He is also in negotiation with the US Command running the war to place additional Turkish air and ground bases at the disposal of US special forces already on the ground in northern Iraq and future waves of US combat units.

Jordan’s King Abdullah, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported last week, has likewise made available to the US war command a group of ground and air bases along its eastern border with Iraq.

But while Washington and its Iraq war commander, General Tommy Franks, appreciate the concessions tacitly granted by all four governments, notwithstanding their public refusals, they are far from confident that of the four, the Saudi crown prince Abdullah will stay the course until the end of the conflict.

This uncertainty produced the re-publication of an old Washington threat to Riyadh in the serpentine yet understandable form taken by Washington Post report.

The threat was two-edged. It warned Abdullah not to drop back from his practical support for the American war effort, advising him to caution the extremist factions making up his power base not to interfere with the de facto monarch’s decision to allow America to launch its warplanes from the Prince Sultan air base. This was a veiled hint at the cadre of young, radical princes who are partisans of the ex-Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, the Islamic clergy and many ultra-conservative tribal chiefs.

These tribal chiefs were traditionally minor players on the Saudi political scene. Most were urbanized, having moved to the big towns of Riyadh and Jeddah to act as tribal lobbyists at the Saudi royal court and lesser bureaucrats. Their standing suddenly changed at the beginning of this year, when thousands of Saudis who fought with al Qaeda and the Taliban against the Americans returned home from Afghanistan. These fugitives felt safest taking refuge with their tribes and clans. The chiefs of those tribes overnight acquired an expanding constituency, one that was, moreover, a powerful fighting force. They were catapulted into the role of arbiter between the war veterans, the Saudi throne and the religious authorities, with leverage enough to determine whether the thousands of highly trained guerrilla fighters sank back into their places in the tribes or ganged up for an armed insurgency against the House of Saud and the central government in Riyadh.

The implicit threat to seize the Saudi oil fields and Riyadh’s investments in the United States is aimed at all walks of Saudi society, high and low, who would all be hit.

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