Saudi Arabia has made what appears to be a major shift in its policy on Iraq, indicating that it could allow US forces access to bases on its territory from which to launch military strikes on Baghdad.
The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, has said his country would co-operate with a US-led attack on Iraq provided the UN Security Council gives its approval. The Saudi position has previously been that the kingdom would not allow the Americans to use its military bases for an assault against Iraq.
The idea of a US-led attack against Iraq remains deeply unpopular in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Arab world.
The Americans have both political and logistical reasons for wanting to use the Prince Sultan Air Base that is home to some 5,000 US military personnel. A military complex, 50 miles southeast of Riyadh, Prince Sultan Air Force Base may well form the nerve-centre of an American-led aerial assault on Iraq.
After initial reservations in October 2001, the Saudi Government allowed the base to be used for air operations in Afghanistan, which killed thousands of men, women and children.
The presence of US forces in the Arabian Peninsula, the site of Islam’s two holiest places, has always caused friction, which the ruling family of al-Saud has been uncomfortable with but able to handle, despite frequent criticism from Islamic activists and scholars.
Modern Saudi Arabia is supported by the US and Britain in order to guarantee a steady flow of oil. The dictatorial Saud clan describe themselves as “guardians of the two holy places” and presides over the vast annual pilgrimages to Mecca. The Saudi state uses religious ideology, the teachings of the Wahhabi sub-sect of Sunni Islam, to claim the right to rule.
Saudi money has supported US policy goals and covert operations in many places, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. In the 1980s the Saudis contributed more than $30 million to the Contras in Nicaragua. They contributed $10 million to an electoral campaign of the Christian Democratic Party (Italy) to enable it to defeat the Communist Party.
The 1990-1991 crises in the Gulf was in itself an eye-opener for the people in the region. It revealed the dangerous realities of politics, economics, the laws, civil rights, external relations and other facets of the state. But what really shocked the public was the scandal of the Saudi armed forces. For decades astronomical figures were spent on equipping its armed forces, then with the first sight of danger, the rulers were the first to admit that there was no army capable of defending the country and that the task will be contacted out to the Americans.
With the shame of having no armed forces, and with the Americans staying in the Kingdom to protect it, there started a campaign calling for reform by peaceful means led by clerical, academic and legal personalities. This peaceful reform programme – before it was crushed by the state – satisfied the aspirations of the masses while swaying them from resorting to violence to achieve reform, despite the deep insult caused by stationing an infidel army on the Arabian soil.
Subservience to the Americans is the first and the most important factor of decision-making in Saudi Arabia. Any deviation from that, especially in foreign policy, is nothing more a slight subordination and never an out right rebellion.
The House of Saud chose to link themselves inextricably and became a tool to execute American designs to control oil resources, to neutralise Islam as a force, and to guarantee the security of Israel. The behaviour of Saudi officials in the current crisis saves us the trouble of proving this point.
The bargain at the heart of the US-Saudi relationship, namely oil in exchange for military protection, still stands. The world economy runs on oil and is vulnerable even to short-term disruptions of supply. America and the West still want access to Saudi oil resources at low prices, and the Saudi ‘royal’ family continues to need American protection to prevent their precarious regime from collapsing like a house of cards.
If the House of Saud collapses, there is no guarantee that the regime that takes over is going to be as acquiescent to Washington’s demands as the Saudis still are.
Meanwhile, Washington’s efforts to expand its military presence and to build staging posts are not confined to the Gulf region or to the war against Iraq or Afghanistan. They cover the entire Muslim world and are closely linked to the US-led ‘war on terrorism’.