Protection racket?

by Chris Bertram on May 25, 2004

From the “Economist”: :

bq. At the next official meeting of OPEC, in Beirut on June 3rd, Saudi Arabia will be asked to demonstrate solidarity with its co-conspirators in the cartel. The bargain that holds OPEC together—each member shows restraint in production, so that all can enjoy higher prices—is at stake, they will say. But it is widely assumed that Saudi Arabia must also keep its side of a more fundamental bargain. It must be conscious of American petrol prices, especially in an election year, and, in return, the world’s only superpower will continue to offer the desert kingdom its protection.



Andrew Boucher 05.25.04 at 11:52 am

Protecting the desert kingdom or the ruling family of the desert kingdom? The two are not the same, of course.


q 05.25.04 at 12:55 pm

And here’s a question: Saudi Arabia, as it exists today is unlikely to survive if a majority — or even a large and angry minority — of American Politicians come to conclude that Saudi Arabia is untrustworthy and un-American. How far are we from that point?


General Glut 05.25.04 at 2:07 pm

“offer the desert kingdom its protection” from whom? In the recent past, Iraq played the necessary role of bugbear. But now?

Is the US protecting the House of Sa’ud from al-Qaeda? From its own subjects? I find these two options quite unconvincing in that the US has little to no ability to protect the Sa’uds from either internal enemy.


bob mcmanus 05.25.04 at 2:21 pm

Obviously it is Bush protecting the Royal Family from the FBI and civil lawsuits by 9/11 victims.

With Bush or with the terrorists, always.


y81 05.25.04 at 2:45 pm

I find this very puzzling: we have one set of Bush opponents claiming that he is cahoots with the Saudis, doesn’t pursue the REAL terrorists for that reason etc.; and another set (Juan Coles, Fritz Hollings etc.) claiming that Bush in in thrall to the Jews, receives orders from Wolfowitz and Perle, who co-ordinate with Sharon to direct policy in Israel’s interest etc. You can’t both be right, and while it’s touching that you have put aside your differences to focus on defeating Bush, it doesn’t bode well for a coherent policy if you succeed.


Barry 05.25.04 at 2:56 pm

Actually, they can be. The Bush family is in bed with the Saudis; the GOP is going for the ‘Left Behind’ right-wing religious block.

This, of course, causes tension.


Zizka 05.25.04 at 3:12 pm

Y81 — you just put your finger on the big problem with the last 30+ years of American Mideast policy. During that period the US has been the main supporter BOTH of Israel and of Saudi Arabia, even though the two nations are sworn enemies. Likewise, US policy in the area was driven BOTH by oil and by support for Israel, and considerable internal tension derived from this.

Now, something which is actual is possible (rule one of modal logic, right?) Thus your point is no good, and you show yourself to be the kind of partisan hack you accuse us of being. Furthermore, you get extra points for compounding your stupidity with a condescending tone. Not a good day for the y81 family, I don’t think.

9/11, which was a Saudi operation, put a lot of stress on what was already a very dodgy assemblage of compromises. And at the moment, while people are trying to figure out what the hell is going on with Chalabi, it’s uncertain what the ultimate American policy is going to end up being.

P.S. Preemptive response: 9/11 was not an official act of the Saudi government, but important factions in the Saudi ruling group were implicated to greater and lesser degrees. The anti-Osama faction is dominant there, but the pro-Osama faction is still functional and the US is not able to move against it.


ChrisO 05.25.04 at 4:12 pm

This is interesting. If the US is trying to please Israel and Saudi Arabia (or at least the respective governments) they could score big points by elminating a ruler who was a threat to both. Now who would that be?

Now it looks like the WMDs are in Syria, who tried to use them to attack Jordan, because Jordan is on reasonably good terms with the US. By the logic above, Iraq was invaded because they threatened two US favorites. It looks like Syria is next in line.


bull 05.25.04 at 4:20 pm

So what is it exactly we should do with the Saudis? Throw them to the wolves? Moral suasion? Invade? Wag our fingers at them? Threaten not to buy any more oil? Hold our breath until we turn blue? Go on 280 million hunger strikes until they agree to, to … (uh oh,ellipses!) to, uh, exactly what?


bob mcmanus 05.25.04 at 4:28 pm

“It looks like Syria is next in line.”

Can’t read these guys minds.But one way to diminish or distract the Wahabbists is to encourage the rise of Shia. Two Shiite groups in South Lebanon: one reasonable group prime for Democracy, founded or controlled by Iraqi exiles; the 2nd Hezbollah, connnected and supported by Iran and Syria.

Could make our Iraqi Shia friends real happy for us to help their relatives in Lebanon. And our relationship with Iran will always be more complicated than it appears on the surface.


Zizka 05.25.04 at 4:40 pm

Bull’s response is the most common one whenever it is suggested that, since Saudis did 9/11, Saudis should be held responsible.

The argument goes that the Saudis have us over a barrel (ha ha, pun) and there’s not a Goddamn thing we can do about it. The NYT review of Unger’s “House of Bush, House of Saud” (by a big shot from the “Foreign Affairs” journal) said as much. I don’t understand the satisfaction bull gets from his proof that we’re fucked, though; he might be right, but it bothers me a lot.

One thing we could demand from the Saudis is cooperation in all investigations of lethal attacks by Saudis on Americans. We absolutely haven’t got that so far. It doesn’t seem like a ridiculous demand to me at all.

No one rely denies that Saudis did 9/11, or that the Saudis have refused to cooperate in that or other such investigations, or that Osama had and still has collaborators and sympathizers in the Saudi power structure, or that the Bush family is heavily interlocked with Saudis (including Bin Ladens). But when you go from that to say, “Gee, aren’t there some conclusions we can draw from this?”, or “Shouldn’t these facts be taken into consideration when making policy”, then you are regarded as a paranoid fanatic. Why? What’s unreasonable about those questions?

We’ve spent three years talking about the possibility that Saddam might have been involved with 9/11. Hundreds of hours of TV time have been devoted to a very few little patches and traces of evidence. Meanwhile, the abundant and blatant evidence that Saudis were involved at every level (finance, leadership, planning, and execution) is not even denied, but cannot be talked about. We’re chasing a mouse while the 800-lb. gorilla is right in the room with us.


q 05.25.04 at 4:46 pm

What do you suggest should be done?


Sebastian Holsclaw 05.25.04 at 5:12 pm

Same thing zizka always suggests–pointed tongue lashings and glares. Oh, oh wait we could get the international community to engage in pointed tongue lashings and glares and then magically discover fusion power!


Barry 05.25.04 at 5:20 pm

Posted by ChrisO:

“Now it looks like the WMDs are in Syria, who tried to use them to attack Jordan, because Jordan is on reasonably good terms with the US. By the logic above, Iraq was invaded because they threatened two US favorites. It looks like Syria is next in line.”



rea 05.25.04 at 6:28 pm

“Now it looks like the WMDs are in Syria”

Oh, please. haven’t you yet figured out that there were no WMD?


pepi 05.25.04 at 6:38 pm

If you get BBC Four, tonight you can watch the 2nd part of the House of Saud.

The first part was a history of the beginnings of US-Saudi relations since the discovery of oil. Nothing new or earth-shattering, but very interesting viewing.

It was amazing to be reminded of 1973 and how much today’s situation is starting to look like that, plus the terrorism bit.


y81 05.25.04 at 6:39 pm

But Zizka, you’ve lost the whole anti-Bush point with your “thirty years” admission. Now you’re just saying that the Bush administration (like the Clinton, Bush I, Reagan and Carter administrations) has been muddling through Middle Eastern politics as best it can. Very possibly true, but not a reason to prefer one candidate over another or denounce Bush in particular, which was what Mr. McManus wanted. In fact, a Kerry administration, if there is one, is likely to continue the same muddling policy, which is what I predicted.


pepi 05.25.04 at 6:42 pm

Also, they used the very same phrase back then – “offer its protection in return”. I think it was in some letter to the king, from Roosevelt, if I don’t recall wrong.

It’s like a deja vu all over. Except today, there’s the legacy of that 9/11 ‘incident’ in US-Saudi relation. But it’s amazing how little it has changed things.


nick 05.25.04 at 6:46 pm

You can’t both be right

Hey, I bet you thought that it was impossible for the US to be both openly hostile to the Iranians and sell them arms, with the Israelis as intermediaries. How naive you are.


pepi 05.25.04 at 6:47 pm

In fact, a Kerry administration, if there is one, is likely to continue the same muddling policy, which is what I predicted.

Right… You know, predictions have a way of being verifiable, sooner or later. So maybe it’s better to stick to observing the present rather than trying to predict the future?

Also, for one, Kerry has never been in the oil business. Or had dealings directly with the bin Ladens. Or taken care to ship them out the country right after 9/11. Whereas someone in the Bush administration has. So maybe, even if they meddling has deeper roots than Bush, Bush & co have deeper roots with the Saudis than anyone else? Just a thought.

Unless of course you want to argue that any future president will be exactly like Bush, in which case, why have elections at all? Waste of time, isn’t it?


bob mcmanus 05.25.04 at 7:04 pm

Zizka: One reason I support the Iraq war is the effect it will have on Saudi Arabia. I doubt or don’t know if it is any way Bush strategy, tho not sure that matters.

Important information: for various reasons, the Saudi’s have a great difficulty in getting their own people working and into jobs. So, the oil fields, in Northeastern SA near the border of Iraq, are largely manned and operated by Shia laborers, historically oppressed by their Sunni masters. Someone correct me if I am wrong.

Hmmmm. Possibilities?


giles 05.25.04 at 7:07 pm

Funny how no one has mentioned the way one of the first things done after conquering Iraq was the withdrawal of US Troops from Saudi Arabia. Given that this was cited as a main objective of the war, doesn’t t that suggest that this US administration has no intention of getting physically embroiled in a Saudi Civil war?


q 05.25.04 at 7:08 pm

What effect it will have on Saudi Arabia?


Zizka 05.25.04 at 7:44 pm

In terms of scoring points between Democrats and Republicans, which is the way trolls judge every issue, the 30 years of Mideast policy are indeed pretty much a wash. On the other hand, when things had to change, how did Bush perform? Not too well, it seems; right now he’s begging the Saudis to get the oil price down before the fall election, which suggests that he’s not going to be twisting their arms about anything.

Mcmanus is one of my favorite hawks, but (granted that strange things happen in realpolitik) to me the idea that you put pressure on someone by devastating their worst enemy is not terribly convincing.

As far as Kerry being better — he’s definitely less entangled either with Big Oil or Prince Bandar than Bush is. In a two-party system you get two choices, and sometimes you hope for the best from a guy you’re not sure of. Bush has certainly stunk up the place bad enough to warrant removal. (For the record, the Democrats do not solicit my advice about anything).

Tongue-lashings and sarcasm are my only weapons, alas, and even against the softest of targets, e.g. Sebastian, they often prove ineffective.

My positive suggestion is, for starters, to quit ignoring the 800-lb. gorilla. Reducing energy dependency and getting Big Oil out of the driver’s seat are two places to start, but that’s pretty long term. The Saudis’ military weakness does make them somewhat susceptible to pressure. Goals would be an end to Saudi financing of fundamentalism (especially abroad), a secular Saudi state, Saudi cooperation on investigations such as 9/11, USS Cole, etc.

Someone who identifies a problem isn’t required to solve it, right? Isn’t locating the problem a first step?


bull 05.25.04 at 8:09 pm

zizka: The rule is, if you locate a problem but can’t come up with a solution, then you’re not allowed to sneer at anyone currently beset by the problem. This goes octuple for problems that have been around for well over 30 years.


Thomas 05.25.04 at 8:30 pm

Pepi–before tarring the Bush administration with the bin Laden exit from the US, please recall that it was Richard Clarke–Clinton administration holdover, Bush administration critic, opponent of the war in Iraq, Democratic donor, media darling Richard Clarke–who approved the bin Laden exit.


bob mcmanus 05.25.04 at 8:34 pm

“What effect it will have on Saudi Arabia?”

Well, who really knows? But Iran has never been able to export its revolution. Why not? Because it is Shia not Sunni, because the Clerics hold a lot of land (wealth)and power, because Iran’s Shia is strong on Sharia. Because Iranians are not Arabs.

On the right across the border from those Saudi Oil workers we have Sistani and the Ulemma, who has prospered in a secular state, is used to a low level of Sharia and a high level of tolerance, is Arab, is educated to the point of issuing his fatwa’s via his web site etc etc.

If the Wahabbist Saudi’s have to go for full religious tolerance and some kind of representation for their Shia population, their regime is in deep trouble. Their foundation is Sunni and Saud control of the Holy sites.


bob mcmanus 05.25.04 at 8:44 pm

Oh. And the ultimate idea, is that since the Saudi Sunnis are taught it is better to preach than work(remember bin Laden’s daddy, the builder was from Yemen), they are dependent on those Shia and other outside workers. I think the Saudi Shia could shut the oil down.

The Iran-Iraq War and Gulf War I, and not going on to Baghdad the first time, were not necessarily about direct military threats to the oil fields, but about limiting external Shia influence on the Saudi Shia population. They are scared to death.


q 05.25.04 at 8:54 pm

Why would the the Wahabbist Saudi’s have to go for full religious tolerance now?


Zizka 05.25.04 at 9:34 pm

bull — as I said, something changed in 9/11. Shouldn’t we have stopped ignoring the problem at that point? Shouldn’t we be trying to figure out what to do? Shouldn’t we at least acknowledge what the problem really is?

Considering the amount of huffing and puffing even about France, Germany, and the UN we’re hearing, shouldn’t we be looking hard at the Saudis who are the actual source of the problem?

There are all kinds of jokes about this. “I lost my billfold over that way, because I’m looking here because the light’s better”. “My son’s very sensitive; if he does something wrong, spank the boy next to him and that will be enough”.

If it’s true that we have no way of pressuring the Saudis, what does that mean? Isn’t that very, very bad?

Is there any evidence that Bush is not in the Saudis’ pocket?

McManus’ response was pretty reasonable. The Saudis are strictly collecting rets — we don’t need their labor. They are also militarily weak, and they are completely dependent on their oil sales since they have almost no economy otherwise. So I do believe that a non-passive approach is possible. I’m not equipped to spell it out in detail, and why should I? There’s no evidence that anyone is interested.


q 05.25.04 at 9:49 pm

So you are advocating military action against Saudi Arabia.
-What would be the goal?
-Once the current regime is destroyed, what would you put in its place?
-Would you send troops into Makkah?
-Would you expect help from the regimes in Iraq or Iran?


Max 05.25.04 at 10:35 pm

I just wanted to make one point and ask for some clarification on another.

Re: Saudi Arabia. The importance of protecting Saudi Arabia above everyone (except maybe Israel, but they do a good job themselves with US money/arms) else in the Middle East was shown in the first Gulf War. Iraq invades Kuwait and the US has no existing plan for how to respond (the invasion of Kuwait was either unexpected or not deemed high enough priority to devise a plan). So the US puts works with the seemingly strange plan it already had — Operation Desert Shield, protecting Saudi Arabia.

Re: Syria. After the US embargo on Syria has there been any other indication that Syria is pipping North Korea for the number one slot on the axis of evil league table? I ask because I’m supposed to be going there for two and a half months in 4 weeks time.


y81 05.26.04 at 12:59 am

Zizka asks: “Is there any evidence that Bush in not in the Saudis’ pocket?”

Uh, the fact that he supports Sharon’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza, which annoys the Saudis? The fact that the administration imposed more stringent visa requirements on Arab visitors to the US, which annoys the Saudis? The fact that, in what Kerry supporters claim is an indefensible human rights abuse, the administration is holding a Saudi citizen incommunicado in a naval brig in Virginia? (Doesn’t this last point prove that it’s really the New York Times, which wants Hamdi released, that is really in the Saudis’ pocket?) The fact that the administration keeps talking about democracy in the Middle East, which is kind of inconsistent with the Saudi system of government? What do you want Bush to do, nuke Riyadh?

You know, if you want to believe that it’s all a joint Jewish-Saudi conspiracy, go ahead. I just don’t think it will sell.


Zizka 05.26.04 at 4:29 am

When visa restrictions were tightened after 9/11, Saudi Arabia was about 18th in sequence to have the tightening, along with Armenia. They were about a year late (I can document this.) Despite the fact that 9/11 was a Saudi event.

The US has not succeeded in getting Saudi cooperation in investigations of the many Saudi-based attacks on Americans. And doesn’t seem to be trying. Yes, they’ve annoyed them some. Talking about democracy is annoying. The Saudis ahve always tolerated out support for Israel, and (unsurprisingly) they DO realize that their position right now is weak. Hamdi is an AMERICAN citizen.

To my knowledge Bush has done nothing to bring the fight to the Saudis.

I didn’t say anything about Israel at all, much less a joint Saudi-Israeli conspiracy. Your pointless use of the c-word, y81, justifies my pointing out to the assembly that you are a demagogic piece of shit. It is not conspiracy theorizing to mention that 9/11 was funded, led, and manned almost entirely by Saudis.

My point has been that the war on terrorism should be directed at the actual terrorists. That means al Qaeda per se (not mentioned so far by me) and the Saudis and also the Pakistanis. I.E., the agents and their enablers.

Once it is realized that the actual problem is there, options can be examined. There are other options than nuking Riyadh.

Why is what I have said so difficult to understand? Are there no options between nukes and nothing? Jesus.


Ruth Hoffmann 05.26.04 at 10:34 am


There are also a few trifling matters like, say, Bush showing our plans for attacking Iraq to Prince Bandar before he showed them to our own Secretary of State. Or the fact that Bandar and his family have already donated millions of dollars to Bush pere and fils, for their “presidential libraries.”

That’s gotta be one expensive copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.


pepi 05.26.04 at 12:17 pm

The rule is, if you locate a problem but can’t come up with a solution, then you’re not allowed to sneer at anyone currently beset by the problem

Bull, may I remind you that members of elected governments are elected precisely for that reason – they are representatives, and they hold the mandate to govern, so it’s up to them to offer solutions and plans which will be discussed in the parliamentary arena and on which people will also vote, discuss, criticise, vote again, talk, write, joke, and are also allowed to use sarcasm, whether those forms of expression of one’s opinion are complemented or not by a visit to the election polls.

That’s the democratic system in a nutshell. What an amazing thing, isn’t it.

Thomas – I’m not interested in tarring anyone, it was simply an observation that it’s rather paradoxical for the president in charge during 9/11 to have had direct personal dealings with the family of the man who claimed responsibility on those attacks.

You’ve never had *that* close a risky relation with the most dangerous elements associated to the Saudi regime.

Those US-Saud relations were ambiguous enough in the past, but post-9/11 they’ve become surreal. And the speedy exit of Osama’s relatives is the least relevant instance, what matters is the blocking of investigations that led back to Saudi Arabia. That’s rather huge and I’m not aware of anyone else taking that kind of decision. You can’t pin that onto anyone else but the current administration, otherwise, you’re just avoiding facts.

It’s not a matter of personal opinions on Bush or his opponents affecting observation of facts, it’s the other way round. I doubt the Saudi and bin Laden connections are exclusively a concern of Bush’s political adversaries. They seem to bother some of his supporters too. And for instance, they completely infuriate the Israelis, especially right-wingers. So I’d guess it’s more of a cross-party issue. As is only normal. It’s such a huge one and it just stands out.


q 05.26.04 at 1:50 pm

I don’t think _”sneering”_ is a good thing in general. I don’t think _”sneering”_ helps in the understanding of the political and economic relationships of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the USA.


Zizka 05.26.04 at 7:07 pm

First, while I’m not sure I was sneering in my original post, I do think that sneering is a very good thing when done properly and appropriately.

Second, imagine that George W. Bush, his family, and the Republican Party had not been mentioned. Wouldn’t the War on Terror STILL look rather peculiar in the way it leaves Saudi Arabia almost completely out?


q 05.26.04 at 8:11 pm

_Wouldn’t the War on Terror STILL look rather peculiar in the way it leaves Saudi Arabia almost completely out?_

Peculiar?… The whole _War on Terror_ is indeed a curious and very peculiar animal in which may be consigned to the annals of history very soon. It provides wonderful essay material for future generations of history students.


BadTux 05.27.04 at 2:11 am

Bull: As the saying goes, if you got a man who has a job to do, and he ain’t doing the job, you might as well hire the next guy in line even if you’re not sure he’ll be any good either.

Bush ain’t been doin’ the job. ‘Nuff said. I don’t know ’nuff about Kerry to know whether Kerry can do the job, but he’s the only other guy in line, so ….

– BadTux the Pragmatic Penguin

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