Thursday, January 07, 2010

US leverage over Saudi Arabia: One example of how the patron/puppet relationship works


I've looked at this before when I was shocked by an explanation of how backwards the Saudi monarchical succession system is.
The big question regarding the Saudi succession hangs over whether, and how, the kingship will ever be transferred from the numerous ageing brothers and half-brothers who stand in line after Crown Prince Sultan, to the "next generation" of princes - some of the more senior of whom are already nearing 70 years old.

Earlier this year, King Abdullah named his 76-year-old half-brother Naif ibn Abdul-Aziz as "second deputy prime minister", a position that places him a likely - but not certain - second in line to throne after Sultan.

When King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, died in 1953, he left some 37 sons from his 22 wives. Various of these sons have ruled the kingdom in turn since then.

Many of Abdul-Aziz's sons had a dozen or more sons of their own. Saudi Arabia has no system of "primogeniture" (first-son succession.) Thus, there are hundreds of possible eventual claimants to the throne. Indeed, the youngest of Abdul-Aziz's sons, Prince Muqrin, is, at 64, some years younger than several of the next-generation princes who now hope to become king.
Nothing has really changed since then. The United States supports the Saudi monarchy because, contrary to what would be expected from a democracy, the Saudi monarchy does not use oil fields to fund what George Bush described as "terrorist ambitions". Specifically, Saudi Arabia's greater oil revenues, greater resources per-capita and closer distance to Israel would make a democratic Saudi Arabia far more of an existential threat to Israel than a democratic Iran is.

We see what the Americans get out of the relationship. Here is a recollection of Ray Close, one time CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia:
I recall when Prince Fahd bin Abdal Aziz called me to a meeting very late one evening in the early days of the 1973 war and asked me to send an urgent personal message from him to Richard Nixon informing the president that he had felt obliged to contribute a brigade of Saudi troops to the Golan front to support the Syrian offensive there, but that he had personally instructed the commander of the unit not to fire a single shot. That, Fahd told me with considerable emotion and obvious sincerity, was his solemn promise to his American friend.
What do the Saudis get out of the relationship? Why was it so important to Saudi Arabia's puppet king that the US president not be angered by this pathetic Saudi gesture? And why would the Saudis make the effort of sending fake troops to Syria to hide their relationship with the United States?

I think there are two primary factors. The first is that in the modern era, weird family dictatorships live on borrowed time. The United States has publicly allocated $75 million per year to overthrow Iran's elected government. Far less than one percent of that would be enough to push the corrupt and effete Saudi dictatorship out of its palaces. Would the alternative be better for Israel? Quite possibly not, but maybe the US could scrounge up an Abbas or Mubarak somewhere in Saudi Arabia - either way it would be the end of King Abdullah's shopping trips to Paris and skiing trips to Colorado, and the threat of that far overwhelms any calculation of national interests or values on the part of the Saudi monarchy.

The second factor is that monarchy inherently leads to a sycophantic outlook on the world. The British decorated his father with the title of king with the understanding that he would be pliant to imperial desires and he has been bred all of his life to seek approval from a foreign ruler - Great Britain as a source of approval has transferred seamlessly to the United States. A person not raised to understand this relationship would be nauseated to see it up close, but Abdul Aziz in 1932 offered up himself and his family almost as a harem of prostitutes for British and later American control in exchange for British assistance in gaining control of a kingdom.

I sometimes see analysts try to back-apply some strategic rationale for Saudi policy. There is none. Saudi policy is as different from what a democratic Saudi Arabia would pursue as the Shah's policy was different from what the Islamic Republic of Iran pursues. In practical terms, the Saudi monarch does whatever the United States tells him to do, though he's learned to distract attention from that relationship with independent-seeming symbolic gestures.

US leverage over Saudi Arabia is really just a quirk of the colonial system left over by the British and maintained despite the fact that the US is not an instinctively colonial nation because of the threat that an independent Saudi Arabia would pose to Israel.

21 comments:

N. Friedman said...

I rather doubt that Saudi Arabia is a US puppet, at least not in the sense you think. Your theory fails to explain the privileged place that Saudi Arabia has in Washington and with various US presidents and with many of the allies of the US. It fails to explain the ability of Saudi Arabia to influence the US and US allies, for example, the UK over the BAE scandal, where the UK government backed down due to Saudi, not US, pressure.

Saudi Arabia has substantial land and business holdings in the US, enough to preclude the US from acting against Saudi Arabia directly. That, by itself, is enough to remove the Saudis from the category of puppet.

And, when Saudi Arabia asked the US to move its bases, after 9/11, that is what the US did. Some puppet, who can force the US to move its troops!!!

And, the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, except in fantasy land, is not driven to benefit Israel. Saudi Arabia desires a strong relationship with the US, because that relationship has, over the long haul, brought fabulous wealth and influence to Saudi Arabia. So, if Saudi Arabia did not want its troops to fire on Israeli troops, that was a rational decision made by the Saudi monarch, one that perhaps another Arabian government, even a democratic one, would make.

I might add: it may also be in the Saudi's interest not to fire at Israeli troops since the Israelis might have fired back, humiliating the, at the time, completely incompetent Saudi troops. So, that is a point you did not consider, namely, that the Saudis were making a necessity sound like a favor to the US.

In any event, there is no democracy that was or is coming to Saudi Arabia any time soon, with or without the existence of the US. If and when the Saudis adopt the rule of law and other things necessary to the establishment of democracy, then we can discuss your theory.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Friedman, don't confuse a level of interplay for actual independence.

The US relationship with the Shah was in certain ways comparable to that of the present day Saudi monarchy. Remove US support, and that monarchy is hard pressed to sustain itself. And perhaps nowhere is this dependence better exemplified than the (lack of) effective fighting capability of the Saudi military, despite the billions and billions of dollars worth of military hardware. And, don't confuse the BAE scandal for a sign of Saudi leverage. It is not. All that reflects is a corrupt means of interplay, a continued legacy of a colonial relationship.

-Pirouz

Arnold Evans said...

Friedman:

I'm curious about another aspect of your view of the Middle East. I've read many many instances of Israelis describing Iran as the primary rival and even an existential threat to Israel. I've never read Saudi Arabia described that way.

How do you explain that Israel is so much more threatened by Iran than it is by Saudi Arabia?

N. Friedman said...

Arnold,

Iran is a more modern country in a number of ways than Saudi Arabia. It is not as far behind the West as Saudi Arabia, technologically speaking, is. And, the Saudis do not have a potent military while Iran does.

Further, Saudi Arabia's interests are fairly narrow and geared towards survival and, hence, explainable in Kedourie's terms. Iran has adopted a transnational program that wants to spread itself, explainable somewhat in the way that one would explain the evangelism of the USSR or Nazi Germany.

Iran was, at one time, an ally of Israel. Israel's knowledge of Iranian society is rather broad and deep, with Israel having far greater information about Iranian society than Saudi society. So, the Israelis believe, whether or not correctly, that they know what makes the current Iranian regime tick and they think Iran is dangerous in the manner that historian Benny Morris has explained in an essay he wrote some time ago or in the manner that the somewhat more dramatic Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has written about Islamism. These views are not propaganda but the real opinions of the noted scholars.

In any event, the Israelis think Saudi Arabia and Iran are both enemies of Israel but that Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, is driven by it ideology while Saudi Arabia is driven by ordinary external forces and is thus an ordinary power, not a revolutionary power - to use realist theory explanations.

Lysander said...

So Norman, if Iran is a danger to Israel because it posses greater technology, do you then suggest that the solution is to...deny Iran technology? Wouldn't it be nice if a new government in Iran agreed to limit its technological advances?

Also, how did it come about that Saudi Arabia, with enormous oil wealth and open trade with the west, is less technologically advanced than Iran, which has been under sanctions for 30 years? Is that not an odd state of affairs?

How is it that Iran has a more potent military than SA, which has been able to buy the best weapons of the US/EU defense establishments?

Hypothetically, the Saudi air force could challenge Israel's in the air. We all know in reality it cannot, but imagine Iran with those same Saudi F-15. We would be less certain of the result, would we not?

And the reason is Saudi purchases those weapons simply as a kickback to its puppet master(s)

"Further, Saudi Arabia's interests are fairly narrow and geared towards survival and, hence, explainable in Kedourie's terms."

What threatens SA's survival? Iran? Or when you say Saudi Arabia's survival, do you mean the survival of the royal family? To whom do they turn to ensure their survival?

Also, why is the Saudi government interested in nothing more than its own survival? Is that the typical foreign policy of every nation? Or is the policy of puppet nations?

N. Friedman said...

Lysander,

Iran has been more advanced technically than Saudi Arabia for the better part of a century, if not longer.

That the West sold Saudi Arabia advanced military equipment does not make Saudi Arabia advanced and does not mean that Saudi Arabia has a potent military.

I did not suggest denying anyone technology. The issue is with the rulers of Iran, not technology. Which is to say, the Ahmadinejad clique is a dangerous one with revolutionary intentions that could negatively impact the world.

The discussion regarding Kedourie is a statement indicating that Saudi Arabia behaves towards other countries like an ordinary state. Ordinary states act to defend their existence and, even when they start wars, they do so because they feel threatened. That distinguishes Saudi Arabia from Iran, which, if we go by the ideology of its leaders, may have more revolutionary intentions.

Kedourie showed that, for example, the British Empire lost influence over the various Arab states in the late 1930's by confusing Arab and Muslim rhetoric with the national policy of the various Arab states then existing.

Saudi Arabia does not behave like a puppet state. It behaves like a state that advances its own interests by a variety of means, some of them nasty (e.g. by giving money to people who try to kill civilians) and by above board (e.g. by its financial clout).

lidia said...

Benny Morris (in case Arnold is not aware about it) openly admitted that Israel was founded on ethnical cleansing of Palestinians, then he added something like:

-it is a pity that the cleansing was not thorough enough. We should do it fully when the opportunity will come - for ex, a nuclear war or something-

In short - Benny Morris is insane, not mentioning his racism - after all, he is a Zionist. To ask him why Iran is dangerous for Israel is like ask Rhodes what he thinks about independent black African state, or Walles what he thinks about the civil rights of Blacks.

Peter Brooke said...

I've only recently discovered this blog and I'm very taken with it partly because you don't bother with any talk of a two state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. You know that there is only and only ever will be one state, either a Jewish state based on another massive round of ethnic cleansing, or a democratic state based on agreement between the two peoples.

However I'm not so sure about this recent discussion of Saudi Arabia. Like Norman I don't see Saudi Arabia as only a puppet, but unlike him I certainly don't see it as just another state, acting in its own state interests.

My understanding is that the Saudi system is based on an alliance between two distinct groups. On the one hand there is the Saudi family, a Bedouin tribe who seized power in the 1920s, and who probably don't believe in anything very much other than their own comfortable life style. On the other hand there is the Wahhabi movement which is highly ideological and, contrary to what Norman has said, much more obviously involved in a great transnational adventure than the Iranians.

This takes the form of a massive programme of international mosque building and planting religious leaders with a particular brand of Islam that rejects all the rich intellectual tradition of islam and (rather like Protestantism in Europe in the seventeenth century) thinks it is getting back to the primitive simplicity of the original founders of the religion.

To this end they have destroyed the rich culture that used to exist throughout the territory they now control. And they are trying, and to a large extent succeeding, in doing the same throughout the Sunni world. They do this with the money given them by the Saudi monarchy. I can't myself see that this is in the interests either of the US or of Jews in Palestine, except in the very Machiavellian perspective that it keeps the Muslim world in a state of chaos. It prevents the emergence of a modern state oriented ideology such as socialism (or a Sunni equivalent of the interesting evolution of Shi'i political thought that has occurred in Iran and Iraq).

In the long term however I would have thought it is more menacing to Israel than Iran (and I agree with Juan Cole who recently remarked that he thought Hamas was likely getting much more from the Wahhabis than from Iran). Iran has never shown any signs of military adventurism, but in the mid 1990s the Saudis marched up to the Yemeni border to impose a settlement of a longstanding dispute. This was exactly what Saddam Hussein did to Kuwait with the difference that Kuwait (thinking it had US support) ignored him while the Yemenis gave way so there wasn't actually a war. And surely all that hardware the Saudis have been buying must in some way reflect there insecure view of the world.

I suggest briefly that if the Israelis are making a fuss about Iran and not about Saudi its because they know the Americans need the Saudis but don't need Iran. All israel wants is to use the US to maintain trouble outside its own boundaries and it can do that more easily in relation to Iran than to Saudi. Though the neoconservatives do in fact regard Saudi Arabia as an ultimate prize.

I have to rush off to a dinner invitation so apologise if this is a bit incoherent.

Peter

N. Friedman said...

Peter,

You write: "You know that there is only and only ever will be one state, either a Jewish state based on another massive round of ethnic cleansing, or a democratic state based on agreement between the two peoples."

There will not be one state, much less one democratic state, with two peoples. If there is one state, it will either be primarily Jewish with a small Arab population or entirely Arab. In that a major portion of the Arab population rejects any role for Jews in the country, such ought to give you pause for any possibility of a two peoples democracy.

lidia said...

As a matter of fact, when (NOT IF) there will be one state, a majority of Jews leave Israel, because they do not want to be equals with non-Jews. Anyway, in Algeris could provide an example. A lot of Jews in Israel has double citizenship and could leave without much problems. USA then could provide for them - it would still be cheapier than pay billions annually to Israel.

Of course, if Palestinians let some Jews to stay it will be very generous of them.

Anonymous said...

I think Saudi walks a fine line when it comes to the jewish debate and being an friendly with the US.

I read a good book called "Paramedic to the Prince" written by an American who was on the medical staff of King Abdullah.

It was a real insde look into the Saudi Mindset

Arnold Evans said...

Peter:

I don't see the Wahhabi movement as able to set Saudi foreign policy to contradict US wishes. So I don't see them as important in any issue directly involving Israel.

I class funding mosques along with refusing to recognize Israel as symbolic measures that the US leaves within the Saudi domain as long as the US makes decisions for Saudi Arabia on issues the US considers important.

I only see Saudi Arabia as a threat to Israel long-term if the Wahhabis or someone else are able to remove the monarchy from power. As long as the monarchy remains in power, it will follow US directions.

GeneralOreo said...

Peter Brooke,

Kuwait ignored Saddam because it thought it had American support?

From what I know it refused the US a base years eariler and just thought Saddam would never actually attack it.

I'm from Kuwait and curious to hear more about this if you don't mind.

This thread seems dead though...

GeneralOreo said...

lidia,

" As a matter of fact, when (NOT IF) there will be one state "

People just see what they want to see I guess. There will be two states, before Obama leaves office, and that's it. The world will forget about this conflict except those who don't want to for their agendas.

Arnold Evans said...

Bold prediction General Oreo.

Breathtaking.

I'm sure you're wrong, but you have an interesting position. Please write down as much about your perception as you can.

What do you think the agreement will be, in terms of land, militarization, bases, resource rights, etc.?

Who is going to vote on it, when and how?

Arnold Evans said...

General Oreo:

Are you really from Kuwait?

Forget about the two state stuff.

I'd like to ask about the rulers and politics of your country, how you feel about them and how other people in the country feel about them, as far as you can tell.

GeneralOreo said...

Yeah I am from Kuwait, though I hate it and not involved much.

It's making progress, giving women the vote and such and now the parliament is getting stronger. I recently read they were considering changing the laws for foreign workers, it was basically indentured servitude in some cases so that's also good.

Overall the whole country sucks, peoople still vote their religious affiliation and tribe. It's very, very religions. Even the 'liberals' would qualify as fascists in my opinion. But you can't change that, it's the culture.

I don't know, I plan to leave and never come back in a few years, and I honestly wouldn't be surprised if it turns into a taliban-lite country 20 years from now. Or maybe it'll be much more liberal and secular? Who knows. As I said I'm not involved in politics here, I just hope nothing big happens in the region in the next few years I'm here. Internet isn't really censored much outside of porn and despite the heavy laws/conservatism life is rather tolerable. I couldn't imagine living in saudi arabia. If something big does happen and this emir is replaced by a mullah, well, fuck. I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon, if ever, so I'm safe. Heh.

GeneralOreo said...

Regarding what the people think, as I said I don't know the details but I can tell you what's shocking to me is the obsession and love of the sabah family. You have no idea. this is not north korea or anything, so it's voluntary, things like posters and transperent pictures of the emir and the one before him (who was really popular, 'baba jabir' -_-;) are all over cars. It's disgusting. Now I don't outright HATE those guys, but the tribalism and servitude displayed by the people should give you a good idea on the culture here.

They are NOT thought of as 'dictators', not even close, and not even me - a liberal atheist - feel comfortable calling them that.

This goes against many ignorant views of the region that serve a narrative for a certain agendas, but I'd rather not get into that. It's not worth it and if I do I'll end up typing a for the next four hours and I need to go to sleep already.

GeneralOreo said...

Regarding what the people think, as I said I don't know the details but I can tell you what's shocking to me is the obsession and love of the sabah family. You have no idea. this is not north korea or anything, so it's voluntary, things like posters and transperent pictures of the emir and the one before him (who was really popular, 'baba jabir' -_-;) are all over cars. It's disgusting. Now I don't outright HATE those guys, but the tribalism and servitude displayed by the people should give you a good idea on the culture here.

They are NOT thought of as 'dictators', not even close, and not even me - a liberal atheist - feel comfortable calling them that.

This goes against many ignorant views of the region that serve a narrative for a certain agendas, but I'd rather not get into that. It's not worth it and if I do I'll end up typing a for the next four hours and I need to go to sleep already.

GeneralOreo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GeneralOreo said...

This is from an old post but since I might be having the OP's attention I'd like to reply to it here, get it out of my system:

"
Good and not often mentioned point about the Taliban. The Taliban never hated the US and never had any interest in attacking the United States. But the Taliban did, accurately, see the US as engaging in a war against Muslims and allowed Bin Laden's group to organize on its territory. Any Muslim controlled territory would do that, unless the US has some form of leverage. "

- only rotten countries would host al-qaida. Now it's true that's pretty much most if not all muslim countries, but that doesn't make it any better. Still rotten.

- taliban hosted al-qaida because they sympathised with their jihadi ideology that was only doing what the koran ordered them to. The US was the best target for many reasons, that's all.

- you say the taliban never hated the US and never intended to attack it, then say it hosted al-qaida? Perhaps poor things were forced into this by the 'war' against muslims you (and your fellow fanatics) talk so much about? No, taliban made it clear what kind of intentions they had when they hosted al-qaida. Taliban is not a global movement is right, but they supported one. They can stop doing that and nobody would give a damn how many women they stone.