Discontent in the desert kingdom

To date Venezuela, a country going through a revolutionary democratic process, is believed to have the world’s third largest oil reserves. Iraq is believed to have the second largest reserves of oil and is currently the most unstable country in the world. Within this context imperialism is having to rely on its old ally Saudi Arabia – the world’s largest oil producer – more than ever. But the oil-rich kingdom is itself facing turmoil, as Andrew Alexander reports.

Over the past two years Saudi Arabia has been rocked by numerous bombings and attacks by groups aligned to Al Qaida, in particular on 12 May 2003 when 35 foreign workers were killed in a compound in Riyadh, and on 29 May 2004 when militants attacked a similar housing compound in Khobar, killing 22. Many journalists have also been targeted including BBC correspondent Frank Gardner and cameraman Simon Cumbers, who were shot in a drive-by shooting on 14 July 2004 (though there is circumstantial evidence that Gardner, an ex-soldier and expert on Al Qaida, was an MI5 agent). Cumbers died and Gardner was seriously injured. These attacks however represent only the fringe of what is a wider discontent at the deterioration of the Saudi economy and the absolutist monarchic rule of the Al Sauds – a dynasty that has ruled brutally for over 70 years.

Historically the ruling Al Saud family (which in its extended form is now believed to have as many as 20,000 members) has always managed to unite when its rule has been under threat. But divisions are now opening between the old guard led by King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah and some of the younger generation over how best to deal with calls for reforms and the poverty and anger in Saudi society at large. An increase in the price of world oil has strengthened the Saudi current-account surplus and has pushed the Saudi stock exchange up to a record high, but the increasing income from oil has gone to maintaining the obscene opulence of the Al Sauds and not to Saudi society at large. A whole bourgeois business layer has been disenfranchised and left out of this huge wealth, and it is from here that antagonisms are most notably arising and spreading down to the increasingly impoverished working class. Since 1980 real income per head has fallen by as much as 50% and unemployment has risen to around 20% – some estimates claim as high as 30%.

An estimated 15-20,000 Saudis fought for imperialism against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and it was Saudi Arabia, fulfilling a role which the imperialist countries could not afford to play directly, that helped instigate a terrorist uprising against the democratic revolution in Afghanistan. It was the presence of Saudis on Afghani soil and the financial and military funding and training of the Taliban regime that exposed Saudi Arabia as not just an ultra-reactionary defender of imperialism but also an attack-dog for imperialist interests. It was a role that many Saudis bitterly believe they have not been rewarded for fulfilling.

Anger from the worsening economic conditions has been fuelled by the imperialist occupation of Iraq which in turn has been manipulated by the Islamicists. Half the Saudi population are women who, though they ‘make up half the university intake, have only 6% of jobs and few rights in society’ (The Economist, 6 May 2004). Shias and non-Islamic labourers from the Far East constitute a significant proportion of the country’s inhabitants and the majority of the industrial workforce. None of these groups, let alone a large portion of Saudi national workers, have anything to gain from another deeply repressive and reactionary regime. However, there is no sign yet of a democratic and progressive opposition emerging.

Recent calls for political reform and better human rights were sparked by an unprecedented rally in Riyadh just after a conference by the Saudi Arabian Red Crescent (itself an unusual event) in October 2003, which led to over 270 arrests. It was these calls, as much as the kidnappings and bombings of Westerners, that are a cause of anxiety for imperialism and the Al Sauds. Some imperialist analysts claim there need not be such cause for concern, stating that Saudi Arabia can no longer have the same economic clout on the world’s economy that it had in the 1970s. They argue that use of alternative energy sources, new discoveries of oil fields from Alaska to the Caspian and an increase in output from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union have had the combined effect of making the world less reliant on the Saudis. This is nonsense. Imperialism needs Saudi oil as it is dependent on a stable supply of oil – the movement of peoples and goods cannot exist without it. A rapid fall in supply leading to a significant price rise will have a knock-on effect that could exacerbate global capitalist crisis. Not only does Saudi Arabia have the largest reserves of oil; it is also a swing producer. ‘Unlike other countries, the Saudis keep several million barrels per day (bpd) of idle capacity on hand for emergencies (that is they deliberately hold back on what they could immediately drill). This spare capacity allows the Saudis to moderate oil-price spikes. They have done precisely this at various times: during the Iran-Iraq war, when output from both countries was disrupted; during and after the first Gulf war in 1991, when output from Iraq and Kuwait was lost; and last year when civil strife in Venezuela and Nigeria curbed output from both countries on the eve of last year’s invasion of Iraq (which itself disrupted Iraqi output)’. (The Economist, 27 May 2004)

Losing control of this huge power and influence is of immense concern to imperialism. The markets are based on confidence and speculation which are intrinsically linked to stability, something that was demonstrated with the Khobar compound massacre which occurred on a Saturday. Come Sunday, the Saudi government immediately announced new security measures, further arrests of ‘militants’ and reassurances regarding the safety of foreign workers. At the same time they also called an Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting where discussion would be focused on increasing production. All this was done with the purpose of calming the reaction just hours before Wall Street was due to begin trading on Monday. With the price of a barrel of crude now at a 20 year high, it may only take the symbolic lighting of one Saudi pipeline to trigger a global economic meltdown.

However, despite the attacks which have taken place, imperialism is hesitant about exerting too much pressure on their friends the Al Sauds. It does not matter to the US that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 11 September were Saudi. The ‘war on terrorism’ is a front for an imperialist war of terror against those who do not share imperialism’s interests. This was why the Bush administration attacked Afghanistan and Iraq, not Saudi Arabia, as the Al Sauds unlike Saddam, still rule in US imperialist interests. The joint House/Senate investigation into the 11 September attacks says the White House blacked out 28 pages of the report that dealt with purported links between the Saudis and the hijackers. (The Independent, 7 September 2004). It is not difficult to see why anything detrimental to Saudi Arabia is being covered up. The hypocrisy concerning the ‘war on terrorism’ in general and the war against Iraq in particular is highlighted by the closeness between the US and Saudi Arabia and most notably demonstrated by the business relationships of the Bush and the Bin Laden families. It was the Bin Laden family who funded George W Bush’s venture into oil in Texas in the 1970s and continued to do so up to the 11 September attacks. In fact, on 11 September itself, George Bush Sr was in a business meeting in Washington with one of Osama Bin Laden’s brothers!* The interests and investments of the US ruling class in Saudi Arabia and vice-versa are immense and the two states have made it perfectly clear that these interests will not be threatened.

The same close links are enjoyed by Britain. Little fuss was made by the British state when a Briton, Ron Jones, was arrested on 5 February 2001 and tortured in relation to some of the bomb blasts in the kingdom, so that the Saudis didn’t have to admit they had a problem with ‘home-grown’ terrorism. Similarly, five British workers were arrested and subsequently tortured on alcohol related charges in January 2001. British imperialism does not care about systematic human rights abuses such as lashings, stonings and hangings, even if such acts are meted out against its own citizens, as long as the country committing such abuses is an ally. The British ruling class, like the US, did not wish to rock the boat and has its own links and networks with the Al Sauds to deal with such unfortunate ‘situations’ when they arise. The reason is not just to maintain the oil links – Britain has the fourth biggest market for Saudi oil – but to sustain the lucrative arms sales that Britain has with the Kingdom. Britain is the world’s second largest military exporter and Saudi Arabia is its biggest client. The mammoth Al Yamamah deal struck in 1986 was Britain’s biggest-ever export agreement, supplying Tornado, Hawk and other aircraft and support systems, and has been worth over £17bn in sales to date. BAE Systems alone employs more than 2,500 people in Saudi Arabia. (BBC News Online).

It is difficult to see at the moment exactly where the more democratic forces to the parasitic rule of the Al Sauds will come from. Presently there are no unions or workers affiliations and women in the vast majority of cases are not allowed in the workplace or to create their own affiliations or groups. Any dissent is brutally dealt with by lengthy prison sentences, torture or public executions, and socialist organisations are banned. Amnesty International cites the Saudi regime as one of the most secretive and brutal in the world today where ‘once someone is caught in the web of the criminal justice system, there is only one guaranteed outcome – their basic human rights will be violated’ (Amnesty International). It is this record of brutal human rights violations, as well as its roles in Afghanistan and in the first Gulf war against Iraq that has exposed Saudi Arabia for what it actually is – a willing and brutal servant of imperialism. m

* For more details of the extensive links between the Bush and Bin Laden families see The House of Bush, House of Saud – the secret relationship between the world’s two most powerful dynasties by Craig Unger, 2004.

FRFI 181 October / November 2004

 

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