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House of Cards

Reader comment on item: [Saudi Arabia:] Not Friend or Foe

Submitted by Paul Green (Thailand), Aug 12, 2002 at 21:03

As a non-American who worked for many years in the Middle East, I'd like to give you my take on things.

During Desert Shield and Desert Storm the Al Saud just about managed to reign in some of the worst excesses of the feared mutawain - the self-appointing and generally self-regulating "religious police". After the so-called liberation of Kuwait they slipped their leash with a vengeance and were even more omnipresent and fanatical than before. Many of these zealots are tolerably well-educated young men. Some have even studied at colleges and universities in the West. A very few are actually members of "The House" themselves. I recall watching a news clip during the Gulf war. The European film unit were accompanied by the Governor of Riyadh, (an Al Saud). Notwithstanding his presence and the attendant flunkies, police, army, bodyguards, secret police and all the security paraphernalia with which the Arab elite surround themselves; the film crew were berated in full view of the camera by a young mullah (in near perfect English) for having the temerity to film near a mosque during prayers. He may well have paid dearly for his insolence off-camera, mind.

My point? The Al Saud's writ is tenuous at best and the only way they can cling to power is by not being seen to overtly tackle or challenge grass roots religious fanaticism, for fear that they will meet the same fate as the Shah of Iran and his cohorts. Many members of the House of Saud and their Western educated technocrats are profoundly aware that theocracy is one of the worst possible forms of government. They would however never dare to express this view in public, or even to some of their peers, for fear of being branded "unislamic" - a heinous indictment of any muslim, however baseless the charge. Whilst the oil wealth flowed liked the Missippippi, the government could ensure that enough of it trickled down to keep the lid on much of the dissent. Now that per capita GDP is around $4300, and with 6000 rapacious Royal mouths to feed, the malcontents are not so easily supressed.

Toppling the House of Saud, will however only result in one of two possible outcomes. At best, and I speak here from the point of view of the West, a 1970's Lebanese style meltdown with various factions vying bloodily for control of different areas of the country; or at worst an ultra-fanatical Islamic Republic which will make the present regime look like a convention of social democrats. Short of an actual armed incursion and subsequent occupation, the US will be powerless to prevent this, as it was also powerless (or perhaps reluctant) to prevent the overthrow of the Shah. The Al Saud have deliberately kept the Saudi armed forces slovenly, badly-trained and almost useless - remember Khafji? There are no secular military strongmen waiting in the wings who might be cajoled, bribed or bullied into doing the USA's dirty work.

Do not delude yourselves for one moment that the majority of the Saudi populace are desperate to throw off the shackles of their corrupt and self-serving monarchy in order to embrace US or European style democracy. A small educated minority may desire this, but the vast unwashed will, at least initially, welcome the rabid rule of the mullahs with blessings in their hearts. And that goes for some of the women as well. Look at the history books. The Arabs always replace their effete and despotic monarchies with something entirely worse (Nasser, Saddam, Assad, Ghadaffi et al).

Beware what you wish for. You might be unlucky enough to get it.

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