Three stories out of Saudi Arabia this past week remind us what a terrible, horrible place that country is for anyone who is not male. Which raises an important question – why are we allies, again?
The first, reported here by the New York Daily News, relates the story of Sheikh Abdullah Daoud – a Saudi cleric who appeared on national television to pontificate on the evils of child molestation and how to prevent it. Clearly, the problem could be found in the temptation offered by female infants and girls so the good cleric – in wisdom – suggested that babies and young children should also wear the head-to-tail veil known as the burka.
The good Sheikh’s fatwa, which religious authorities in the Kingdom said was unofficial and detestable because it made the faith “look bad,” stirred up fury on the Internet and no doubt caused the government there, which has tried to put on a more moderate mask of late, some measure of embarrassment. Forcing infants to wear the veil is an outrage, obviously – let them reach puberty first before their inherent evil forces the Kingdom’s thuggish religious police to beat and bully women into shrouding themselves in public.
The second story, reported by the Associated Press after surfacing online, is about the story of the five-year-old daughter of prominent Saudi cleric Fayhan Al Ghamadi. This man of God, who has appeared often on Islamic television programs, beat her to death after he grew suspicious of her “purity” – e.g. virginity. He confessed to police, but was released after a light sentence upon his promise to pay $50,000 in blood money for the crime – most likely to the child’s mother, who in theory would also be his wife – or at least one of them.
The third story to make the rounds on the Internet is the story of a 15-year-old girl married off to a 90-year-old man by the girl’s family. When the wedding night came and the nuptials were to be celebrated, the feisty teenager decided she wasn’t going to be raped by a man she didn’t know and who was old enough to be her great-grandfather. She wisely locked him in a closet and ran away to her parents’ home. The old man, who must have been hopped up on Viagra, is now contemplating suing the family of the bride to either get the girl, or his $17,500 dowry money, back.
Examples of Saudi society’s barbaric treatment of women abound and could fill whole volumes. Take, for instance, this incident in 2011 at a school in Jeddah, a city on the Red Sea coast near the holy city of Mecca, where religious police beat back female students into a burning school so they could retrieve their veils before their corrupting femininity could adversely affect their rescuers. Three teachers died as a result of the interference and 56 students were injured. If this incident sounds familiar that’s because it is. Nine years before, in 2002, Saudi religious police in Mecca prevented school girls from fleeing a burning building because they were not properly attired. Fifteen girls died in flame and fire then.
But the most fantastic example of how anti-woman Saudi Arabia is, which is so absurd that the unwary could be forgiven for thinking it’s actually a product of The Onion, reports on a 2012 scheme to empower women by broadening their access to the workplace. Since the Kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islamic law prevents the genders from mixing in public places, the plan is to build a women-only industrial city. If successful, more will be built across the country. Imagine – women-only cities filled with women-only factories run by women-only executives.
It is hard to imagine a place that is worse for women than Saudi Arabia. Perhaps Congo, where rape by drug-fueled child soldiers is common, or Afghanistan under the Taliban – who the Saudis, by the way, recognized and supported prior to the September 11th terror attacks in 2001 – are or were worse places. But in terms of systematic oppression by a powerful, rich, modern state, the Saudi Kingdom takes the cake. Only a fictional country, the Republic of Gilead – the dystopian future United States envisioned by Margaret Atwood after a Christian fundamentalist revolution – comes close.
Intolerant of other faiths and races
And that’s just when it comes to women. The Saudis are equally intolerant of other faiths in addition to their general disgust and hatred for human females. Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and even Scientology are all outlawed by the Saudi monarchy – where bringing in Bibles or preaching the Gospel can get you prison time or worse. The mere presence of non-Muslims, whether or not they openly express their faith, is forbidden in the holy city of Mecca. Even communist China, which at least allows multiple official religions, has more religious freedom than Saudi Arabia.
As for minorities, non-Arab immigrant workers such as the South Asians widely employed throughout the Kingdom are treated as subhumans and routinely mistreated. The Shia citizens found throughout the oil-rich Eastern Province, and who as fellow Muslims might expect some better treatment, are routinely oppressed for fear they may align with Iran. Homosexuals, of course, are executed out of hand.
Saudi Arabia is in other words a country that is right up there with Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany in terms of its intolerant despotism. Riyadh’s cruel totalitarianism may be monarchical in form and religious in content, but it is as glaringly obvious and evil as any of the other great dictatorships the West fought against in the twentieth century. Even Iran, our devil du jour in the Middle East, is more democratic and its females more free. In Tehran, at least, there are elections to steal. In Saudi Arabia, the idea of democracy is laughable.
So why then is Saudi Arabia considered one of our closest allies? Why is the land of the free aiding and abetting the survival of the Saudi monarchy while simultaneously relying upon its help in our war against Islamic extremism – which many within Saudi Arabia support financially? The U.S.-Saudi alliance, on purely ideological grounds, makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Indeed, in many respects the people of the two countries find one another mutually repellant.
The easy answer to this question is oil. Riyadh alone controls one-fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves, and is the largest producer and exporter of petroleum in the world. Its production capacity, though declining, remains the largest in the world and the low-cost of its production has effectively made the desert kingdom the swing producer for years. As the “central bank of oil” the Saudis can, with the flip of a switch, influence world energy prices by suddenly restricting the flow of oil or by dumping huge amount of cheap oil on global markets.
The geopolitics of Saudi Arabia
Oil, however, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg – the part most easily seen. Underneath the surface there is a much more substantial relationship that binds the ruling elites of both countries firmly to one another. After all, if it was merely a matter of oil then countries like Iran, Venezuela and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would be close friends, too. That they are or were not suggests that other factors drive the U.S.-Saudi relationship than just petroleum.
The first factor is geopolitics. Saudi Arabia, while oil rich, is merely one country in a much larger region that is also very oil rich. Iraq, Kuwait, the Gulf emirates and Iran all have substantial oil reserves themselves – but Saudi Arabia’s unique geographic position as a peninsula betwixt Africa and Eurasia make it a premier ally for a maritime power seeking a location from which to influence a wide swathe of planet Earth. Even before oil became a major factor in U.S.-Saudi relations, the U.S. military was interested in using Saudi territory as a location for air and naval bases as part of Washington’s strategy to both contain the Soviet Union and dominate the oil-producing region within which Saudi Arabia was embedded.
A second reason Washington and Riyadh are so close is finance. Since the oil shocks of the 1970s, immense amounts of capital have accumulated in the hands of the Saudi monarchy and the other Gulf Emirates Saudi Arabia leads. Money, like oil, is power. If that money were not recycled back into Western economies it would represent a huge, permanent drain on western resources that could not long be endured.
As it happened, the lack of investment opportunities at the outset of Saudi Arabia’s oil bonanza has meant that a great deal of that money was indeed returned to the West, principally the United States, through financial investments in and through Wall Street banks that at last count amount to nearly $800 billion – a position that was made much stronger as a result of the 2008 financial crisis when U.S. banks went hat in hand to Gulf investors pleading for an injection of capital as the crisis destroyed one bank after another.
Another route through which Saudi oil money is recycled into Western economies is through immensely crooked arms deal like the al-Yamamah deal between Saudi Arabia and BAE Systems – Britain’s premier defense firm – where a £1 billion bribe netted the British company £43 billion in weapons sales. The bribe money, of course, was routed regularly – £30 a month – through, you guessed it, a U.S. financial institution. The institution in question was the venerable Rigg’s Bank, a Washington institution, now defunct, that was well known as the bank of choice for Kings, military dictators, African despots, spy agencies and international criminal syndicates. The bank was so corrupt that it is not unreasonable to assume that the fictional SPECTRE may have also at one point held money there.
Finally, third, Saudi elites have mostly accepted and are comfortable with their status as a U.S. client and have not sought to undermine U.S. hegemony either regionally or globally. U.S. suzerainty has provided the monarchy prosperity, ironclad protection and a seat at the imperial table – allowing them to insinuate themselves into U.S. policymaking circles in the most curious and insidious ways. Like a lackey willing to do anything for its master, Saudi Arabia has proven a useful friend as Washington pursues its global interests.
The best example of this is the degree to which Saudi Arabia has helped the U.S. in its various clandestine operations over the years. Riyadh, as is well known, helped fund the Afghan mujahedeen fighters who fought the Soviet Union to a standstill in the 1980s. Less well known, however, is the money provided by the Saudis to the anti-communist Contra fighters in Nicaragua and the provision of aid to anti-communist guerillas in Africa. The Reagan administration, which was often hampered by restrictions on its covert war-making imposed by Congress, found Saudi willingness to aid the White House in sidestepping Congress a useful ally indeed. There are even wild stories out there about a Saudi prince who, at the behest of Reagan administration officials, dropped off a suitcase full of cash at the Vatican – money, it is alleged, which went to influencing Italian elections in 1985.
So, geopolitics, oil, money and cooperation in skullduggery the world over forms the foundation upon which our alliance with Saudi Arabia is built. What is the plight of women or the Rights of Man compared to a partnership in gangsterism that has been proven to be so fruitful for so long? Women and one’s principles, after all, come and go – but mafia blood oaths are forever.