Poor President Barack Obama flew to Saudi Arabia this past week but its ruler, King Salman, was too busy to greet him at Riyadh’s airport.
This snub was seen across the Arab world as a huge insult and violation of traditional desert hospitality. Obama should have refused to deplane and flown home.
Alas, he did not. Obama went to kow-tow to the new Saudi monarch and his hot-headed son, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef. They are furious that Obama has refused to attack Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Syria’s Assad regime.
They are also angry as hornets that the US may allow relatives of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi royal family, which is widely suspected of being involved in the attack.
Interestingly, survivors of the 34 American sailors killed aboard the USS Liberty when it was attacked by Israeli warplanes in 1967, have been denied any legal recourse.
The Saudis, who are also petrified of Iran, threw a fit, threatening to pull $750 billion of investments from the US. Other leaders of the Gulf sheikdoms sided with the Saudis but rather more discreetly.
Ignoring the stinging snub he had just suffered, Obama assured the Saudis and Gulf monarchs that the US would defend them against all military threats – in effect, reasserting their role as western protectorates. So much for promoting democracy.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have been de facto US-British-French protectorates since the end of World War II. They sell the western powers oil at rock bottom prices and buy fabulous amounts of arms from these powers in exchange for the west protecting the ruling families.
As Libya’s late Muammar Kadaffi once told me, “the Saudis and Gulf emirates are very rich families paying the west for protection and living behind high walls.”
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Kadaffi’s overthrow and murder was aided by the western powers, notably France, and the oil sheiks. Kadaffi constantly denounced the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors as robbers, traitors to the Arab cause, and puppets of the west.
Many Arabs and Iranians agreed with Kadaffi. While Islam commands all Muslims to share their wealth with the needy and aid fellow Muslims in distress, the Saudis spent untold billions in casinos, palaces and European hookers while millions of Muslims starved. The Saudis spent even more billions for western high-tech arms they cannot use.
During the dreadful war in Bosnia, 1992-1995, the Saudis, who arrogate to themselves the title of ‘Defenders of Islam” and its holy places, averted their eyes as hundreds of thousands of Bosnians were massacred, raped, driven from their homes by Serbs, and mosques blown up.
The Saudi dynasty has clung to power through lavish social spending and cutting off the heads of dissidents, who are routinely framed with charges of drug dealing. The Saudis have one of the world’s worst human rights records.
Saudi’s royals are afraid of their own military, so keep it feeble and inept aside from the air force. They rely on the National Guard, a Bedouin tribal forces also known as the White Army. In the past, Pakistan was paid to keep 40,000 troops in Saudi to protect the royal family. These soldiers are long gone, but the Saudis are pressing impoverished Pakistan to return its military contingent.
The US-backed and supplied Saudi war against dirt-poor Yemen has shown its military to be incompetent and heedless of civilian casualties. The Saudis run the risk of becoming stuck in a protracted guerilla war in Yemen’s wild mountains.
The US, Britain and France maintain discreet military bases in the kingdom and Gulf coast. The US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, where a pro-democracy uprising was recently crushed by rented Pakistani police and troops. Reports say 30,000 Pakistani troops may be stationed in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Earlier this month, the Saudis and Egypt’s military junta announced they would build a bridge across the narrow Strait of Tiran (leading to the Red Sea) to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The clear purpose of a large bridge in this remote, desolate region is to facilitate the passage of Egyptian troops and armor into Saudi Arabia to protect the Saudis. Egypt now relies on Saudi cash to stay afloat.
But Saudi Arabia’s seemingly endless supply of money is now threatened by the precipitous drop in world oil prices. Riyadh just announced it will seek $10 billion in loans from abroad to offset a budget shortfall. This is unprecedented and leads many to wonder if the days of free-spending Saudis are over. Add rumors of a bitter power-struggle in the 6,000-member royal family and growing internal dissent and uber-reactionary Saudi Arabia may become the Mideast’s newest hotspot.