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Shaky 'friend' in the gulf.

Although events in Israel and Lebanon routinely make headlines around the world, what happens in the Persian Gulf states could have a far greater impact on international stability. Those nations control 68 percent of the world's petroleum reserves, and as the 1973 oil shock proved, they can wreak havoc with the world economy if the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has its act together. Of all the gulf states, the most important in Saudi Arabia, sitting atop a 169 billion-barrel lake of oil.

Ever since American companies were granted exploration and drilling rights by King Abdul Aziz al Saud (Ibn Saud) in 1933, relations between the United States and its desert ally have been close. At present, Saudi Arabia is a linchpin of American strategy in the region, both military and diplomatic. If it ever defected from the Western camp and became nonaligned, as did Iran after the fall of the Shah, the damage to U.S. interests would be considerable.

One of the kingdom's greatest services to the United States has been the thwarting of leftist and progressive forces in the Third World. Riyadh stands ready to step in whenever its superpower patron needs a proxy. Last spring the Central Intelligence Agency hinted to the press that the Administration would ask Saudi Arabia to step in to fill the breach if Congress refused to accede to President Reagan's demands for increased aid to El Salvador.

Several factors explain why Saudi Arabia has become America's most effective ally in quelling the forces of revolution in the Third World. As caretakers of Islam's holiest places--the Kaaba in Mecca and Mohammed's mosque in Medina--Saudi rulers claim to be the spiritual leaders of the Islamic world, which includes more than forty countries and sizable Moslem minorities in many others. Buoyed by its oil wealth, the royal family wields tremendous financial clout, and since it rules autocratically and secretively, no one knows how much aid it distributes or to whom. That makes the monarchy an attractive covert vehicle for furthering U.S. objectives.

The diplomatic debt that Washington owes Riyadh is immense. In 1972 King Faisal persuaded Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat to expel Soviet military experts, a severe set-back to Moscow which touched off a debate in the Kremlin on the wisdom of providing military aid to nonsocialist countries. In 1977, the Saudis prevailed on President Mohammed Siad Barre of Somalia to sever his Soviet ties. Faisal also convinced OPEC members to lift a five-month oil embargo in March 1974, before the United States had met the conditions they had set for its withdrawal: the evacuation of Israel troops from the occupied Arab territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the vacated lands.

After the Shah was overthrown, Riyadh agreed to help Washington fill the strategic vacuum in the region. It encouraged Pakistan's President Zia-ul-Haq to become a U.S. client, providing him with the cash to buy advanced American weapons.

In Africa, Riyadh has played a more active anti-Marxist role than Pretoria. Following the military coup that installed a Marxist regime in Ethiopia in late 1974, Riyadh sent military aid to the antigovernment guerillas in Eritrea. It also encouraged Sudanese President Mohammed Gaafar al-Nimeiry to crack down on leftist groups in his country. When the socialist regime of Mozambique signed a non-aggression pact with South Africa last year and the latter halted its arms shipments to the Mozambique National Resistance, Saudi Arabia airlifted arms to the rebels via the Comoro Islands, in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and Madagascar, using Moslem leaders in Portugal as intermediaries.

In addition to furthering American interests, the monarchy seeks to fortify its position at home by emphasizing its role as protector of Islam's holiest shrines and by playing a major role in international Islam. Since 1970 the headquarters of the Islamic Conference Organization (I.C.O.) has been in Jidda. Through that group, which represents forty-three countries and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the monarchy has influence with the rulers of every Moslem state. Nevertheless, if finds its Islamic credentials challenged by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Under Khomeini's interpretation of the Koran, hereditary power is un-Islamic. He also charges that the Saudi-Arabian elite are "deviant Moslems," who transgress the scriptural bans on alcohol, extramarital sex and gambling. He attacks the Saudi rulers for having depleted their oil reserves to satisfy the insatiable demands of the United States, the "Great Satan" and prime source of moral and material corruption on earth. Finally, Khomeini condemns the House of Saud for failing to liberate Palestine from the Zionists.

In the 1960s the most serious domestic challenge to the monarchy's legitimacy came from radicals inspired by Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Because of the radicals' secular orientation and Nasser's pro-Soviet foreign policy, the Saudi rulers had no trouble discrediting them. Khomeini is another matter. He is an eminent religious teacher and a strongly anticommunist opponent of Soviet expansionism. Undoubtedly, Khomeini has inspired the Saudi opposition, which is considerable, as the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by 700 well-armed guerrillas attested. It took two weeks of dislodge the insurgents, and although there is no evidence that they were backed by Teheran, they demanded, among other things, the establishment of an Islamic republic and the severing of all ties with the United States.

After the Saudi Army had retaken the Grand Mosque, King Khalid reshuffled officials in seventeen top military and civilian posts. In a familiar gesture to democratic sentiment, Crown Prince Fadh promised to form a sixty-to-seventy-member elective consultative assembly "in the near future." The government also called for stricter enforcement of Islamic law.

But all that was window dressing. The Saudi rulers were most concerned with shorting up internal security, and to that end they consulted with representatives of the C.I.A. and the French Surete and provided additional funds and personnel to their own intelligence organizations. Looking beyond its borders, the government approached its five neighbors in the gulf about creating a regional alliance, a proposal that took on added urgency when the Iran-Iraq war broke out in September 1980. In May of the following year, the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.) was formed to coordinate the internal security, arms procurement and economic policies of the member states.

In the early days of the war, the Saudi leaders sided with Iraq, in hopes that it would rid them of the pestilential ayatollah. But when Baghdad failed to attain a quick victory and when, in July 1982, Iran invaded Iraq, the Saudi court became alarmed and pushed for a cease-fire through the G.C.C. and the I.C.O.--an effort that failed. Meanwhile, Teheran was crediting its successful resistance to the superiority of its brand of Islam and the popularity of the Khomeini regime. Such propaganda poses a threat to the House of Saud and its prestige in the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia's role as keeper of the holy places of Islam has opened it up to another kind of Iranian threat. During the two-week hajj season, more than 2 million pilgrims visit Mecca and Medina. The Iranians among them use the occasion to shout slogans, hold meetings and distribute pro-Khomeini literature. Since 1980, clashes between the Iranians and the Saudi security forces have occurred almost annually. Saudi authorities claim that visiting Iranian mullahs stir up the Shiite tribes of the Arabian peninsula. Since most of the 400,000 Saudi Shiites are concentrated in the oil-rich province of Al-Hasa, the government finds this development ominous.

On the other hand, the country's Sunni majority, which holds the Shiites in low esteem, has accepted Riyadh's characterization of the Iranian revolution as a localized Shiite phenomenon rather than one with consequences for all Islam. Teheran, of course, does just the opposite, trying its best to minimize the differences between Shiites, who make up 90 percent of Iran's 44 million people, and Sunnis. In this respect Teheran has the more difficult task: Shiites constitute only one-sixth of the world's 900 million Moslems, a fact that weakens Iran's claim to leadership of the faith. The other factor working against Iran is memory of the brutal way it crushed the opposition movement led by the Mujahedeen Khalq in the summer of 1981. As Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayif put it, "It is odd that the Iranian government denies the Saudi government the right to preserve Saudi Arabia's security during the crucial period of the pilgrimage season, while the Iranian departments commit oppressive actions and massacres against their citizens in Iran on the pretext of preserving security."

The present stalemate in the war, after the Iranian offensive fizzled out, is another reassuring development for the Saudi monarchy in its tussle with Khomeini.

Still, the seeds of a revolution against the House of Saud have been planted and they may not even need tending by Teheran. Back in July 1977, before the Iranian revolution, a large group of Saudi military officers attempted to dislodge their country's monarchy. Their manifesto attacked corruption among the princes and attributed it to the authorities' intimate ties with the United States. They called for a republic that would abide by the basic values of the Koran and Islamic law.

Western policy-makers have a recurrent nightmare that a similar attempt could be made now by officers of the military or the National Guard, seeking to eradicate Western influence from the country's military, economic and cultural spheres. (Mistrustful of its own security forces, the Saudi royal family has hired three brigades of Pakistani soldiers to serve as palace guards.) Such a development would be all the more damaging to U.S. interests if a republican regime in Riyadh were to emulate Iran's example of criticizing the superpowers with equal vehemence. That would prevent Western leaders and their allies in the media from claiming Soviet conspiracy and expansionism as a pretext for intervening militarily against the new Islamic Republic of Arabia.

Such an intervention, however, might not be required. Since Saudi Arabia is vast, the royalists would have no difficulty retaining a foothold and waging a civil war against the usurpers. The conflict would be long and bloody, much like the one that followed the overthrow of the monarchy in North Yemen, in September 1962, which lasted seven years and caused 200,000 deaths.

If the House of Saud was overthrown, the neighboring monarchies would feel extremely insecure. The Sultan of Oman would most likely invite Washington to protect his kingdom. Would the President dispatch U.S. forces to Oman? And would the American people support such a decision? Those are only some of the vexing problems that would arise.
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Title Annotation:U.S.and Saudi Arabia
Author:Hiro, Dilip
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jan 26, 1985
Previous Article:Sovieticus.
Next Article:Adventures in a bureaucratic wonderland.

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