FLASH 36: Is US Arms Buildup In Response to Crisis in Saudi Arabia? (8/3/02)

The current noise in Washington about invading Iraq seems so inane, (“somewhat ludicrous,” in the trenchant words of Jordan’s pro-Western King Abdullah II) and the Democratic challenge to it in Congress so feeble, that it is worth wondering whether some other factor, not openly discussed, underlies the current US mobilization in the Middle East.

If there is such a hidden factor, it is probably the current political crisis in Saudi Arabia, amply reported in the British and Canadian press, but barely (if at all) in the American.

As the Ottawa Citizen reported on August 1, the medical condition of King Fahd, hospitalized in Geneva since 1995 with a massive stroke, is further deteriorating. He has been visited recently by prominent princes in the Saudi royal family, and also by Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

As the Citizen commented sardonically,

`Why the heavy deathwatch, when the affairs of the Saudi state were transferred, years ago, into the hands of King Fahd’s half-brother, the sharp-tongued and generally wits-about-him Crown Prince Abdullah? The short answer is that Abdullah has lost it; lost his control over “the mob” (the 70,000 members of the heroically polygamous Saud family); lost his hold on his country’s fanatic preachers; lost his ability to exile terrorists; lost the thread of regional diplomacy (with his failed peace proposal to Israel); lost the use of the oil weapon (to a supply glut); and made a hash of a proposed $30-billion development of Saudi Arabia’s natural gas reserves. He is also losing a growing number of family members. In the last week or so: Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Saud Alkabeer, age 25, was reported to have “died of thirst in the desert.” Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki, 41, “crashed his car.” Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, 43, “had a heart attack.”‘

According to both the London Observer and the Canadian National Post, Crown Prince Abdullah’s chief opposition now comes from the powerful Sudairy group among the Saudi royal brothers, who once represented the pro-American faction in the royal family, but who have recently turned against the US.

In the words of the National Post,

`Prince Sultan, the Defence Minister [the leading Sudairy brother], has openly criticized Crown Prince Abdullah’s pro-Western policies, and other anti-Abdullah factions in the government have reportedly colluded with Islamic extremists in a wave of bomb attacks against Western targets.

`According to the British newspaper The Observer, Saudi sources have confirmed that the bombings, for which Canadian Bill Sampson has been sentenced to death, were in fact carried out by Islamists linked to al-Qaeda.

`Analysts say implications for the United States should the Saudi regime change or dramatically shift its policy are severe. ”The Saudis hold the key to whether the United States wins or loses the war on Islamic militants,” said Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project, a Washington-based counterterrorism institute. ”Most of the monies for Islamic militants are generated from Saudi Arabia. They could shut them down if they wanted to, or open up the faucet even more.”’

On August 1 eight Western oil majors strengthened Prince Abdullah’s hand by finally concluding a long-disputed agreement for exploitation of Saudi Arabia’s natural gas fields. But this may not be enough to counterbalance the humiliating rebuff dealt to the Crown Prince by President Bush, when the so-called Bush peace plan for the Middle East, heavily tilted towards Sharon’s thinking, made no reference to Prince Abdullah’s peace proposal whatsoever.

Bush’s failure appears to have concerned even his chief ally, the United Kingdom. In the words of The Observer, `The Foreign Office believes that the failure of Abdullah’s recent Middle East peace plan could have terminally undermined his position.’

The result, as The Observer reports in a second article, is that

`The kingdom is now a key battlefield in the conflict between America and its allies and the forces of extremist Islam. It is a conflict that is now threatening to tear Saudi Arabia apart. Revolution is in the air.

`The Western community [in Saudi Arabia] is living in fear. It has become the target of a series of bomb attacks, carried out by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists who want to drive all non-Muslims out of the Arabian peninsula. But the terrified Westerners have received little help from the Saudi authorities.’

The US may hope that it can weaken royal support for anti-American protests, by its war preparations in the Middle East, including the timely regrouping of US forces from Saudi Arabia to neighboring Qatar. Alternatively, it may have to use them.