The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The U.S., the Saudi Arabian regime and bin Laden

Sep 9, 2002

The United States government responded to September 11 by carrying out a war in Afghanistan. As a follow up to that war, the Bush administration is now threatening a new war against Iraq.

For a regime so ready to go to war, why didn't it aim its own weapons of mass destruction against Saudi Arabia?

After all, Saudi Arabia is where not only Osama bin Laden is from, but also 16 of the 19 people who are said to have carried out the attacks on September 11. Moreover, most of the most responsible people in bin Laden's terror network are also from Saudi Arabia.

Even more critical, bin Laden's organization could never have carried out its operations without the support, direct and indirect, not only from many wealthy Saudis, but elements of the Saudi state apparatus itself, especially the Saudi secret service. The longtime head of the secret service, a nephew of the Saudi king, remained very close to Osama bin Laden, right up to the time of the September 11 attacks. And if he resigned after those attacks, he was nonetheless never charged with anything. As the New York Times editorialized last fall, these attacks were carried out "with Riyadh's [Saudi Arabia's capitol city] acquiescence. The money and manpower from Saudi Arabia helped create and sustain Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization."The fact that the Bush administration has responded to the September 11 attacks with wars, bombings and threats against everywhere but the country where the attacks came from is an indication of the predicament the U.S. government, as well as the capitalists it serves, find themselves in.

Saudi Arabia: A U.S. client state

For Saudi Arabia is one of the most important U.S. client states in the world. Obviously, with its gigantic oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is a key source of profit for U.S. oil companies. U.S. control of Saudi oil production and distribution in conjunction with the Saudi family dynasty allows the U.S. to have control over the international oil market. Saudi Arabia also is an important importer of U.S. goods and services, everything from advanced military hardware and weapons, to gigantic infrastructure projects, to Coke and McDonalds. Besides that, wealthy Saudi investors hold important stakes in U.S. companies – and U.S. investors, in turn hold important stakes in the Saudi economy. In fact, some of the most important U.S. fortunes, such as those of the Bush family, are tied up and interlinked with those of the wealthiest Saudi families, including the bin Laden clan.

At the political level, Saudi Arabia is an anchor of U.S. power in the Middle East. There are extensive U.S. military bases there. And Saudi Arabia has been a loyal ally of the U.S. in other conflicts all over the world, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the Gulf War to the war in Afghanistan. And when the Shah of Iran – the dictator who headed another client state in the region, fell in 1979, Saudi importance to the U.S. increased tremendously.

Undoubtedly the ruling clan – the family Saud, with its 18,000 members – as well as a few other privileged families (like the bin Ladens) have benefitted tremendously from this arrangement. They are among the richest families in the world.

Saudi Arabia in crisis

The Saudi economy is caught in a worsening crisis with the government racking up enormous debts year after year. Currently, the national debt is as large comparatively speaking, as that of Lebanon, which has not yet recovered from a devastating 20-year civil war. At the same time, the unemployment rate has skyrocketed. It is estimated that over one-third of the work force is unemployed. According to The Economist magazine, the average income in Saudi Arabia has been cut by more than half in less than a generation. And while modern skyscrapers dominate the skyline of the cities, most of the country is falling apart, with slums spreading and big parts of the infrastructure, like roads and schools, in complete disrepair.

Historically, the royal Saudi family has relied on its own brand of Islamic fundamentalism, called Wahhabism, to help control the population. This religious dogma, straight out of feudal times, is the law of the land. There is no parliament, no free speech, no political party, no right of assembly. Instead, what people get is religious law and religious police. Women are not allowed to drive. They cannot even leave the home without being completely veiled from the top of their heads to their toes. In March this year, 18 young girls were burnt to death in a school fire because the religious police would not let them escape since they weren't completely covered, as prescribed by holy law.

The decline of the economy, coupled with the repressiveness of the regime, as well as the ostentation and decadence of the Saudi ruling family, has led to growing discontent and covert opposition to the regime. And this has come not just from the poor layers of the society – but from the more privileged layers of the middle class, which often now also faces unemployment and ruin.

Terrorism: A hired gun for dictatorships in the Middle East

Obviously, bin Laden and his supporters have drawn on this discontent to further their own political agenda. On the one hand, bin Laden's terrorist gangs gather a kind of populist appeal that stretches well beyond Saudi Arabia. This appeal is based on the audacity of its terrorist attacks against the symbols of power of the U.S., the dominant power in the Middle East and the world. By blowing up U.S. embassies, military barracks, military ships and even some of its mightiest buildings for government and finance inside the U.S. itself, the terrorists have sealed their reputation amongst masses of the poor and the oppressed, as well as the better off layers.

But of course, they channel this appeal towards a terrorist organization that is politically no different than the predatory and decadent ruling Saudi clique. Bin Laden's terrorists espouse the very same religious fundamentalism as the Saudi family. At the same time, bin Laden's terrorists act as a hired gun in the service of dictatorships all over the Middle East by serving in their wars, or by keeping sectors of the population under control.

That should hardly be a surprise, given the fact that bin Laden's organization was first started in the proxy war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s by not only Saudi Arabia's secret police, but with the help and support of the U.S. CIA as well. Within Saudi Arabia itself, bin Laden's terrorist gangs have been and continue to be useful for at least one part of the ruling elite.

For many years, the king of Saudi Arabia, King Fahd, has been extremely sick – in fact, practically dead. Behind the scenes, there has been a furious battle for power inside the Saudi ruling family. The stakes in this fight for power are great. But given the secret nature of this fight, it is difficult to know how everyone is lined up. But somewhere in this fight for power in Saudi Arabia the terrorist bands around bin Laden fit in. Otherwise, they wouldn't have had so much access to money, weapons and secret intelligence services.

All these ties explain why Bush has not even waved a finger at the Saudi Arabian government for the terrorist attacks, even while the U.S. claims to hunt down the terrorist bands that are closely tied to parts of the Saudi regime.