Gerald Posner presents a detailed history of Saudi Arabia, "the House of Saud," focusing particularly on the unusual linkage between it and the United States from its creation through to the present. What he has to say isn't always flattering to either nation, but it is eye-opening. Much of current politics hinges upon a covenant that a sheik struck with a religious zealot nearly three centuries ago.
In the 1700s, the Arabian Peninsula was a desolate stretch of desert, broken by the occasional oasis and inhabited by many nomadic tribes that constantly battled each other for control of the sand.
At that time, a local tribesman named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab tried to persuade all who would listen that they should follow a strict interpretation of Islam. He memorized the entire Koran by the age of 10, and then traveled to what is now Iraq and Iran to study Islamic law further. He returned to the peninsula to preach against paganism and to advocate a pure Muslim faith. His students called themselves mujahideen ("holy warriors"), and they condemned nonbelievers as infidels.
Their detractors referred to them as Wahhabis.
Wahhab had a militant political dimension to his preaching, which attracted the attention of the emir of a tiny oasis town, Ad Diriyah. That emir was Muhammad Saud. The two leaders "...swore a traditional Muslim mithaq, or covenant, promising to work together to establish a state based on the most austere Islamic principles. It was an oath that would change history."
Eventually, Saud subdued all other tribes, creating a kingdom. The West largely discounted it by the turn of the 20th century, expecting it to collapse from bankruptcy. In 1932, geologists discovered oil, and suddenly the Sauds were wealthy and their nation viable. From the beginning, the royals shared their wealth with the Wahhabis, funding religious training.
Initial oil exploration and production was under the control of an American company, which paid royalties to the Saudis, but took most of the profits. That changed in the 1970s, when the oil-producing nations formed OPEC and began a slow nationalization of oil production.
Angry at the Nixon administration for resupplying Israel after the Yom Kippur War, the kingdom led OPEC to raise the price of oil 70 percent in a single jump! Emboldened by what it perceived to be a weak response by the United States, King Faisal pushed OPEC to double its price of crude on top of that increase. Today, the increase of a few dollars per barrel makes headlines. Imagine, by comparison, the price of crude jumping from $65 to $110 overnight—and then, jumping again to over $220 per barrel!
The kingdom discovered the awesome political power of its oil. OPEC embargoed oil production to force the United Nations to pass resolution 242, which called upon Israel to withdraw from land captured in the 1967 war.
Not only could they influence world politics, the Saudis also could enrich themselves. Coincidental with the increase in the cost of a barrel of oil, their share of profits went up, because they were negotiating more and more ownership in the oil companies. Profits before 1973 were about $2 billion per year. After the end of the embargo in March 1974, their income ballooned to more than $l00 billion per year!
Recognizing the opportunity, the kingdom's chief Wahhabi cleric approached then King Faisal about using the mushrooming wealth to promote Wahhabism. The king agreed. With the Wahhabi leaders, he created the Muslim World League to spread Wahhabism, kicking it off with $50 million.
The king placed important ministries under Wahhabi direction, including education. The king himself was a bitter anti-Semite, believing that Jews were attempting to take over the world. In 1972, he told a reporter that when he was on a trip to Paris, police discovered five murdered Arab children, whose blood their Jewish killers drained to make matzo bread for Passover. He repeated this story to others as an illustration of the evils of Zionism.
Under Wahhabi oversight, all Saudi children received an education in anti-Semitism. "A mandatory Saudi textbook, Introduction to the Science of History, condemned Jews as intrinsically evil, and taught that they were a 'corrupt and deceitful' race. A 1968 conference of the Academy of Islamic Research had produced a body of virulent anti-Semitism from Muslim scholars, calling Jews a 'pest and plague,' 'cursed by Satan,' and 'thirsty for drinking more blood of Muslims'" (page 45).
Religious police rigorously enforced Islamic law. They patrolled the Safeway and A&P supermarkets, on the alert for unmarried couples shopping together, which was a "crime" punishable by three days in jail and 80 lashes.
The kingdom continued flexing its political influence, building a powerful pro-Arab lobby in Washington and pressuring the UN to give Yasser Arafat's PLO observer status.
As oil revenues increased, so also did funding for Wahhabi education, including schools outside the kingdom, called madrassas. By the mid-1990s, more than a million children outside the kingdom received a Wahhabi education in these schools, including some who later became Islamic terrorists. As the Saudis' largest customer, the United States contributed hundreds of billions of dollars over the years to the kingdom and, therefore, indirectly to the promotion of Wahhabi theology.
Posner details the profligacy of the royal family. He relates numerous anecdotes about the absurd abuse of wealth, including this one: On one occasion, the king purchased a new luxury automobile, merely because the one he had ran out of gas.
For decades, the royals consumed oil revenue as personal income, with almost nothing trickling down to the average citizen. Perhaps a sense of guilt encouraged them to promote the ultraconservative Wahhabism.
Posner also explains the delicate and controversial internal politics behind Saudi Arabia's invitation to the United States to base troops there in preparation for the first Gulf War. In spite of the great wealth the kingdom gained from doing business with America, it holds the country in contempt. Only the Saudis' fear of Saddam Hussein and/or Iran's Shiites overrunning their borders was stronger.
Given the current geopolitical scene, the latter issue should get our attention. Saudis, like most Muslims, are Sunnis. They do not appreciate Iranian President Ahmadinejad's nuclear saber-rattling, and they do not share his theological view of an end-time Mahdi.
In fact, Posner asserts, the Saudis have a doomsday plan, which would prevent anyone from profiting from their oilfields. They have conventional explosives packed around radiological material in their oilfields, pipelines and ports, which they can trigger should anyone overrun the country. Not only would the explosives destroy the infrastructure, but also the radiological material (essentially, a number of "dirty bombs") would contaminate the sand, as well as the oil and natural gas it contains, for generations to come.
Moreover, they have an underground city beneath Riyadh, built to withstand nuclear, radiological, biological and chemical attacks, for the purpose of allowing the royal family and its billions to survive, even if the nation did not.
Lastly, the Saudis, in turn, invested hundreds of billions of their oil revenues into the American economy. President Bush said recently that America was addicted to Arab oil. It is also addicted to Arab investments. Saudi investments are responsible for several hundreds of thousands of American jobs. WNP