Saudis use U.S. military to build a modern state

November 19, 1995|By William D. Hartung

BY FAR THE MOST lucrative Middle East market for U.S. arms traders over the past 20 years has been Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi monarchy has liberally stocked its air force, navy and national guard with U.S. weapons.

Not surprisingly, at the time of the Persian Gulf war, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, U.S. troops who were sent to Saudi Arabia felt more at home than might have been expected.

They were stationed at military bases and airfields that had been built to U.S. specifications.

Dhahran, a relatively unknown facility that had provided access to U.S. aircraft in the region on and off for four decades, came to prominence in the gulf conflict as the place where TV reporters did their stand-ups with U.S. aircraft in the background, taking off for bombing missions in Iraq.

But Dhahran represents only a small part of a unique history of sales of U.S. military construction services that have transformed the desert kingdom into a ready platform for U.S. military intervention in the gulf region.

In essence, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has served as a sort of general contractor for the effort to transform Saudi Arabia from a string of semi-nomadic villages into a modern nation-state.

Rent-a-military

Essentially the Saudis have hired U.S. contractors to build bases, ports and entire military cities in the desert to help protect the regime from internal and external enemies.

That includes the U.S. military training facility in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh that was bombed last week, leaving six people dead and about 60 injured.

In fact, the U.S.-Saudi military connection has been a focal point of U.S. strategic initiatives in the Middle East.

From 1971 through 1991, the United States sold more than $50 billion in weapons and military services to the Saudis, including everything from F-15 fighters and AWACS radar planes to naval and air bases, pilot training and advanced military-communications systems.

At one time, this steady flow of military largess was justified on the ground of preventing Soviet incursions into the Persian Gulf oil states that are such valuable suppliers to the United States and its allies in Europe and Japan.

Now, with the fall of communism, as a stand-in for the "Soviet threat," the Pentagon's new enemy in the region has been "instability" -- meaning essentially any government or movement that is perceived as posing a threat to Israel or to U.S. access to the region's oil resources.

'Another Iran'

"We will not permit [Saudi Arabia] to become another Iran," Ronald Reagan pledged back in October 1981.

By making the comparison with Iran, Mr. Reagan may have said a mouthful.

The shah of Iran, of course, was overthrown by his own people, largely because they believed he was a puppet of Western leaders.

Mr. Reagan seemed to openly acknowledge the real purpose of U.S. strategy was not so much to keep the Soviets out as it was to keep the Saudi royal family in -- in power and in control of 25 percent of the world's known oil reserves.

Since 1933, U.S. oil conglomerates have enjoyed advantageous arrangements for the exploration and marketing of Saudi oil resources, with strong backing from the U.S. government.

In that year, the first concession was offered to Standard Oil Co. of California by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the "founding father" of Saudi Arabia.

In turn ibn Saud got the revenue he needed to survive the worldwide economic depression and consolidate power over rival tribal leaders within Saudi Arabia.

And it gave a small group of U.S. oil companies -- SoCal, Esso, Texaco and Mobil, the partners in the newly formed Arabian American Oil Co. (Aramco) -- free rein over what turned out to be the most productive oil fields in the world.

The ties that bind

The arrangement also marked the beginning of a symbiotic relationship among the Saudi royal family, the oil firms and the U.S. government that has continued to this day.

In founding Saudi Arabia, ibn Saud created what the British analyst Fred Halliday has described as "an unstable anachronism the only state in the world that was titled as the property of a single dynasty [where] all power was held in the hands of the leading male members of the Saudi family."

Why the Saudis need us

Without a steady flow of oil revenues and the military protection of the U.S. government, it is highly unlikely that this fragile, top-down ruling structure could have survived so long into the 20th century without granting its citizens some measure of popular participation in government.

U.S. administrations now rely not only on relatively cheap access to Saudi oil but also on Saudi political assistance in the Arab

world and Saudi financial support for U.S. strategic and economic objectives.

By the early 1970s the balance of power within the U.S.-Saudi relationship had changed significantly, as continuing U.S. dependence on foreign oil gave the Saudi regime a stronger hand to play in negotiations with its superpower ally.

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