Saudi Arabia readies a refresher course for the U.S.

January 08, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The passage of power in Saudi Arabia, from King Fahd to Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz comes soon after the November car-bomb attack in Riyadh that killed five American government advisers.

The events, unrelated, are nonetheless significant to the future of an American Middle Eastern commitment that still lacks the analysis it deserves.

Five decades ago both the oil industry and the State Department were hostile to America's recognition of the newly proclaimed state of Israel. Their argument, which proved to be wrong, was that the United States could not keep good relations with the oil-producers while backing Israel's installation in what had been Arab land.

The oil-state leaders actually proved too vulnerable to afford to break with the United States. Washington found itself in the privileged if paradoxical situation of simultaneous alliance with Israel and several of the nations formally at war with Israel.

Since 1948 the United States has at one or another time had security agreements with oil-producing Libya, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf principalities -- all of whose energy resources have been developed and marketed by Western companies.

But consider that list. All but Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are now enemies of the United States. All underwent anti-Western and anti-American coups or revolutions.

King Faisal of Iraq, his former regent and his prime minister, all were killed in an uprising in 1958, led by army officers, who terminated Iraq's membership in the American-sponsored Baghdad Pact. The United States tried to make an ally of the Ba'ath Party dictatorship under Saddam Hussein that followed, in the late 1960s, but that effort was terminated by war with Iraq in 1991.

The pro-Western Libyan monarchy was deposed in a military coup led by Col. Muammar el Kadafi in 1969. The erratic and exotic colonel has interested himself in anti-Western terrorist movements ever since, earning an ineffectual U.S. bombing attack on him and his capital in 1986.

America's 'gendarme'

Iran was chosen by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to become America's ''gendarme'' in the Middle East, and vast quantities of American weapons were pressed upon the Shah Riza Pahlavi, whose lavish ambitions and pretensions provoked the popular and religious hostility that caused his overthrow in 1979. An equally extravagant and ambitious fundamentalist regime succeeded, imprisoning American diplomats and devoting itself to the destruction of the American ''great Satan'' and its allied lesser ''Satans.''

The same pattern can be seen in each case. Cultural Westernization under foreign sponsorship undermines a traditional way of life and challenges traditional religion. Western alliance and investment produces a perception that foreigners are stealing the nation's wealth. The result is unrest and defections among the elites, as well as popular resentment.

When this is recognized by American diplomats, Washington tries to convince these monarchs to reform and democratize their governments: to win the hearts and minds of their peoples. This often is contradicted by advice in other American quarters to harden repression. In either case, the advice proves useless. The chiefs of state naturally resist the advice to liberalize, which they see as undermining them, and take the course of repression, whose short-term successes simply stimulate the underlying forces subverting their regimes.

In the end the kings are out, and so are their American advisers and the American oil companies. (The latter usually come back in by way of foreign subsidiaries or partners). Back in Washington, and in Congress, the hunt begins to find out ''who lost'' whichever country it was, usually followed by a presidential order to ''outlaw'' and undermine the new revolutionary government, identified as a ''rogue regime.''

It is a pattern today well advanced in Saudi Arabia. The U.S. counsels prudent reform. U.S. troops are already stationed there, and Americans now play a role in the kingdom's internal security.

The American embassy is anxious to find and promote its own successor to Prince Abdullah (as well as King Fahd). The prince is 72 and allegedly considered weak. The London press quotes a former American diplomat in Saudi Arabia as saying, ''We need a good, young man at the top. . . . Unless we get a reformer, things will get out of hand.''

The same was said in Baghdad in the '50s, and in Tripoli in the '60s. (It was also said in Saigon in the '60s, but that is another story.) The eventual outcome in Saudi Arabia is likely to resemble the earlier cases.

The strange thing about it all is that it is unnecessary. The American concern is stability of oil supplies and markets. Yet the failure of the great OPEC oil boycott of the early 1970s conclusively demonstrated that oil is valueless unless it is sold, and that its supply can only temporarily be withheld or manipulated for political or ideological purposes.

Iranian, Iraqi and Libyan oil would all be powering American automobiles and industry today (some in fact is) were it not that the U.S. is boycotting those three countries. They are eager to sell their oil at world prices.

One of the fundamental lessons of our post-colonial, post-imperialist era is that you do not have to dominate a country or a region to have access to its resources. Business takes care of that. For all of Washington's attention to business, this is a lesson it still has not learned.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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