A tragedy in waiting

June 28, 1996|By William O. Beeman

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The bombing of the foreign military compound in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday was a tragedy waiting to happen. It was an action designed to destabilize the Saudi Arabian royal family by exposing and attacking their greatest crime in the eyes of Saudis and others in the Arab world -- the establishment of a permanent American military presence on Saudi soil.

Several historical threads lead to this event: the long effort on the part of the United States to establish a permanent, land-based military presence in the Persian Gulf region; the declining fortunes of the Saudi royal family; the growing presence of revolutionary groups in the region willing to use violence to overthrow governments they view as corrupt.

For almost a century Britain had been the guardian of the Gulf region, and of the oil supplies that were a mainstay of energy for the industrialized world. The British pulled out in 1972, unable to sustain the high cost of this military operation, and the United States moved in to fill the gap.

Washington established a ''twin pillars'' policy whereby local governments would serve as U.S. surrogates to protect Western interests. One of the ''pillars'' was Iran, the other Saudi Arabia. This policy had a fatal flaw. Close association with the U.S. poisoned the leadership of these nations in the eyes of many of their people. The Iranian revolution was fueled by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's charges that the shah was corrupting his nation through close association with America. The shah's departure toppled the first of the pillars and put the Saudis on notice that they might be next.

The Saudi royal family rests on a very shaky foundation. The family does not rule through a constitution; it presides over a nation consisting of a confederation of tribes. These conservative, intensely Islamic tribal groups have long looked with suspicion on the American presence in their country, and suspected that the Saudi family was using the United States to prop itself up.

There is truth to this allegation. Despite its claims of piety and Islamic purity, the Saudi family is notoriously corrupt. There are more than 50,000 royal princes from the family of Ibn Saud. They have political and fiscal carte blanche in their own country and lead decidedly non-Islamic lives. They have been able to maintain their power using severe authoritarian measures, JTC including the liberal use of capital punishment.

The Saudi royal family has also been willing to do what no other Arab nation has done -- allow the U.S. to establish a permanent base on their soil. For a time in the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. maintained ''advisers'' to the Saudi air force in Dhahran, but it was an open secret that these military personnel were in fact combat troops. Still the presence was semi-covert, and the need for supply lines thousands of miles long made any military operation in the region extraordinarily inconvenient and expensive.

Cover for the U.S.

The Persian Gulf War in 1990-91 finally provided the U.S. with a cover event that would allow the establishment of something more permanent. Since the war hundreds of U.S. Air Force personnel have been established in Saudi Arabia as a cautionary force and a staging operation to contain further aggression from Iraq. The royal family regards them as a necessary evil -- to ward off internal as well as external threats. But they have been a magnet for terrorism ever since.

Despite heavy local security, neither the Saudis nor the Americans were able to stop terrorists from driving a truck up to a residential compound and setting off the explosion. This suggests that those who perpetrated this action had aid within the Saudi regime -- a chilling reminder that the attackers are literally at the gates.

At least a half-dozen groups are currently attempting to overthrow the Saudi royal family. Paradoxically, the Saudi Mujaheddin, a paramilitary group aided by the C.I.A. to fight the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, may be the most likely suspect group. U.S. aid provided this group with access to the kind of weaponry it never obtain through official Saudi military channels.

Although it is tempting to focus on locating the perpetrators, there is a greater and more profound question for the United States in the wake of the attack: to try to understand why our policy in this region has continued to lead to destabilization rather than stability. As we continue to cause the destruction of those we would protect, it is imperative to rethink the entire philosophy that sustains our unwelcome presence.

William O. Beeman, an anthropologist at Brown University specializing in the Middle East, wrote this for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 6/28/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.