Is Saudi Arabia next? Part 3….
Saudi Arabia is, of course, known for one thing above all others. That is the vast quantities of oil that the country produces. In terms of capacity it has no equal among the Gulf states. There are 264 billion barrels of proven oil reserves (more than a quarter of the world total) with up to one trillion barrels of oil probably being ultimately recoverable (Energy Information Administration report, January 2002). Not only is it present in vast quantities, but it is also cheaply produced due to flat land and huge deposits at shallow depths. It’s willingness to ‘step-up to the plate’ to ensure the continued smooth production of oil is almost embarrassing. Witness it’s recent commitment to make-up any shortfall caused by events in Libya.
However, Saudi Arabia’s vast oil-producing potential was not recognised at first. The first oil concession was granted to a British company, Eastern General Syndicate, in 1923. Though Eastern General did confirm the existence of some oil, it sat on it. Britain itself was hardly in desperate need of a new source, possessing as it did access to ample supplies in Iraq, Iran and Bahrain; what is more, it was in decline as an imperial power. In contrast, America was in desperate need of a foreign supplier of oil and was in the ascendant. In 1933, Standard Oil, a Californian company, won the concession for the bargain price of $250,000.
Having attained his dominant position by aligning himself with what was then the world’s foremost power, Ibn Saud was not slow to recognise the shift that had taken place in global politics post-World War II. Writing in the margins of an agreement to lease the Dhahran airbase to America, he urged his descendants to maintain the friendship of ‘American brothers’.
The ‘American brothers’, in the course of time, made Ibn Saud himself and his successors fabulously wealthy. Previously they had been reliant on British subsidies and revenue generated from muslims making the Hajj pilgrimage. Now, the opportunity to make money existed on a truly mind-boggling scale. An unnamed prince, who allegedly gave away a new Cadillac when the petrol tank was empty and bought another with a full tank, is pretty mild example of the House of Saud’s profligacy. It’s money, furthermore, does end up in the coffers of terrorist groupings.
Those in and around the House of Saud have amassed fortunes worth billions. Up to their necks in corruption, they squander the country’s wealth on countless palaces and gambling binges in London, Las Vegas and Monte Carlo. Despite imposing their fundamentalist version of islam on the mass of population, the princes and kings of Saudi Arabia use – and abuse – high class prostitutes and consume alcohol to the point of addiction. All this is common knowledge amongst the people.
An obscene oil for arms system has developed. Both the US and Britain supply vast quantities of the latest sophisticated weaponry – battle tanks, surface-to-air missiles, fighter-bombers, ships, etc. In Britain, the BAE ‘cash-for-contracts’ scandal showed how depraved and corrupt this system is; it is something that must be ended.
The Saudi regime has barely extended its social base beyond that which it enjoyed at its inception. Although Britain and America claim to support democracy in the Middle East, their ally in Saudi Arabia is run as a family concern. Free elections to a sovereign parliament are, of course, unheard of. Women are, of course, second class subjects and suffer all manner of humiliating restrictions and punishments; and unable to exercise basic freedoms like the right to drive. How can we confidently claim to stand for democracy and human decency while our governments continue to support regimes like this?
This month there are plans to bring ‘Days of Rage’ to Saudi shores. The last minute desperate attempt to effectively bribe the people with very limited welfare provision may well not be enough to save the House of Saud. If it does fall then it will be a major blow to Western strategic interests in the region but it will also be a tremendous blow for democracy across the Middle East.