Disorder in Saudi Arabia proves religious fundamentalism cannot be the basis of progress
I started my previous column by asking, rhetorically, if a nation today looks more pathetic than the UK. A few do, I conceded, but the important point was that the question didn’t sound absurd. Saudi Arabia is one of that small group of countries that have made such a mess in their affairs that the UK’s stumbling block to Brexit seems well thought out in comparison.
On September 14, two of Saudi Arabia’s largest oil facilities were attacked by drones and, possibly, cruise missiles. It was not a Balakot-style phantom strike in which bombs magically penetrated concrete structures without leaving any noticeable trace to satellites passing overhead. It was a perfectly planned assault whose impact in the form of fire and smoke was visible from miles away. The damage took away half of the Kingdom’s oil production, of which only a fraction was restored in the fifteen days following the coup.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels took responsibility for the strikes, but the Saudis, the Americans and, later, the European Union’s leaders, all pointed to Iran as the main culprit.
Consider the two possibilities separately. If the drones originated in Yemen, that means the motley army that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman believed he could crush in a matter of months not only survived for five years, but has grown incredibly skilled. . The two targeted oil installations are more than a thousand kilometers from the Yemeni border. Previously, the Houthis had struck sites in western Saudi Arabia near the Red Sea, but targeting massive complexes near the Persian Gulf reveals unmatched confidence and daring.
The second possibility is that the missiles are coming from Iran (it has been suggested that the launch site was in Iraq, but these are widely ruled out). If so, it is a simple act of war, aggression perpetrated by one sovereign nation against another. No self-respecting country can allow such a strike to go unpunished. Pakistan immediately retaliated against India’s action in Balakot, and one would expect something similar from the Saudis, but they only sulked. While repeatedly playing Iran’s role in the attack, they refrained from saying that drones and missiles were launched from Iranian territory as this would raise demands for action from them.
Obviously, they are afraid of war with Iran. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest arms importer, having increased its purchases tenfold over the past decade, but appears to have little to show for the billions of dollars spent. Vladimir Putin openly mocked the regime and its imports from the United States, while touting Russia’s S 300 and S 400 missile defense systems during a meeting with Turkish and Iranian leaders, both opponents of the Saudis.
When Mohammad Bin Salman came to power he cultivated the image of a reformer, but the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi decisively changed the narrative of his leadership. His intervention in Yemen may have cost him less in terms of reputation, but claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians. Bin Salman mistakenly believed that he could win this war only with air power imported from the United States and the United Kingdom.
Instead, the conflict dragged on. Not only did the Houthis retain control of Sana’a, but last month Saudi Arabia’s proxies in Aden were ousted by separatists backed by their closest ally, the United Arab Emirates. Getting defeated by enemies is bad enough, but being defeated by friends as well is extremely humbling.
The Saudi leadership’s response to the crisis has been to ask for more American aid, not only in the form of weapons but real troops. A new disaster is brewing. Do you remember the attacks of September 11? US leaders claim the terrorists were inspired by a hatred of Western freedoms, but they were actually motivated more by a hatred of US military interventions. Among these was the deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990 as part of Desert Shield, an operation to protect the Kingdom from Iraqi Saddam Hussein after he threatened Kuwait.
Bin Laden’s wrath
Fundamentalist Muslims hated the idea of ââChristian troops in the Holy Land. Osama Bin Laden, in an infamous rambling letter sent to the Saudi King in 1995, lambasted him for allowing foreign troops to enter the country. Bin Laden’s manifesto the following year declaring jihad over the West began with the injunction âExpel the polytheists from the Arabian Peninsulaâ. US combat troops quietly left Saudi Arabia in 2003, but are now returning to the desert, an act that may inspire a new generation of jihadists.
The views professed by the Saudi government have never been far from those of Osama bin Laden. The problem is that religious fundamentalism can never be the foundation of a scientifically advanced and technologically self-sufficient society. This leads fundamentalist regimes interested in self-preservation to make allies of secular arms-exporting countries like the United States, Russia and China, which in turn creates a division within the fundamentalist camp, and leads purists like Bin Laden to ridicule the rulers as infidels.
Saudi Arabia has huge oil reserves, and they are the most readily available in the world. As one expert said, you can stick a straw in the sand and suck up the oil. Oil revenues represent 87% of the Saudi budget and 90% of its exports. These figures show that the Saudi royal family has failed at all to diversify the economy by exploiting the immense natural resources at its disposal.
Once the oil boom has subsided, as it will in the coming decades, Saudi Arabia will return to its impoverished past, its golden homes gradually swallowed up by the desert from which they emerged.