Understanding the Middle East: Saudi Arabia
Middle Eastern affairs often seem like an endless and confusing mess of wars, sanctions, peace treaties and changing governments. To help clear things up we introduce our “Understanding the Middle East” series. We spotlight individual countries and give you an overview of the most significant events in that country’s history as it pertains to U.S. and middle east affairs. Since Saudi Arabia just made the headlines for their acceptance onto the UN Women’s Rights Council we are starting with them. So, Saudi Arabia, the basics:
- Saudi Arabia is Sunni. However, they practice a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia is also a monarchy, ruled by the house of Saud. Over two centuries ago the house of Saud and the leader of the Wahhabi movement, Abd al-Wahhab, formed an alliance. The house of Saud would promote the Wahhabi faith and al-Wahhab promised his followers would promote the glory of the Saud family. It’s an alliance that has remained at the foundation of Saudi Arabia. Due to adherence to the fundamentalist Wahhabi faith, the international community generally regards Saudi Arabia as a severe violator of human and women’s rights. Women have little individual freedoms, a religious police patrols the country to chastise citizens for things like playing music in public, and courts sentence citizens to death for charges of atheism. In many ways, Saudi Arabia, personifies the West’s feared perception of the Islamic faith. However, it’s important to know that Wahhabism is a minority sect of the Islamic faith and the majority of Muslims, both Sunni’s and Shia’s, are peaceful and not at all represented by the Wahhabi ideology of Islam. Also important to know is that Saudi Arabia actively promotes Wahhabism throughout the mid-east by funding religious centers, religious texts, and various other means.
- Yom Kippur War. In October of 1973 Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in an attempt to reclaim territory that Israel had claimed in the 1967 6-Day War. What’s notable about the Yom Kippur War is that for the first time, oil was wielded as a weapon. Saudi Arabia and OPEC imposed an embargo on the United States as punishment for the U.S.’ support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The embargo lasted from October of 1973 to March of 1974 and created the 1973 energy crisis. For the first time, the United States felt the magnitude of their dependence on middle eastern oil. In an ironic piece of history, the ban on women wearing pants at the White House was lifted because of the low temperature in the building, due to the energy crisis and the low supply of oil.
- The Nixon Deal. As a result of the energy crisis Nixon sent U.S. Treasury Secretary, William Simon, to Saudi Arabia to work a deal. As Andrea Wong of Bloomberg sums it up, the purpose of the deal was to neutralize crude oil as an economic weapon and find a way to persuade a hostile kingdom to finance America’s widening deficit with its newfound petrodollar wealth. The end result was an alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia that shaped the U.S.’ middle eastern policy every year since. The United States’ half of the deal was to buy oil from Saudi Arabia and to supply them with military support and equipment. In exchange Saudi Arabia would buy billions of U.S. treasuries, giving U.S. a much needed cash flow. Saudi Arabia also agreed to only sell their oil in U.S. dollars, forcing all countries to buy the American dollar in order to purchase Saudi oil. Thus, increasing the demand for the U.S. dollar. This agreement held extra significance because only months earlier Nixon took the U.S. dollar off the gold standard. The value of the U.S. dollar was no longer tied to gold. The dollar had been pegged at $35/ounce. Instead the U.S. dollar became a ‘fiat currency’, meaning its value was not tied to any physical store of value. Other middle-eastern countries eventually followed the Saudi arrangement and agreed to only sell their oil in U.S. dollars. This arrangement created what many call the petrodollar. The idea that the value of the dollar was now effectively tied to oil which also secured it as the world’s reserve currency.
- Iran-Iraq War. The Iran Iraq War lasted from 1980-88 and began when Iraq invaded Iran. Iraq’s invasion was in part to quell the populist uprising of the Iranian revolution. In 1979, the Iranian people overthrew the king aka the Shah, who was backed by the U.S. and believed to have been installed by a U.S. lead coup. Iran, as a ruling Shia state, became a threat to other middle eastern states who were afraid of further populist Shia uprisings. Especially in Sunni lead states like Iraq. The Iranian revolution also threatened Saudi Arabia as the Iranian revolution replaced a monarchy with a republic. An idea that threatened the Saudi monarchy. So Saudi Arabia supported and bankrolled Iraq throughout the war. The threat to the Saudi monarchy remains today. A successful Islamic republic, (that is also Shia), is a direct threat to the Saudi monarchy; a monarchy which derives its legitimacy from its alliance with the Wahhabi faith. The United States also cemented its dedication to protecting Saudi Arabia by secretly backing Iraq in the war, despite initially denying so.
- Afghanistan Mujahadeen. The modern-day term mujahadeen refers to ‘guerrilla’ style militias that support Islamic conquest.
In the 1980s, during the Cold War, mujahadeen fighters in Afghanistan fought a long rebellion against the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, a pro-Soviet Union government. Soviet forces entered Afghanistan to aid the government forces. Muslims from other countries entered Afghanistan on behalf of the mujahadeen forces; Osama bin Laden (a Saudi Arabian) being one. The Afghanistan mujahadeen is considered the pre-cursor to bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and the modern day jihadi mentality. Many Afghan refugees grew up in Pakistan refugee camps where Saudi Arabia funded madrassas which taught the austere Saudi Arabian wahhabi mentality and ultimately lead to the creation of the Taliban. It being the Cold War era, the United States supported the Afghanistan mujahadeen in their fight against the Soviet Union.
- Persian Gulf War. Iraq invades Kuwait, alarming the United States and raising fear that Iraq may invade other countries, especially oil rich areas like Saudi Arabia. As U.S. General Schwarzkopf states, “The bottom line I was trying to make to the President is that this is the force that was necessary to guarantee a defence of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf oilfields; it was not offensive force by any means.” Schwarzkopf goes on, “There was absolutely no way in the world we could rapidly deploy our air forces if we couldn’t go in and use the Saudi military airfields that were in place. There was no way we could possibly deploy the Marine Corps and bring in the Marine pre-positioned ships .. equipment, without using the Saudi ports.” The Saudi Arabia – U.S. alliance proved its cruciality to U.S.’ forces in the Persian Gulf War.
- 9/11. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers that attacked the United States on 9/11 were Saudi Arabian. The American tragedy of 9/11 severely strained Saudi-U.S. relations.The American people were furious and demanded an inquiry into 9/11. However, many question the validity of the official inquiry, the 9/11 Commission report as 28 pages were left out. The omission garnered suspicions that the U.S. was hiding connections between the hijackers and the Saudi government. A bill, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), passed in both the House and the Senate in 2016 but vetoed by Obama. The bill allows American citizens to sue foreign governments connected to terrorists acts. The bill was ultimately passed as the Senate overruled Obama’s veto. As of March 2017 a lawsuit in federal court is suing the Saudi government on behalf of 9/11 victims for providing assistance to the 9/11 hijackers. One of the major allegations is that the Saudi Arabian government funneled money to Al Qaeda through Saudi non-profits. JASTA passed despite an aggressive lobbying campaign by Saudi Arabia against it. Naturally, Saudi Arabia is not pleased by the success of JASTA.
- Iran Nuclear Deal With U.S. In 2015 Obama struck a deal with Iran, angering Saudi Arabia. Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program, in exchange the U.S. lifted economic sanctions. To Saudi Arabia this deal raised concerns that the U.S. was moving towards establishing friendly relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s long-standing enemy. Lifting economic sanctions also worried Saudi Arabia that Iran would experience an economic boom. An economic boom would affirm the validity of an Islamic Republic, threatening the idea of the Saudi monarchy. Saudi Arabia also fears an Iranian economic boom would create funds to support anti Saudi Arabian initiatives.
- Saudi Arabia-U.S. Arms Sales. Despite increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States post 9/11, Saudi Arabia has remained an important customer of U.S. arms. From 2011-2015 Saudi Arabia was the top purchaser of U.S. arms. Increased public scrutiny of the U.S.-Saudi relationship has put pressure on the U.S. to reconsider the nature of their relationship. In the end of 2016 Obama halted selling some arms to Saudi Arabia; however in 2017 Trump resumed the sale.
We believe these are the 9 most fundamental principles to understanding Saudi Arabia and its relation to both the United States and the rest of the middle east. Of course, the entirety and complexity of a nation’s history and foreign policy can’t be summed up in a single article. However, we hope this provides you with a strong framework for understanding Saudi Arabia. If you think we have missed something crucial please let us know in the comments!