Part I – An Aggressive Anachronism
Saudi Arabia is one of a handful of Middle East anachronisms: a family-based monarchy that believes it sits at the right hand of God. The Saud clan that rules in Saudi Arabia is both insular and fanatic. It is devoted to the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, perhaps the most strict and intolerant manifestation of the religion.
Except for the religious details, there is really not much difference between the respective outlooks of a Wahhabi true believer, a hard-core Christian fundamentalist, and the Jewish extremists in Israel. Like their Christian counterparts, the Saudis are proselytizers who spend huge sums every year supporting fanatical preachers pushing their message in far-flung parts of the world. And, like their Jewish counterparts, the Saudis have an army equipped with more advanced American weapons than they know what to do with. This, if you will, mechanizes their fanaticism.
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Recently, there are suggestions that this is indeed the case. In 2011 the Saudi monarchy came to the rescue of another Middle East anachronism, the Sunni Al-Khalifa family monarchy in Bahrain. The Al-Khalifa were in trouble because for decades they had been systematically discriminating against the country’s Shiite Muslim majority until, in the atmosphere of the short-lived Arab Spring, the Bahraini Shias decided to stand up and demand a bit of democracy for their homeland. When the Bahraini police, mostly imported from Pakistan, could not handle the evolving situation, the Al-Khalifa called in U.S.-armed Saudi troops to put an end to any hopes of a better, more democratic Bahrain. Even though the Saudi incursion violated the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, there was no protest from Washington.
In the meantime the Saudis have also been busy funneling money and weapons to the Sunni opposition in places like Iraq and Syria.You might not like the governments in Baghdad and Damascus, but the groups the Saudis are underwriting are often worse. Be they the suicide car-bombers of Iraq or the self-proclaimed Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, Saudi money, both private and government funds, along with the guns they buy, have been making their way into the hands of people who seemed to have the same callous disregard of non-combatant life and limb as do, well, the guys who operate U.S. drones in Yemen.
There have been repeated protests about this sort of Saudi behavior. The Russians have complained about it in relation to Syria, and the Iraqi government has directly accused the Saudis of sponsoring terrorism in their country. Has this given any pause to the zealots in Riyadh? No, it has not, because, like the Israelis, they know that they have God on their side and, ultimately, Washington D.C., as well.
Now the Saudis have turned their bullying ways toward their neighbor Qatar. In early March the Saudi foreign minister declared that Riyadh would “blockade Qatar by land and sea” unless that country ceases its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a mostly non-violent Muslim organization that the Saudis have illogically designated a “terrorist” group – probably because the Brotherhood proselytizes a rival interpretation of Islam and has been outlawed by the Egyptian military dictatorship, which is an ally of Saudi Arabia. They also want Qatar to close down Al Jazeera and evict several U.S.-based research organizations with offices in Doha because they have all been critical of Riyadh. Considering that most of Qatar’s fresh food comes across its only land border with Saudi Arabia, the threat must be taken seriously.
Part II – Lack of a US Response
There is no indication that the United States will stand by relatively liberal Qatar any more than it supported the democracy advocates in Bahrain. As far as Washington is concerned, the oil that comes out of Saudi Arabia to America’s trading partners (not much of it comes to the U.S.) is more important than the independent broadcasting of Al Jazeera, the American research centers and, without a doubt, the ideology of democracy. And it is the Saudi monarchy that keeps the oil flowing. Thus, despite some complaining, the U.S. acquiesces in the behavior of the Saudi fanatics, just as it does with the Israelis.
This means that Washington can sanction the Russians for protecting their security interests and the Russian-speaking population in the Crimea. They can sanction the Iranians for developing nuclear energy. And, they can acquiesce in the utter destitution of 1.76 million Gazans. But you will hear no talk of sanctions due to Saudi aggression or its sponsorship of terrorism.
Part III – Strange Bedfellows
At present the Saudis and Israelis are acting in unlikely unison on a range of issues such as support for Egypt’s military dictatorship. This makes them strange bedfellows. What can they possibly have in common? Well, besides adhering to arrogant and aggressive notions of manifest destiny, they both fear democracy in the Middle East. And, believe it or not, we can make the duo into a trio by adding the United States. Why should all three governments fear democracy? It’s really very simple. What often happens when there are free and fair elections in that region of the world? One gets leaders and governments that are (1) almost by definition wary of monarchies and other forms of dictatorship, (2) anti-American, because Washington is an historic supporter of Middle East dictators, (3) pro-Muslim, but not receptive to the strict Wahhabi or Salafi versions of Islam, and (4 ) more active in their support for the Palestinian people.
At this point these strange bedfellows are having their way. The Arab Spring and its aspirations of a more tolerant and democratic Middle East are, with the possible exception of Tunisia, rapidly fading memories. In its place we have the fanatics: the military style in Egypt, the religious style in Saudi Arabia, and an aggressive mixture of the two in Israel.
And what about the U.S.? Well, its style is to arm fanatics and dictators and then preach democracy. In Washington, the name of the game is hypocrisy.