Uprising in Saudi Arabia? America won’t allow it

Alexander Cockburn: There’ll be little talk in Washington of democracy in action if Shia protests catch hold

Column LAST UPDATED AT 08:55 ON Fri 7 Oct 2011
Alexander Cockburn

POSE a threat to the stability of Saudi Arabia, as Shia protesters are said to to have done in Awamiya, according to reports this week from the country's oil-rich Eastern Province, and you're brandishing a scalpel over the very heart of long-term US policy in the Middle East.

The US consumes about 19 million barrels of oil every 24 hours, about half of them imported. At 25 per cent, Canada is the lead supplier. Second comes Saudi Arabia with 12 per cent.  But supply of crude oil to the US is only half the story. Saudi Arabia controls OPEC's oil price and adjusts it carefully with US priorities in the front of their minds.

The traffic is not one-way. In the half-century after 1945, the United States sold the Saudis about $100 billion in military goods and services. A year ago the Obama administration announced the biggest weapons deal in US history – a $60 billion programme with Saudi Arabia to sell it military equipment across the next 20 to 30 years.

Under its terms, the United States will provide Saudi Arabia with 84 advanced F-15 fighter planes with electronics and weapons packages tailored to Saudi needs. An additional 70 F-15's already in Saudi hands will be upgraded to match the capabilities of the new planes.

Saudi Arabia will purchase a huge fleet of nearly 200 Apache, Blackhawk and other US military helicopters, along with a vast array of radar systems, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, and guided bombs. The US trains and supplies all Saudi Arabia's security forces. US corporations have huge investments in the Kingdom.

Say the words 'Saudi Arabia' to President Obama or to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the high-minded prattle about the 'Arab Spring' stops abruptly. When the Saudis rushed security forces across the Causeway and into Bahrain, counselling the Khalifa dynasty to smash down hard on the Shia demonstrators in the home port of the US Fifth Fleet, the noises of reproof from Washington were mouse-like in their modesty.

Could the uprising reported from Awamiya, with protesters throwing petrol bombs amid shouts of 'Allahu Akbar', spiral out of control?

We're talking here about two different challenges. The first are the long-oppressed Shia, making up just under a quarter of the population. The second is from the younger generation - youth under 30 account for two-thirds of the Saudi population - in the Sunni majority, living in one of the most thorough-going tyrannies in the world.

In February of this year, perturbed by the trend of events in Egypt and elsewhere, the 87-year-old King Abdullah announced his plan to dispense $36 billion in welfare handouts – about $2,000 for every Saudi. He correctly identified one of the Kingdom's big problems, which is that over 40 per cent of people between 18 and 40 don't have a job.

A few days ago Abdullah offered Saudi women a privilege – to participate in certain entirely meaningless municipal elections (if approved by their husbands.)  What municipal elections can be meaningful amid resolute repression under an absolutist monarchy?

The American Empire has effectively lost Iran and Iraq. What of Saudi Arabia? Suppose fissures continue to open up in the Kingdom itself? I doubt, at such a juncture, that we would hear too much talk from Washington about "democracy" or orderly transitions. The Empire would send in the 101st Airborne. ·