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King al-Glass House

King Abdullah vs. King George
Saudi Arabia’s Toxic Texan

It’s a weird business, this Saudi king lecturing the United States, describing Iraq as victimized by “illegal foreign occupation and detestable sectarianism,” pulling out of a White House dinner being prepared in his honor next month, inviting the Iranian president to the Saudi Capital and negotiating a peace deal between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine. All good things, to be sure. It is an illegal occupation in Iraq. It is detestable sectarianism. Talking with Iran will always be better than shunning it, if any progress against a regional war is to be made. Same goes for Hamas. George Bush’s juvenile refusal to talk with “the evil ones,” talk that doesn’t even have to be confused with negotiating, is embarrassing and immoral. It doesn’t just perpetuate a lethal belligerence. It amplifies it. Canceling a dinner with the Toxic Texan is the least a guest of honor can do. More heads of state should do likewise. Every head of state should do likewise. Let’s skip the wink-wink nudge-nudge dinners for now, let’s skip the ostentatious toasts and smiley photo-ops. Let’s skip every one of those opportunities he manufactures to rub shoulders with illusions of accomplishments. Let’s just have meetings. Force him to the table. You want to get together? Great. Around conference tables. Nothing else. No Crawford Ranch, no Waldorf Astorias. Only substantial discussions, all toward one goal: end the wars, restore sanity, resolve conflicts. State dinners, in this context, are an offense to the killed and soon-to-be killed.

But here’s the thing. Who is King Abdullah to be lecturing anyone? Saudi Arabia is not exactly a model society, neither in its dealings with neighbors nor in the way it runs its own affairs. Any way you look at it, it is a detestable regime, defined by repugnance politically, socially, religiously. It is only slightly less regressive and oppressive than the Taliban—which Saudi Arabia and Pakistan gave birth to, funded and fund still, and will always encourage. And even then, only because the Taliban didn’t have Saudi Arabia’s riches to apply the economic make-up that gives the Arab Peninsula a deceptive sheen of modernity. If it weren’t for Saudi Arabia’s oil, the “kingdwom” would be considered nothing more than the self-indulgent, unjust, backwater regime that it is. Except that the House of Saud would not have survived this long without oil and the riches it enables. It would have had no money to pay off its enemies and quiet its restless minorities, Shiites chief among them. It wouldn’t even have managed to keep in check its very own Wahabbites, the mother of all backward Muslim cults, the cult that most perverts Islam and gives it its undeserved image of violence and cruelty. Saudi Arabia would have been, as it has been anyway to quite an accommodative extent (because that’s what religious extremism foments) a cauldron of terrorism-in-waiting, terrorists in Saudi Arabia being like any other sect, any other minority that must be kept tamed and at bay, coddled and paid off as long as it does its dirty work off-shore. That’s how al-Qaeda was born. That’s how it carries on. With oil money sucked up from the American suburban pump next door, and after oil companies get their cuts, all the way into King Abdullah’s flowing pockets, from which he doles out the hush money and ensures his autocracy.

As Robert Fisk wrote in “The Great War for Civilization,” “In the aftermath of Saddam’s humiliation” after the first Gulf War in 1991, “Saudi Arabia had become more, not less conservative, its mutawin morality police more powerful, its military establishment more powerful despite all the talk of disarmament.” More powerful, of course, thanks to arms purchased from the United States. (Between 1986 and 1993 alone, Saudi Arabia imported $55.6 billion in arms, the majority from the United States. Since 1990, American sales alone have amounted to $39.6 billion, including, according to the Federation of American Scientists’ web site, purchases of the M-1A2 Abrams main battle tank, M-2A2 Bradley armored vehicles, F-15E Strike Eagle attack aircraft and Patriot surface-to-air missiles.) “Forgotten,” Fisk wrote, “were the hopes of the ducated Saudi middle classes that America’s military presence in the Gulf would liberalise their nation and make their royal family more amenable to collective leadership.” Wars generally have the opposite effect, especially when the United States encourages the arms build-up as one way to oil its economy, as the first Bush did.

The revulsion that Saudi Arabia should provoke runs much deeper. Geraldine Brooks, in “Nine Parts of Desire,” detailed what should have had every university student protesting in the streets the way students did South African apartheid in the 1980s, the way some (if very few) students protest Israel’s today, the way plenty of students protest American injustice. Where are the protesters of Saudi injustice, of Saudi oppression? “ Saudi Arabia,” Brooks wrote, “allows no Christian churches, and in the southern city of Abah, the remains of an ancient synagogue have been bulldozed to dust. Every symbol or reference to an alien faith is hunted down and expunged. Ina video of The Godfather II, the words ‘hail Mary’ are bleeped out. Crosswords are censored if clues refer to Christian saints or Jewish holidays. Road signs segregate the traffic, directing non-Moslems on detours that deny a glimpse of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Discrimination endures even beyond the grave. The story goes, non-Moslems may only be buried here in metal caskets, so their corpses won’t contaminate the holy soil.”

Holy my formerly-Arab-yet-blessedly-not-hirsute ass. “We were walking through a Shiite neighborhood,” Brooks continues, “and I saw something I didn’t know existed: poor Saudis. The oil bubbles up in the eastern province, where most Shiites lives.” (Shiites officially make up 15 percent of the population, but the proportion is likely much higher. It’s an Arab tradition stretching from North Africa to India via Lebanon for the majorities in power to undercount the minorities beneath their boots, or to not count them at all, as has been the habit in Lebanon since the last census there in the 1920s.) But the cash Saudi’s eastern-province oil generates “is spent elsewhere. One old man showed us his house: mud-walled, roofed with palm fronds, and floored with bare earth. Forty years ago, most Saudis lived this way. It seems only Shiites still do.”

And there’s the secret to King Abdullah’s duplicity, to his good-looking, great-sounding speeches while behind his sand piles a nation creaks from subjugation and stagnates in regression, while his petrodollars, so generously contributed by his friends and allies—by us Americans, among other westerners—silence his enemies or feeds their lethal desires far from his palaces, and closer to ours. The only thing more illegitimate than a king calling another king’s invasion and occupation “illegal” is an illegitimate king illegally, foully running a kingdom of his own.

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