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The Saudis: Insular and insecure
By Alan Caruba
"The money trail is the key" to identifying the role Saudi Arabia has played in the funding of the 9-11 attack and the worldwide Islamic holy war, said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, (R-AL) chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Sunday's Meet the Press. The sands of US policy toward Saudi Arabia are shifting dramatically in the wake of 9-11.
"Saudi Arabia is a highly secretive, super-sensitive society that distrusts anyone beyond family or tribe," writes Sandra Mackey, the author of The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, originally published in 1987 and recently republished as a W.W. Norton paperback. "Coupled with their assumed birthright as the elect among Moslems, the Saudis are the Puritans of the Muslim world."
Prior to the huge wealth that was generated by the fact the Saudis control one fourth of the Earth's known oil reserves, "they knew how to do very little except herd goats and barter in the marketplace," wrote Mackey. Arabs outside of Arabia considered them culturally and intellectually inferior. By as late as 1974, seventy per cent of the population was illiterate; only 13 per cent could be considered "educated" in any way.
Mackey and her husband, a surgeon, lived there from 1978 to 1980 and again from 1982 to 1984. She was able to see the Saudi society transformed from a backward nation to one that embraced the blessings of a modern society while still ruled by a religion in conflict with all things modern. "Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia remains today as it did at the time of Mohammed, a reflection of Arabia and of the pure Arab."
The Saudis are trying to live in two worlds and the effort is psychologically tearing them apart. Their world, ruled by the House of Saud, a vast extended royal family, is desperate to hold onto the way Islam rules every aspect of their individual lives and the life of their nation. They live psychologically in the seventh century. They live physically in the twenty-first. Western ideas and institutions challenge everything they believe to be true.
As a recent article by Stephen Franklin of the Chicago Tribune noted, "Complicating the fury toward America is a longtime Saudi embrace of the United States, its businesses and its ways. Strip away the mosques, palaces and historical remnants of the nation's desert heritage and much of Saudi Arabia's largest cities look and feel American. No other Arab nation is stamped as heavily by the presence of American companies, from Starbucks to Planet Hollywood to major US companies that provide everyday services."
Given their control over so much of the world's oil, understanding the Saudis has become a priority for the United States whose technologically advanced society depends on the energy oil provides. Concern over Saudi relations and true intentions has been heightened by the fact that 15 of the 19 who participated in 9-11 were Saudi citizens. Then, too, Osama bin Laden is a Saudi, despite the fact they revoked his citizenship when he called for the overthrow of the House of Saud.
Bin Laden represents the essence of the fundamentalist Islamic Wahabism that spawned the Taliban and motivates al-Qaida. He is, in this respect, the purest product of Saudi Arabia's extensive efforts to financially support and expand Islam throughout the world.
Mackey's book strips away the mysteries of the Saudi psyche. "A Saudi's behavior is controlled not by the interior forces of right and wrong but by who is going to see it. To complicate his burden, honor is not individual; it is the collective property of the family." Thus, "The need to preserve each Saudi's honor may be the single biggest obstacle to the development of a modern economy."
"In the Saudi psyche," says Mackey, "the Westerner rose up as a person whose superior technological skills threatened to shame him."
The Saudi form of Islam threatens both Islamic and Western nations, generating a response from the United States that includes its invasion of Afghanistan last year to drive out the Taliban and its worldwide effort to destroy al-Qaida. As the US readies itself to remove Iraq's Saddam Hussein, a further irony for the Saudis is that the only real protection they have is provided by the United States. The Saudis share a long border with Iraq. Regime change in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East will threaten the Saudi commitment to a world ruled by Islam.
On the eve of changes coming to the Middle East, the Saudis are fearful their faith, their economy, their comfortable lives will come to an end, destroyed by a West intent on defending itself, intent on insuring the flow of Saudi oil, intent on finding new sources of oil, and intent on ending the threat posed by fundamentalist Islam.
They are right to fear this. Saudi Arabia, home to two of the most sacred cities to Islam, Mecca and Medina, is going to witness an assault on Islam that will transform and possibly even destroy it. Do not assume a religion as widespread as Islam cannot fail. The religions of the Roman Empire and South American civilizations were overtaken by Christianity and faded away.
Saudi Arabia has been called "a tribe with a flag" rather than a real nation. Take away its oil and it is just a desert tribe with no economic resources. Take away the House of Saud and it has no system by which to rule itself; it has no comprehension of democracy, civil or even human rights. Take away the protection of the United States and it is vulnerable to every other nation in the region. Take away Islam and it has no reason to exist.
Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. In January, a collection of his columns will be published by Merril Press. © Alan Caruba, 2002
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