The United States and Saudi Arabia: Marriage of convenience on the rocks?

In a recent speech, Chas W. Freeman said: Saudi Arabia has done it again! On January 23, it dismayed foreign pundits by failing to sink into the anarchy they speculated might follow the death of its king, ‘Abdullah. Instead, the Kingdom carried off yet another flawless passing of the leadership baton. What’s more, the succession process indicated who the next two or three kings are likely to be. And the new king, Salman bin ‘Abdulaziz Al-Sa’ud, acted promptly and decisively to seize the reins of government and reorganize it.

This rightly attracted global attention. The world has a big stake in Saudi stability. Forget the cartoons about it! The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a gas station full of oppressed, black-garbed women in the middle of a camel ranch. It is the heartland and focal point of Islam, the faith of at least one in four human beings alive today. It lies athwart transport routes between Asia, Europe, and Africa. The Kingdom is the custodian of a fourth or more of the world’s oil reserves. Rumors that it is no longer relevant to oil markets have just been unambiguously refuted. (Ask any fracker in North Dakota about that!) Saudi Arabia is at the center of a growing concentration of global capital. Its puritanical religious doctrines inspire its — and our — most dangerous enemies.

In short, what happens in Saudi Arabia and between it and its neighbors matters greatly to Americans, American allies and friends, and American adversaries. But Saudi Arabia is little known, even less understood, and frequently caricatured. This is not surprising. The Kingdom is the only society on the planet not to have been penetrated by Western colonialism. No European armies breached its borders; no missionaries; no merchants. Its capital, Riyadh, was long off limits to infidels, and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina remain so today. It is said that hubris is the only reliably renewable resource of Western civilization, but when we Westerners finally came to Saudi Arabia, we came not as the vindicators of our presumed cultural superiority, but as hired help.

As a result, some say that Saudis secretly see the world’s peoples as divided into two basic categories: (1) fellow Saudis, and (2) potential employees. Be that as it may, foreigners — Western, Asian, or Arab — who have lived in Saudi Arabia all see it as a very strange society, one that is not easy to understand and that professes values at odds with those of non-Saudis. Some come to love it. Many don’t. [Continue reading…]

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