Alexander Cockburn: U.S. and Saudi Relations on Oil

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through


Published on Friday, October 7, 2011 by 


Pose a threat to the stability ofSaudi Arabia, as the Shiite upsurges are now doing in Qatif and al-Awamiyah in the country’s oil-richEasternProvince, and you’re brandishing a scalpel over the very heart of the long-termU.S.policy in theMiddle East. The fall ofAmerica’s ally, the Shah of Iran, in 1979 only magnified the strategic importance ofSaudi Arabia.


In 1945, the chief of the State Department’s Division of Near Eastern Affairs wrote in a memo that the oil resources ofSaudi Arabiaare a “stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” The man who steered the Saudi princes towardsAmericaand away fromBritain, was St. John Philby, Kim Philby’s father, and with that one great stroke he wrought far more devastation on the Empire than his son ever did.


These days, theU.S.consumes about 19 million barrels of oil every 24 hours, about half of them imported. At 25 percent,Canadais the lead oil supplier. Second comesSaudi Arabiaat 12 percent. But the supply of crude oil to only half the story.Saudi Arabiacontrols the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ oil price and adjusts it carefully withU.S.priorities in the front of their minds.


The traffic is not one-way. In the half century after 1945, theUnited Statessold the Saudis about$100 billion in military goods and services. A year ago, the Obama administration announced the biggest weapons deal inU.S.history — a $60 billion program withSaudi Arabiato sell it military equipment across the next 20 to 30 years.


Under its terms, theUnited Stateswill provideSaudi Arabiawith 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 Arabiawill purchase a huge fleet of nearly 200 Apache, Blackhawk and otherU.S.military helicopters, along with a vast array of radar systems, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, and guided bombs.


TheU.S.trains and supplies allSaudi Arabia’s security forces.U.S.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 Bahrein, counseling the Khalifa dynasty to smash down hard on the Shiite demonstrators in the homeport of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the noises of reproof fromWashingtonwere mouse-like in their modesty.


Could the uprisings inSaudi Arabiaspiral out of control? We’re talking here about two different challenges. The first are the long-oppressed Shiite, making up just under a quarter of the population. The second is from the younger generation in the Sunni majority — youth under 30 accounts for two-thirds of the Saudi population—living in one of the most thoroughgoing tyrannies in the world.


In February of this year, perturbed by the trend of events inEgyptand elsewhere, the 87-year-old King Abdullah announced his plan to dispense about $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 percent 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 lostIranandIraq. What ofSaudi Arabia? Suppose, fissures continue to open up in the Kingdom itself? I doubt, at such a juncture, that we would hear too much talk fromWashingtonabout “democracy” or orderly transitions. The Empire would send in the 101st Airborne.

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