by Bruce Dunlavy
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Although most of the significant warlike conflicts in the world involve the most developed and militarily powerful nations, they do not occur within or on the borders of those nations. They occur in what might be described as “strategic slums,” those developing regions that are situated in places of great importance to the powerful or on top of natural resources that are of great importance to the powerful.

For the past few decades, the Middle East has been the most notable of these regions. The Middle East as we know it did not exist until the Twentieth Century, when it was created as collateral damage from World War One. The Ottoman Empire had been known as “The Sick Man of Europe,” and as the war progressed the victorious Allies saw an opportunity to kick the Sick Man into his grave and divide his estate among themselves. The current borders – indeed, the current nations – of the Middle East are the result of the Great Powers of Europe drawing boundaries to suit their interests and national egos, with little regard for the associations and interests of the people inhabiting the nations so created.

Nobody cared much about it until it was discovered that much of the Middle East lay above vast oil reserves. At that point the industrialized nations saw that it was in their interest to arrange things politically so that the area would be most conducive to the exploitation of these reserves.

The United States, in particular, arranged for the two biggest oil-producers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, to have governments the USA wanted – autocratic monarchies with whom they could deal without the complicating factors inherent in political pluralism. A delicate balancing act could keep these two from exercising a rivalry that might disrupt the flow of oil. The United Kingdom kept the other big oil-producer, Iraq, under control the same way.

From the Eisenhower administration onward, the United States has seen quite a few changes in its attitude towards two of these nations. In the beginning, Iraq was good; Iran was good.

That changed in 1958, when the monarchy in Iraq was overthrown by an anti-imperialist (i.e., anti-Western) military group. Iraq then became suspect, and relations deteriorated until they ruptured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Meanwhile, the USA decided to make Iran – then led by its monarch, Shah Reza Pahlavi – the chosen partner in that part of the Middle East. Iraq was bad; Iran was good.

Two things happened in 1979. The government of Iraq was seized by Saddam Hussein, and the monarchy in Iran was toppled and replaced by the religious forces of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iran captured the staff of the USA embassy, and by 1982 the Reagan Administration abandoned neutrality, seeing the secular and stabilized government of Iraq as the preferred ally. Iraq was good; Iran was bad.

This positioning carried on through the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, when the USA openly favored Iraq, keeping silent about Iraqi poison-gas attacks and using the US Navy to assure safe passage of Iraqi oil through the Persian Gulf. Then, in 1990, the USA had to flip again when Iraq invaded the small but oil-rich kingdom of Kuwait. American military forces drove the Iraqis back across the border and ended American belief that Saddam Hussein could be a compliant ally. Iraq was bad; Iran was bad.

This positioning stayed in place into the Twenty-First Century, especially after the attacks on the USA that occurred on September 11, 2001. Another war was undertaken, and USA military presence remained active until the Obama administration. By 2014, the USA and Iran realized that they should act in their mutual interest to keep Iraq’s militant rebels from destabilizing the post-Saddam government there. Iraq was not so good; Iran was not so bad.
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Throughout all this flipping and flopping on Iran and Iraq, one nation has remained a consistent USA ally. That nation is Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are situated on huge oil reserves, and have a governmental system that has kept the country stable and (usually) reliable. Internally, the Saudi system is an old alliance based on the principle of “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” The government is an absolute monarchy run by the Saud family, and the culture is the manifestation of a very conservative form of Islam, Wah’habism.

The Saud family and the Wah’habi theologians were cooperating long before either became powerful, and they have used their friendship to advance the goals of both. The bargain is this: the religious authorities will not question the government’s control of civil matters, and the government will not question the religious authorities’ control of the faith and its cultural manifestations. It has – so far – worked well for the two domains.

What is truly curious, though, is the American attitude regarding Saudi Arabia. The USA has always been eager to promote the good and forgive the bad, no matter what. Consider some of the history between the two nations:

• In 1973, Saudi Arabia was part of the oil embargo that seriously damaged the USA economy.
• After the First Gulf War in 1991, leading Saudis decried the presence of American troops in their country as accommodating to anti-Muslim interests.
• The September 11, 2001, attacks in the USA were planned and coordinated by Saudi expatriate Osama Bin Laden, and 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, but the USA response was to attack Iraq instead.
• The massive amounts of oil money available to Saudi Arabia and the monarchy’s hands-off deal with the Wah’habi leaders has allowed Wah’habism to establish and finance madrassas (Islamic religious schools) all over the Muslim world, teaching their extreme and intolerant views, which center on militant jihadism.
• In 2018, journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi living in the USA, was killed by Saudi agents in their consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, with the USA tacitly accepting the ludicrous defense put up by the Saudi government. The official Saudi explanation didn’t even pass the giggle test, but President Trump called it “credible.”

Now the Saudi government has taken another repressive step contrary to the USA’s interests. The accession of Mohammed Bin Salman as the de facto leader of the nation in place of his father, the 83-year-old King Salman, was heralded as the dawn of a new age of reform and openness. For example, “MBS” (as he is known) received praise for allowing women to drive cars, as if that was a great leap forward in human rights. But when your country’s great advancement is permitting women behind the wheel, it serves mainly to emphasize just how backward your country really is.

While gender equality in driver’s licenses gets the attention of news outlets, it serves to distract attention from serious human rights abuses. Little has been said and even less done about Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of the horrific civil war in Yemen, which has resulted in the deaths – by military action, disease, and starvation – of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Additionally, a government-organized group known as the Tiger Squad has been accused of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and others. Dozens of journalists, civil rights leaders, modernizers, and – of course – intellectuals have been arrested, threatened with beheading, or have disappeared.

One of those who have disappeared is Ayman al-Drees, active in the campaign for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia (and who is a graduate of Bowling Green State University, where I received my master’s degree in history). Al-Drees was among 12 activists arrested in early April and who have been unaccounted for since then. Two hold USA citizenship, which ought to make the American government ask some pointed questions to MBS about his intentions and about his goons. So far there has been nothing public from the American government. No condemnation, no admonition, not even questioning, pointed or otherwise, about why the Saudi government arrested USA citizens without explanation and has not even made a public acknowledgment of what has happened to them.

While the oil connection is obvious, and President Trump has emphasized that American sales of arms to Saudi Arabia supports 50,000 American jobs, we must ask, “Is this what our values are?” Does the standard of American approval rest on the assurance of an uninterrupted flow of affordable oil? Do violations of individuals’ rights and crimes against humanity fade to the background when weighed against economic interests? Or is there something else going on that provokes an American attitude that the Saudis can do no wrong, even when they do things that are patently wrong and an affront to international justice? The United States has traditionally held itself up as a defender of human rights around the world – in word if not always in deed.

But not when it comes to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis always seem to get a free pass that is not provided to other despotic regimes. Why? That’s something I’d like to get to the bottom of.