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foreign policy

Why Would We Want Saudi Arabia
As An Ally?

We needed their oil. Midway through World War II, the Roosevelt administration was warned that the U.S. was running low, having almost single-handedly fueled the allied war effort. There in Saudi Arabia lay a resource that had hardly been tapped. Oil became the core of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship for decades
They need no introduction, but where are Clinton and Obama in this gallery? They were equally accommodating of the Saudis, but their years lacked incidents such as those we recount.

thereafter: We would buy their oil, they would buy American weapons, we'd guarantee their security. So it was that we would have as an ally one of the world's most repressive countries ruled by a royal family that hoarded to itself the unimaginable riches found beneath its desert floor.

But that calculus has changed. First, the U.S. is now the world's biggest oil producer: 12 million barrels a day thanks to shale, subsurface geologic rendering, and technologies such as directional drilling. Besides, the Saudi kingdom presents us with problems. The war they are waging against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen has led to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The king gave the reins to run the country to a crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who a year ago is believed with certainty to have ordered the gruesome murder of Washington Post opinion writer, Jamal Khashoggi, by a gang of 15 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

In the year since the killing, President Trump has never acknowledged that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's assassination, managing no more than, “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”.

The killing of a journalist is of no moment to Trump, who cares only that the kingdom shares his antipathy toward Iran and is a customer for American weapons. So when Iran bombed the Saudi oil facilities,

Trump's tweet that the U.S. would wait to hear from Saudi Arabia "under what terms we would proceed!” was a stunning show of his subservience. Apparently he views "his" military as mercenaries available for hire. Saudi Arabia is not a treaty ally. We are under no obligation to do their fighting for them. There is no justification for the United States to become involved at all. Trump's "locked and loaded" readiness brings to mind George W. Bush's defense secretary Robert Gates saying that the Saudis "always want to fight the Iranians to the last American".

a star is born

When bin Salman took the stage, he was celebrated as a reformer for introducing a host of unheard-of freedoms to the kingdom. That women would be allowed to drive cars got most notice, but they were also given the right to travel without a male relative's permission; to register family events such as births, marriages or divorces with the government; to receive equal treatment in the workplace; and the religious police were told to back down from their strict requirements that women be fully covered. Successive American administrations have had no qualm with a government that had created apps sold on Apple and Google that allow Saudi Arabian men to control the movements of their wives and daughters, specifying where they can go and for how long, with alerts when they stray.

To win over the kingdom’s many young people (about 60% are 30 or younger), bin Salman freed all to engage in such forbidden entertainment as movies, car races and sporting events.. He plans to build 350 movie theaters across the country. Feted for modernizing the deeply conservative Saudi culture, he toured the U.S. coast to coast for three weeks, meeting business leaders, Silicon Valley figures, movie people.

Then came the Khashoggi murder and revelations of the dark underside of the kingdom. According to a Saudi group that tracks political prisoners, Prisoners of Conscience, some 2,600 Saudi dissidents — scientists, lawyers, writers, women's rights advocates — were locked up while the crown prince was traveling from country to country building his image as a liberal reformer .

About a dozen women activists who had campaigned for that very right of women to drive autos were in May of last year incarcerated in separate, darkened rooms at what seemed to be an unused palace on the Red Sea where they were interrogated individually and subjected to beatings, electric shock, waterboarding, rape and threats of death, according to the sister of one. The message was clear: the prince did not want the pleasures he chose to bestow on his people to seem the accomplishment of agitators.

The killing of Khashoggi is hardly unique. Bin Salman is reportedly surprised that it has caused such a furor because it is Saudi practice to hunt down its dissident citizens and, if not murdered on the spot, return them to the kingdom for imprisonment, torture and, often as not, death by beheading, the preferred Saudi method. He did not foresee that a commentator at a U.S. newspaper was another order of magnitude.

The hit squads are referred to by U.S. intelligence as the Rapid Intervention Group, which is overseen by a top aide to the prince, Saud al Qahtani. It was he who oversaw bin Salman's lightning-strike roundup of several hundred of the super rich, including many of his own royal family relatives, and their detention in Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton hotel. Charged with corruption and held for weeks, they had television and room service at their call while their captors forced them to sign over billions in assets to repay what they had allegedly taken from the kingdom by exploiting their positions or contacts. Some are known to have been tortured. One died. After release all were reportedly outfitted with ankle bracelets, cannot use air travel, and are under constant observation to prevent any coordinated moves against the prince.

That's gentle treatment compared with Saudi Arabia's brutal record of human rights violations.

 Salman Alodah, an extremely popular religious figure with a huge Twitter following, expressed hope that some reconciliation could be worked out with Qatar, with which Saudi Arabia is in conflict. He was told that "neutrality in this crisis was treason", said his son. He was arrested, shackled hand and foot in his cell, charged with 37 offenses including "spreading discord and incitement against the ruler", and the kingdom is seeking the death penalty for him.

 The crown prince jailed an economist for questioning the valuation of Aramco, the Saudi oil giant, in advance of its public offering. He spent a year in prison. The charge is that he had stirred up sedition through his Twitter account.

 A Saudi who operated a website critical of the country's religious establishment was sentenced to 1,000 lashes with a cane, 10 years in prison, and a large fine. International outcry served to halt the lashings at 50, although they may have continued in secret.

 A Saudi youth is facing execution for anti-government actions, possession of a firearm, and joining a terrorist organization when he was as young as 10. The killing of children is viewed internationally as particularly barbarous.

no problem with that

On his first trip abroad as president, Mr. Trump's first stop was not the U.K., not a European ally, but Saudi Arabia. The kingdom knew how to win his fealty. He was greeted with grandeur — a review of troops, a ceremonial sword dance, giant photos beamed on the sides of hotels at night. He came away with a $110 billion deal, so he said, for the purchase of American armament.

But the alleged sales seem to exist only as unenforceable letters of intent. Next to Iran, the president's priority is money, which supersedes any consideration of assassinations and human rights violations. Trump constantly speaks of $450 billion of Saudi spending in the United States, but there's no trace. Exports in 2018 were about $22.3 billion with about the same in 2017, says the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

It is inconceivable that Crown Prince bin Salman — dubbed MBS — did not order the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, given his control over the state security apparatus. No one would have dared organize such an operation on his own, which at the least, required use of government planes. Yet President Trump took the word of Saudi King Salman, MBS's father, who personally made to him a "flat denial" of any government involvement. "It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers", Trump said.

Evidence piled up. MBS and al-Qahtani had exchanged 11 texts during the time of the murder. "We could possibly lure him outside Saudi Arabia and make arrangements," the crown prince had told associates in August of 2017. MBS was even warned by al-Qahtani that going after a journalist abroad risked a backlash, but the prince reportedly responded that the national interest of Saudi Arabia dwarfed the risk of a little bad publicity.

So this is who the U.S. is "steadfast" in keeping as an ally. Indeed, just after release of a detailed report from a United Nations investigation this past June containing this evidence, Donald Trump saw fit to ask bin Salman to breakfast while at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan. It was a signal sent to despots around the world that those in the media — Trump's "enemy of the people" — could be assassinated free of repercussion from the United States. On "Meet the Press" at about the same time, Trump said about a phone conversation with bin Salman that the subject "didn't really come up." Assassinations came with the territory, Trump explained, because the Middle East is a "vicious, hostile place". But about Saudi Arabia,

"I only say they spend $400 to $450 billion over a period of time, all money, all jobs, buying equipment. I'm not like a fool that says, 'We don't want to do business with them'. And, by the way, if they don't do business with us, you know what they do? They'll do business with the Russians or the Chinese."

It was a statement that said America no longer has any of the principles that made the country so admired, but even his rationales were specious: sales that don't exist, and the Saudis turning to other countries for weaponry incompatible with what they already have such as their 300 fighter jets from the U.S. and Europe.

all in the family

The Saudis saw in Jared Kushner the path to win the favor of President Trump, who showed great deference to him while disparaging his own sons. The Saudis offered help that Kushner believed was essential with the Palestinians if his grand ambition of forging a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian impasse was to be realized. Contact was made with the crown prince soon after he came to power. The two became fast friends, exchanging evaporating WhatsApp messages outside the purview of the State Department — Kushner then having no security clearance — and drawing concern that the prince might be playing him. Prior due diligence had shown to the Saudis his ignorance of the region other than Israel and MBS reportedly claimed he had the president's son-in-law "in his pocket". Indeed, even after the Khashoggi murder, Kushner persuaded the president to continue support of the prince.

Kushner has reasons for being friendly with the regime. The House Oversight Committee discovered that, overlapping into the early months of Trump's presidency, top officials, including his first National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, had been hatching a plan to build nuclear power plants throughout Saudi Arabia that would enrich Trump friends, chiefly Thomas Barrack, a billionaire businessman with ties to the Middle East who had served as chairman of Trump's inaugural committee. Winning the presidency meant everyone cashing in. The project would be undertaken by Brookfield Asset Management, a company that owns Westinghouse Electric, which makes nuclear reactors and in the past built any number of nuclear plants in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Kushner family real estate business was in serious trouble of default on loans taken to pay far too much for a past-its-prime office building at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York. Along came none other than Brookfield Asset Management to take the building off their hands. Was there a quid pro quo? Was Kushner expected to sell the deal to bin Salman? Was he to persuade the president to sign off? Drafts were even prepared for Trump's signature. All was vigorously opposed by White House lawyers and those concerned for nuclear proliferation, but those in the president's inner circle continued to pursue it even after Flynn's replacement as NSA, Gen. H. R. McMaster, ordered it shut down.

Would Trump have signed? When campaigning, he had said on Fox News that maybe countries would be better off defending themselves if they had nuclear weapons. Following up on that on CNN, Anderson Cooper, asking which countries, said, "Saudi Arabia, nuclear weapons?". Trump replied, "Saudi Arabia, absolutely, it’s going to happen, anyway".

By the way, these would be civilian power plants, but the Saudis insisted that the deal provide for producing their own nuclear fuel, which is the gateway for nuclear weapons.

why isn't this collusion?

In an April bipartisan vote, Congress rebelled over the civilian death toll in Yemen from the Saudis' indiscriminate bombing and their inhuman blockade of food and medicine imports. The members invoked the War Powers Act of 1973 in defiance of Trump to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch was reporting “about 90 apparently unlawful attacks” in Yemen since 2015 by the Saudi coalition with the United Arab Emirates “that have hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools and mosques”.

The president vetoed the resolution and in May invoked an emergency provision of the Arms Export Control Act to fast track clearance for American companies to sell $8.1 billion of arms to the Saudis, the UAE, and Jordan. Part of the deal provides for Raytheon to ship 120,000 precision-guided "Paveway" bombs to the coalition. Worse than the sales, the deal allows Raytheon Company, a major American weapons manufacturer, to co-venture with Saudis to build the control systems and electronic circuitry for American-designed precision guided bombs. Thus is Trump leaking closely-guarded technology to a country about which Rand Paul, Republican Senator from Kentucky, said, "Few nations should be trusted less than Saudi Arabia".

Not only was the Senate incensed that Trump had done nothing to condemn bin Salman for the grisly murder, but Trump had now sidestepped Congress with a phony emergency claim.

In July, a bipartisan alliance saw senators such as New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez band with South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who normally endorses Trump's every action, to introduce a flurry of measures disapproving the deal, backed by a public that polled 58% against and only 13% for the arms shipments. No matter. The president vetoed again.

with friends like these…

In fairness, deference to Saudi Arabia did not begin with Donald Trump. Its gone on and on.

The U.S. sent some 400,000 troops to counter what George H. W. Bush repeatedly called the "naked aggression" of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. That was not at all our mission. Our troops were sent to fight for oil. It was Oil War I. The fear was that Hussein would move what was, at the time, the fourth largest army in the world down the road into Saudi Arabia, giving him control of the largest reserves in the world.

Ten years later came 9/11. Saudi Arabia is the seat of Islam and its holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, with thousands making a pilgrimage to Mecca every year and Muslims everywhere aiming their prostrated bodies at Mecca in prayer five times a day.

The royal family decades ago arranged with the powerful clergy that it could remain in power undisturbed in return for funding madrasas (schools) around the world that were free to preach an extreme form of Islam named Wahhabism. It was this element that was behind the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the attack on the Pentagon, and the attack that failed when heroic passengers went to their deaths to bring flight 93 down in a Pennsylvania field. Osama bin Laden and fifteen of the 19 terrorists were Saudis and followers of Wahhabism. This is our ally, the country that funded the hatred of the West that led to 9/11. A hatred preached in their mosques that has cost America thousands of lives and some $2 trillion combating Islamic terrorism, from al Qaeda to ISIS. And yet we go on thinking of Saudi Arabia as an ally.

here's your deep state

Just two days after 9/11, Bush family friend Prince Bandar bin Sultan visited the White House where he and George W. Bush smoked cigars
Bush with Prince Bandar bin Sultan

on the Truman Balcony. An arrangement was made for 160 Saudi officials and bin Laden family members to fly out of the United States on chartered aircraft, not only without FBI questioning but some with FBI escorts to airports. You see, the Saudis had invested heavily in George Bush Sr.'s Texas oil ventures.

Bush Jr. would then classify 28 pages of a congressional report on 9/11 that sit in the basement of Congress where they can be read by Congress members, but they are forbidden to reveal what the pages say.

They likely have to do with a suspected Saudi government intelligence agent based in San Diego, known to have met there with two of the hijackers, and who was in receipt of $3,000 a month from the checkbook of no less than Bandar's wife, money that it is believed was funneled to the hijackers to cover their costs.

So, we ask, why is it again that Saudi Arabia should be considered an ally?

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