Oil, money, politics and evil: Our leading Middle East ally is the worst country imaginable

America's BFF relationship with the corrupt, vicious and oil-rich Saudi despots might be our worst mistake of all

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 9, 2016 5:00PM (EST)

Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Saudi Arabia'a Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud at the State Department in Washington, on April 12, 2012.    (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Saudi Arabia'a Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud at the State Department in Washington, on April 12, 2012. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

American foreign policy is full of things we can’t see and things we don’t talk about. The drone war of the Obama years; the “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation” of the George W. Bush years. Nixon and Kissinger’s secret bombing campaign in Cambodia. The overthrow of democratic governments we didn’t like: Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961, Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. Once you get started with this stuff it’s hard to stop, and pretty soon your friends are giving you that look, like they’re wondering at what point you’ll start talking about your stormy personal relationship with Richard Helms, or the microchips implanted in your dental work.

But even by those standards, the case of Saudi Arabia is special. We love Saudi Arabia so much! The Bush family loves Saudi Arabia; the Clinton family loves Saudi Arabia. You and I are frequently told that we love Saudi Arabia, even if we aren’t exactly sure why. We write mash notes in Saudi Arabia’s yearbook, in pink Magic Marker with lots of hearts: BE-HEDDING ALL THOSE PPL! U R SO SEXY!!! We have never overthrown a democratic government in Saudi Arabia. It would admittedly be difficult to do so, since Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that has never had a democratic government and never will. Our tax dollars and Saudi oil dollars flow back and forth between Washington and Riyadh in a bewildering matrix understood by no one, ending up along the way in the handbags of hookers in Vegas and the tip baskets of croupiers in Macau.

It’s kind of a crazy, stupid love. No, I mean that. It’s diagnosably insane and unbelievably stupid, verging on suicidal. Saudi Arabia is damn near the worst place in the world when it comes to all those human rights and civil liberties America supposedly cares about so deeply. (Actually, it seems like the worst place in the world in general, but that’s a broad and highly subjective claim.) Women are effectively the property of their fathers, husbands or brothers. Homosexuality does not officially exist, and is punishable by death. Internal dissidents and critics of the monarchy have been convicted on such charges as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “contact with foreign news organizations to exaggerate the news.”

Last week’s execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a leading Shiite cleric, along with dozens of other people, made worldwide news because it further inflamed Saudi Arabia’s not-so-cold war with the Shiite rulers of Iran, which is playing out on the ground in Yemen with devastating civilian consequences. But that kind of dubious judicial proceeding and brutal punishment is far more the Saudi rule than the exception. All non-Islamic religious practice is forbidden, and that fatwa is frequently used to persecute or suppress Shiites, Ismailis and other Muslim minority sects. “The Saudis have beheaded at least as many people as ISIS has,” says Jennifer Loewenstein, a journalist, activist and scholar who has followed the Saudi-American relationship for many years. “But people don’t know anything about it. It doesn’t make the news.”

All of that is bad. It’s really bad, almost inexplicably bad. When right-wingers, or their hard-headed "liberal" pals like Bill Maher, get worked up about the dangers of Islam and the creeping threat of Sharia law, they often start talking about Muslim-ruled countries where women are not allowed to drive. Well, there is exactly one country that fits that description, and it’s not Iran or Pakistan or Indonesia or any of the other majority-Muslim nations in the world. Not to sugarcoat Iran’s internal problems or its erratic international behavior, but compared to Saudi Arabia it’s pretty much the East Village in 1983. Women drive and hold public office and work outside the home; if you held a gun to my head and told me my daughter had to grow up in one of those two places, it wouldn’t even be a close call.

Then we get to the deeper, Alice in Wonderland levels of hypocrisy and absurdity. Since we’re talking about the Iranians, who are constantly described in the American media as crazy-town Muslim zealots: Whose side are they on when it comes to ISIS? (And if we asked 100 American voters that question at random, how many of them would get it right?) Neither the mullahs in Tehran nor the politicians in Washington are eager to talk about this, but Iran and the United States find themselves in a strategic and military alliance at the moment, in which at least some cooperation is clearly happening behind the scenes. But wait, you say: The Saudis, our beloved allies, well and truly hate the Iranians. So whose side are they on? Fascinating question, young Jedi. How many zeroes do I need to write on this check before you forget you asked it?

Clear across the political spectrum, our politicians whimper and moan about the threat of Islamic terrorism — which kills fewer people in the United States than bathtub falls or malfunctioning appliances — even as they insist that the world’s principal supporter and exporter of the most extreme and fanatical varieties of Islam is our BFF and bedrock ally in the Middle East. Wahhabism, the most puritanical and fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam, is the official state doctrine of Saudi Arabia. How much Wahhabi theology directly fed into the rise of anti-Western Islamist radicalism and associated terrorist groups is a hotly contested question. You certainly can't say that all or most Wahhabists support al-Qaida or ISIS. A central premise of the Saudi state is that extremist views can be confined to the mosque, while all attempts to act them out in the political zone will be crushed without mercy.

But there is no doubt that Islamist intellectual pioneer Sayyid Qutb and the founders of al-Qaida and the leadership of ISIS all considered themselves to be following the Wahhabist and/or Salafist tradition, which has found its fullest expression in Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, and 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Saudi citizens. Anomalies, you say? A handful of disgruntled outsiders in a stable, pro-Western society? Mm-hm, OK. You go right on thinking that, darlings.

According to Ali al-Ahmed, a dissident Saudi exile who now runs the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, there have been thousands of Saudi fighters and suicide attackers among the al-Qaida and ISIS forces in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. “Those thousands of people were the products of whom?” al-Ahmed asks. “Of Iran? No. They are the products of the Saudi system,” which tacitly encourages or tolerates Sunni militants, he says, as long as they do not carry out attacks within the kingdom. Al-Ahmed has written extensively about the virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Christian rhetoric found in the textbooks provided to every Saudi-educated child.

As a leading U.S. official wrote in an internal memo a few years ago, “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Let’s see – who was that? Well, my goodness: It was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose personal, political and nongovernmental affairs are so thickly encrusted with Saudi money it’s a wonder she can see out the windows. (That passage comes from an intergovernmental cable sent to the Treasury Department, which was later retrieved and released by Wikileaks.) So whatever else we might want to say about Clinton and the Saudis, we can’t accuse her of being naïve or ignorant.

One of the most important, and most widely ignored, pieces of investigative journalism to emerge from the 2016 campaign so far is this Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff, who documents the troubling web of connections between the Clintons and the Saudi government (which is of course identical with the Saudi royal family). The House of Saud have been among the biggest donors to the Clinton Foundation, Isikoff reported, contributing somewhere between $10 million and $25 million. Bill Clinton has made several lucrative trips to Saudi Arabia, and was paid $600,000 for two talks he gave there while his wife was secretary of state.

Faced with what could fairly be described as significant P.R. challenges, the Saudi government recently hired a high-powered Washington lobbying firm called the Podesta Group to represent its interests in the U.S. That firm is owned by Tony Podesta, a longtime Democratic Party operative and fundraiser who, as of the Sept. 30 Federal Election Commission filing, had “bundled” more than $140,000 for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Tony’s brother and former partner in the lobbying firm, John Podesta, has served as Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff and Barack Obama’s presidential counselor. He is now the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

Is there a smoking gun in Isikoff’s reporting? Some documentary evidence to indicate that the Clintons or Obama or anyone else has done the Saudi royal family’s bidding despite knowing what they clearly know about the nature of the Saudi state? It depends what level of smoke you’re looking for, but I guess not. Isikoff includes the requisite denials and reassurances from all parties: Heavens no, says Tony Podesta; my work as a shill for the world's worst government is completely unconnected to my political fundraising. “Human rights” and “core principles” are super-important, says a flack for the Clinton campaign (in an email). The money trail doesn’t look great, I would submit, but go ahead and believe whatever you want about Clinton’s personal integrity and how it’s not for sale at any price.

Anyway, Hillary Clinton is not the point. She happened to be standing there this week, pinned on the horns of a minor but unappetizing dilemma: She had to make disapproving noises about the Saudi regime after the execution of Sheikh Nimr, a prominent critic of the Saudi monarchy and the leader of a religious minority who had specifically disavowed violence. Then she had to look grave for a few seconds, until the media and the public lost interest and it was back to business as usual. That business is the symbiotic relationship between American policy-makers and politicians of both parties and Saudi oil, money and power, which goes back many decades and is rarely discussed in public.

“I go back and forth on this in my own mind,” says Loewenstein, “but I think Saudi Arabia is more important to the Americans than Israel. Not just because of oil, although that's a big part of it. But because Saudi Arabia is the dominant, ascendant power among Arab states.” America has been closely allied with the Saudi monarchy since it was established in the 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. First the Saudi regime was indispensable for economic reasons, Loewenstein says, once it became clear that America’s domestic oil supply was drying up. Then the Saudis became important for political and strategic reasons, after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Access and control to Saudi Arabia’s bottomless petroleum reserves, and the freedom to use the kingdom as the center of American military power in the Middle East, trumped all considerations of human rights, democracy and ideology.

Saudi Arabia was also an important piece on the Cold War chessboard. “Anyone who was willing to side with the United States against the Soviet Union was welcome,” al-Ahmed says, irrespective of how they handled their internal affairs. “In order to secure their own power, the Saudis found it useful to join the ‘regressive’ camp in the Arab world,” says al-Ahmed, in opposition the pan-Arab nationalism and modernism of leaders like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who tilted toward the Soviets.

“The Saudi monarchy has been a very stable regime, at least until recently,” says Loewenstein. “A horrible regime, but a stable one.” As we have moved from the Cold War and the energy crisis to the endless War on Terror, American policy-makers have valued stability over pretty much everything else. Whether America's steadfast loyalty to the rulers of the desert kingdom has actually produced stability in the Arab world or the Middle East is another matter. “The Saudis were a religious, fundamentalist nation right from the start,” Loewenstein says. “We always liked that. Or at least we used to like it, because it meant they weren’t going to go Communist.”

As al-Ahmed sees it, Saudi money has become a constant ingredient in American politics over the last few decades. If half his stories about the devious mechanisms by which Saudi cash has entered American pockets are true, the Clinton story is the tip of the iceberg. “I’ve lived here long enough to know that the American political system runs on money,” he jokes. “As we say here in America, there is no free lunch. It isn’t that hard to figure out, and the Saudis figured out that they could buy decisions.”

Rebel maverick troll Donald Trump is now overtly running against Hillary Clinton rather than his Republican opponents, and presumably does not need Saudi oil money. Does that mean he is willing to buck the trend on this question, and cut through the Gordian knot that ties us to the worst country in the world? Not exactly. Trump wants a seat on the Saudi gravy train along with everybody else. But give him credit for being too clueless, or too unschooled in the language of politics, to lie about the nature of the transaction.

Trump was asked on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" this week how he would play the worsening standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia. “I would back Saudi Arabia, but you know what? We're a debtor nation. They've got nothing but money," the Donald told Mika Brzezinski and her co-host, noted Saudi shill Joe Scarborough. “I wouldn't back them for nothing. I would say: You’ve got to pay. We’re going to help you. You gotta pay. You gotta pay.”

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By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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