Sunday, March 30, 2014

The US is paying the cost of supporting the House of Saud as cracks begin to appear

    Sunday, March 30, 2014   No comments

PATRICK COCKBURN
President Obama flew to Saudi Arabia to patch up relations with King Abdullah at the end of last week in his first visit in five years. The alliance had been strained by Saudi anger over US negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme and Obama’s refusal to go to war in Syria to overthrow Bashar al-Assad last year. For its part, the US is upset by Saudi Arabia covertly supporting al-Qa’ida-type movements in Syria and elsewhere.

The US-Saudi relationship is a peculiar one in that it is between a reactionary theocratic monarchy – it is the only place in the world where women are not allowed to drive – and a republic that claims to be the chief exponent of secular democracy. The linkage is so solid that it was scarcely affected by 9/11, though al-Qa’ida and the hijackers had demonstrably close connections to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis want to persuade the US to make a greater effort to overthrow Assad in Syria. Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz told the Arab League in Kuwait last week that “the legitimate Syrian resistance has been betrayed by the international community and left easy prey to tyrant forces”. This is a bit rich, coming from the potential ruler of a state in which every expression of dissent is being crushed, and the number of political prisoners could be as high as 30,000. Minor criticism of the state on Twitter is enough for Saudis to be called in by the security services.

On 3 February, King Abdullah promulgated a decree that made Saudi jihadis fighting abroad liable to 20 years in prison on their return. The idea is to choke off the supply of Saudi recruits volunteering to fight in Syria, said to number 2,500 at present. Previously, Saudis were able to reach Syria with ease, a sign that the government was turning a blind eye, but now it is saying it will jail them if they come back.

The U-turn may not work: fighting in Syria has popular support in Saudi Arabia; Wahhabism, a puritanical and intolerant variant of Islam, is the ideology of the Saudi state which regards Shia and Sufi Muslims as heretics little different from Christians and Jews. Having stoked hostility to Iran and Shia Islam for so long, the government may not find it easy to demonise and punish Saudis who fought against them.

The criminalisation of the jihadis is designed in part to persuade the Americans that Saudi Arabia is not encouraging Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), both al-Qa’ida-type groups, to take over northern Syria and western Iraq. On the contrary, the Saudis say they want to fund and supply a third military force in Syria that will fight both President Assad and the anti-Assad jihadi forces.


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