11 March 2004

US-Saudi politics far weirder than suspected

Let's all join hands with Teresa Neilsen Hayden and say it: I deeply resent the way this administration makes me feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist.

Atrios observes that ''it was one of the oddest 'conspiracy theories' -- that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, while the American airspace was still closed to most air traffic, the Bush administration allowed a bunch of members of the Bin Laden family and other Saudi royals to fly around the country and then leave.'' Craig Unger fleshes out the story in an excerpt from his forthcoming book House of Bush, House of Saud on Salon, and it makes a John le Carre novel sound as clear in narrative and morality as an episode of Powerpuff Girls.

I really can't capture the story of the bin Ladens flying out of the US on 9/11 in a quote. It is weird, scary, and tangled. Go read it if you want to know.

On the other hand, I do want to give you Unger's amazing summary of the House of Saud as the fulcrum on which the bizarre relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US turns.

The House of Saud had somehow maintained control of Saudi Arabia and the world's richest oil reserves by performing a seemingly untenable balancing act with two parties who had vowed to destroy each other.

On the one hand, the House of Saud was an Islamic theocracy whose power grew out of the royal family's alliance with Wahhabi fundamentalism, a strident and puritanical Islamic sect that provided a fertile breeding ground for a global network of terrorists urging a violent jihad against the United States.

On the other hand, the House of Saud's most important ally was the Great Satan itself, the United States. Even a cursory examination of the relationship revealed astonishing contradictions: America, the beacon of democracy, was to arm and protect a brutal theocratic monarchy. The United States, sworn defender of Israel, was also the guarantor of security to the guardians of Wahhabi Islam, the fundamentalist religious sect that was one of Israel's and America's mortal enemies.

Astoundingly, this fragile relationship had not only endured but in many ways had been spectacularly successful. In the nearly three decades since the oil embargo of 1973, the United States had bought hundreds of billions of dollars of oil at reasonable prices. During that same period, the Saudis had purchased hundreds of billions of dollars of weapons from the U.S. The Saudis had supported the U.S. on regional security matters in Iran and Iraq and refrained from playing an aggressive role against Israel. Members of the Saudi royal family, including Bandar, became billionaires many times over, in the process quietly turning into some of the most powerful players in the American market, investing hundreds of billions of dollars in equities in the United States. And the price of oil, the eternal bellwether of economic, political and cultural anxiety in America, had remained low enough that enormous gas-guzzling SUVs had become ubiquitous on U.S. highways. During the Reagan and Clinton eras the economy boomed.

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