Washington mourns a monarch

Eric Ruder points out the double standards and rank hypocrisy in the U.S. political establishment's response to the death of the dictatorial king of Saudi Arabia.

President Obama with Saudi King Abdullah (U.S. Embassy Riyadh)President Obama with Saudi King Abdullah (U.S. Embassy Riyadh)

THE DEATH of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on January 22 prompted a delegation of 27 leading American political figures, led by President Barack Obama, to descend on Riyadh to pay their respects to the 90-year-old autocrat.

Participating in the delegation were Secretary of State John Kerry; Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan; Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; former Secretaries of State James Baker and Condoleezza Rice; former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft, Stephen Hadley and Samuel Berger; and Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command in the Middle East.

"I always valued King Abdullah's perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship," said Obama in a statement. "As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions."

The rapid dispatch of American political luminaries prompted pundits to remark on the contrast with the Obama administration's failure to send even one high-profile representative to the massive march in Paris after the massacre of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and journalists.

Obama's Riyadh excursion also curtailed his visit to India, where he concluded his tour with a speech lecturing Indian officials about the need for greater religious tolerance and more enlightened treatment of women. Both apply all the more so to the House of Saud. But Obama pointedly did not raise these issues during his time in Saudi Arabia--not a word about regime's beheadings for drug possession, adultery or sorcery; amputations of hands or feet for theft; floggings of bloggers critical of the regime; or denying women the right to drive or to marry, obtain a passport, open a bank account or attend university without the approval of her husband or a male relative or guardian.

Instead, John Kerry called King Abdullah "a man of wisdom and vision" and a "revered leader." Former British Prime Minister and partner-in-U.S.-war-crimes Tony Blair referred to the king as a "modernizer of his country" and a "staunch advocate of interfaith relations."

The excuse for such obsequiousness is as simple as three letters of the alphabet--O-I-L--combined with Washington's eagerness for a smooth transition to King Salman, Saudi Arabia's new head of state, who is expected to pursue the same policies as his predecessor in all crucial respects.

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KING ABDULLAH burnished his reputation as a "reformer" with a few measures intended to generate goodwill among the Saudi masses--for example, spending "$130 billion to build 500,000 units of low-income housing, to bolster the salaries of government employees and to ensure the loyalty of religious organizations," according to the New York Times.

But more fundamental to King Abdullah's legacy was his total hostility to anything that smacked of the genuine participation of peoples of the Middle East in decisions about their lives--as well as his coddling of Islamic fundamentalist clerics who provided (and still provide) whatever legitimacy the regime can claim.

While the Arab world was electrified by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings in 2011 that ousted hated U.S.-backed dictators, King Abdullah condemned Washington's rhetorical embrace of democracy in the Middle East, understanding such calls for popular participation as a threat to his own monarchical rule.

King Abdullah drew on the authority of the grand mufti, the kingdom's highest religious figure, to ban street protests and send tanks and troops (with U.S. blessing) to crush an uprising in Bahrain in March 2011 that threatened the king's rule in the neighboring monarchy.

In 2013, Saudi Arabia sent a $5 billion aid package to Egypt to shore up the counterrevolutionary regime of Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood is bitterly opposed by the Saudi regime.

To be sure, a number of disagreements between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in recent years have blemished their decades-long relationship--during which the U.S. military has served as guarantor of Saudi Arabia's security in return for privileged access to the kingdom's oil reserves.

In addition to Saudi anger at what it considered America's abandonment of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt during his time of need, the kingdom's grievances include Obama's unwillingness to supply arms to the rebels seeking to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who is hated by Saudi officials for his close alliance with Iran's Shia regime.

But the setbacks for Arab revolutionaries from Egypt to Tunisia to Syria and the tightening grip of sectarian conflict across the region after years of devastating U.S. intervention in Iraq and Yemen have allowed the Saudi regime to revel in their successes--at least for the moment. According to a New York Times article entitled "Saudis Expand Regional Power as Others Falter":

The rulers of Saudi Arabia trembled when the Arab Spring revolts broke out four years ago. But far from undermining the Saudi dynasty, the ensuing chaos across the region appears instead to have lifted the monarchy to unrivaled power and influence. As a new king assumes the throne in Riyadh, the stability-first authoritarianism that the Saudis have long favored is resurgent from Tunis to Cairo to Manama. The election-minded Islamists that the Saudis once feared are on the run...

The catch, analysts and diplomats say, is that the ascendance of the Saudis is largely a byproduct of the feebleness or near-collapse of so many of the states around them, including Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Tunisia. And the perseverance of the old order is largely dependent on a steady flow of Saudi resources, so their influence may be costly.

The Saudis are propping up the Kingdom of Bahrain, and are fighting alongside the United States to support the government in Baghdad. Billions of dollars from Saudi coffers are sustaining friendly governments in Egypt and Jordan. Saudi-backed militias are fighting in Libya, and Saudi-owned news media provide critical support for the monarchy's favored factions in Tunisia and elsewhere.

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BUT JUST as the U.S. has had to deal with the unintended consequences of its decades of bloody military adventures in the region, so Saudi Arabia now finds itself reacting to events it once thought itself able to manage.

Last year, for example, Saudi Arabia cut $4 billion in aid to the Yemeni regime because of the growing influence of Houthis, who belong to a religious sect with close ties to Iran's Shia. Now, Yemen is on the verge of total collapse, riven by antagonism between a rapidly spreading Houthi uprising in the north and the al-Qaeda dominated south.

Saudi Arabia thus continues to grow in its role as a bulwark against Iranian influence in the region--but at the same time, the U.S. is growing increasingly reliant on that same influence to help stabilize Iraq and pursue the war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

And with oil prices still falling, Saudi Arabia's options for managing its affairs--both domestic and foreign--are increasingly constrained. For decades, but especially in recent years, when the price of oil peaked around $140 a barrel, the kingdom had been able to call on what seemed like an inexhaustible supply of cash to deal with its problems.

But with oil now selling at less than $50 a barrel, the regime has to tap into its multibillion-dollar foreign currency reserves to cover over fiscal gaps as a result of dramatically diminished revenues. Most analysts think that the kingdom's $230 billion budget for 2015 won't break even unless oil hits $90 per barrel, which seems unlikely in the next year or two.

For now, Saudi Arabia can dip into its treasure chest to finance current spending on social programs in the hopes of undercutting demands for change that have shaken other Arab nations, as well as to bolster regimes that share Saudi opposition to democracy and to Iran. But the longer the price of oil stays low, the more challenging it becomes to continue buying social peace at home and willing collaborators abroad.

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ON THE surface, it may appear that U.S. foreign policy is hopelessly disoriented, trapped in a crisscrossing web of regional players. The Obama administration is pursuing alliances with the opposing poles of regional influence represented by Saudi Arabia and Iran, even as the commitments and contradictions it is drawn into threaten its relations with each.

But U.S. officials are keeping their eyes on the same prize that impressed their predecessors from the 1940s on: Saudi Arabia's massive oil reserves. To give just one way of reckoning how vast a fortune this represents, ARAMCO, Saudi Arabia's state-owned oil corporation, is valued at more than $1 trillion, with total assets between $15 trillion and $25 trillion. By comparison, total U.S. economic output in 2014 was $17.5 trillion.

This is at the root of U.S. hypocrisy regarding Islamic fundamentalism--which the U.S. backed when it suited its interests (especially during the Cold War) declared war against when it didn't, and sometimes both at once. In recent years, the U.S. backed Shia death squads connected to the Iraqi regime while imposing sanctions on Iran's Shia regime. The U.S. has locked arms with Saudi Arabia's Wahhabist rulers while waging war against militant Sunni Islamists elsewhere.

As a fitting illustration of such flexibility, consider this: The American oilmen who managed ARAMCO (its phased nationalization was completed in 1980) chose a Koranic verse to inscribe on a gold key given to King Abd al-Azis Ibn Saud to commemorate his 1947 visit to his country's new oil field to the east: "The mercy that God openeth for mankind none can withhold."

This has continued to be the guiding principle for American policy ever since--so long as "God's mercy" flows to U.S. imperialism and the Saudi royal family.