Oil, Arms and Militant Wahhabism is the Basis of US-Saudi Relationship (1/2)
Medea Benjamin and Paul Jay examine how 115 billion dollars in recent US arms sales and a dictatorship that helps dominate the oil rich region is the reason for the lasting “friendship”
PAUL JAY: Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
The US-Saudi relationship is a fundamental one for US geopolitical strategy, particularly their control of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Iran. I say Iran, because it used to be, were the pillars of American support and American strategy for controlling the oil in the Middle East and the markets and politics thereof.
Of course, the Iranian pillar fell, and more and more emerged as critical, was the Saudi alliance. This began at the end of the Second World War in terms of importance of its geopolitical alliance, and this is going to be the topic of a series of conversations that we’re going to have with Medea Benjamin, who now joins us in the studio. Thanks for joining us.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Nice to be with you, Paul.
PAUL JAY: Medea, as Co-Founder of the peace group Code Pink, and the human rights organization Global Exchange, she’s been organizing against US military interventions, promoting the rights of Palestinians and calling for no war on Iran. She’s the author of the book “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control,” and her latest is “Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection”.
Before we get into some of the current issues with Saudi Arabia, let’s just go quickly into the importance of this relationship and how it began. I guess it partly begins with US oil interests pre-World War II, finding oil and the importance, as they start to understand the size of the oil deposits. But maybe pick up the story somewhere… what about this meeting where Roosevelt meets Ibn Saud and charts… in my mind always, that’s where the beginning of this strategic relationship really moves into gear.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, yes, I think it’s with the discovery of oil in the 1930s and, you know, Saudi Arabia was created as a nation in 1932. You already have US oil companies coming in to make the first discoveries — the first concession turned out to be the company now called Chevron — and so, yes, the US companies were involved in Saudi Arabia from the 1930s, but in 1945, at the time of World War II, is this famous meeting between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Saudi King Faisal at that time, where they met, and FDR basically said, “We want to make sure that your kingdom is strong, and as long as you keep selling us the oil and allow US companies to be involved in the production, we will make sure that your kingdom stays strong and we will provide your security.” So, that deal of oil for security is something that has survived Democratic and Republican administrations — in fact, 12 administrations.
PAUL JAY: I think that meeting took place in Great Bitter Lake. I don’t think they realized at the time just how bitter the fruit of this meeting would be.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Definitely, and the US basically said it would ignore how Saudis were ruling internally, and we see the results of that, and then, of course, how Saudi is acting in the world, and the US giving guarantees all along that we would remain their allies. So, yes, this 1945 meeting had a lot of implications that we’re still feeling today.
PAUL JAY: From a relatively backward, economically-speaking, country, relatively small economy, Saudi Arabia has become a powerhouse because of the fossil fuel income. If I understand it from your book and otherwise correctly, they’re the third-largest military budget in the world and the biggest customer of US arms, is that right?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: By far the biggest customer of US arms per capita. They spend way more on the military than any other country in the world. And it’s amazing to see just under the Obama Administration, how much money has been involved in these weapons deals. According to the White House itself, $115 billion worth of deals, that’s come in 42 different packages. In fact, 43, because there is a recent one that’s come out, that have armed the Saudis to the teeth with incredibly high-tech US weapons. And the Saudis, I would say, are really propping up the US military industrial complex at this time, not only for the United States, they’re the number one weapons producer… purchasers, from the UK, from Canada, and from other Western countries.
So, it’s quite ironic that this regime — and I hope we’ll talk more about how repressive they are, and how much they are responsible for the spread of extremism — but they are being armed by the Western democracies.
PAUL JAY: This role of being the gendarmes of the Middle East, together with Israel for the US, and particularly this role of using extremism and terrorism as a tactic as part of their politics, but the role of being the leader voice of Islam as a part of US foreign policy, if I understand it correctly, actually goes back as far as Eisenhower, who directly said that because of the role of the Saudi King as being the defender of Mecca, the Saudis could be promoted as being the voice and defenders of Islam throughout the whole region, and that becomes a tool — and I believe that there’s a direct quote from Eisenhower, where he talks about the Saudis being an ally of the US fight against Nasserism, which meant Arab Nationalism, against nationalism and against socialism and communism.
So, from the very roots of this alliance, it’s to use militant Wahhabism as a political tool.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, that’s right. A political tool against countries that wanted to be independent and wanted to nationalize their own oil industries and wanted a foreign policy that was non-aligned. The US has used the fact that Saudi Arabia geographically is where Mecca and Medina are, the center of the holiest lands for Islam, as well as sitting on this massive oil reserve. They have used it in a way that has had these incredible repercussions that we’re seeing today, with the Saudi involvement in spreading their version of Islam, which goes back to the founding of the Saudi State, with the pact that was made between Imam Muhammad Wahhab back in the 1700s and the Saudi family.
My Muslim friends ask me not to call it a version of Islam. They say, please call it a perversion of Islam because it is this fundamentalist, intolerant ideology that the Saudis, thanks to the protection of the United States and thanks to the massive amount of oil money, have been able to spread to places far and wide.
PAUL JAY: And speaking of far and wide, in the most deliberate, calculated way, Afghanistan, where beginning under Carter and then greatly expanded under Reagan, the CIA worked hand-in-glove with the Saudis to actually crush the more indigenous religion in Afghanistan, which was sort of a pagan kind of Muslim Islam, where they barely read the Koran, because the Koran was in Arabic and most people didn’t speak Arabic, and they had music and song and poetry, and then the Saudis together with the Pakistanis crushed the indigenous Afghan culture, really, in order to pursue the American fight with the Soviet Union.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Right. And what came out of the creation of the mujahedeen is al-Qaeda, and it’s very interesting to bring that forward to today. There was quite a good exposé that came out in the New York Times recently about the Saudis continuing to fund the Taliban. I don’t think Americans have the slightest idea, that here the US is still caught up in the longest war the US has ever been in in Afghanistan where there are still US soldiers being killed there, and the Taliban are being funded by the Saudis, by our allies.
PAUL JAY: It’s kind of ironic that you can have the same government that would make it illegal for an American citizen to be associated with the Taliban, that the army could put you in jail for being just accused of being associated with, yet the great ally, Saudi Arabia, is directly funding them and they continue to be the great… well, because they’re the great ally of the great arms purchases.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Right. And so, the US-Saudi alliance to overthrow the Saudis in Afghanistan has led to this 15-year-plus war right now that continues to go on, and where is the questioning about the Saudi funding of the Taliban?
PAUL JAY: Now, Fidel Castro died recently — I’m not sure we’re going to have time in this session to talk about it. I hope we do. But we will if we can — but the microscope on what are called human rights violations in Cuba, and I’m sure there were some, compared to what goes on in Saudi Arabia, where there’s not a microscope looking at human rights violations, there’s a complete blindfold. Talk a bit about domestic repression in Saudi Arabia and the way the US, officially and media, more or less just ignore it.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, and as myself, someone who lived in Cuba for four years, I know very much firsthand about the ability of the Cuban people to complain about their own country, because you’ve felt it every day if you live there, and any tourist that goes to Cuba will find people all the time complaining about their country. You go to Saudi Arabia and it’s a very different story. People who have a blog can be punished by a death sentence. In the case of Raif Badawi, commuted to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes–
PAUL JAY: Under enormous international pressure.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Under enormous… because they are one case that’s been taken up by the international community and there are so many other cases. So, there’s no right to assembly, there’s no freedom of speech, there’s no freedom of expression, there’s no political parties, there’s no unions. There’s no semblance of democracy or the rule of law. So, it is quite remarkable that this country that practices beheadings as a way to quash even peaceful dissent, is every year put on a US list as a country that does not tolerate religious expression unless you’re part of that Wahhabi-Sunni version…
PAUL JAY: I saw today, or yesterday, there were 10 people arrested for supposedly spying for Iran, I have no idea whether anyone was or wasn’t, but there’s a pattern of suppressing any Shi’a dissent, Shi’a is a significant minority in Saudi Arabia.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Right. About 10% of the population in the eastern part of the country, which is the oil-rich part of the country, is Shi’a. You would think they would be the wealthiest people in Saudi Arabia, except that they are discriminated against constantly, and when they rise up, even in peaceful demonstrations, they are brutally suppressed, and we have in the beginning of this year, the killing of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, who was a well-loved person in the Shi’a community and caused huge rifts when the Saudis killed them — huge rift with Iran over that, and the Shi’a community internationally.
But the point is, to say that tremendous human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. If you just look at my book, or any reports that are constantly coming out by the human rights community, Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive regimes, and yet the US government refuses to acknowledge this, to talk about it. US’s own laws say that we will look every year at which countries are the most intolerant when it comes to freedom of religion and sanction those countries.
That category — countries of concern — Saudi Arabia is in that category every single year, because it’s the only country in the world where you couldn’t have a non-Muslim place of worship. You couldn’t build a church. Until 2004, you couldn’t even enter the country if you were Jewish. And yet Saudi Arabia is not sanctioned like Burma is or like North Korea is, because they’re given an indefinite waiver by the State Department. So, you constantly see that…
PAUL JAY: Well, let me give you the counter-argument.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yeah.
PAUL JAY: And I’m trying to imagine what the counter-argument would be, and I assume it goes more or less that, US foreign policy, we have a history: we do bad things for good reasons. And the good reason for supporting this horrible regime, which everyone agrees is — I’m sure you couldn’t talk to almost anybody in the US State Department or Obama or anyone, or Donald Trump for that matter — who won’t say they do terrible things domestically, and repressive.
But the alternative is worse. That the alternatives will be jihadists, the alternative will be the crazies will take over, and it’s better working essentially with a pro-American dictatorship, is what it amounts to. They won’t use the words, but that is what it is. But it’s better that than the alternative.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, I think when you look at what the Saudi regime is responsible for, let’s start with 9/11 in the United States, let’s go on to the supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan…
PAUL JAY: Well, let’s just emphasize the 9/11. Let me turn to the camera here for one second.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, the 15 of the 19 hijackers being from Saudi Arabia, and the US public still being denied basic information about how high up in the chain the support from the Saudi government was.
PAUL JAY: Yeah. And let me just turn the camera for a second. We have done a lot of stories on the Saudi role in 9/11 and we’ll link here on the side, they’ll be over here, so we’re not going to get into it in detail, but in a word, I think that there is a case to be made that Prince Bandar, the Saudi investor, was directly involved, and we know more of that from the 28 pages from the Joint Congressional Report that had been redacted and then went public, and there’s all kinds of other evidence that points to, to use Senator Bob Graham’s words, funded and facilitated by the Saudi government, were the 9/11 attacks. But we won’t get into it more than that right now. Go ahead.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Except to say, that we hope Congress will not go back on its word of allowing the Saudis to be sued in US court, so that maybe we will get more information out of that.
But when you look at Saudis’ actions in the world, you can look at the funding of al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, in Syria, in Libya, even look at Boko Haram, you can see the Saudi money going there. So, Saudi influence around the world has been horrendous. If you say this is a good alliance, then you’re not looking at where all these extremist groups coming from? What is the ideology of ISIS? Where did that come from? Why did ISIS find it convenient to use Saudi textbooks in its territory? Because it’s the basic foundation of the ISIS ideology.
PAUL JAY: And at the very least, it seems ISIS was certainly involved in the early funding and development of ISIS, if maybe there was some falling out later, maybe.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, that’s right. We see even in 2014, cables coming out from the US government saying not what we were told, which is there might be some crazy clerics who can’t be controlled by the government who are supporting ISIS. No, saying it was the government of Saudi Arabia in those early years.
PAUL JAY: And so what does the US get out of this? And what would an alternative look like if it didn’t have US support for Saudi Arabia?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, we started out talking about oil, so obviously oil has always played a major role in US-Saudi relations, although the percentage of oil that we get from the Saudis is down to 13%, with all of the oil bring produced in the US and imported from Canada, less dependent, but still critical in a critical part of the world for the US fossil fuel industry. But then I think we have to look at other areas. The Saudi investment of massive amounts of money in the US economy, hundreds of billions of dollars put into US Treasury Bonds, the buying up of a key US company.
PAUL JAY: There’s an interesting note from this morning or yesterday, this new Japanese, massive — $50 billion, I think it was — investment into high-tech in the United States, that Trump has been talking about, or taking credit for. Apparently it turns out to be mostly Saudi money.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Mm-hmm.
PAUL JAY: It’s from that new… I think it’s Softel. There’s a new Saudi investment company and they’re putting the money through Japan into this tech investment.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Wow. Well, the Saudis’ idea now of diversifying, is putting even more money into Western economies, and a lot is in the US, and they’ve put in $3.5 billion, for example, in Uber. So much money, it gave them a seat on the Uber board, which is quite ironic given that half the population — the women in Saudi Arabia, are not even allowed to drive.
PAUL JAY: And there’s another statement, again, I think this morning or yesterday, from a Saudi high level economic official who says they’ve been assured, and I’m not sure who assured by, that Saudi investments in the United States will be considered sovereign and not attackable through a civil case from the 9/11 families.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, that’s right, and so the Saudis have hired now 10 US PR firms, law firms, lobbyists, to be their voice in Washington, D.C., and they’re pushing for all kinds of things that would give them that kind of sovereign economic immunity and, of course, continue with the weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and continue to cover up and even say, well, you said Paul, that I don’t know who would say that Saudi is not a repressive regime. I mean, they try to spin it that Saudi is now reforming.
And there is this great young son of the King who is 31 years old — and, by the way, he’s the one who got the Saudis into the war in Yemen — but he’s also being portrayed as this great economic reformer with this 2030 vision for Saudi Arabia, that’s going to bring them into them into the modern age. And all of this is spin.
It continues to be this incredibly repressive regime — this young Saudi prince is part of the cover-up to say that Saudi is making all of these reforms. But I think we have to be clear and say, it’s not true.
PAUL JAY: Okay. So, where Trump is on the Saudis…
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Oh, oh, but I’m sorry… I forgot to answer the final piece of your question about what does the US get out of this?
The Saudis are heavily invested in the US economy, and then let’s bring it back to the issue of the weapons sales, because I think when you’re talking about $115 billion in just eight years’ worth of weapons sales, that is major US businesses. And so the Saudis have been very clever about finding ways to make US companies dependent on Saudi Arabia, and that is where we get to, sort of, the 1% that profits from this relationship with Saudi Arabia, while the vast majority of people in the United States do not.
PAUL JAY: And the Saudis also play a game, which is make sure there’s enough terrorist threat that you need the Saudis to help manage it.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Exactly!
PAUL JAY: You can fund it over here, and then manage it over there, and make yourself the indispensable ally.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: That’s right. And the Saudis continue to dump cheap oil on the world market, which makes it harder and harder to be competitive with alternative sources of fuel.
PAUL JAY: That’s starting to hurt them, too. Well, as we move closer to the Trump presidency, and we’re only, what, a month or so away from it, the issue of Trump and Saudi Arabia — it’s not entirely clear.
He made one comment during the election campaign, which said if you want to know who was involved in 9/11, it’s the Saudis and so on. Which is a bit more than any US official has ever said outside of Bob Graham and people on that commission. But there’s one thing that Donald Trump has completely in common with the Saudis, and that’s… they want regime change in Iran and that’s going to be the subject of Part 2 of our interview with Medea Benjamin.
So, please join us for that on The Real News Network.