The West and Saudi Arabia: The head-cutters ball

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The West and Saudi Arabia: The head-cutters ball

20 October 2018. A World to Win News Service. The apparent murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi and subsequent events demonstrate an extremely ugly turn in global politics, embodied most of all by U.S. President Donald Trump and increasingly common to governments around the world: a naked discourse that “might makes right” and whatever is good for the national interests is good.

Faced with the righteous revulsion produced by Turkish rumours that a team linked to the highest levels of the Saudi royal family cut off the still-living Khashoggi’s fingers, head and then dismembered the rest of his body, for Trump, the only question is how to get past the uproar and move on. He must not only save the long-term alliance between the House of Saud and the US ruling class, but use that alliance as a core part of American efforts to reassert its dominance of the Middle East through an offensive now aimed in large part against Iran.

Once upon a time the White House claimed it had to trample through the region to defend human rights and stop head-chopping Islamic fundamentalists. Now, why let a little Saudi head-chopping get in the way of making the Greater Middle East American again.

There’s plenty of hypocrisy on all sides. The Turkish regime headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after jailing journalists, intellectuals and others by the thousands, is using its captive press and anonymous officials to leak alleged information about Saudi crimes drip by drip, in an unverifiable manner, perhaps so that it can later be denied if necessary.

Turkey waited five days before even raising the alarm about Khoshoggi, even though its authorities now say they have real-time audio recording of the gruesome murder as it took place. Its intention seems not necessarily to expose Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman but to threaten and pressure him, and the US as well, into a negotiated outcome. The current, Trump-approved Saudi “admission” – blaming the prince’s subordinates, supposedly acting without the prince’s authorization, for the killing of Khoshoggi during a “fist fight” – is the product of that process. Turkish and most Saudi claims and counter-claims are still being issued unofficially, so that statements that don’t stand up or that don’t prove useful to a negotiated outcome can later be abandoned.

Meanwhile Erdogan himself remains officially silent and thus free to manoeuvre. He wants to use this affair to advance his own brand of Islamism and restore Turkey’s old position as head of the Islamic world. In releasing an American pastor beloved by Trump’s Christian fundamentalist base, Erdogan may be sending the US a message that his rise, at the expense of the rival Saudis, would not necessarily be incompatible with American interests.

Another dirty player in this complex and murderous business is Israel, an off-again, on-again friend of Turkey, now totally and unequivocally backing Saudi Prince Mohammed. What does it say about the Zionists that they consider him their best friend in the region? One thing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in common with Trump is that neither has the slightest fear of being embarrassed.

As for Europe, what has the world come to when the head of the International Monetary Fund, whose name is synonymous with financial measures that have crippled whole countries and sentenced millions and billions of people to stunted lives, can claim to be the West’s conscience? Yet that was the idea when IMF head Christine Lagarde became the first world leader to cancel an appearance at an upcoming conference meant to upgrade relations between the Saudi royals and international finance. London found itself forced to downgrade (but not cancel) its delegation in order to best serve the interests that have tied the House of Saud to the United Kingdom since the British first created Saudi Arabia. Clearly there is more than moral distaste at work here. Some people at the top in the UK, France and other European powers are unhappy that the US and UK-backed, Saudi-led invasion of Yemen seems to have become unwinnable, and perhaps politically too costly  – and that U.S. interests are not always their interests.

Within the US ruling class, similarly, there are competing ideas about how to best pursue their imperialist interests in the region and more broadly, including whether or not to go to war against Iran.

The invasion of Yemen has been going on since 2015, and the number of victims has been climbing astronomically. No matter what could be said about the political and religious character of the Houthi movement challenging Saudi’s long-time dominance over Yemen, the reactionary character and goals of the war against the Houthis can be seen in the genocidal way it’s being waged. Saudi airpower and the ground troops supplied by the United Arabic Emirates are deliberately targeting civilians (such as the 40 children killed when their school bus was blown up by a U.S.-supplied precision-guided bomb in August). The UN has warned that the Saudi assault on Yemen’s main port and grain storage facilities could bring about the “world’s worst famine in a hundred years” in the coming months. Yet Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s government have continued to arm and defend the Saudis. Whatever doubts some US and UK politicians may have about this course of action in terms of their respective imperialist interests, few have expressed outrage commensurate with the crime.

Some Democratic Party figures in the US and a large part of the international media have accused Trump of being soft on the Saudis because of his personal financial interests. Trump himself talks about US interests in terms of arms contracts. Similar claims have been made about the deep ties between British arms manufacturers and the Saudis. This obfuscates the more fundamental point: there are real contradictions in pursuing imperialist interests and real disputes among and between ruling classes about how to do so, but, until now, at least, and probably still, whatever adjustments wind up being made, there has been a consensus about the key role Saudi Arabia plays in maintaining the exploitative and oppressive world order long dominated by the US, with the UK enjoying a “special relationship”.

The following excerpts from “Saudi Arabia: the West’s chosen Islamist head-cutters” (awtwns160104) examine this question more deeply. The figures involved and some degree of discourse and approach are different today than when this article was written – mostly importantly, with the rise of the fascist Trump/Pence regime, but the basic dynamics are the same.

The article was written shortly after King Salman came to power in the Saudi kingdom, and before Prince Mohammed bin Salman replaced his incapacitated father as the country’s real ruler. The immediate context was the execution – cutting off heads with a sword – of some young demonstrators and intellectuals who were deemed a threat to the monarchy’s stability. This method of demonstrating the patriarchal monarch’s unquestionable personal authority and absolute power (symbolically, his sword) over the bodies of his subjects recalls Europe’s own feudal past. This is the ideological meaning of the display Trump so enthusiastically took part in, waving his own blade during the sword ceremony held in honour of his visit to Saudi Arabia, not at all accidentally his first trip abroad as US President.

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awtwns160104: … The Saudi rulers are beholden for their swords, in the broadest sense, to the Western powers. In November, not long before the executions and long after the Saudi government announced its plans to carry them out, Obama’s State Department approved a Saudi request to buy 1.29 billion US dollars worth of bombs and missiles. The State Department Website gives a chilling itemization of the purchases, the kinds of munitions that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have been raining down on the Yemeni people in a war that has killed at least 5,700 people, half of them civilians, since the air and land invasion began in March 2015. This war of aggression against a country Saudi Arabia has traditionally considered its rightful “back yard” could not be carried out without the logistical support, air refuelling and targeting teams provided by the US. Washington is directly responsible for the bombing of schools and hospitals.

Although the factors are complex, this war, like the executions, is being carried out in the name of the Saudi royal family’s religious authority against Shia and other disbelievers. (The Houthi rebels in Yemen, whose Zaydi religious banner makes their faith a cousin of Shiism, are backed by Iran – which is far from the main factor in the rebellion by Houthis and others against the Saudi-backed regime.) This is another example of how the Saudis are seeking to escalate the religious dimension of the region’s conflicts – with concrete US support.

Obama personally came to meet with King Salman after his enthroning a year ago, and his reign has been hailed as inaugurating an era of reform by Westerners like the leading American liberal commentator Thomas Friedman (New York Times, 25 November 2015 – written at a time when these executions were already set to take place). Over the last year the Saudi regime has stepped up its executions, in some cases crucifying the decapitated victims and leaving their body to rot on public display.

The Saudi absolute monarchy calls for obedience as the earthly “protector of the Ummah” (the so-called community of believers) and not on the basis of direct religious rule like Daesh’s caliphate, run by a self-proclaimed descendent of Mohammad. This distinction is both a danger to the Saud dynasty’s existence, and at the same time not much of a difference at all. The Saudi response to Daesh’s particular signature, its determination to exterminate Shias as apostates worse than infidels, is to put forward their regime as the greatest Shia slayers of all.

The Western imperialist powers knew very well what they were getting in their relationship with the Saudi monarchy. Britain helped establish the monarchy in 1932, after encouraging the rise of Wahhabism (the specific form of Salafism associated with Arabian tribal authorities) in its campaign to absorb the Ottoman empire into its own. In a 1945 treaty signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the US promised to keep the Saudi monarchy in power, a pact renewed by George W. Bush in 2005. Although the US grabbed the country away from Britain, as part of replacing British domination of the Middle East, the UK continues to maintain close financial and military ties with Saudi Arabia. France, under the Socialist president Hollande, is now also forging new political and military links with the regime.

Yet Saudi Arabia’s association with imperialism has deeply transformed the country and its ruling class. Like other Gulf states, it has become a major site of capital accumulation in its own right within the globalised capitalist economy dominated by the Western imperialist powers. This has happened both through the exploitation in the Gulf of labourers from the Moslem world and far beyond, on the one hand, and on the other the investment of Saudi and other Gulf capital in much bigger countries like Egypt, whose economy, politics and religious life are conditioned by this relationship.

In many ways, such as political influence and subsidies to regimes like Pakistan, the religious inculcation of the millions of Arabs brought to work in the Gulf and the sponsorship of enormous religious and “charitable” institutions and hundreds of TV preachers and media outlets, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies are the main vectors bringing modern Salafism to the Sunni Moslem world, even as all of these countries are connected ever more tightly to the international market and the global capitalist system, with all its inevitable rivalries among ruling classes that can only accumulate capital in deadly competition with one another.

It is true, as Obama said, that “the US-Saudi relationship” has been invaluable to the US and the West as a “force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond”. But at the same time that relationship has played a major role in creating the conditions for today’s instability in the region, where the US’s continued domination is not secure at all. High stakes require desperate measures.

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