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'Liberating' Saudi's Shi'ites (and their oil)
By Ashraf Fahim

If the rulers of Saudi Arabia held out any hope that the post-September 11, 2001, demonization of their kingdom was finally waning, then someone in Riyadh should pick up a copy of An End to Evil, a recently published neo-conservative roadmap for "winning" the "war on terror". In it, David Frum, an ex-speechwriter for President George W Bush (and inventor of the term "axis of evil"), and Richard Perle, the eminence grise of the neo-con fraternity, suggest that the United States should bring Saudi Arabia to heel by threatening to support independence for the country's Eastern Province or Al Hasa (also known as Ash Sharqiyah), where much of Saudi Arabia's minority Shi'ite population and, coincidentally, most of its oil is situated.

While the continuing turmoil in Iraq might inhibit lesser souls even to consider tinkering with the map of the world's most important oil producer, Frum and Perle are made of sterner stuff. Lamenting the discrimination suffered by Saudi Arabia's Shi'ites at the hands of the Sunni elite, whose power base lies in Najd and Hijaz in the center and west of the Arabian Peninsula, they deduce that "it is not bigotry alone that explains these Saudi actions, but also their fear that the Shi'ites might someday seek independence for the Eastern Province - and its oil". If this fear were somehow brought to fruition it "would obviously be a catastrophic outcome for the Saudi state. But it might be a very good outcome for the US."

There is, of course, nothing new in the suggestion that, in extreme circumstances, the United States might seize strategically important oilfields in the Persian Gulf region. Such a step was contemplated at an advanced level by the administration of president Richard Nixon during the 1973 Arab oil embargo. But some observers believe that the events of September 11, as well as the frailty of the House of Saud and the Shi'ite awakening in Iraq, have given this contingency new life.

Dr Sa'd al-Fagih, head of the London-based Saudi opposition group the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), says the military plan to "liberate" Al Hasa is already in place but would only be considered if the US-friendly House of Saud falls. In that event, he claims, the US "has made preparations to isolate the Eastern Province militarily". US bases in Qatar and Kuwait are aimed, he says, "at the north end of the Eastern Province and at the south end of the Eastern Province. So the scenario is, America will take over in a line extending from Kuwait, down to Dammam [the capital of Al Hasa] or down to Qatar." With the oilfields secure, they will "leave Najd and Hijaz to their fate".

Whether or not al-Fagih's claims are accurate, other observers of the situation in the Gulf are dismissive of neo-con fantasies about partitioning Saudi Arabia. Professor Gary Sick of Columbia University, who served on the National Security Council staff under presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, calls the idea typical of the kind of "irresponsible dreaming about the types of changes that can be brought about in the Middle East" now commonplace. However, he says, "admittedly some of those dreams have come true in these last few years".

The current plan to "liberate" Al Hasa has its genesis in the post-September 11 bipartisan Washington consensus that Saudi Arabia is, to some degree, a problem in the "war on terror". Many in Washington allege that the kingdom has financed, offered ideological inspiration to and provided the manpower for al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers. The more extreme ideologues such as Frum and Perle say that Saudi Arabia "deserves its own place on the axis of evil", and have zeroed in on the ethnic peculiarities in the Eastern Province as a possible trump card in pressuring the kingdom.

That perspective gained voice at an April 2002 panel discussion at the Hudson Institute, an influential conservative think-tank, titled "Saudi Vulnerability: The Source of Middle Eastern Oil and the Eastern Province". On the panel were Ali al-Ahmed, head of the Saudi Institute, a Washington-based Shi'ite opposition organization, and Max Singer, co-founder of Hudson. No transcript was available for the event, but the tone can perhaps be discerned from an article Singer subsequently authored titled "Free the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia".

For Singer, the diffusion of Sunni Wahhabi "extremism" abroad could be eliminated by severing its source of funds - oil. A conference at Hudson in June 2002, titled "Oil, Terrorism, and the Problem of Saudi Arabia" and hosted by Republican Senator Sam Brownback, allowed various anti-Saudi luminaries to expand on that theme. "One has to think in terms of intervention in the oilfields, which are conveniently all on one side," noted panelist Simon Henderson, a British writer on Saudi Arabia. "And I dare say there are at least a few people in the Pentagon who plan this one day by day."

The neo-cons discover 'Petrolistan'
Though the Saudi Shi'ite grievance has been newly championed by the neo-cons for transparently realpolitik reasons, it does have a legitimate basis in the religious and political discrimination the Shi'ites have suffered. The Shi'ites have been excluded from positions of power and certain professions, hindered from fully practicing their faith and subject to hostility by some in the conservative Sunni religious establishment. In addition, though they make up a large part of the workforce at Saudi Aramco, Shi'ites have watched the oil wealth flow west to Najd and Hijaz. Thus intermittent uprisings have erupted since Al Hasa was incorporated into the Saudi realm in 1913, most recently after the Shi'ite Iranian revolution emboldened their co-religionists throughout the Persian Gulf.

Various estimates put the Shi'ite population at 5-10 percent of the 17 million native Saudis, and it is possible they constitute a majority in Al Hasa. Thus far, the priority for the Shi'ite opposition has been equal rights within the Saudi state, and it is not at all clear that they would welcome US intervention on their behalf.

The aspirations of the Shi'ite, however, are not the priority of the advocates of a "Muslim Republic of East Arabia", as Singer dubbed it. And this kind of neo-con grand strategizing, based largely on ethnic number-crunching, strikes Sick as foolhardy. The notion of disrupting a country "as important as Saudi Arabia requires a lot more serious thought than the idea that there are just a bunch of Shi'ite running around the Eastern Province", he says.

Neo-con scheming could also potentially stir sectarian strife inside Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Abdullah, the country's de facto ruler, recently took the unprecedented step of accepting a petition from prominent Shi'ites, titled "Partners in the Homeland", calling for greater rights. Such attempts at reconciliation could be undermined if the Shi'ites, unjustly or not, are seen to be conspiring with outsiders to break up the Saudi state.

The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is not the only place where the Sunni-Shi'ite divide plays out atop large reserves of black gold. A sectarian power struggle simmers throughout the Gulf, and some see in the Shi'ite revival in Iraq the makings of a significant shift in power. "Now that the dust of the Iraq war has settled, it is clear the Shi'ites have emerged, blinking in the sunlight, as the unexpected winners," wrote Mai Yamani, a research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "[The West has] also woken up to the accident of geography that has placed the world's major oil supplies in areas where they [Shi'ites] form the majority: Iran, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and southern Iraq. Welcome to the new commonwealth of 'Petrolistan'."

The concept of an emerging "Petrolistan" feeds into the growing paranoia in the region that the Shi'ites are conspiring with the United States to dismantle Sunni hegemony across the Middle East. But Sick says such paranoia is misplaced. "I don't think there is a Shi'ite policy," he says. In fact "the US tends to be very nervous about Shi'ite governance". He notes, among other things, hostile relations between the US and revolutionary Iran, and the US failure to topple Saddam Hussein in 1991 precisely out of fear of a Shi'ite takeover of Iraq.

For the time being, the idea of liberating Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province remains on the fringes of US policymaking, and in fashion among the mandarins of think-tanks such as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the Hudson Institute and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). But, says Sick, it "has acquired no significant following in the administration".

Unfortunately for Riyadh, the fringes have become the nursery for future policy, and the fashions of the neo-cons often become conventional wisdom for the grown-ups in the Bush administration. Anyone who followed the policy prescriptions of AEI's "black-coffee breakfast" seminars prior to the invasion of Iraq, for example, would recognize a stunning similarity in the way US policy in Iraq has evolved.

At present, however, Al Hasa's would-be liberators appear cognizant of the limits of their influence and content to use the threat of partition to browbeat the Saudis into obeisance in the "war on terror" and the construction of a new Iraq. The threat is also intended to ensure that Saudi Arabia doesn't think about using its own oil as leverage in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the context in which invasion was first discussed in 1973.

Frum and Perle are frank about the strategic utility of their proposal. "We would want the Saudis to know that we are pondering [partition]. The knowledge that the US has options other than abjectly accepting whatever abuse the Saudis choose to throw our way might have a 'chastening' effect on Saudi behavior."

Some observers have suggested that the chaotic situation in Iraq signals the waning of the neo-conservative star that rose after September 11. Whether or not this is the case, political fortunes can change quickly in Washington. Another Bush term could easily embolden the neo-cons, and if, as so many predict, the House of Saud falls, they could undertake their grandest delusion yet.

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Mar 18, 2004



House of Saud - to fall or not?
(Mar 5, '04)

Politics deepens Sunni-Shi'ite divisions
(May 14, '03)

 

 
   
         
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