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The Saudi Monarch's Visit to Another Kingdom

Michael Werbowski, Prague, Czech Republic, November 2, 2007

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (left) and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia arrive at Buckingham Palace in London on Oct. 30. (Photo: Luke McGregor / AFP-Getty Images)

Let's just put aside all the human rights concerns about the Wahhabite dynasty in Saudi Arabia. It's known to be one of the most medieval of states in terms of enforcing Sharia law and thereby applying the Koran in an egregiously sadistic and cruel manner to its people.

Let's forget the fact that women in the kingdom are relegated practically to one of the most retrograde statuses in the Muslim world; unable to leave home without a man "handler" and forced to conceal themselves in black robes like in Afghanistan. Let's also leave out any detailed mention of the cozy and well-documented ties the Saudi Royal family has to the Bush dynasty and to the Bin Laden family.

Once these messy moral considerations are set aside the significance of King Abdullah's visit to London this week (the first in 20 years) becomes even more apparent. But why has he come now? Is it that he knows something the rest of us don't?

One thing is for sure, in the Middle East monarchies and especially monarchs are not eternal. The Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, which ended with the last Shah and his son in exile, is a clear reminder of this. Surly successors to the Saudi throne are aware of this as well. Is the Saudi king preparing an extended stay abroad for himself and his royal relatives and retinue?

In view of the highly unstable situation in his country and the Middle East neighborhood, such a possibility should not be excluded, nor can it be easily discounted.

Business Always Trumps Human Rights

When you look at the kingdom's billions in petro dollar reserves any moral reservation the West may have about doing business with the Arabian kingdom seems trifling indeed. Its huge (although rapidly depleting) oil reserves and the untold amount of Saudi cash invested and recycled as petro dollars in Western banks, property and even some strategic sectors make the kingdom an ideal place to do business for the British. The United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia do around 3.5 billion in bilateral trade annually. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is one of the largest markets for Britain's arms exports and infrastructural projects.

Occasionally, however, arms deals cause a parliamentary row when the scale of corruption and bribery involved is just too huge to hide anymore. One example of a controversial arms deal that embarrassed Prime Minister Tony Blair was the "Al-Yamamah affair." The Al-Yamamah deal was signed in 1989 by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and has resulted in U.K. arms manufacturer BAE supplying over 20 billion pounds ($40 billion) worth of weapons to the kingdom over the last 20 years. An inquiry was launched recently, and then dropped on "national security grounds."

Is Today's Saudi Arabia Yesterday's Iran Under the Shah?

Democratic reform is the magic word on the lips of many of King Abdullah's British admirers. The growing disenchantment with the Saudi royals among their subjects is no secret in the region. Threats of terrorist plots and acts meant to unseat the kingdom's ruling family has perhaps spurned London to pressure the king to do more to placate internal dissent and legitimize his rule.

Another topic of discussion is security sharing and intelligence information. This is, after all, the most important Arab state for the West, and its secret services are formidable in collecting confidential indiscretions. They must be very busy these days. Riyadh wields great influence over the Palestinian-Israeli issue as well. Hence, it's a big regional player. But then so is Iran. And that is the problem. According to some Western diplomats and intelligence sources, there seems to be a growing rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh over the entire Persian Gulf and Middle East region. This regional duel may have also prompted the king to seek advice from one of his closest and oldest confidents: the British.

Fueling Radical Islam Is Bound to Backfire

Another uncomfortable reality is that the Saudis continue to export their own brand of radical Islam without considering the consequences for their own fate. The kingdom markets a far more virulent form of fundamentalism than its Iranian rivals. One of its targets is Turkey, where many Saudi-owned banks and businesses thrive. This type of ideological influence mixed with business interests might well come back to haunt the Saudi monarchs one day and fuel opposition to the less than benevolent and enlightened rulers on the throne.

Furthermore, in view of the Iranian nuclear threat, the Saudis themselves may be flirting with the idea of acquiring the bomb. Seeking Western technical assistance to build nuclear missiles would surely be a bonanza for those interested in commercial partnerships in this field of "technical cooperation."

Moreover, there's the heightened tension in the Middle East over Iran's nuclear ambitions, the disintegration of the Iraqi state, the explosive situation in the Gaza strip, the tenuous hold on power the dynasty has over its subjects, and the kingdom's close ties to the other "great Satan," the United States. Turkey's brawl with the PKK, in my view, probably made for plenty of lively conversation at teatime in stately and regal salons at Whitehall palace.

The Ties That Bind, or All About Oil

Roger Adelson of Arizona State University sums up the recent history of the close relationship between London and Riyadh, despite some minor tiffs. He writes,

During World War II, Saudi Arabia was poor, deriving little revenue from oil and losing most of its income from the pilgrimage. Saudis depended on substantial economic and military assistance coming from Britain until 1943, when they started to receive aid via American lend-lease. After the war, the Saudis accepted some technical and military advisers from Britain, but they mattered less once Saudi oil came on-line. The Saudi regime linked its economy to the big U.S. oil companies and its defenses to the U.S. government.

After the war, Britain's influence began to wane and the U.S. moved into the kingdom as the main guarantor of its security, becoming its primary "client state" for oil exports and arms imports. This is discussed with great insight and detail in Blood and oil.* It is well worth reading to better understand why the king's visit to London may one day become a permanent and reluctant stay.

*Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Oil by Michael T. Klare.

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