People are justifiably horrified by the grisly executions – especially public beheadings – carried out by the Islamic State in areas under its control. But “our side” also carries out beheadings in Syria and Iraq. And Saudi Arabia, the oldest US ally in the Middle East, in on track to surpass its record with over 85 public decapitations so far this year. Hundreds of people have been beheaded or mutilated in public during the past few years. Saudi Arabia has no constitution or penal code other than the Quran, as interpreted by ultra-conservative clerics.
The close US ties to Saudi Arabia go back to the 1930’s, when a consortium of US oil companies – the antecedents of the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO, now the nationalized Saudi Aramco) — was awarded exclusive rights to exploit petroleum resources in the kingdom. During the second World War, when Middle East oil was seen as a vital strategic asset, the first US military bases in the region were sited in Saudi Arabia.
This was prior to the creation of Israel and long before the US-Israel strategic alliance that dates just to the late 1960’s. Saudi Arabia has been supplied with hundreds of $billions in advanced US military hardware – which could not be operated without the services of the many US contractors working in the kingdom.
During the Cold War, the US-Saudi marriage of convenience became a major factor in combatting Soviet influence in the Middle East and beyond. Religion was seen as a valuable asset in defeating “Godless Communism” and the Saudis had some unique assets in the Muslim world as the guardians of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Nearly limitless oil revenues were available to promote the Saudi brand of radical Sunni-Wahhabi Islam to combat both the Soviets and Arab nationalist regimes, which were mostly secular and officially non-sectarian. (Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister who died this week, was of Christian descent.)
[Religion was widely deployed by the US in those days, not just in the Middle East. Covert support was provided to Christian-Democratic parties around the world, most notably in the crucial 1948 Italian elections, when a victory for the Left seemed to be a real possibility: “In the secrecy of the polling booth, God sees you – Stalin doesn’t.” went the widely-circulated slogan. This was also when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was put on our money; the Church played a significant role in the promotion of McCarthyism, especially combatting leftist influence in the unions, where in New England the working class was heavily Catholic.]
The US-Saudi alliance reached its apex in the joint campaign to overthrow a pro-Soviet modernizing regime in Afghanistan. In 1979, Pres. Carter launched Operation Cyclone with massive funding that reached $500 million annually by the late 1980s. Its goal: to mobilize Muslim militants to attack the Soviet Union’s soft Central Asian underbelly and drive a wedge of radical Islam deep into the Soviet heartland.
Asked about this operation’s legacy when it came to creating a militant Islam hostile to the U.S., Zbigniew Brzezinski, the architect of Carter’s policy, was coolly unapologetic. “What is most important to the history of the world?” he asked. “The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Those “stirred-up Moslems,” led by Afghanistan veteran Osama Bin Laden, of course, were the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and the ideological forebears of Al Qaeda and ISIS today. Then as now, Saudi and Gulf State religious propaganda, backed by generous funding – together with US-supplied weaponry and military intrusion in the region — lie at the root of the problem. In recent years, Israel, another religion-based state, itself moving sharply rightward, has entered what amounts to a strategic alliance with these same Arab powers.
As the Middle East confronts a new upsurge of sectarian-based radicalism, it is time to shine a light on the role of US allies – not the “Iranian threat.”