A letter from the Middle East (June 2011) - Andrew White


The violent death of the world’s most infamous terrorist made front page headlines in Saudi Arabia, the country of his birth. ‘A rotten tooth removed from the world’s mouth’, screamed prominent Arabic-language daily Al Watan; ‘Bin Laden’s luck finally runs out’, smiled English-language title Arab News, alongside a file photo of the mujahid sat cross-legged in a cave, trademark AK-47 propped against the wall behind him.

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Osama bin Laden’s videotaped invectives, shot in the caverns of Tora Bora and later the compound in which he died, were intended to incite Muslims to jihad against the West.

But bin Laden also raged against the Saudi royal family, accusing them of having betrayed Islam and become agents of America: the House of Saud allowed US forces to base themselves in the Islamic holy land during the liberation of Kuwait in 1990, and has signed numerous multibillion-dollar arms and oil deals with Western governments.

Arab Spring

A decade after the fire and fury of 9/11, bin Laden’s death came at a time when he was probably further than ever from achieving his goals. The interests of Washington and Riyadh are more closely intertwined than at any time since the hijackings, and the Arab Spring represents a rejection of everything bin Laden lived and fought for. The peaceful demonstration is the antithesis of Al-Qaeda’s philosophy of violence: street protests have succeeded where suicide bombers failed, and autocratic regimes have been toppled by demands for democracy, not the reestablishment of a caliphate. And yet, while bin Laden’s execution represented a glorious coup for US President Barack Obama, it will have been no more than a momentary distraction for Saudi's King Abdullah.


For Saudi’s ruling family the real threat lies in the Arab Spring, the transformation of the Middle East which has alarmed them to the extent that they are now doing whatever they can to help bring the uprisings to an end. Washington may have called the shots on Middle East regime change in the first decade of the new millennium, but Riyadh is running the show in 2011.

It has taken Saudi time to find its feet amid the swiftly shifting sands of the Arab Spring. In January, policymakers in the kingdom watched through the cracks between their fingers as Tunisia’s Ben Ali regime crumbled to dust.

A month later they tried to buy Hosni Mubarak out of trouble, offering to cover the loss of American aid if Egypt’s then-President ordered a crackdown that prompted the US to withdraw financial support. The US has handed Egypt an average of US$2bn in aid annually since 1979, and most of that aid has gone to the Egyptian military – in 2010 alone $1.3bn went to strengthen Egyptian forces versus $250m in economic aid.

As a result, and unfortunately for Saudi, the generals weren’t prepared to back a reeling ruler at the risk of alienating their wealthy long-term patrons in Washington, so the offer was ignored. Riyadh’s prospects are brightening, however, as the Arab Spring rolls inexorably into the summer. Rebels and reformers in Libya and Syria now find themselves fighting a war of attrition against government forces that are better armed, fed and watered.

In Syria President Bashar Assad has been allowed to deploy heavy artillery and disable mobile phone services, while even Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is still able to attack rebels with sniper and mortar fire.

In its annual report published in mid-May, Amnesty International said the Arab Spring stood on a knife-edge as those demonstrating for change faced a 'serious fightback from the forces of repression'.

Saudi is playing a significant role in that fightback, as was illustrated by its direct and devastating intervention in the tiny Gulf island state of Bahrain. King Abdullah sent more than 150 troop carriers rumbling over the causeway which separates the two countries.

'It is a repressive regime supported by another repressive regime,' warned a spokesperson for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, just days before those same security forces opened fire into crowds of unarmed protestors.

In Libya, although Saudi is a member of the NATO coalition, it has ensured that none of the fighter planes it has procured at great expense from the US and UK, have seen combat.

Hundreds of Saudi F-15, Tornado and Typhoon jets crowd military runways on the outskirts of Jeddah, while American and European warplanes patrol the skies above Tripoli.

Riyadh has even worked to disrupt the efforts of those fighting against the Gaddafi regime: in early May, for example, the acting foreign minister of Libya’s rebel government, the National Transitional Council (NCT), was forced to cancel a visit to Qatar after Saudi refused permission to fly over its airspace.

Doha has emerged as a key ally of the NCT, giving the rebels diplomatic recognition and sending warplanes to join the NATO operation in Libya, but the Saudi stance meant that the rebel delegation only made it as far as Cairo International Airport. After a 20-hour wait, the rebels gave up and returned to Benghazi.

Finally, perhaps the most startling sign of Riyadh’s discomfort comes in its backing of Syria’s President Assad. In late March, when anti-government protests first spilled beyond the southern city of Deraa, King Abdullah called Assad and offered his political support – a remarkable reconciliation in light of Syria’s long-term strategic alliance with bitter rivals Iran, a regime which King Abdullah repeatedly urged the US to attack.

According to classified cables, in April 2008 the Saudi ruler advised US diplomats to 'cut off the head of the snake'; now it is standing firmly behind a regime which is taking military direction from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and is openly reinforcing its ranks with Iranian troops.

Saudi’s fortification of autocratic regimes across the Middle East is continuing unabated, under American eyes which will be quietly relieved that Syria and Libya show no signs of descending into religious civil war.

There’s more hardware coming, too: in September 2010 it was revealed that the US and Saudi had struck the biggest arms deal in history, the kingdom paying more than US$60bn for an inventory which included 84 F-15 jets, 70 Apache gunships, 72 Black Hawk helicopters, 36 light helicopters and thousands of laser-guided smart bombs.

Washington hopes that this arsenal will be deployed in the event of conflict with Iran. But in the wake of Saudi’s steadfast support of military action by fellow authoritarian regimes across the Arab world, America should pray that those weapons are at no point used against the youth in revolt. After the euphoria of Abbottabad, any Saudi-backed bloodshed risks the naissance of a new generation of bin Ladens, disillusioned by the complex alliance between the Great Satan and the birthplace of Islam.


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Andrew White is a freelance writer and former editor of Arabian Business magazine. He is based in Dubai and can be contacted at mrblanc@gmail.com

This article was written on 19 May 2011.

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