Saudi King Snubs Obama’s Summit: Alliance Tensions, Regional Upheaval, Intractable Contradictions

by Larry Everest | May 25, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


On May 14, President Obama held a summit with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) at Camp David near Washington, DC. Its aim was to strengthen “security”—i.e., military and intelligence—cooperation among them in the face of growing threats in the Middle East region. These reactionary, oil-pumping, brutally repressive monarchies line the southern shore of the Persian Gulf, through which 30 percent of oil traded by sea flows. These states, Saudi Arabia in particular, have been key cogs in the U.S. empire regionally and globally, and they’ve been closely aligned with and dependent on the U.S. for decades, including for military protection.

So when the President of the United States—the global godfather—invites these states to a gathering, the expectation is that they come. There may be debates and differences behind closed doors, but it’s all smiles and shows of unity in public.

But not this time.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa pointedly refused to attend, even after having agreed to attend months earlier. And the leaders of Oman and the UAE didn’t show either. Other high officials attended, and publicly all involved downplayed the significance of the no-shows. (Bahrain’s king attended a horse race in the UK.)

But make no mistake: this was a snub—a rare public display of sharp and growing differences between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, even as they remain allies deeply entangled with each other on many levels.

Why should the oppressed and revolutionaries care about a dust-up between bloodthirsty reactionaries? Because it points to the profound changes jolting the Middle East and U.S. imperialism, which are part of the global mosaic out of which revolutionary crises can emerge—depending in part on how people understand and act in the face of these conflicts.

A Decades Long Reactionary Alliance and Pillar of a Reactionary Regional Order

The Middle East is a region that imperialism has been holding on lockdown for over 100 years, dominating its development and crippling the lives of its millions of peoples. The imperialist world, headed by the U.S. for the past seven decades, has done so because this region has been key to its wealth, prosperity, and global power; it’s a crossroads of commerce, a platform for global military dominance, and an energy spigot.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship, forged during World War 2, has been a key pillar of the U.S.-dominated regional order and of U.S. global domination overall. Saudi Arabia, a country of 26 million, has been the world’s key oil producer and an important piece in the global financial system. It has helped prop up pro-U.S. regimes across the Middle East and beyond. It has provided critical military assistance to the U.S.—against Iraq and Iran in particular. Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Qatar hosts a major U.S. air base and the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Saudi-dominated Bahrain. Saudi Arabia helped bankroll the U.S. covert war in Afghanistan during the 1980s, a war that helped bring down the U.S.’s main rival at the time—the then-imperialist Soviet Union.

The U.S. has been Saudi Arabia’s military protector. For example, the 1991 U.S. invasion of Iraq —the Persian Gulf War—was carried out in part to defend and reassure Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait, and make clear that U.S. imperialism was the Persian Gulf’s dominant power and would brook no shift in the balance of power there.

And Saudi Arabia’s own armed forces are extremely dependent on U.S. arms, training, and technology. Over the past 20 years, the Saudis have bought $400 billion of U.S. military equipment. One military expert told the New York Times, “The Saudi air force could not carry out day-in, day-out bombing missions [in Yemen now] without help from U.S. trainers and maintenance experts and the flow of spare parts and ammunition.” U.S. advisers are “embedded in industrial, energy, maritime and cybersecurity offices within the Saudi government.” (May 11, 2015) The two countries also have close intelligence ties.

The Contradictions Driving the U.S.-Saudi Rift

Saudi Arabia is typical of the oppressive, prison-like U.S.- and European-backed tyrannies that have enforced imperialist dominance. It’s an absolute monarchy whose rule is undergirded by an alliance with the extremely reactionary “Wahhabist” Sunni Islamic clerical establishment. Beheading is a legal form of capital punishment. Dissent is ruthlessly suppressed. Women live under the heavy weight of all kinds of religious-patriarchal strictures. Bigotry against other religions is law. Saudi Arabia is the epitome of reactionary obscurantism, but the consequences of the collapse of the House of Saud for the U.S. rulers would be catastrophic.

Yet across the Middle East, enormous anger and a host of social, religious, economic, and other contradictions have been seething under the surface. By 2000, the U.S. imperialists sensed that they were sitting on a potential powder keg. The so-called “war on terror” they launched after the attacks of September 11, 2001 was an aggressive effort to reassert and deepen their hold on the Middle East and Central Asia by revamping the region’s social and economic order, focusing first on Iraq. Yet their 2003-2011 invasion and occupation not only failed to turn Iraq into the platform they sought but, in connection with other regional and global contradictions, had the effect of opening a crack in the regional pressure-cooker—spawning widespread mass upheavals, fueling reactionary Islamic jihadism, massively disrupting the regional balance of power, and uncorking regional rivalries.

For well over a decade, there have been tensions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over a number of issues, including the kingdom’s promotion of Sunni fundamentalism. But now the rapidly evolving situation in the region has led to sharper divergences in the perceived needs and interests of U.S. and Saudi rulers on a number of fronts. For example, the Saudis opposed any concessions to the mass uprisings of the “Arab Spring,” including U.S. maneuvers to ease Hosni Mubarak out of power in Egypt in order to better preserve Egypt’s military. The Saudis have been particularly worried by Iran’s growing influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and its nuclear enrichment program. In 2008, they demanded the U.S. “cut off the head of the snake”—in other words go to war against Iran. They also argued for more aggressive U.S. action in Syria.

The Obama team, for its part, feels that the U.S. simply cannot commit to another ground war in the Middle East; both Iraq and Afghanistan have proven extremely costly for the imperialists, and they now have even bigger challenges globally they must attempt to deal with. Obama’s approach has been to rely more on drone assassination and terror, manipulating and working with any and all reactionary forces that can be useful for a moment—mercenaries, advisors, bombing, and other forms of violent defense of U.S. interests. This is a key reason the Obama administration is working to cut a deal with Iran, but this has brought Saudi-U.S. differences to a head, with the Saudis fearing that Iran could become the region’s dominant power, undermining Saudi interests, and perhaps the stability of the monarchy. (See “U.S. Empire Makes Move to Meet Rising Challenges.”)

The Implications: Great and Unpredictable Upheaval

The Saudis and other Gulf states are worried that the U.S. is no longer fully committed to their defense or able to deploy the military forces that could be required. The GCC countries demanded a NATO-like defense treaty that would commit the U.S. to go to war to save their monarchies, but they were rebuffed at the May 14 summit. Obama promised to use force to defend the Gulf states, to “stand by our GCC partners against external attack,” but refused to commit to a formal defense treaty. So the U.S. and Saudi Arabia remain tethered together, even as antagonisms are growing between them.

Faced with what it feels are threats to its vital interests, the Saudis have taken independent initiatives, some of which are at odds with U.S. policy or make the contradictions the U.S. is facing more complex, and the situation more unpredictable. For example, in Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (along with Turkey) are reportedly supporting anti-Assad jihadists, including the Al Nusra front. The Saudis motives: Their goal is to bring down the Assad regime and weaken Iran, one of the main patrons of the Assad regime—no matter how many people are slaughtered in the process. The U.S. has some agreement with this initiative, yet continued Saudi support for jihadists is also making matters more difficult in Iraq, where ISIS recently captured the key town of Ramadi. One key reason ISIS has been able to grow and continue operating is de facto Turkish and Saudi support for ISIS in Syria. (Because Turkey refuses to close its border, jihadist forces are able to get supplies, fresh recruits, medical care, etc.)

But fundamentally what is driving the upheaval is the intractability of the contradictions roiling the region. There are profound global and regional rivalries being fought out—and most fundamentally the imperialists and reactionary powers cannot resolve the suffering, oppression, and social, national, and religious faultlines that have given rise to this. After all, it’s 100 years of imperialist domination that created or preserved this mountain of oppression in the first place.

Yemen is an example. The Saudis, with U.S. backing (even as the U.S. has differences with the Saudis over the campaign) began a savage bombing campaign there March 26, which continues at this writing. Hundreds has been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. (And note: Obama did not condemn this slaughter at the May 14 summit—he increased military aid!). The Saudis are doing all this in order to impose a pro-Saudi client in Yemen and prevent a force sympathetic to Iran from emerging. Yet it has nothing to offer the people of Yemen—no solutions to the poverty and misery that have gripped this, one of the poorest countries in the world, for generation after generation.

Three Critical Things to Understand

There are three critical things to understand about the rapidly unfolding situation in the Middle East.

1. There are major changes in the world, and old rules no longer apply. This is creating huge challenges for the U.S. Things are in great flux, and none of the players involved knows how things will end up. These rivalries and conflicts are not being stage managed; all are responding to events and groping for solutions to vexing contradictions. In the context of the whole regional cauldron and big global shifts, these kinds of developments—including the growing arguments in the U.S. ruling class over what to do—taken together could come together in ways that create profound global jolts, jolts that are part of what the RCP’s “On the Strategy for Revolution” talks about, and part of what makes this a moment when a revolutionary situation and an actual revolution are increasingly possible.

2. No matter how disingenuous (lying) and self-contradictory their claims of bringing “democracy” and “freedom,” the U.S. rulers will try and “lead” people through these choppy waters as they attempt to protect and advance their imperialist interests—training people to support action against whoever the U.S. deems the greatest threat of the moment, and training people to ignore the crimes of those the U.S. finds useful to ally with at any given point. All this is generally sold to people under the rubric of “protecting American lives” and protecting America from “terrorist attacks,” while the rulers actual calculations are driven by concerns of imperialist empire: maintaining U.S. global supremacy and domination of key regions.

3. Imperialism and reactionary powers will not collapse of their own accord, even in the midst of great turmoil and upheaval. In the Middle East at the moment, the force most likely to replace existing powers is reactionary Islamists who are equally horrific. The only way for anything positive to come out of the situation is for a genuine revolutionary communist pole to emerge and begin leading the masses to fight for their real interests and a radically different future and world. This underscores the urgency of making revolution in this country at the soonest possible moment, and spreading Bob Avakian’s new synthesis of communism, encapsulated in Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage—A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, and spreading it far and wide, including throughout the Middle East.




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