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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn
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U.S. and Saudi Relations on Oil


Pose a threat to the stability of Saudi Arabia, as the Shiite upsurges are now doing in Qatif and al-Awamiyah in the country's oil-rich Eastern Province, and you're brandishing a scalpel over the very heart of the long-term U.S. policy in the Middle East. The fall of America's ally, the Shah of Iran, in 1979 only magnified the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia.

In 1945, the chief of the State Department's Division of Near Eastern Affairs wrote in a memo that the oil resources of Saudi Arabia are a "stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history." The man who steered the Saudi princes towards America and away from Britain, was St. John Philby, Kim Philby's father, and with that one great stroke he wrought far more devastation on the Empire than his son ever did.

These days, the U.S. consumes about 19 million barrels of oil every 24 hours, about half of them imported. At 25 percent, Canada is the lead oil supplier. Second comes Saudi Arabia at 12 percent. But the supply of crude oil to the U.S. is only half the story. Saudi Arabia controls the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' oil price and adjusts it carefully with U.S. priorities in the front of their minds.

The traffic is not one-way. In the half century after 1945, the United States sold the Saudis about$100 billion in military goods and services. A year ago, the Obama administration announced the biggest weapons deal in U.S. history — a $60 billion program with Saudi Arabia to sell it military equipment across the next 20 to 30 years.

Under its terms, the United States will provide Saudi Arabia with 84 advanced F-15 fighter planes with electronics and weapons packages tailored to Saudi needs. An additional 70 F-15's already in Saudi hands will be upgraded to match the capabilities of the new planes.

Saudi Arabia will purchase a huge fleet of nearly 200 Apache, Blackhawk and other U.S. military helicopters, along with a vast array of radar systems, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, and guided bombs.

The U.S. trains and supplies all Saudi Arabia's security forces. U.S. corporations have huge investments in the Kingdom.

Say the words "Saudi Arabia" to President Obama or to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the high-minded prattle about the "Arab spring" stops abruptly. When the Saudis rushed security forces across the causeway and into Bahrein, counseling the Khalifa dynasty to smash down hard on the Shiite demonstrators in the homeport of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the noises of reproof from Washington were mouse-like in their modesty.

Could the uprisings in Saudi Arabia spiral out of control? We're talking here about two different challenges. The first are the long-oppressed Shiite, making up just under a quarter of the population. The second is from the younger generation in the Sunni majority — youth under 30 accounts for two-thirds of the Saudi population—living in one of the most thoroughgoing tyrannies in the world.

In February of this year, perturbed by the trend of events in Egypt and elsewhere, the 87-year-old King Abdullah announced his plan to dispense about $36 billion in welfare handouts — about $2,000 for every Saudi. He correctly identified one of the Kingdom's big problems, which is that over 40 percent of people between 18 and 40 don't have a job.

A few days ago, Abdullah offered Saudi women a privilege — to participate in certain entirely meaningless municipal elections (if approved by their husbands.) What municipal elections can be meaningful amid resolute repression under an absolutist monarchy?

The American Empire has effectively lost Iran and Iraq. What of Saudi Arabia? Suppose, fissures continue to open up in the Kingdom itself? I doubt, at such a juncture, that we would hear too much talk from Washington about "democracy" or orderly transitions. The Empire would send in the 101st Airborne.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



2 Comments | Post Comment
If you consider the price we have paid in war costs, bad relations with other Islamic countries, and an image around the world as an imperialist empire, that 12% of our petroleum needs is costing us through the nose. The western hemisphere has all the oil it needs to be self sufficient. There are no Islamic nations in the western hemisphere. If we paid more attention to cooperating and maintaining good relations with other countries in this hemisphere we would be free of a world of headaches. Let Saudi Arabia and Russia supply the rest of the worlds petroleum and contend with all the problems. We can always supply Saudi Arabia with arms as long as we supply Israel with arms. That standoff will never end.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Elwood Anderson
Thu Oct 6, 2011 5:09 PM
Our support of corrupt regimes like Saudi Arabia is termed "real politik" by the chattering classes and the ruling elite inside the Beltway. In reality, nothing could be less realistic than to suppose that the people of such nations will forever be content to be oppressed by such tyrants.

Come to think of it, with the gathering storm of Occupy___, it seems our ruling elite are as tone deaf to their own people as are the rulers they support throughout the world.
Comment: #2
Posted by: michael nola
Sat Oct 8, 2011 9:49 PM
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