Why the U.S. Can't Lean on Saudi Arabia

Royals Keep One Eye on Fortune, Other on Palace Keys

Saudi Arabia claims it has severed all ties with Osama bin Laden, but the government there is dragging its feet in helping us follow the terrorist's trail. It won't freeze his assets, nor turn over records of the charities which reportedly funneled money to the Al Qaeda network. When Saudi prince Alwaleed Bin Talal offered New York City a relief check for $10 million, it came with a slam on U.S. Middle East policy; Mayor Rudy Giuliani sent it back.

Saudi Arabia's mixed signals aren't surprising. Rumors persist that some members of the enormous Saudi royal family remain close to Bin Laden. The family is simply too sprawling—and too rich—to be forced into lockstep agreement on anything.

Estimates place the total size of the royal family at 5000-plus princes, each one of whom is given $500,000 as a sort of start-up fee at birth. The family propagates at the alarming rate of between 35 and 40 princes each month. (For his personal pleasure, the founding king Ibn Saud kept four wives, four concubines, and four slaves, whose numbers he replenished frequently. He married into 30 tribes, a series of arrangements that supposedly helped knit the country together.)

The incredible wealth of this family is entirely based on American investment in and development of the country's oil fields, namely by Aramco, a joint venture of Standard Oil and Texaco. And the family has made money hand over fist, with annual oil revenues jumping from $4 billion in 1972 to $111 billion in 1981. Since the family runs the country, most of that money goes to them. Very little gets passed along through its medieval religious government to ordinary people.

Family members have used their fortune to support the fundamentalist Islamic schools and a hardline Muslim political party in Pakistan. Graduates of these schools have gone on to join Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.

And though oil money and U.S. influence have given Saudi Arabia a measure of modernity, the nation remains repressive in ways reminiscent of the situation in Kabul. People living in Saudia Arabia have no right to criticize the government. Any and all political parties are outlawed. The slightest criticism of anything sets off the religious cops, who go around beating women and cutting off people's hands and feet as punishment for such things as shoplifting. An Egyptian convicted of robbery was sentenced to 4000 lashes at the rate of 50 every two weeks.

Beheadings take place in a public square on Friday, with the convicts unaware of what's going to happen until they are dragged outside. An execution can end with the crucifixion of the decapitated body. Adulterers are stoned to death. To avoid embarrassing women by exposing their necks for the executioners swords, officials dispatch them with a pistol shot.

"People who are arrested in Saudi Arabia for whatever reason find themselves trapped in a criminal justice system that provides them with no information about their fate, allows them no prompt contact with their families or a doctor, and offers them no hope of contacting a lawyer," wrote Amnesty International in one of its continuing series of scathing reports on the Saudis. "The system perpetuates a wide range of human rights violations—arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention, the incarceration of prisoners of conscience, torture, secret and summary trials, cruel judicial punishments and executions—which are all facilitated by the state's policy of secrecy and the prohibition of the right to express conscientiously held beliefs."

While the royal family pays tribute to Islam by whacking off people's heads at home, its princes are galavanting around the world, forever acting the playboy, luxuriating on yachts, and driving fast cars. In Washington some years ago there was a commotion when Saudi slaves accompanying members of the royal family started jumping out of hotel windows, trying to get away.

A few examples of their activity give an idea of what's going on. Family members claim ownership in the swanky Four Seasons hotel chain, partnering with Michael Jackson on the one hand, and Donald Trump's plaza on the other. The royals are into the Copley Plaza in Boston and the Fairmont in San Francisco. They have owned Saks Fifth Avenue and bought and then sold Berkeley Square in elegant London. They have propped up TWA and bought into the struggling Apple computers. They bought and restored a little old English village in Oxfordshire just for the hell of it. One prince took a piece of Citicorp, bought into Canary Wharf in London, and obtained a slice of Disneyland Paris.

The royals are alleged to be the shadowy force behind offshore accounts used to pay for military equipment from Britain (including submarines, frigates, choppers, howitzers, and precision-guided bombs). Saudi Arabia long has been America's top arms customer. In the decade ending in 1998, the U.S. delivered weapons worth $40.6 billion to the Saudis.

Despite the Saudi's disgusting image in international politics, the U.S. has avoided any criticism of the royal family. For starters, we need their oil, and during the Gulf War, we used their land for a base. The latter led to a break between Bin Laden and the royals, when a young Osama upbraided the palace for welcoming infidels to the land of Muhammad. The future terrorist was rebuked and driven from the country.

But Bin Laden's religious fervor was a wake-up call for the royal family. With the Shah of Iran's fate uppermost in their minds, they have maintained an interest in the fundamentalists, pumping money into their operations in northwestern Pakistan.

 
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