The war in Iraq and the impending collapse of the Saudi Arabian monarchy

As mass resistance to the occupation of Iraq develops, the new Iraqi "government" will find it extremely difficult to control the situation. This growing instability in Iraq comes at a time when just across the border the Saudi regime is on the verge of a major crisis and could be toppled. This has led US strategists to consider the invasion of Saudi Arabia as a possible next step. But it is fraught with danger.

The so-called "transfer of power" in Iraq has given the people of a now devastated and blood-soaked country — and indeed the peoples of the entire world — a fresh lesson in the grim reality of imperialist "democracy". No less than its "interim" predecessor, this is a puppet government made up of traitors and criminals, and charged with assisting American imperialism in the plunder and oppression of the people of Iraq.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has been on the CIA payroll for many years. The president nominated by the US administration is Ghazi Al Yawer, a wealthy protégé of the Saudi Arabian monarchy and chief of one of the most powerful Sunni tribes. Some 200 American agents will be "advising" within the government, making sure that whatever decisions the ministers are allowed to make are strictly in line with the interests of American imperialism. And this is called "a return to sovereignty".

The first act of this hireling clique was to declare what amounts to a State of Emergency, with special powers to dissolve organisations, conduct arbitrary searches, and impose curfews. However, these measures make no difference in practice, since the people of Iraq have been living under the direct military dictatorship of US Army commanders ever since the fall of Baghdad.

The attempt on the part of the capitalist media to present this new government as a "first step" towards democracy is completely hypocritical. It solves nothing whatsoever from the point of view of the Iraqi people, and it will do even less to improve the position of the occupying armies, which are sinking deeper and deeper into a political and military quagmire from which there is no escape, and which, in the long run, can only lead to defeat.

Mass resistance to the occupation

The occupation of Iraq means permanent and worsening instability, for the simple reason that the occupying forces have no basis of support within the country. Mass demonstrations and acts of resistance against the foreign occupation are a daily occurrence.

It is true that in the north, US forces have met with little opposition from the predominantly Kurdish population. There too, however, the situation is potentially explosive. Turkey has made it quite clear that it will never accept autonomy for the Kurds in northern Iraq. This is because Kurdish autonomy would act as a stimulus to the struggle of the Kurds within Turkey itself. The Bush administration has been playing for time, trying to reassure both the Kurds in Iraq and the Turkish government. But this double game cannot go on forever. Ultimately, the only way for Washington to prevent a Turkish intervention would be to move in the direction of disarming the Kurds. This would inevitably lead to armed conflict.

Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the country, the population is seething with hatred against the imperialist forces. Against the background of economic collapse, with mass unemployment soaring at over 40%, Iraqi oil and all other national resources are being raked off by rapacious "enterprises" close to the Bush administration.

According to hospital statistics and the estimations of human rights organisations, the occupying forces have killed around 20,000 and wounded anything up to 50,000 Iraqis. American and British soldiers conduct nocturnal raids, smashing down doors and brutalising entire families, often killing men, women and children. Sweeping into neighbourhoods and villages, campaigns of blanket arrests have rounded up thousands of Iraqis, many of whom languish for weeks and months in tiny cages, where they are at the mercy of the sadistic "interrogation techniques" of sub-contracted mercenaries. Beatings, rape, and torture are commonplace.

A number of villages, suspected of harbouring insurgents have been completely laid to waste. Working class localities near to areas where helicopters or troops have been targeted are subjected to murderous air strikes. These "insurgency discouragement" tactics have had the opposite to their intended effect, and are driving fresh layers of youth and workers into the resistance movements. The organisations actively engaged in armed struggle are constantly growing in numbers, in military capability, and in audacity. A number of towns, such as Falluja, Najaf, and Kerbala, together with many areas in and around Baghdad, are now effectively off limits for the occupying forces.

Resistance has been particularly strong in the Sunni areas, where a number of resistance organisations have taken shape. These are partly based on soldiers and lower-ranking officers of the former Iraqi army. The resistance has been drawing increasing numbers of youth and public service workers into their ranks. The former US pro-consul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, dissolved the Iraqi army and dismissed all public service workers who were Baath Party members. This single measure meant throwing at least 450,000 people out of work. For these people, and for millions of other Iraqis who are desperately trying to scrape an existence out of the surrounding rubble and chaos, the struggle against foreign domination is a matter of life and death. Their own survival and that of their families is at stake.

The strength of the resistance is shown by the fact that the US forces were in effect defeated in Falluja, in spite of the horrific bombing campaign directed against the town by American aviation and artillery. Apart from brief incursions into the outskirts of the town, the American generals have been forced to recognise that it is impossible to maintain any permanent military presence there. In a growing list of Sunni towns, including Tikrit, constant harassment by insurgent organisations has effectively thrown the occupying forces onto the defensive.

White House spokesmen proclaimed the capture of Saddam Hussein as a decisive step towards the defeat of the resistance among the Sunnis. However, it should now be abundantly clear to everybody that this is not the case. On the contrary, the American authorities in Iraq are now recognising "off the record" that the capture of the former dictator has if anything tended to strengthen participation in the resistance movements.

The Shiites

Under Saddam Hussein, the Shiites, who make up at least 65% of the Iraqi population, were a specially oppressed section of society. Pilgrimages to their sacred shrines in Kerbala (where Hussein, the grandson of Mohammed, was put to death) and in Najaf (the burial place of Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Mohamed) were outlawed. The Shiites were subjected to constant repression and a whole series of massacres. In 1991, invading American forces halted their offensive and opened a corridor for Iraqi troops sent by Saddam Hussein for the purpose of putting down the Shiite uprising. This led to the slaughter of some 30,000 men, women and children.

Within the Shiite community, opposition is rapidly gathering strength. A number of different tendencies have emerged. The most important spiritual leader is Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. The US authorities would have liked to involve Al Sistani in the present government, but he has denounced it as illegal, saying that the only government, which Iraqis could recognise, would be an elected government. Considered as a "moderate", Al Sistani insists nonetheless on the immediate departure of the foreign armies. Given the preponderance of the Shiites in Iraq and the massive support for Al Sistani, his supporters would win a clear majority in the event of free elections in Iraq at the present time. A Shiite regime in Iraq, however, is something that US imperialism must avoid at all costs.

The Mahdi army led by the Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sader is waging armed resistance against the imperialists and their Iraqi collaborators. His forces are made up of disciplined units of young and courageous fighters. The US administration has ostensibly been trying to "negotiate" with Al Sader, while at the same time stating that he was on the list of those "wanted dead or alive" and was to be shot on sight! Al Sader has a powerful and growing basis among the most radicalised sections of the Shiite youth, but the forces at his disposal are as yet too weak to stage a general uprising against the occupation.

The tendency around Abdul Aziz Al Hakim is backed by the regime in Iran. He participated in the collaborationist "provisional government council". His brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim, moved to Iraq in the wake of the imperialist armies, and was assassinated at Najaf in August 2003. The present Minister of Finances, Adel Abdel Mehdi, is a former communist who now belongs to the Al Hakeim tendency. Another collaborationist tendency was formerly led by Abdel Majid Al Khoei, who went to Iraq from Britain in the first week of April 2003 and was immediately assassinated in Najaf. Al Khoei was cooperating with the British secret services. His return to Najaf was supposed to help "restore order" immediately after US troops had moved into the town.

The masses in the Shiite areas understand that free and democratic elections would lead to a Shiite government, thus eliminating the danger of renewed oppression by leaders basing themselves on the Sunni minority. It is this prospect of "peaceful" emancipation, which has so far allowed Al Sistani to hold his supporters in check. However, American imperialism cannot allow such an outcome, which would immediately enflame the Sunni population — which would then be faced with the prospect of becoming an oppressed minority — and would create grave difficulties for the regime in Saudi Arabia. The more moderate stance of Al Sistani is presently losing ground to the radical movements in favour of armed struggle, and especially to Al Sader. The occupying forces are trying to kill Al Sadr in the hope of cutting across this process.

Workers' parties and unions

Repression before and during the Saddam Hussein dictatorship resulted in the elimination of the workers' organisations as a viable social force. The Iraqi Communist Party (CP) was smashed. Its members were imprisoned, killed, or driven into hiding. The workers' movement has not yet recovered from this defeat, and the lack of a leadership based on a socialist and internationalist programme has meant that the leadership of the resistance movement has fallen into the hands of nationalists, fundamentalist clerics and other reactionary elements. The most important task posed in Iraq is the building of an independently organised movement of the working class.

In Baghdad, in Basra and other cities, independent workers' associations and trade union structures have begun to take shape. However, the general context of economic collapse means that the emergence of mass independent workers' organisations is an unlikely prospect in the immediate short term. The American administration is attempting to cut across any future development of independent workers' organisations by setting up unions, which are controlled by pro-coalition elements and funded by the State Department, using the International Labour Organisation as a cover. This will not stop the movement developing in the future, however.

Under Saddam Hussein, the top leadership of the Communist Party found its way into exile and, particularly after "Operation Desert Storm" in 1991, began to establish links with the American administration and other western imperialist governments. Throughout most of the 1990's, they supported the embargo against Iraq. According to UNICEF, this embargo killed anything up to 1,200,000 Iraqis, of which 500,000 were small children. They then participated in the "provisional council" set up by the American authorities immediately after the fall of Baghdad, and also in the present  "government" — which in reality governs nothing at all — in which they have the Ministry of Culture.

The CP leadership justifies participation in the government by claiming that it is the best means of hastening the departure of the coalition troops. It claims that armed struggle only serves to prolong the occupation, and points to the fundamentalist and Baathist elements involved in resistance organisations as proof of the anti-democratic and reactionary character of the resistance. Holding out the year 2005 as the date when, if all goes "according to plan", democracy will be established and foreign troops will leave, the CP leaders are opposed to democratic elections at the present time, on the grounds of  "continued violence". However, both within Iraq and among the communist exiles, many ordinary party members have grave misgivings about this collaborationist position.

An organisation known as the Communist Workers Party of Iraq, has its main base of support in Iraqi Kurdistan, but since the fall of Baghdad this party has become a small but growing force in the capital where it has carried out important work in organising unemployed workers and women. The Communist Workers Party of Iraq has a regular journal called Al Sharila — "The Workers". The party probably has between 100 and 200 members in Baghdad at the present time.

Falling morale in the occupying armies

The absence of any social basis for the occupying forces is reflected in the failure to organise a reliable Iraqi military force to work alongside American and British troops. The US administration claims to have recruited 30,000 Iraqis for this purpose. But many reporters on the ground claim that the real figure is closer to 12,000. Furthermore, only a fraction of this number has completed any serious training. There are probably no more than 5,000 pro-coalition Iraqi troops who could be considered as fit for combat at the present time.

The main recruiting sergeant for this collaborationist force is poverty, which is not the best motivation for an army whose purpose is to carry out punitive operations on behalf of a foreign power. Desertions of Iraqi trainees are frequent, as are acts of insubordination. Morale is clearly very low. A recent TV documentary by the Franco-German channel Arte gave an interesting insight into the reality of the "loyalist" Iraqi units. The documentary opens with an Iraqi commander explaining why his men are unwilling to be seen in the streets. "The people see us as traitors", he says. "Some of my men have already been killed, and their families have been given derisory sums in compensation. They are not paid enough to risk their lives." The US authorities finally agreed to a pay increase. But a few days later, when hundreds of protesters demand the release of women rounded up during the previous night, the Iraqi soldiers were still nowhere to be seen. The bitterly hostile crowd feared the women would be raped or tortured. The US commander finally located the Iraqi commander. His men still refused to intervene, he said, in spite of higher pay: "To show their faces would mean death."

This is by no means an isolated incident. Even Rumsfeld, quoted in Le Monde on June 26, 2004, had to admit that "nobody expected that the Iraqi security forces would be ready to face the kind of combat they had to deal with in Falluja, Najaf or Kerbala last April. It is not surprising that numerous Iraqi security units achieved poor results in recent combat situations." Clearly, Rumsfeld is as much given to the gentle art of understatement as he is to that of barefaced lying. The "poor results" of the Iraqi units in the towns he referred to amounted to fleeing for their lives or else turning their guns against the American troops.

Morale is falling among the American troops themselves. They were told that they were part of a "liberation force" to bring democracy and prosperity to Iraq, but now find themselves surrounded by a bitterly hostile population and involved in constant counter-insurgency operations. The effects of this on troop morale have been brought out in surveys carried out by the US Army command — which is hardly likely to exaggerate the problems. The San Francisco Chronicle published the results of one such survey on March 27, 2004. It stated that "70% of those surveyed characterized the morale of their fellow soldiers as "low or very low."The problems are most pronounced, says the Chronicle, among lower-ranking troops and those in reserve units. "Nearly 75% of the troops reported that their battalion-level command leadership was poor and showed a lack of concern for their soldiers." The report continues: "The study was initiated by the Army after a number of suicides provoked concern about the mental well-being of soldiers in Iraq. […] The Pentagon has been intensely worried that more frequent and longer combat tours will prompt more soldiers to get out of the Army rather than re-enlist, especially if it means a second stint in Iraq or Afghanistan."

Before the war, in a series of memos to the Oval Office, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz claimed that the seizure and occupation of Iraq would be a "cakewalk", and that the US forces would be greeted with open arms as heroes and liberators. Today, despite the optimistic declarations made at White House and Pentagon press conferences, the strategists of American imperialism must be terrified by the turn in events on the ground. The puppet regime installed in June is discredited from the outset. The financial and military resources of the US government are stretched beyond their limits, and no significant help can be expected from any other country in this respect. Hundreds of US soldiers have been killed. Thousands more are mutilated and dying, hidden away in military hospitals in Germany and elsewhere. Pipelines are sabotaged, convoys are attacked. The whole situation is getting out of control. From a military point of view, with the spread of popular resistance, the problems faced by the occupying forces in Iraq can only get worse. Sooner or later, against the background of worsening poverty and encouraged by the successes of the armed resistance organisations, a mass popular uprising will break out in Baghdad.

American imperialism finds itself on the horns of a terrible dilemma. Staying in Iraq means a prolonged and costly war, in which hundreds more soldiers will lose their lives. Opposition to the war back in the USA can only grow, which in turn will act as a spur to anti-war sentiment among the soldiers. On the other hand, pulling out of Iraq would amount to a catastrophic defeat, leaving US imperialism in a weaker position in the Middle East than was the case before the invasion. While the difficulties are mounting up on all sides in relation to Iraq, other equally insurmountable problems are emerging in other parts of the Middle East. In particular, the situation that is unfolding in Saudi Arabia is likely to turn what is already an extremely serious situation into a complete catastrophe from the point of view of the major powers.

Decline and instability in Saudi Arabia

At the time of the death of Ibn Saud in 1953, Saudi Arabia was the fourth biggest producer of oil. Today, with oil reserves amounting to 263 billion barrels, it produces more than any other country in the world. In 2003, Saudi Arabia was the biggest crude oil exporter to the USA. For American imperialism, the existence of a compliant regime in Saudi Arabia is of absolutely paramount importance. The American ruling class fully understands that any threat to the monarchy in Saudi Arabia would not only represent a direct and potentially devastating blow to oil supplies — and therefore to all other industrial and financial interests — in the USA, but would also bring into question the overall strategic position of American imperialism, in the Middle East and on a world scale.

Concern over the stability of the regime in Saudi Arabia was the single most important factor behind the invasion of Iraq. After Saudi Arabia, Iraq has the biggest oil reserves (112 billion barrels) of the entire region. Faced with the nightmarish prospect of a possible collapse of the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, the US imperialists would at least have a firm hold on the Iraqi oil reserves. Should the Saudi monarchy collapse, Iraq could then be used as a base for launching an overland offensive aimed at taking over the wells, refineries, pipelines and export terminals to the east of Riyadh and on the Persian Gulf. That, at least, was the plan at the time when Pentagon strategists were preparing for their "afternoon stroll" into Iraq. Now, sixteen months after the invasion, with 135,000 troops still pinned down in Iraq, and with another 80,000 troops involved in related operations elsewhere in the region, the powder keg on Iraq's south-western border is about to explode.

Saudi Arabia's economy is heavily dependant on the oil industry. Oil export revenues make up around 90% of total Saudi export earnings, provide 75% of state revenues, and around 40% of GDP. Over several decades, massive revenues from oil gave a powerful impetus to the growth of the national economy, and led to the rapid expansion of the main towns and cities. Until the middle of the 1970's, the standard of living for most Saudi citizens rose at a fairly steady rate. However, from the 1980's onwards, living standards stagnated and then declined. According to some estimates, the rate of unemployment now stands at over 25% of the male population. Figures for unemployed women in Saudi Arabia are, of course, unavailable.

Per capita oil export revenues have declined sharply over the last 20 years, falling from $22.2 to just $3.4 per person between 1980 and 2003. This is due in part to the doubling of the number of young people in Saudi Arabia since 1980, while oil export revenues in real terms have fallen sharply. The recent fall in the value of the dollar — the currency in which oil is paid for — has led to a deterioration of Saudi terms of trade. State and trade deficits have steadily increased. The USA forced the Saudi government to make a heavy contribution towards the cost of the 1991 war with Iraq, which plunged the State Treasury into even deeper debt. The state deficit now stands at over 100% of Saudi GDP.

Members of the royal family swallow up a huge proportion of national revenue, most of which has been invested abroad in a whole range of lucrative industrial, financial and real estate projects. The steady outflow of capital and massive state expenditure on armaments and internal security — over 30,000 armed guards are permanently stationed in and around the oil installations —  have acted as a further brake on the overall development of the economy.

The Saudi regime drew its legitimacy as the "custodian of Mecca" from the particularly rigorous interpretation of Islamic religious doctrine known as wahabism. By developing the power and authority of the religious leaders, the mosques were used to impose blind submission to royal edicts. Any challenge to the regime or to this interpretation of Islam, which is particularly oppressive in relation to women, was severely punished. Through their religious power-base and police repression, together with the extensive use of spies and informers, the royal family and the religious leaders rooted out and ruthlessly crushed any oppositional tendencies within society.

However, from the 1980's onwards, against a background of economic decline and growing unemployment, there were clear signs that popular resentment against the royal family was on the rise. The austere and stifling "purism" of the wahabite doctrine which the princes claimed to profess contrasted sharply with the ostentatious display of wealth and power, the corruption, and the lifestyle — frequenting high-class prostitutes in western capitals, ownership of gambling casinos, etc. — of the princes. Feeling the ground shifting beneath their feet, the monarchy became increasingly dependant on the spiritual leaders as a means of legitimising its rule and as an instrument of social control. And yet, given the absence of any other organised structures through which opposition could express itself, it was precisely in the mosques that hostility to the ruling clique was being organised in the form of extreme wahabite radicalism. Increasingly, the wahabite priests questioned the legitimacy of the House of Saud, which they saw as undermining their own credibility and power. In order to maintain their hold over the population, they tended to distance themselves from the royal family.

"Operation Desert Storm" in 1991 and the installation of US military bases in Saudi Arabia marked a turning point, driving increasing numbers of people into opposition. The Stratfor bulletin of January 30, 2004 underlined the importance of the change that took place at that time : "The public mood changed after the war, when the extent of the death and destruction in Iraq became apparent and the blame was passed through the US forces to the House of Saud, which invited them in to begin with. The retention of the military bases in the country added fuel to the fire of those opposing the regime who used the US presence as a rallying point and an example of the disloyalty and deviance of the Saudi regime, which opponents said sullied the sacred soils of Saudi Arabia with US military personnel."(Saudi Arabia: A Balancing Act)

Throughout the 1990's, beneath what still appeared on the surface to be an unshakable regime, wahabism was increasingly divided into two trends, one of which drew closer to the ruling clique, and the other which was conducting political-religious propaganda for a change of regime. This latter wing of wahabism gained increasingly wide support, not only from disillusioned and unemployed youth, but also from the middle layers of society, such as students and small businessmen, and also from a section of the capitalist class, whose interests were also threatened by the general economic decline. Manoeuvring from one expedient to another, from repression to concessions and back to repression, the royal family played for time, trying to prevent at all costs the simmering subterranean opposition from breaking out into open conflict.

The Saudi rulers used the "holy wars" waged in Afghanistan and elsewhere, together with token support for the Palestinian cause, to bolster its position on the home front and deflect the activities of wahabite fundamentalist militants into the international arena. Fanaticised mujahadin were sent to Afghanistan and elsewhere. Massive funding was provided for these operations, not only by the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but also by the governments of the United States, Britain, France and a number of other western countries. At the time of the war in Afghanistan, figures such as Bin Laden and the "freedom fighters" recruited in the Islamic schools and institutions financed by Saudi Arabia and other wahabite states were considered as vitally important allies of American imperialism.

Together with the Saudi regime, Washington had encouraged these fundamentalist networks — including their extensions in Algeria, in Dagestan, Chechnya and elsewhere — and used them to their own ends. However, both the USA and Saudi Arabia then lost whatever control they initially had over the fundamentalists. In Afghanistan, the leaders of the so-called Taliban army took power in 1996 with the backing of the United States, but then turned against their former allies in Washington. Al-Qaida launched a long series of terrorist attacks directed against American targets, such as the bomb which exploded at the US Embassy in Nairobi in August 1998 and the attack, by means of a small dingy filled with explosives, on USS Cole in October 2000. Then came the horrific events of September 11, 2001, this time on the home territory of the United States.

The ambiguous role of the House of Saud in relation to these events expresses the dilemma in which it finds itself. Most of the participants in the September 11 attack were Saudi nationals. Members of the royal family were channelling funds through to Al-Qaida in exchange for guarantees that it would confine its activities to foreign targets. On the one hand, the Saudi regime relies on the military and economic power of American imperialism in order to bolster its position within the country and in the Middle East. On the other hand, in order to deflect internal opposition away from the kingdom, it was involved in funding terrorists who were attacking the United States. As the previously quoted Stratfor Bulletin explained: "For Riyadh, the presence of US forces was both a saving grace, staving off internal and external aggression, and a source of danger, contributing to the rise of domestic opposition to the regime and militancy. The resulting internal threat to the regime was stifled and deflected, with Osama Bin Laden — the personification of the opposition — leaving the country and targeting U.S. military facilities and operations abroad." (Saudi Arabia: A Balancing Act)

The rise of wahabite extremism is by no means the only expression of social discontent in Saudi Arabia. Corruption and squandering of economic resources are now publicly denounced. Intellectuals and students, braving the threat of imprisonment and beatings, have been organising illegal petitions calling for democratic reform, and for an end to the abject discrimination against women. Public demonstrations have demanded the right for women to drive cars. The authorities replied by calling them "adulteresses". In Saudi Arabia, adultery is a crime punished by being stoned to death.

The hated mutawa are now openly confronted and threatened in the streets by angry youth and parents. In the mosques and in the streets, these "pious" thugs wander around, beating with rods anyone who they consider to be transgressing the despotic rules of wahabite Islam, such as people listening to music or a woman showing a few strands of hair. In the past, people were too afraid to challenge these brutes, but now this has changed. The protests finally forced the government to appeal for restraint in the use of the rod, at least in the open street.

Recently, a very well known woman TV announcer was very severely beaten by her husband. Instead of hiding away in shame until her cuts and bruises had healed, she courageously appeared on TV to denounce brutality against women. In the context of the draconian wahabite dictatorship which exists in Saudi Arabia, small incidents such as this are symptoms of a profound and radical change in the psychology of ordinary people. It means that people are losing their fear. And this, in turn, means that the House of Saud is doomed.

In the Middle East and across northern Africa, hostility to American imperialism has been fuelled over decades by its support of deeply unpopular and oppressive Arab regimes. In particular, American imperialism is hated for what is seen as unconditional support for the reactionary foreign policy of the Israeli ruling class. The cynical manipulation and betrayal of the Palestinians, who have been repeatedly humiliated and crushed under the heel of Israeli imperialism, has been a major factor in shaping the psychology of youth and workers in the Arab-speaking world. The invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and particularly that of Iraq in March 2003, has given a new and powerful impulse to popular hostility to American imperialism in all these countries. In Saudi Arabia, this hostility is more than ever directed against the "allies" of Washington in the royal palaces. Organisations such as Al Qaida, which stand for the overthrow of the monarchy, have undoubtedly gained a significant basis of support among the most oppressed sections of society.

The monarchy is therefore under intense pressure, both from structures such as Al Qaida and from broad sections of society, which are hostile to any further cooperation with American imperialism. At the same time, the regime is under pressure from Washington. Resisting demands from Washington means undermining its own position and precipitating the fall of the monarchy. At the same time, however, continued collaboration with American imperialism will also prove fatal. Operations designed to clamp down on internal opposition are counter-balanced by symbolic actions intended to show that the monarchy is distancing itself from American imperialism, such as the decision, in June 2004, to boycott the G8 summit.

Some of the defiant gestures directed against American interests have been rather more than symbolic. Last January, for instance, Riyadh granted major contracts for natural gas exploration and production to the Russian company Lukoil and to China's Sinopec. Repsol from Spain and Italy's ENI and were also granted lucrative contracts. Contending companies from Britain and America, however, were completely excluded from the deal. This was clearly intended to show the Saudi population that the monarchy is prepared to defy America. It also gives Saudi Arabia a little more room to manoeuvre in international relations, since it enlists the support of the favoured countries — of Russia and China in particular — as a counterweight to the increasingly intense pressure from the USA. Beijing and Moscow have gained an important strategic foothold in the Middle East as a result of the deal, and are naturally delighted to oblige the Saudi regime in this respect.

The Pentagon has now closed down most US military bases in Saudi Arabia in the hope of easing the internal pressure on the Saudi regime. The United States has nonetheless maintained a military presence in Saudi Arabia. Within the Saudi Arabian armed forces, Saudi generals and senior officers are "shadowed" by a parallel structure made up of American "specialists", "instructors" and "advisers". The military capability from the former US bases in the kingdom have been moved just across the border into neighbouring Qatar. From an operational point of view, the change in the relationship between the Saudi regime and the US military facilities is more apparent than real.

There are indications of growing uneasiness within the Saudi armed forces. For instance, in May of this year, when an armed group launched an attack in the industrial town of Al Khobar on the eastern coast, and found themselves surrounded by Saudi Special Forces, the armed group was allowed to leave the building unharmed before the special forces moved into the building. Much to the dismay of the royal family, it was reported in the English language journal Arab News that the militants had already stopped a taxi on the outskirts of the town more than two hours before the Special Forces attacked. They told the driver that they were not terrorists, but mujahadin fighting against "imperialism and Zionism". This is a clear sign that lack of confidence in the ruling clique has now made its way into commanding strata of the armed forces. The Saudi regime is now undermined to the extent that it could collapse at any time.

In a way typical of regimes on the eve of their own overthrow, the Saudi rulers are divided between those who seek salvation in stepping up repression and those who opt for reform. The Bush administration is pressing for harsh repressive measures against wahabite fundamentalism. In practice, however, this amounts to sawing off the branch upon which the royal family has been sitting for decades. This explains the attitude of the Special Forces commanders in Al Khobar.

At the same time, Washington is pressing for "democratic" reforms. Bush and his block-headed advisors seem to think that the Saudi rulers can knock away the fundamentalist pillars upon which their power has rested for decades and replace them by new "democratic" pillars, moving towards some kind of constitutional monarchy. By means of piecemeal "reforms from above", they hope to avoid a revolution from below. The regime has decided to hold municipal elections in September. This will be the first election of any kind since the 1960's. It is a small concession, but will be seen as a sign of great weakness. So far, Prince regent Abdullah has bowed to pressure from the wahabite extremists, and is refusing to allow women to vote or to stand as candidates. This has given rise to a new spate of petitions and protests in the universities and in the streets. The granting of municipal elections will prove to be too little and too late.

These developments show that on the internal front and in the international arena, the Saudi regime is now swinging from one expedient to another, desperately looking for points of support. Hard pressed on all sides, the regime is balancing dangerously, like a withered old man on a tightrope. It will inevitably fall — and probably a lot sooner than most people think.

It is difficult to say what kind of government, if any, will replace the monarchy when it finally falls. A new government might be formed by a fraction of the armed forces. Some areas could well fall into the hands of fundamentalist fanatics. One thing is certain, however, whatever the form of the new government, it will necessarily adopt a hostile stance to both American and Israeli imperialism. Any other policy would be fatal to it. One other thing is certain, too. The United States, in spite of all the difficulties in Iraq, and in spite of the shortage of troops and money, would have no alternative but to launch yet another war in the Middle East.

In an article entitled The Saudi Regime Fights for Survival, published on June 2, 2004, Le Figaro saw the problem in the following terms: "Conscious of the extreme fragility of the regime, the Americans are pushing the royal family to introduce the reforms announced by Prince Abdullah. Last November, George W. Bush cited Saudi Arabia as one of those countries which should turn towards democracy, saying that it was "no longer in the interests of the United States" to cooperate with undemocratic leaders. In the Pentagon, especially, certain "hawks" think the Saudi regime can only last for a few more months. They think that the American army could "fairly easily" take control of the oil industry installations and protect them by means of isolating them from the rest of the country, which would then no doubt disintegrate or fall into the hands of supporters of Bin Laden. "If ever we were to turn our backs on Saudi Arabia", said one high-ranking State Department official, "the result would not be a pretty sight". The preservation of the Saudi monarchy would therefore appear to be the lesser evil."

The "fairly easy" scenario — haven't we heard that somewhere before? — attributed to the Pentagon will in fact turn out to be an extremely difficult task. First of all, the "isolating from the rest of the country" of what is in fact the most developed area of Saudi Arabia could not even begin to be done without first of all securing control of the capital, which lies immediately to the south-west of the area concerned. In hostile hands, Riyadh would be a powerful base for operations against the invader. The pipelines would also have to be secured, including, presumably, the vitally important pipeline, which stretches across the centre of the country as far as the terminals of Yanbu and Al Monayez on the Red Sea coast. Even if the pipeline to the western outlets were to be sacrificed, the launching of a second war in the Middle East would require huge additional resources, way beyond the present financial and military capacities of the United States.

It would seem that, as with Afghanistan and as with Iraq, the "strategists" in the Pentagon have not thought out the situation they are likely to find themselves in after the initial attack. It should not be forgotten that this new aggression would be directed against the Muslim Holy Land — the land of Mecca and Medina. It would have an electrifying effect on the peoples of the entire Muslim world, and would never be accepted. Literally thousands of Muslim fighters would pour into Saudi Arabia from all over the world. The pro-American regime in Jordan could well be faced with immediate overthrow in the event of an invasion of Saudi Arabia. The regimes in the Lebanon and in Egypt would be further destabilised. In Israel, also, the repercussions of the crisis would lead to further attacks against the living standards of Israeli workers, forcing them into action against the ruling class. A military intervention against the land of Mecca would generate a worldwide army of self-sacrificing Islamic youth, willing and eager to strike American targets whenever and wherever possible.

At a time when the flow of oil from Iraq is still not anywhere near optimal levels because of continual sabotage of installations and pipelines, the invasion of Saudi Arabia would mean the destabilisation of oil supplies on an international scale. The resulting steep rise in oil prices would have dramatic economic consequences throughout the entire world, and cause a series of social, political and military upheavals. This, so it seems, will be the next stage in the so-called "New World Order"!

In the Middle East, the accumulated pressures of decades of economic decline, wars, mass unemployment, national and religious oppression, and all the other problems created by capitalism and imperialism, have now reached absolutely unbearable proportions. This means that great struggles and revolutionary events are on the order of the day throughout the region. Given the crucial importance of oil supplies from the Middle East, these events will inevitably lead to a further intensification of the struggle for markets and resources among the major powers, with the prospect of further international conflicts and wars. Out of the chaos, instability, wars and bloodshed of ours times, must arise and will arise a new and powerful force, capable of providing a solution to all of this — that of organised labour and the struggle for international socialism.

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