Medea Benjamin / Book Excerpt (OR Books) – 2016-09-06 00:01:16
Special to Environmentalist Against War
(September 2016) — Through the women-led peace organization CODEPINK that I cofounded with Jodie Evans after the 9/11 attacks, I have spent much of the last decade standing up against US military intervention in the Middle East and supporting local democracy activists.
I traveled many times to the region, listening to human rights advocates, marching with them in the streets, dodging tear gas and bullets, and getting beaten up and deported by government thugs.
I have seen, firsthand, the deadly effects of US foreign policies. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq destroyed the lives of millions, including many of my dear friends, and unleashed the sectarian hatred that later gave birth to the Islamic State.
I recall a conversation with my Iraqi colleague Yanar Mohammad, daughter of a Shiite father and Sunni mother, and founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. When I asked her what was the most notable legacy of the US invasion of her country, she gave the chilling response: “We, Sunnis and Shia, learned to hate each other.”
In another part of the Middle East, US military support for Israel has wreaked havoc on the lives of Palestinians and aroused the ire of people throughout the region. Continuous US military interventions — from drone warfare in Yemen to overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya to funneling an endless stream of weapons into the region — have unleashed new levels of violence.
But the United States is not the only nation whose massive footprint has been trampling on the lives of people in the Middle East. The other nation is Saudi Arabia, an oppressive monarchy that denies human rights to its own people and exports extremism around the world. It also happens to be the closest US ally in the Arab world.
During the 1980s and 1990s, I met intolerant and violent young men in Pakistan and Afghanistan who were trained to hate Westerners in Saudi schools. In 2001, I saw my own nation convulsed by an attack on September 11 that was perpetrated mostly by Saudis. It’s not hard to connect the dots between the spread of the Saudi’s intolerant ideology of Wahhabism, the creation of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and the attacks in New York, Paris, Brussels, and San Bernadino.
You can also connect the dots between Saudi Arabia and the failure of some of the historic democratic uprisings associated with the Arab Spring, since the Saudi monarchy did not want calls for democracy to threaten its own grip on power. I was in Bahrain after Saudi tanks crushed the inspiring grassroots encampment in Pearl Square, where tens of thousands had gathered day after day to demand democracy.
I will never forget the excitement of being in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution, then watching, aghast, as a military coup backed by the Saudis put some forty thousand activists behind bars. In Yemen, the Saudis took a direct military role in that nation’s internal conflict with a ruthless bombing campaign.
When I travel overseas, people often ask me why Saudi Arabia — a country that is so repressive internally and overseas — is such a close ally of the United States. Iranian friends want to know why the US government is so outspoken about human rights violations in Iran but silent about worse abuses in the Saudi Kingdom.
Yemenis ask why my government supplies weapons to the very nation — Saudi Arabia — that bombed their schools and hospitals. Saudi women ask why the United States, which professes great democratic values, props up a regime that treats women as second-class citizens.
The easy answer is oil, weapons sales, and other business interests. Oil has formed the basis for Saudi-US ties; the kingdom has become the largest purchaser of American weapons in the world, and hundreds of billions of Saudi petrodollars help shore up the US economy.
But there’s another reason, perhaps more critical than any of the others: the American people have not demanded an end to this dysfunctional, toxic relationship. Why? In part, because they know so little about it.
Even Americans who consider themselves part of a peace movement know virtually nothing about the kingdom. The Saudi press is muzzled, foreign journalists are strictly monitored, and only tourists visiting for religious purposes are allowed in.
Add to that a Saudi lobby that lines the pockets of US think tanks such as the Middle East Institute, Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale, and influential institutions from the Clinton Foundation to the Carter Center. This checkbook diplomacy helps put a happy face on the abusive monarchy and silence its critics.
So we have a lot to uncover. This book is meant to be a primer, giving readers a basic understanding of how the kingdom holds on to power internally and how it tries to influence the outside world. It looks at the founding of the Saudi state; the treatment of dissidents, religious minorities, women, and migrant workers; the spread of Wahhabism; the kingdom’s relationship with the West and its role in the region; and what the future might hold.
As we delve into the inner workings of this dystopian regime, don’t mistake criticism of Saudi Arabia for Islamophobia. This book is not a critique of Islam but a critique of three intertwining factors that have shaped the Saudi nation: the extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, the appropriation of the Saudi state by one family, and the Western support for this dynasty.
Criticizing Saudi Arabia should also not be equated with support for Saudi Arabia’s nemesis: Iran. The Iranian government is guilty of some of the same abuses as the Saudis, such as restricting freedom of speech and assembly, imprisoning dissidents, and executing people for nonviolent offenses. But US policy constantly rewards the Saudis while punishing Iran, even though the Iranian people have made significantly more progress than the Saudis in reforming their nation.
As outsiders, particularly those of us from North America and Europe, our responsibility is not to take sides in the Saudi/Iran split or Sunni/Shia sectarian divisions.
Our responsibility is also not to change the Saudi regime; that is the job of the Saudi people. Many brave Saudis have been tweeting, blogging, marching, defying government restrictions, risking prison, and even sacrificing their lives to change their government.
Our responsibility is to support these activists or, at the very least, to make sure our governments get out of their way as they attempt to transform their own nation.
What about People-to-people Ties?
There is limited citizen-to-citizen exchange between Americans and Saudis. While thousands of US oil and construction workers live in Saudi Arabia, they reside in Western housing compounds sealed off by high walls and gates, affording little interaction with local Saudis outside the work environment.
Saudi Arabia is one of the hardest places in the world for Americans to visit as tourists. While the kingdom opens its doors to some five million religious pilgrims a year (only during the month of Hajj to visit the religious sites through a government-sponsored travel agent), it does not issue tourist visas. Fearing cultural and political contagion, the Saudis decided to restrict travel to diplomats and businesspeople sponsored by a local business.
Adding to the taboo, the US State Department has issued stern travel warnings. “There have been attacks on US citizens within the past year and there continue to be reports of threats against US citizens. . . . Possible targets include housing compounds, hotels, restaurants, shopping areas, international schools, and other facilities where Westerners congregate,” a 2015 State Department warning read. Even diplomats are restricted from traveling to several parts of the country.
Saudis can, and do, travel to the United States, and many Saudi students study in US universities. If there is one bright hope for better understanding, it is among the youth. According to the White House, in 2014, there were approximately eighty thousand Saudis studying in the United States.
These future leaders will certainly have positive exchanges with their US counterparts that may foster closer people-to-people ties. These contacts are also likely to increase pressure on the Saudi regime to loosen its restrictive social mores and conventions.
So What Might the Future Bring?
The US-Saudi relationship has survived wars between Israelis and Arabs, oil embargoes, the Afghan war, two wars in Iraq, the 9/11 attacks, the rise of Al Qaeda, and most recently, the Syrian war and the rise of the Islamic State.
But this marriage of convenience had to be constantly justified from both sides. Saudi rulers had to convince religious zealots that the Westerners were not a threat to Saudi religious traditions; US officials have had to justify the relationship as essential to US national interests.
The rationale binding Western interests to the Saudi state is no longer so easily justified. “For more than half a century, Saudi leaders manipulated the United States by feeding our oil addiction, lavishing money on politicians, helping to finance American wars, and buying billions of dollars in weaponry from US companies,” wrote author Stephen Kinzer. “Now the sand is beginning to shift under their feet.”
Maintaining dozens of bases in the Middle East at a cost of billions of dollars a year has not secured peace. Indeed, there may never have been an attack on the World Trade Center if US troops had not been stationed in Saudi Arabia and all over the rest of the Middle East.
And what about oil? It is certainly not necessary to have this massive military presence to protect oil supplies, especially when the United States in 2014 received only 13 percent of its oil and natural gas from the region.
Moreover, this addiction to oil that is at the core of the US-Saudi relationship has had catastrophic effects on the environment. Of all the negative consequences of this oil-based relationship, the worst may well be its contribution to climate change.
The billions we have spent protecting the Gulf monarchies and the petrodollar system, far from increasing our security, has accelerated one of the greatest threats to our national security we have ever faced: climate chaos. If we are to have a chance at saving the planet, we have to make a transition away from a fossil-fueled economy.
So for many reasons, the US-Saudi “relationship of convenience” is no longer convenient. The US government and other Western nations must re-evaluate a partnership that is neither sensible, credible, justifiable, or sustainable.
Reprinted with permission of OR Books.
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