American invasion plan stirs fierce Saudi debate

So what does everyone think of this? US plans to invade Saudi Arabia some 50 years ago.

Newly declassified British reports, revealing fears of a U.S. invasion of Saudi Arabia 30 years ago, are striking a remarkable chord inside the kingdom today.

At the very least they appear to have set off a fierce debate over the increasingly fragile rule of the Saudi royal family and its worsening relations with Washington.

Many Saudis, who believe America invaded Iraq to secure access to its oil, say they cannot exclude the possibility that their country will be next. That prospect is drawing widely different responses, which only highlight the huge sectarian, tribal and regional divisions among the Saudi population.

The Shiites who dominate the oil-rich eastern province say they would welcome an American-led intervention, coming after decades of discrimination at the hands of the Wahhabi religious establishment, which dismisses them as heretics.

Despite continuing violence and instability in Iraq, they are encouraged by the march of the Shiites in the south of Iraq, just across the Saudi border. Any change in the system would, they believe, re-establish their rightful control over the major oil fields.

As in Iraq, the Shiites in Saudi Arabia display a high degree of unity and political organization – and their aspirations toward independence are feared by the Saudi royals.

For their part the Hijazis, who belong to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, are more ambivalent about the possibility of a U.S. presence in the kingdom. They, too, have suffered second-class status and their religious sites have been demolished by the Wahhabis – but they would not collaborate with the United States.

Many Hijazis still regard the Hashemites – including the Jordanian royal family – as legitimate rulers of their region, 75 years after they were forced out by the Al Saud family. Jordanian princes, visiting the prophet’s tomb in Medina, have regularly been cheered by excited crowds.

Other tribes, especially those from the border region with Yemen, have little time for the Saudi royals but are fiercely anti-American. But that could change depending on what was on offer from the invading forces.

It is not known whether Washington weighed up such complexities in its battle plans 30 years ago. According to the British government documents released last week after 30 years, the Americans seriously contemplated invading Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in response to the Arab oil embargo of 1973.

Britain was right to take the prospect seriously. At a meeting that year in Copenhagen, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned the Saudis in stark terms that America was considering the use of force against them.

Such a move would have been fraught with danger at the time – but it would be even more dangerous now. The oil fields are scattered over a wide area, presenting any invading force with huge logistical difficulties, and opening them up to random attack by Al Qaeda forces, which have now established themselves as a deadly opposition within the kingdom. U.S. forces, already suffering daily attacks in Iraq, would find their welcome many times more lethal in Saudi Arabia.

All of this begs the question of why Washington would even consider such an attack. In 1973, the United States wanted to secure its strategic oil interests. In 2004, it might want to sweep aside the hard-line religious establishment and a regime that has been described in open congressional hearings as the epicenter of terrorism. Already the Americans have extended feelers to some of the more liberal of Saudi Arabia’s 22,000 princes, in the hope of replacing some of their octogenarian relatives.
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For decades, American policy rested on supporting the Saudi regime, believing that it represented a kind of brutal stability that was better than the extremist alternatives. But on Sept. 11, 2001, 15 Saudi hijackers changed that perception for good. Even if no U.S. invasion is planned now, the fact that many Saudis believe it to be possible is provoking further fears.

The writer is a research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.