Napoleon once remarked that that, if he had been king, he would have thrown Beaumarchais in prison for writing the Noces de Figaro. “The Marriage of Figaro is already the revolution in action.”
Astute of Napoleon to notice – and symptomatic of the tyrant’s syndrome of mistaking the symbol for the fact. The conditions that would precede the revolution in action were happening in the countryside; repressing the symbol becomes, itself, a symbol of the essential narcissism of the court. Figaros in the fields were already claiming equality with his absentee owners by the admittedly less artistic means of putting their houses to the torch. By the time that kind of censorship is needed, it is already too late for that kind of censorship.
If the Bourbons had been treated to a collective lobotomy, you might get something like the Sauds. This family arose from wretched origins, captured power through deceit and mass murder, and has kept it the way a pirate captain keeps order on a ship: by the timely distribution of spoil. This isn't to say that the American embrace of the family wasn't a very clever move. In the post war period, it seemed like an obvious move. Having frozen our relationship to Saudi Arabia to what it was in 1957, however, we have become, so to speak, inadaptive to the Middle Eastern landscape. It is rather like betting on the dinosaurs. We now have two unpalatable alternatives in Saudi Arabia -- supporting the Sauds, which is unviable in the long run, or supporting their overthrow, which is unviable in the short run.
In the aftermath of 9/11, there were several articles exchanged between right wing think tanks about the dispensability of the Sauds. While think tankers were confidently asserting that we didn’t need the dirty oil of the Sauds, Bush was doing what he could to help the ruling family get through the storm of blame that would ensue when it finally sank in that the 9/11 atrocity was committed mainly by Saudis, financed by Saudis, and had its root causes in the politics of Saudi Arabia. The think tankers put out white papers with such silly ‘facts” as the one they loved, about how the U.S. received only 17 percent of its oil, or some such figure, from Saudi Arabia. Thus, if the country went off line, we would only have to make up for a 17 percent loss, right? As though the 83 percent of the rest wouldn’t create a massive competition in other oil fields for the more than 70 percent of overseas oil we need annually. The think tankers, for all their commitment to capitalism, have an oddly naïve view of it. If the price of gas shoots up to 10 dollars a gallon, do they really think the president, of whatever party, is going to endure the fallout? In fact, the Sauds did the usual favor to the American regime du jour, and in the aftermath of 9/11, kept the price of oil down. The quid pro quo was sustained.
There were two articles this weekend in the British press about the coming revolution in Saudi Arabia. It has been predicted over and over that the Saud family is falling, but so far they have enjoyed a very vivacious decrepitude. They always have the outlet of massacring Shiites to relieve tension in the kingdom. But the Kingdom's problems just keep ticking away. In the nineties, the Saud family quietly replaced the officers in the air force after the discovery of numerous conspiracies to overthrow the royals. Saudi Arabia usually stifles news of internal dissent, and international papers, who are happy to spotlight problems elsewhere – say, the dictatorial aspects of Chavez’s presidency in Venezuala – have obliged the Saudis by pretty much ignoring conditions within the Kingdom. But it is going to be hard to ignore those conditions when they start involving dead Americans, as in the murder two days ago of an American security contractor; or when they involve attacks on the infrastructure. It is the latter which just might provide the biggest surprise in the election season here, bigger even then the capture, if capture is possible, of Osama bin Laden. The Sunday Times published a piece by Tony Allen-Mills that begins with a scenario taken from Baer’s book on Saudi Arabia – an attack on Ras Tanura, the largest oil terminal in the world.
Here is the news hook: “The murders of 22 foreigners -one of them a Briton whose body was tied to a car and dragged through the streets by his attackers -provoked an instant spike in oil prices and forced western governments to re-examine their contingency plans.
The prospect of a catastrophic interruption of oil supplies from the world's largest producer is once again haunting the West.”
The NYT reported last week that there was a Saudi radio discussion about when and where one could mutilate the body of one’s enemy in Saudi Arabia a couple of weeks ago. As the Times noted, even the most anti-American imams in Iraq condemned the mutilation of the American contractors in Fallujah. But this isn’t the way Saudi’s ‘theologians’ think of the problem.
Perhaps the Figaro moment was that odd hostage crisis last week. As Allen-Mills describes it:
“Others argue that such speculation is unduly alarmist; that Al-Qaeda is a spent force, the oilfields are well-defended, and that Crown Prince Abdullah and senior members of his family remain unshakably in charge.
That was certainly Abdullah's message after Saudi commandos stormed the Oasis compound last Sunday and freed 50 hostages held by a small group of gunmen.
"Security forces will, God willing, deal with them and others like them by force," the country's de-facto ruler announced. Yesterday a religious edict was issued calling on all Saudis to "inform on anyone planning an act of sabotage".
"But that was not the message conveyed by the bizarre ending to the siege at al-Khobar, where hundreds of Saudi police and commandos surrounded the compound yet somehow allowed all but one of the terrorists to escape. Suspicion of collusion between terrorists and security forces continues to undermine western confidence in the regime.”
The other article, by the Independent’s Mark Hollingsworth, focused less on worst case scenarios than on Saudi Arabia’s financial power. For those who think the U.S. can simply shrug off that power, there were some interesting facts and figures.
“The Saudis also keep an estimated $1trillion (pounds 550bn) on deposit in US banks and another $1trillion or so in the stock market. If they were to suddenly withdraw their investments, it would have a catastrophic impact on the US economy.”
LI thinks we will look back at the Bush response to 9/11 with puzzlement. How could we be so clueless as to have gone to war with Iraq, rather than engaging Al Qaeda? While Osama is both alive and well in a Pakistan that has proven, this spring, that it doesn’t have the strength to dislodge the terrorists, the real threat to the U.S. is growing in a Saudi Arabia where Osama has become a folk hero. While Al Qaeda’s point man for Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Moqrin, crows about the latest attacks on foreigners in the country, the Saud’s keep up their policy of bribery to the tune of subsidizing the thousands of Saud “princes” to the tune of 19,000 dollars per month. Meanwhile, the Saud underclass gets nothing.
The revolution is in action already in the oil fields. We are heading for the falls, captain.