July 29, 2002

Is the US moving to overthrow Crown Prince Abdullah?

The idea that oil is key to understanding the administration's actions in the "war on terrorism" is an article of faith on the Left. Not the social-democratic Clintonite left – which naturally wouldn't be caught dead in the company of Noam Chomsky, Alex Cockburn, and Ted Rall – but the remnants of the Old Left and the emerging New-New Left of the Indymedia-crunchy-granola variety. Writing in a recent issue of The American Prospect, theoretical journal of born-again Clintonism, Ken Silverstein disdainfully catalogues the "conspiracy theories" of the "far right and the far left," whose veracity, he writes, "is obvious – that is, it's obvious if you get your information from the Internet."

Since Silverstein's piece is on the Internet – posted there by TAP – one wonders where he gets off being so huffy. But never mind. If you believe any or all of the following, says Silverstein, it's time to get fitted for a tinfoil hat:

"The war in Afghanistan is a sham. The Bush administration had advance knowledge of the September 11 attacks but took no action, using the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as an excuse to topple the Taliban regime and legitimize the takeover of Afghanistan. Well-placed government insiders, knowing of the impending attacks, made fortunes by betting on a huge fall in airline stocks. The war is not about terrorism but about America's desire to control energy in Central Asia and promote corporate plans to plunder the region's reserves. The chief U.S. concern all along has been to help Unocal Corporation build a pipeline across Afghanistan, which would carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan."

The Silverstein technique is to blend the kooky with the obvious, and thus render both unpalatable. Obviously the war in Afghanistan was and is a sham when two high officials in the newly-installed pro-US government are assassinated in plain sight, including the Vice President, and "President" Karzai demands American bodyguards to replace his Afghan (i.e. untrustworthy) guards. The word "sham" can mean many things, but surely this is one of them.

However, if we cut through the camouflage about "advance knowledge" and "well-placed insiders," we get to the meat of Silverstein's beef: the perfectly rational idea that "the war is not about terrorism but about America's desire to control energy in Central Asia and promote corporate plans to plunder the region's reserves."

America's desire to control Central Asian oil and natural gas reserves is hardly a secret: the Clinton administration set up a special government agency to promote the "Caspian Initiative" and appointed Richard Morningstar to a new position: Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State, for Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy. The Clintonites invested millions in taxpayer dollars and a lot of their own political capital in agitating for a particular pipeline route, from Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, to Ceyhan, a Turkish port on the Black Sea.

The "free market" Bushies have carried on this corporatist crusade, and the project, run by a consortium headed up by British Petroleum, is near realization, with construction scheduled to begin next March. While the economic benefits to the US are doubtful – almost none of the actual oil will ever reach American shores – Ambassador Morningstar always explained that the increase in the total amount of oil on the world market would, somehow, increase our own "energy security," and the Bush administration has generally followed in this path. Although Colin Powell has downgraded the diplomatic status of the Special Advisor, the Great Game continues to be played, with the US insisting on the technically dubious and horrifically expensive Baku-Ceyhan project, when a pipeline through Iran would be far more commercially feasible.

While most oil analysts echo the opinion of Iranian diplomats that Iran – "with its hands on the Caspian Sea and its feet in the Persian Gulf" – is the most viable route, the US has been unalterably opposed for a number of reasons. An Iranian pipeline would mean that Bechtel and GE Capital – who expect to spend $4 billion on Baku-Ceyhan, much of it in US tax dollars via "loan guarantees" and other government subsidies estimated at $200 million per year – wouldn't rake in mega-profits. Perhaps more importantly, Washington wouldn't achieve its goal of "energy security," i.e. finding a way around the Saudis, who are still stubbornly negotiating for better terms before they let Big Oil back in the country. And, of course, I might have known that there's an Israeli angle, too.

Buried amid the more spectacular stories coming out of the Middle East – death cult suicide bombers, wanton Israeli attacks on civilians, the apocalyptic birthing of a red heifer – is the news that the Saudis are about to decide on whether to go ahead with a multi-billion dollar gas deal with Western oil companies.

Crown Prince Abdullah, the heir apparent, has been in charge of the day-to-day affairs of the Kingdom since the elderly and frail King Fahd took to his bed. Abdullah is a modernizer determined to liberalize the state-run oil sector by allowing foreign investment for the first time since 1975. But Big Oil isn't making it easy for him: they want a bigger piece of the pie than the Crown Prince is willing to serve up, and the negotiations, ongoing since June 2001, are on the verge of breaking down. The BBC reports:

"Saudi sources have suggested that the projects will be re-offered for fresh bids if there is no agreement with the parties now involved."

But there are indications that these parties – Exxon Mobil and Shell – are not about to give up so easily. If Abdullah is seen as the principal obstacle to their plans, then he and his coterie must be bypassed – or gotten rid of…..

Their strategy, it seems, is to go over Abdullah's head, and appeal directly to King Fahd. Stratfor recently reported:

"An odd series of visits to Saudi Arabian King Fahd in Geneva could be an indication of the initial stages of a plan to shift power away from Crown Prince Abdullah."

The so-called Sudairi Seven, an influential faction of Saudi princes who are full brothers to King Fahd, may be the nucleus of a palace revolution that could topple the Crown Prince from power and install a pliant pro-American regime, one that would give in to pressure from Washington and accept the oil companies' terms. Two of Fahd's full brothers, Prince Salman and Prince Abdul Rahman, recently traveled to Geneva for consultations with the King: although the ostensible reason for their trip was Fahd's eye surgery, there may be more to it than that. The recent visits of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah to see the ailing King have fueled speculation that, as Stratfor puts it:

"… All of the unusual traffic may point to another, more clandestine agenda. Fahd is still the leader of the Sudairi Seven and his approval would be needed before any coherent plan could emerge for his full brothers to challenge half-brother Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah

Ah, but why would the Sudairi Seven start acting up now? Naturally, only conspiracy theorists – you know, the kind of person who gets his information over the Internet -- could possibly believe that Exxon-Mobil and Shell would use their influence with the US government to pressure the Saudis into capitulating to their demands for a bigger cut and more access to the oil fields. After all, Ken Silverstein assures us that US foreign policy really has nothing to do with Big Oil or with "well-placed government insiders" making fortunes off the misery of others.

Like heck it doesn't. I agree with Stratfor's analysis, which not only sees the US turning on its oldest and strongest allies in the Arab world, but also envisions how it might be done:

If, for instance, the United States has grown leery of dealing with Crown Prince Abdullah and is looking for alternate allies among the royal family, Washington could hardly approach those princes directly. Instead, it would look for emissaries – and who better than two key Arab leaders who are also close Washington allies?"

The neoconservative wing of the GOP has long been baying for Saudi blood, pointing to Riyadh – and not Osama's cave – as the real nexus of the terrorist international: Rich Lowry and the National Review crowd have even been calling for the breakup of the Kingdom and the outright occupation of their oil fields. If Stratfor is right, then the Bushies may launch a preemptive strike in the form of a palace revolution and avoid an outright invasion.

I've written at length about the American corporate grip on US policy toward the Saudis, and this latest development confirms my earlier analysis: an increasingly independent Crown Prince, who refuses to countenance a US invasion of Iraq and resists the demands of American corporate giants, could well find himself either the victim of a coup – or else thoroughly Saddamized (i.e. made into a hate object) by corporate propagandists. In alliance with Israel's amen corner – which seeks to isolate the US from the entire Arab world – and the dispensationalist Christian nutballs who have taken over the GOP and the "official" conservative movement, the stage is being set for an anti-Saudi jihad.

Those who argue that a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein would threaten chaos in the region are missing the point: bloody chaos is exactly what the War Party wants, since a regional conflagration would directly threaten the House of Saud. Osama bin Laden – who he? The real villain, as far as Exxon Republicans and the Weekly Standard are concerned, is Prince Abdullah, a Saudi patriot whose obduracy threatens the profit margins of the oil majors and whose peace plan poses a challenge to Ariel Sharon's annexationist ambitions.

The Saudis, like many of their counterparts around the world, find themselves torn between the need to modernize and liberalize their economy and the political imperative of asserting their sovereign status as an independent state. The US-Saudi alliance is at a crossroads, and collusion is giving way to conflict. The Saudi royal family is hardly a monolith, and the growing rift between the factions may soon go public: the succession to the throne is not entirely a settled issue, and this may be the opening the US seeks to exploit.

Interestingly, a lot of the left-wing conspiracy theories that accuse the Bushies of having foreknowledge of 9/11 link George W. and his family to … the Saudis. Like their right-wing opposite numbers, the French co-authors of Forbidden Truth, recently published in the US by The Nation's book imprint, trace the bin-Ladenite conspiracy back to Riyadh, merely adding in the alleged collusion of the Bushies almost as an afterthought.

Both left and right are pushing slightly different versions of a Saudi conspiracy against America, but the alleged alliance between the Saudi princes and bin Laden is a canard, right up there with yet another best-selling French conspiracy book, "L'Effroyable Imposture" (The Horrifying Fraud), which advances a "theory" that the World Trade Center was really destroyed by a missile launched by right-wing generals. Far from supporting the House of Saud, Osama considers them traitors, shills for the infidels whose presence defiles the sacred soil of his homeland. Failure to understand this basic fact exposes a complete if not willful ignorance of al-Qaeda and the nature of the terrorist threat.

But, then again, we haven't heard much about bin Laden lately, since the pursuit and destruction of al-Qaeda is no longer the point of our perpetual "war on terrorism" – if it ever was. This administration has moved on rather quickly to other targets: not only Iraq, but now also Iran, and, as we have seen, perhaps even the Saudis. Where, one wonders, will it end – and how did we wander so far from our original war aims?

Oil is indeed a key factor in analyzing the meaning and motives of US actions in the Middle East, as Silverstein and his fellow Clintonites at The American Prospect know only too well – and not just because of Dubya's buddies in the industry. Crony capitalism as the chief driving force behind US foreign policy was embodied by such figures as Roger Tamraz – remember him? – during the Clinton era. Bush's policy continues this trend.

Ken Silverstein assures us that "the war in Afghanistan is unlikely to bring on a wave of corporate profiteering by American firms," but the Afghan campaign was just a warm-up exercise. The "war on terrorism" has expanded far beyond the borders of Afghanistan. It is fast turning into an Anglo-American war against the entire Arab world, which does indeed hold out the prospect of corporate profiteering on a vast scale.

Crony capitalism, however, is not the only factor. Ideology, ethno-religious group interests, and party politics all play a part: these arrows in the quiver of the War Party are aimed at different (though often overlapping) domestic constituencies, which will then be mobilized when the time comes. One of those constituencies will be the liberals, like Silverstein, and the readers of The American Prospect, who, as in the Afghan phase of the war, will be asked to give their support in the name of "progressivism," women's liberation, and "modernity."

Andrew Sullivan will not rest until the Saudis are forced to install a gay bar on Mecca's main street, and the liquor lobby will have a field day opening up a whole new market. These "war liberals" will be energized by the hope that, in the immortal words of Christopher Hitchens – he of the Vanity Fair school of socialism – the Islamic enemy will be "bombed out of the Stone Age."

Failure to understand that it is, in large part, all about oil – and plunder – softens up Silverstein and his ilk enough to make them susceptible to this sort of appeal. There was a time when it was hardly necessary for ultra-conservatives, such as myself, to point out the economic roots of war to ostensible lefties. But I guess everything has indeed changed since 9/11, and they just don't make liberals like they used to.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.