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November of 1979 was an especially memorable month during my time in Saudi Arabia, for that was when Islamist fanatics seized the Grand Mosque at Mecca. What began in the early morning hours of November 20 was, in some respects, a harbinger of what would occur a couple of decades later, on September 11, 2001, when 15  Saudi citizens were involved in the events that resulted in the deaths of more Americans than that caused by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Although the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia proclaims itself to be the seat of Islam, dovetails its policies with the Wahhabi religious establishment, and spends billions of dollars throughout the world in spreading radical Islam, the Saudi princes themselves are well known for their profligate ways, cruising their pleasure-filled yachts on the Mediterranean and taking delight in activities forbidden at home in locations such as Edgeware Road in London.

Despite official support for the type of intransigent Islam preached by Sheikh Abdulwahab, the royal family of the Kingdom lives life in a manner that is far from the Wahhabi ideal.  Within the Kingdom are individuals who are very much aware of this and who also deplore the presence of alien, non-Islamic military forces and the foreign influences they represent.  Osama bin-Laden’s radicalism was, in part, a product of such thinking.

Jahayman al-Otaybi was a young man of no little means, a member of a prominent Najdi family, who felt that Saudi Arabia had fallen far afield from the Islamic ideal and had profaned the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. Otaybi’s grandfather, a fervent Wahhabi, had been an early supporter of King Abdul-Aziz and his rise to power.   The grandson, though, was of the opinion that judgement day was not far off and that it was time for the appearance of a Mahdi, or redeemer, who would prepare the faithful for judgement.   November 20, 1979, coincided with the first day of the year 1400, by the Islamic calendar, a date which according to one of the sayings of the Prophet Muhamad, would be the date on which a Mahdi would appear.  Otaybi believed that the Mahdi was his brother-in-law, Muhamad Abdullah al-Qahtani.   These two young men entered into a pact through which they hoped to bring down the Saud family, abolish education for women, ban television, expel all non-Muslims from the Kingdom, and replace the monarchy with a pure theocracy. Their first move and the catalyst for their movement would be the taking of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Attracting followers from various theological schools in the Kingdom, Otaybi and al-Qahtani began to organize their supporters and clandestinely import weapons and munitions from throughout the Middle East.  Gradually, Otaybi, who had been an officer in the Saudi National Guard, sharpened the martial abilities of the group, while sympathizers in the National Guard squirreled away more weapons and supplies in the underground passages beneath the Grand Mosque.  Finally, on November 20, four to five hundred armed insurgents, following Otaybi’s command, sealed off the Grand Mosque, taking hundreds of pilgrims hostage in the process.  Thus was initiated a two-week battle that not only would shake the Saudi monarchy to its foundations, but would also resound throughout the entire Muslim world.  For 24 hours, at the beginning of the insurgency, telephone, Telex and telegraph connections to the outside world were shut down.  Saudis and expatriates alike were in the dark as to what was occurring in the Kingdom.

The city of Mecca was eventually evacuated and was occupied by units of both the army and the national-guard.  The religious authorities gave their sanction to undertaking military action in and around the Grand Mosque, and frontal assaults were begun.  In the meantime, the insurgents continued to disseminate their demands while fending off the government offensive. And American C-130’s began an airlift of vital armaments in support of Saudi government forces.

Eventually, the fighting was confined to the mosque’s underground passageways.  Hand grenades were responsible for the deaths of many hostages, and tear gas was resorted to in extricating the insurgents from their concealed positions.  After two weeks, military casualties amounted to 127 dead and 451 wounded. Probably 255 insurgents and hostages were killed and an undetermined number were wounded.

Muslim fundamentalists throughout the world erupted in a rage that would see American embassies in Islamabad and Tripoli burned to the ground.  In Iran, fatwas and condemnations went out against the American imperialists who aided the corrupt Saud family in the retaking of the Grand Mosque.

Meanwhile, in Riyadh, as news began to leak out from what had transpired in Mecca, I began to consider my own well-being and what might have occurred if the events of those two weeks might have had a different outcome.  Almost immediately, I noticed that the Saudi government began to undertake a program of shoring up the Islamic foundations of society, hoping to avoid any future repetition of an Islamic insurgency.  As for the 67 surviving insurgents who surrendered at Mecca, after secret trials and death sentences, they were divided into small groups, which were dispersed to various cities throughout the Kingdom, where they were publicly beheaded.  The Saud dynasty had obviously determined to proceed down a punitive path to insure both their own and their kingdom’s security.

My reflections on what had taken place in Mecca in 1979 eventually led me to a consideration of fundamentalist Islam, for  I had not previously realized that there was a substantial undercurrent in Islam of individuals whose minds were principally mired in an apocalyptic and violent interpretation of their religion.  Looking back to those times, I now see that any candid analysis of what we now perceive taking place with Islam in the early years of the 21st century must lead  to the conclusion that Islamic fundamentalism is advancing and is not only a threat to Middle East stability but has the potential to place both Europe and America in grave peril.  For example, if, conservatively speaking, those Muslims throughout the world supporting and giving lip-service to Islamic terrorism were assessed to be fifteen percent of the whole, that would mean there are more than 250 million Muslims devoted to the annihilation of Jews and Christians and the suppression of freedoms that have resulted from the development of Western civilization.

Incredibly, political leaders in the Western world who have sufficient mettle to confront such a challenge are becoming less and less common, with the politically correct response being one that is reluctant to mention terrorism in the same context as Islam.  Nevertheless, it is accurate to say that Islamic terrorists, such as those associated with ISIL or al-Qaeda, are literally going by the book, as far as their interpretation of Islam is concerned.  For example, in the Koran (9:5), the words of the Prophet could not be clearer:  “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them, besiege them, and be ready to ambush them.”  As Muslims consider those who worship the Trinity to be idolaters, it is no wonder that Middle East Christians have become prime targets.  Yet again, in the Koran (5:51), the Prophet, addressing the faithful, says, “Oh you who have believed! Do not take the Jews and the Christians as friends; they are but friends of each other; and whoever among you takes them for friends, he surely is one of them.”  In the Koran (47:4), the   Muslims, in confronting Jews and Christians, are advised to, “Smite their necks!” and, in another Koranic declaration, (8:67), are admonished not to take prisoners.  Hence, the barbaric beheadings that all too often are part and parcel of the savage assaults now taking place in Syria and Iraq.

For all their oil and for all the billions in foreign currency reserves controlled by the Saud family, the dynasty rests on a shaky foundation.  In enabling the collaboration between themselves and the conservative Wahhabi religious establishment, the Sauds have sown widely the seeds of Islamist extremism, which through both public and private largesse, has seen immense sums flowing out of the Kingdom and into the coffers of organizations such as the Taliban, al-Shabab, ISIL and al-Qaeda.  If not for the politically expedient blind-eye, Saudi Arabia could very well stand a good chance of seeing the dynasty toppled by zealots, with a pure Islamic theocracy taking its place.  Therefore, Americans and Europeans see themselves in the peculiar position of subsidizing Islamic terrorism by way of transferring a significant share of their affluence to the Middle East, where, more often than not, copious amounts of those monies find their way to extremists and terrorists throughout the world.  What better argument could be proffered for energy independence?   Not moving toward self-sufficiency in oil and gas as well as green forms of energy is, to borrow a banal phrase, to kick the proverbial can down the road and opt for our own eventual cultural suicide.


Shortly after arriving in Saudi Arabia, I soon determined that driving would be a necessity.  When I purchased gas for my new Toyota for the first time, I figured out that I was paying the equivalent of fifteen-cents per gallon.  Besides the windfall that accrued to Saudi citizens in the form of  largesse through a multiplicity of government programs, the three-dollar per barrel cost to bring oil out of the ground translated into cheap gas for the drivers who were beginning to choke the Kingdom’s  roads with Mercedes Benzes, Audis, Cadillacs, Chevys and a vast array of Japanese vehicles.

Until recently, Saudi Arabia had the highest amount of verifiable oil reserves in the world; however, Venezuela now boasts 298 billion barrels of reserves, as compared to Saudi reserves of 267 billion barrels.  Still, the Saudi total amounts to one-fifth of world reserves. Almost all of Saudi oil comes from the eastern portion of the country and one oilfield, the Ghawar field, annually provides 60% of total production and contains reserves of 70 billion barrels.

Practically speaking, if it were not for oil Saudi Arabia would still be the backwater that it was in the early 20th century.  As late as the early 1930’s, it is said that the King’s finance minister kept the Kingdom’s financial records in his own home.  But, owing to oil, the duties of the minister and those who assisted him with his duties would ultimately become somewhat more laborious.

Throughout the 1930’s, American geologists and engineers affiliated with Standard Oil of California, based on oil strikes that had occurred on Bahrain, followed their gut feelings that there was oil to be found in Saudi Arabia.  Finally, at well number 7 in the Damman geological dome in early 1937, oil began to flow in consistent quantities, heralding the surge that would eventually propel the Kingdom to world prominence.

For fiscal year 2015, the Kingdom’s budget assumes that oil production will average 9.6 million barrels of oil per day, which should produce daily revenues of $438,000,000.  This is predicated on a per barrel price in the neighborhood of $60.00.  Owing to a world oil glut and the subsequent fall of oil prices at the end of 2014, the 2015 budget will feature a deficit, owing to anticipated expenditures of 229 billion dollars and expected revenues of 190 billion.  Of those revenues, only 30 billion will come from non-oil revenue.

Since 1973, when King Faisal declared an oil embargo which resulted in soaring energy prices in the West, the Kingdom has not hesitated to use its oil as an instrument of political power. Most recently, awareness of rising estimates of oil and gas reserves in the United States resulted in the Saudis slashing their per barrel price, hoping to adversely affect the thriving fracking industry in America.

In the last decade, owing to a diminishing practice of flaring off natural gas produced at well sites, the Kingdom had become the leader in the production of propane and butane.  However, with U.S. reserves of natural gas sufficient for domestic use for more than 90 years, a pall has been cast over Saudi prospects in the world gas market.

In the last two years, verifiable oil reserves in the U.S. have gone up by 3.8 billion barrels, resulting in proven reserves of 40 billion barrels.  In addition, shale oil produced by fracking in Texas, North Dakota and Montana has been turning out millions of barrels, with the potential of producing billions.  The Energy Information Administration recently has stated that technically recoverable oil reserves in the U.S. amount to 198 billion barrels. By 2015, the Unite States has been producing on average 11 million barrels of oil per day, not to mention a similar barrel-per-day number for natural gas. Thus, the U.S. is surpassing the Kingdom and will be energy self-sufficient within two decades.

90 percent of Saudi exports are oil-related.  The vast majority of these exports are, of course in the form of crude oil, with refined petroleum, ethylene polymers, acylic alcohol and natural gas making up the remainder.  China, South Korea, Japan and India are now the chief customers for Saudi oil products. However, China is becoming more dependent on Russian oil, while Europe, owing to the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, is now viewing the growing prominence of American oil as a more reliable source.  If China is lost as a major customer for Saudi oil, tough economic conditions for the Kingdom are not far away.

To keep from running budget deficits and drawing down its foreign currency reserves, the Kingdom must bring in approximately $90.00 per barrel of oil.  The planners at the Saudi Arabian Oil Ministry know very well that the Kingdom cannot indefinitely continue to subsidize Saudi citizens with some of the most generous social programs in the world and persist in defense spending of more than 60 billion dollars annually, which in itself would amount to approximately 12% of GDP. Incredibly, the Kingdom’s defense expenditures represent the 4th largest defense outlay in the world and the largest in the Middle East.

With fracking profits dependent on a per barrel price of $55.00, American producers obviously do not have to contend with a national budget delivering a vast array of government amenities and services.  The Saudi ministers of state charged with oil production and budgetary planning are very much aware of this, and their recent oil price decreases were, in part, aimed at constraining American frackers, giving the Kingdom additional time to make the necessary technological and financial adjustments in order to compete.  Whether this strategy will prove viable remains to be seen; nevertheless, the Kingdom remains a major power in the Middle East, owing to its vast oil deposits.

I recall a conversation I once had with a Saudi professor at King Saud University.  The subject of oil came up as we discussed world affairs.   Somewhat artlessly, I asked him, if for some reason, the Kingdom lost or did not have control of its oil deposits, what Saudis would do.  His reply was that they would simply return to the desert life which had been followed by their ancestors for hundreds of years before the discovery of oil.


                                                                     SAUDI FOREIGN AID AND THE SPREAD OF WAHABI ISLAM

That fifteen of the nineteen attackers of 9/11 hailed from Saudi Arabia seems to have been forgotten by 2015.  It should be remembered that the first two pilots to enter the United States in preparation for the al-Qaeda strikes were Saudis Khalid al-Mindhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, both twenty-five-year-old jihadis who had won the trust of Osama bin-Laden. And any notion that the Islamic extremism represented by the attack on Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979 had faded was demolished by what befell American Flight 11 and United Flight 175 on a glorious early fall day in 2001.  Moreover, to think that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a breeding ground for Muslim extremists is delusional, for, to date, around 3,000 Saudis are fighting with ISIS.

Much is made in the United Nations of the Kingdom’s generosity, by way of the 15% of government expenditures represented by Saudi foreign aid, an amount which would rank near the top of any listing of leading world benefactors of aid for third world countries.  However, what must be remembered is that such aid as is extended to nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia is limited to Muslim countries. 

One of the five pillars of Islam is Zakat, or monies donated from the incomes of the faithful for charity, but, again, such charity is for Muslims only. For example, it is virtually unheard of for the more than 9 million Muslims in the United States to commit their money to charitable community organizations like the United Fund, or even to take part in civic organizations such as Rotary, Lions or Kiwanis.

It is widely known that a significant percentage of the wealthy in Saudi Arabia, including individuals at the highest levels of the Kingdom’s government, contribute money that eventually is involved in fanning the flames of Islamic extremism.  Much of this money goes to the United States for the promotion of religious schools, or Madrassas, which provide no practical benefits in terms of marketable skills or competencies that could elevate depressed communities.  And, for those who question how many outsized mosques are constructed in large urban areas, such as the multi-million dollar mosque complex in Atlanta, much of the wherewithal for those projects originates in Saudi Arabia.  Of the 2,000 mosques in the United States, 80% receive subsidies from Saudi Arabia, and elaborate Islamic centers have been constructed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno, New York, Tucson, Raleigh, Washington, D.C., and Toledo.

A subsidiary of the School of Islamic Studies at King Saud University was what was called the Arabic Language Institute, which provided “scholarships” for less well-off students from around the world to study an Arabic curriculum which was strong on boosting Islamic values.  I vividly recall one such student, a young American black man from Houston, who had converted to Islam and taken the Muslim name of Bilal.  The recipient of such a scholarship, Bilal got more than he bargained for at the Arabic Language Institute in Riyadh and developed severe culture shock, which rapidly took him into depression.  As an American administrator and faculty member in the university, I was called on to give some assistance to Bilal, whose mood was significantly cheered to encounter a fellow American, albeit one who was neither black nor Muslim.

Bilal, who was a highly sensitive human being, had found out in short order that what he was learning at the Arabic Language Institute was not in keeping with American values and standards of toleration, broadmindedness and decency and, therefore, chose to return to Texas. Unfortunately, too many converts to Islam do not possess the background to see through the indoctrination that such programs entail, and too many Americans have not had direct experience in encountering an Islam which seeks to further itself through guileful methods and dubious means.

Poverty stricken people in such countries as Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Mali and Nigeria often have no choice when it comes to education.  Thus, they opt for a madrassa education as opposed to no education at all.  And, in the process, the homegrown, more tolerant versions of Islam that often exist in those countries have a difficult time surviving in the face of the flood of money from Saudi Arabia supporting the madrassas and their curricula of hate against Christians, Jews, Yazidis and Sufi Muslims.

Of the countries where Saudi- backed madrassas have taken root, some of the most baleful effects have been experienced in Pakistan.  By 2002, Pakistan, had more than 13,000 unregistered madrassas, with a student population of 1.8 million. In many areas of the country, they outnumber the pitiful institutions which pass as public schools.  Most Pakistani madrassas are associated with the Deoband movement, from which the Taliban faction in Afghanistan sprang.  Hundreds of millions of Saudi petrodollars go into the support of these schools, which prey on poverty-stricken families with many children.  A common ploy is to use the concept of martyrdom in curricula, promising salvation for families producing martyrs, along with more than 6-thousand dollars of support for relatives after the martyrdom of a child.  Graduates of the madrassas are either used as teachers in new or expanding madrassas, or sent on to post-madrassa training sites for jihadis.

The World Association of Muslim Youth, or WAMY, was founded in Riyadh and now has 5,500 subsidiaries worldwide, including many in the United States.  WAMY is another organ into which Saudi money flows freely, and WAMY convocations have proudly featured speakers who praise the faith and bravery of suicide bombers.

The 2008 Holy Land Foundation decision concerning the foundation’s so-called charitable fundraising, which saw millions channeled to Hamas, a body officially designated a terrorist group by the United States government, saw lengthy prison sentences being handed out to the organization’s management through a federal court in Dallas.  Labeled an unindicted coconspirator in the case was the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a body which describes itself as a protector of Muslim civil rights in the United States, but which in reality is a front organization for Islamist extremism.  And here we have another questionable group receiving significant backing from Saudi contributors.

Despite continuing statements in support of American efforts to clamp down on terrorism, money from the Kingdom continues to find its way into the coffers of those who hate America and look forward to the day of its demise.  In what is perhaps the ultimate in duplicity, since 2006 more than 1.5 trillion dollars in Saudi private assistance has gone to the Taliban in Afghanistan, money which has been involved in the killing of American soldiers.

In considering the deceit involved in allowing the outflow of cash which bankrolls Islamic extremism throughout the world, it should be noted that the Saudi royal family lives in fear of zealous, homegrown terror groups, which, if not given lip service of support for the spread of Wahhabism and the advantage of an official blind eye to the outpouring of funds to dubious recipients, might very well try to topple the regime.  Then, too, the theocratic establishment, upon which the monarchy depends for indispensable backing, must be placated by any and all efforts to expand Wahhabi Islam.


                                                                                        LET’S PLAY DRESSUP, MY DEAR!

During my six years in Saudi Arabia, I encountered not a few American women married to Muslim men.  In fact, there were several couples of this type on the University housing compound where I lived.  Some of these couples appeared to be quite happy; however, most did not.  A cultural milieu based on the male prerogative in which men have the last say in the governance of their families and the rights of their children would not be pleasing to the vast majority of American women.   And it is a fact that numerous American women married to Saudi women eventually had rude awakenings to the reality of life in the Kingdom.

The 1991 film “Not Without My Daughter,” which featured Sally Field as Betty Mahmoody, an idealistic and trusting American woman married to an Iranian-American doctor, touches on a painful subject for far too many American families, viz. the heartbreak caused by Muslim fathers in foreign settings preventing their American children from returning to or visiting the United States.  After viewing this film, I could not help but think back to Saudi Arabia where I witnessed American women fleeing from marriages with Muslim husbands.  The saddest aspect of these breakups concerned children with American citizenship who were forced to remain in Saudi Arabia with their Saudi fathers, owing to Sharia law which gave complete control over their lives to their fathers.

Over the years, I gave much thought to why and how American women would undertake to place themselves into marriages with men whose view of women could be said to be in complete opposition to the Western culture from which they came.  At last, a light popped on in my brain.  Perhaps an answer could be found through a thorough examination of the modern American psyche; and, since Americans think so passionately and naively that they are world citizens, it is not a quantum leap in logic to surmise that their ill-founded trust in toleration and faith in diversity must mean to them that individuals from totally different cultures would happily accept their values.  Unfortunately, that is not how the world turns.

In 1950, the seminal sociological analysis “The Lonely Crowd” was published   by David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. The work emphasized that, increasingly, Americans no longer had the impetus to adhere to conventions and customs that had previously served as its bonding elements.  The result would be growing anomie and a societal rootlessness suggesting breakdown. Society, according to this view, was dominated by “other directed” people who could only distinguish themselves and their beliefs by virtue of how those beliefs were delineated by society at large.

Could it be that an expanded anomie has produced more and more rootless people who are susceptible to the firmness of conviction of individuals coming from less developed societies and belief systems in direct opposition to what had once been robust American traditions?  Could American women sauntering about under cover of hijabs and abbayas be symptomatic of a malaise and societal crisis of the first order? These possibilities are worth considering in light of the fates of American children being held in Muslim countries that do not recognize international agreements concerning children, such as the Hague Abduction Accords.

Despite frequent congressional hearings and efforts undertaken by public figures such as Representative Dan Burton, whose 2009 trip to Saudi Arabia in behalf of American children abducted to that country, was unceremoniously rebuffed, little or no progress has occurred in these sad cases. It goes without saying that young American women should consider the long-term consequences of their actions in Muslim-American matings before they slip on the garb of exotic places.  All too frequently, those dreams of romance and the Arabian nights morph into Arabian nightmares.


                                                                               ISLAMIC HYPOCRISY OR REALPOLITIK?



With hundreds of thousands fleeing the Middle East in 2015, owing to the catastrophic lack of coherent and viable regional policies on the part of the West, it has been enlightening to observe that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf oil-sheikdoms have been severely lagging in extending aid to refugees taking flight from ISIS, the Syrian civil war and internecine fighting spawned by Hezbollah. If past history may serve as our guide, it is safe to say that the Western powers will extend far more aid than the cash-bloated countries of the Arabian Peninsula.  Germany, for example, has been talking about settling an initial 800,000 Arab refugees within its borders in 2015, to be followed by 300,000 annually, beginning in 2016.  No offers even approaching such numbers has been heard from the Arabian Peninsula, although one could very well question the wisdom of Germany opening its doors to such an extent, given that the majority of refugees will likely be Muslims looking to network with Europe’s existing Islamic populations.

Following money flowing as foreign aid from Saudi Arabia reveals that 1) such aid, as it exists, is largely limited to establishing Koranic schools in Muslim countries and to assuaging the effects of natural calamities, 2) to ensure that the chances of threats from fanatical movements coming its way are minimized, and 3) that no sums of any amount are ever directed to non-Muslim populations.  Recently, large outlays of Saudi assistance have gone to Lebanon, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Indonesia.  But, to even consider settling en masse large numbers of fellow Arabs and Muslims within Saudi Arabia would be next to impossible, despite the country having a population of 28 million within an area approximating the United States east of the Mississippi River and a population density of 13 per sq. km., in contrast to Germany’s population density of 232 per sq. km.

Simply stated, Saudi foreign policy is all about preserving the Kingdom’s oil wealth and the absolute monarchy of the Saud dynasty, holding at bay potential aggression from extreme Islamist movements and from objectives for achieving area hegemony by arch-enemy Iran, its regional proxy, Hezbollah, and its Shia minions.  With this in mind, it is easy to see how Saudi Arabia would be reluctant to admit thousands of foreigners – even foreign Muslims – when those foreigners might include extremists who would like nothing better than to bend the Kingdom to their will.

So far, in the 21st century, Saudi Arabia has spent more than 500 million dollars in aid to Palestinian Muslims.  Lest one assume that these millions are indicative of great generosity, a more prosaic interpretation is that the Saudis have been frightened out of their wits for decades of Hamas, al-Fatah and other politically extreme Palestinian movements, sensing that such groups, if left uninfluenced by financial inducements, could endanger the Kingdom’s security and potentially threaten its oil fields. 

For years, the United States has taken in far more refugees than the rest of the world combined.  Lately, more than half of those admitted are Muslims, something that we might like to rethink, since a very large proportion of Muslim refugees tends to repay American kindness with involvement in various plots and schemes to engage in terrorism and commit mayhem in the host country.  Looked at in this light, it is little wonder that wheelers and dealers from the Middle East tend to view Americans as childlike, gullible and diplomatically wet behind the ears. Characteristically, the present administration has done little or nothing to dispel this reputation.

Recent American efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program and to pull Teheran out of its orbit of extremism have resulted in Saudi Arabia pursuing its own policies without American backing, in an attempt to checkmate Iranian influence in its backyard.  Traditionally relying on great powers such as the U.K. and the United States to provide security and safeguard regional interests, the Kingdom now feels abandoned by the Americans and Europeans and compelled to rely on its own abilities to achieve desired political outcomes. 

With the new American emphasis on Asia, Middle Eastern chaos has been the result, with the constellations of regional powers no longer being able to rely on balance once provided by outside powers.  Now, the Saudis must become leaders in the region, as Iranian objectives are played out in places like Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.  That a sectarian divide pitting Sunnites against Shiites will define Middle East politics for decades is a likely scenario.  And, for those who thought that a nuclear accord with Iran would make the world – and especially the Middle East – a much safer place, they might wish to reconsider.  Saudi Arabia, seeking a counter-weight to Iran, presents the prospect of the Kingdom partnering with its Arabian Peninsula neighbors in seeking access to nuclear weapons.  At the same time, Russia, now feeling more confident as a result of the controversial nuclear treaty/non-treaty, will continue to draw closer to Iran through Iran’s leading Middle Eastern proxy, Syria.

In the early 1980’s, a private American Corporation, the Vinnell Corporation, was actively involved in training elements of the Saudi armed forces.  Those doing the training were retired members of the U.S. armed forces.  During my time in the Kingdom, I made the acquaintance of several of the trainers, who were not at all impressed with Saudi military capabilities, informing me that Saudi recruits lacked commitment, espirit de corps and the willingness to put their lives on the line.  Largely in response to the lack of military preparedness at the time and the mullah-led revolution in Iran, the Kingdom arranged, through the outlay of a considerable sum to Pakistan, for the deployment of 25,000 Pakistani troops to Saudi Arabia.  Since that time and with the experience of the gulf wars, the Kingdom has built up a military force of 200,000 full-time personnel.  With military expenditures nearing 60 billion dollars annually (approximately 12 percent of Saudi GDP) Saudi Arabia now has a force that must be reckoned with, witness recent incursions into Yemen and Bahrain to quell Shia-sparked revolutions.  By comparison, the huge military budget of the United States falls within the range of 3.5 to 4 percent of GDP, with an annual expenditure approaching 600 billion dollars.

Presuming a growing Russian presence in the region, combined with Iran’s aspirations for regional hegemony, it stands to reason that the Middle East will be unstable for decades. It goes without saying that, with America spending more time in looking toward Teheran, the Saudis must be considering how to avoid becoming friendless in the region.   It could very well be that the Sunni states will band together for a face- off with the Shiites – principally Iran – in a protracted military and political stalemate that will manifest itself for much of the 21st century.  Keep in mind, too, that Sunni Pakistan has the bomb, which the Kingdom may seek, and that Sunni Egypt, with its population nearing 90 million, may also be beckoned in support of its fellow Sunnis. 

If the 20th century is viewed as a time of great unrest and disorder in the Middle East, the possibility of sectarian-fueled clashes between Sunnis and Shias augurs even more turmoil for the region in the 21st century. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in its role as a major player, will no doubt need to summon all of its military power, abetted by Byzantine intrigues, to maintain itself. For Saudi Arabia, new directions in American foreign policy have managed to make the world a far different place.



In late May of 2017, President Trump made his first foreign foray with a state visit to Saudi Arabia.  Observers were struck by the extravagant pageantry and the ongoing red-carpet treatment extended the president and first-lady during their two-day visit. Indeed, the excessive hospitality of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir pointed to their eagerness to sign an arms agreement with the United States and to even discuss how Islamic terrorism might be diminished around the world.

Saudi keenness to reinitiate beneficial relations resulted from the failed diplomacy of the Obama administration, an administration which in effect naively bestowed upon the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s ancient enemy, Iran, favored treatment in the uranium enrichment process, thus gullibly assuming  the likelihood that Iran would rapidly advance to the production of nuclear weapons would be lessened. In addition to acquiescing in extremely weak inspection provisions for Iran’s nuclear facilities, the United States agreed to drop oil embargos and to release more than 100 billion dollars to Iran, funds which have fueled Iran’s ongoing terrorist activities through Hezbollah and other purveyors of radical Islamic violence.  Even with the Obama administration and its easily fooled secretary of state John Kerry bending over backwards to placate the ayatollahs, the IAEA has repeatedly reported Iranian violations of the agreement, including the use of advanced centrifuges and the maintenance of clandestine uranium processing sites.

As a graduate student and later a history professor, I had some background regarding the differences between Shia and Sunni versions of Islam.  But my years of experience in living in the Middle East brought me face to face with the realities of an enmity so intense that it has endured for almost 1,400 years.

The last flowering of Persian political power and culture occurred with the Sassanid Dynasty (224 AD – 651 AD), which was a major power competing for dominance with the Byzantine Empire for centuries, and controlling virtually all central Asia, much of the Middle East and extending domination into Egypt and North Africa.  Persian art, science and literature were cultural expressions of the highest order and their influence was felt as far afield as Rome and China. Historically, the Sassanids represented one of the high points of Iranian history, making their empire’s collapse by 651 even more devastating to those who considered themselves heirs to Persian culture.

By the first part of the 7th century, Muslim warriors began streaming out of the Arabian Peninsula, propelled some would say, by the pressure of a growing population in a barren land.  Muslim scholars, however, have traditionally interpreted the massive migration as a reflection of religious zeal and an abiding desire to propagate the new faith.  By 642, Egypt and Mesopotamia were conquered and by 651 the Sassanids had finally fallen to Arab Muslims proclaiming Mohamed’s new faith.

Under the Arab conquerors, Persia underwent efforts to suppress its language and incorporate Arabic as the language of the newly conquered subjects. The ancient religion of Zoroastrianism was savagely attacked, with places of worship destroyed and Zoroastrian priests suffering martyrdom.  Religious tax was enforced on Zoroastrians, and many were forcibly converted to Islam.

By the close of the Umayyad caliphate (750), the Persian language had survived, and much of Persian, art, science and literature had been integrated into Islamic civilization, thus paving the way for the so-called Golden Age of Islamic Civilization, from the 8th to the 13th century.

Many Persians saw themselves as having been conquered and oppressed by an inferior people, whose lack of civilization had been marked by coarse ways and an uncouth existence in the Arabian Peninsula. Thus, was born an abiding resentment and bitterness, which would prove to be resilient but would eventually be intensified by doctrinal differences having the effect of splitting the Muslim world.

The year of the death of Mohamed (632) was a confusing one for Islam.  Before the founder of the religion had been buried, there was disagreement over succession to the leadership of the religion, with strong tribal elements stealing the march in raising Abu Bakr to the caliphate and paving the way for two more caliphs, who would reign until 661.

Finding themselves in opposition to the prevailing succession were those who felt that the caliphal line should favor members of Mohamed’s family, and that the election of Abu Bakr had been precipitous. Since Mohamed’s adult sons had predeceased him and since he did not leave an official will specifying his heir, this stance was a problematic one. Be that as it may, supporters of Ali ibn Ali, a cousin of Mohamed married to the prophet’s daughter Fatima, claimed that before his death Mohamed uttered that Ali should be his successor.

During the next two decades, Ali worked as a farmer in and around Medina, digging wells and constructing common botanical gardens.  At the same time, he presided over what is considered the first collation of the oral recollections that would serve as a definitive version of the Koran.

By 656, after dissident members of the caliph Uthman’s court had defeated and assassinated him, Ali was elected to the caliphate, finally vindicating the contention of his supporters that he, as a member of Mohamed’s family and as an exemplary Muslim, should be caliph.

Ali’s five-year reign brought to a definitive close any assumption of universal Muslim unity.  Quickly, two competing factions emerged, one touting that Ali and his family were rightly seen as the line of succession of Mohamed, while a contending group maintained that Uthman had been a legitimate caliph who was unjustly overthrown and murdered.

As caliph, Ali met determined opposition from one of his governors, Muawiyah of the Umayyad family. The defiance of Muawiyah led to ongoing clashes and ultimately to the assassination of Ali in 661.  Upon his father’s death the eldest of Ali’s sons, Hasan, assumed the caliphate but his family still faced Umayyad opposition, opposition which would finally see him yield the caliphate to Muawiyah, who in turn established the Umayyad dynasty at Damascus.  Finally, Husayn, the younger brother of Hasan who refused to acknowledge the right of Muawiyah’s son Yazid to be caliph, was defeated and beheaded by Yazid in 680 at the battle of Karbala, located some 60 miles from Baghdad.

Persian disaffection stemming from the Arab conquest and subsequent efforts to rule the Persian people as inferior subjects evolved into a doctrinaire portion of what eventually became Shia theology. The devotees of Shia Islam would continue to view Ali and his family as martyrs who had been persecuted and killed by the Umayyads, who were falling away from true Islam because of their materialism and greed. The competing Sunni Muslim outlook would contend that the internecine conflict that had occurred from 656 to 680 was indeed lamentable, but that the ensuing warfare had in no way tarnished the essence of true Islam.  Thus, was laid the basis for a lasting animosity, which is now exacerbated by the regional political rivalries which characterize relations between Sunni Saudis and Shia Iranians.

Any number of clashes based on competing Saudi and Iranian political objectives have the possibility of plunging the Middle East into a widespread conflict, drawing in diverse elements serving as proxies in Syria and Yemen for Teheran and Riyadh,  with far-reaching collateral damage.   It is to be hoped, too, that those now charged with formulating American foreign policy will avoid the many Levantine misadventures that passed as statecraft under Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, which included allowing Iran to dominate Baghdad, and brought the Middle East ever closer to full-scale warfare with a potential to envelope the entire region in chaos.




During the 1970’s and 1980’s, it was widely known that a good many of Saudi Arabia’s 5,000 princes and ministers of state were amassing unlimited fortunes as the Kingdom used its oil revenues to develop an infrastructure.  Rather quickly, there was also a phase of palace building, as the Kingdom’s elite appeared to be engaging in a contest to determine who could erect the most extravagant residences in the capital city of Riyadh.

It was also understood that many of the Kingdom’s most privileged and influential people had acquired their wealth by positioning themselves to receive baksheesh, or “sweetener,” to facilitate contracts between foreign contractors and the government.

Having lived in South Texas and traveled in Latin America, where the operative word is “mordida” (literally meaning a bite), I was no stranger to greasing the palms of grasping law enforcement personnel and petty officials of one sort or another.  However, the venality practiced in Saudi Arabia was stratospheric, owing to the immense number of high-priced contracts required to advance the Kingdom into the 20th century.

Expatriates in Saudi Arabia were fond of saying that behind every multi-million-dollar contract obtained one could find a prince lurking in the background with outstretched hands.  Such customs were problematic for Americans doing business, as the United States had an overabundance of laws and regulations outlawing kickbacks, while competitors from other countries simply included charges for baksheesh in their budgeting processes in competing for choice development projects.

Now, thirty years later, news from the Kingdom has it that Waleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men and a grandson of the country’s first king, Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, has been placed under arrest for corruption, along with a long list of other princes and high government officials.  Accordingly, this has prompted much speculation as to whether these developments portend a fundamental transformation for Saudi society.

The prodigy behind the Kingdom’s campaign against corruption is thirty-two-year-old Mohamed bin Salman (known as “MbS”), son of King Salman who carries the title of Crown Prince and serves as defense minister.  MbS has also brought forth an ambitious master plan, Vision 2030, which intends to usher Saudi Arabia into the 21st century, along with a preliminary statement of purpose, the National Transformation plan.

MbS has publicly stated his goal is to enlarge the Saudi oil-based economy with an expanding industrial base and to support the undertaking with renewed emphasis on technological education.  His plans include, as well, broad-ranging social changes, including more important roles for women in the economy and government.  An important symbolic break with the past was an announcement that women will soon be able to drive legally. 

Throughout its history, the lynchpin of Saudi Arabia has been the government/religious alliance of the House of Saud and the Wahabi religious establishment.  More emphasis on the rights of women may foretell that the alliance will eventually lean toward further secularism and a diminution of religious influence.  Indeed, MbS has even advocated for up-to-date resorts along the Red Sea Coast, which would include mixed-sex bathing and, perhaps, even the availability of alcoholic beverages, something unimaginable only a few short years ago.

Nevertheless, there are now strong signals that the Crown Prince’s plans for societal transformation may be endangered by his venture into realpolitik, which has been occasioned by the ramping up of tensions between the Kingdom and the Shia-dominated regime in Iran.

Since 2014, Yemen has been wracked by a civil war between the internationally recognized government of Abdullah Mansour Hadi and Shia Houthi rebels, who have the support of Iran.  Fearing the growth of Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula, MsB created a coalition of eight Sunni Arab nations, which began a bombing campaign against the Houthis in 2015.  Despite MbS’s alliance of Sunnis. The Houthis seized the Yemeni capital of Saana and, with Iranian support, have continued to resist foreign intervention, which has seen ground troops inserted into the fray, resulting in a thrust which has driven the Houthis from southern Yemen.  Since that development, the situation has been deadlocked; and, despite UN efforts at mediation, has shown no signs of resolution.

The past three years have seen an incredible amount of human suffering in Yemen.  More than 9,000 civilians have lost their lives, while almost 50,000 have suffered grievous injuries.  At the same time, hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes.

Strategically important, Yemen’s coastline connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and, as such, is a link in the transportation of Middle Eastern oil.  MbS’s plan for a quick, Saudi-dominated coalition strike to oust the Houthis has resulted in an expensive stalemate and the worsening of relations with Iran.  Consequently, the Kingdom’s fear of Iran has seen it endeavoring to draw closer to the U.S. and, in a major change, opening a channel for communications with Israel.  All of this may presage the waning of the influence of Wahabi Islam on the monarchy, which in turn may finally see the necessity of reducing the billions of riyals spent annually on efforts to spread radical Islam throughout the world by way of “madrassas” or Islamic schools.  MbS has often stated that it is his intent that the Kingdom should become a “moderate” Islamic state.  If this, indeed, is a key goal in the transformation process, it would not be beyond reality for Saudi Arabia to play a more active role in defeating international terrorism.

Young MbS may be playing for time which he does not have.  Indeed, the much talked about transformation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may now be taking a backseat to political and military maneuvers that will determine the outcome of the struggle for Middle East dominance.  Saudi Arabia’s societal transformation may well be lost in the shuffle.