The Saudi syndrome

Posted in Broader Middle East | 03-Jan-05 | Source: International Herald Tribune

The Kingdom Tower is seen in central Riyadh - Saudia Arabia.
The next time Americans consider the purchase of a family car that matches satisfying heft with infinitesimal fuel mileage, they might want to think about where some of that gas money will ultimately be going. Part of the price of every extra gallon helps, albeit indirectly, to finance mosques and religious schools all over the world that spread a fanatical variant of Islam that sees legitimacy in terrorist attacks. This financing, amounting to billions of dollars a year, comes from the government and private charities of Saudi Arabia, a country that is now taking in roughly $80 billion a year from oil exports.

Saudi Arabia is the source of only 15 percent of America's imported oil. But since oil is an interchangeable commodity in world markets, every barrel America imports, even if it comes from Venezuela, Nigeria or Mexico, helps push up the prices received by Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter. America imports well over half of the oil it consumes, and more than half of U.S. consumption is in the form of motor vehicle fuels. Thanks to America's gas guzzlers, China's booming factories and other thirsty consuming nations, this has been an extremely profitable year for oil exporters. Overall global demand is at record levels, and OPEC's production recently reached its highest since 1979. Even with the latest slippage in oil prices, Saudi Arabia's low production costs allow it to reap a hefty markup on every barrel sold.

The Saudi government, itself under assault from Al Qaeda, is not in the business of directly financing terrorism, and since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it has responded to American pressure to control the flow of charitable funds to active terrorist groups. But what it still pays for, and what the religious charities its citizens are obliged to contribute to pay for, is a worldwide network of mosques, schools and Islamic centers that proselytize the belligerent and intolerant Wahhabi variant of Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia. As a result of this oil-financed largess, the teachings of more tolerant and humane Muslim leaders are losing ground in countries like Indonesia and Pakistan. Wahhabi mosques that glorify armed jihad have also made alarming gains among the Muslim populations of Europe and the United States.

For years, Saudi Arabian oil money bankrolled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and provided financial support to Pakistan's government.

It was Saudi aid that allowed Pakistan to defy international sanctions imposed over its nuclear bomb testing. Without Saudi money there is some question whether chronically impoverished Pakistan could have ever afforded to develop nuclear weapons and the crucial bomb-related technologies that its scientists passed on to Iran, Libya, North Korea and perhaps other countries as well.

There is no sinister Saudi conspiracy at work here. This is just what anyone should expect to happen when mind-boggling sums of oil money flow into an absolute monarchy that bases its legitimacy on puritanical militant Islam and offers no pretense of political accountability or transparent accounting. The more copiously that oil money flows, the less pressure a divided Saudi royal family feels to undertake the kind of difficult political and economic reforms that might conceivably break the nexus between oil and terror.

The Saudi syndrome is not the only reason Americans need to get much more serious about energy conservation. But it is a powerfully compelling one.