Is the kingdom going to fall? Will the kingdom take down its whole region in a flurry of war? The kingdom in question is Saudi Arabia. Probably not, but the fun has kicked up ten notches for them. Iran has some breathing room, and suddenly it’s a Shia-Sunni/Iran-KSA shouting match each week in the news. Iranian missiles can certainly reach across the Persian Gulf and knock out oil fields. The KSA has had bad press, as well, since now people feel open to discuss KSA-ISIS links or even ISIS being a proto-KSA. Blame can be spread all around, but we can thank the British for the high position the Saudis hold in our global society.
People only listen to Saudis because they sit on billions of barrels of oil. They also sit on them during an era when those who can turn the ground into energy feel that a majority of rents should go to the nomads who happened to be in the area. In the mid-20th century, or even now, it would take a few bombing runs and most of the surrounding oil areas would be leveled and a perimeter could be established for safe procurement of the precious juice. The West could have done a snatch and develop, and we sort of did for a few decades, but oil rents were the great untold story of decolonization.
Decolonization was not just political control, but economic wealth. The Western oil giants (Seven Sisters) had great deals with the Saudis and collected quite a bit of revenue from oil exploration and development. The global swing producer shifted from Texas to Saudi Arabia, and the American oil majors were right there to make money. Eventually, the Arabs had enough of that and wanted their fair share, since it was their ground. Texans built the pipelines and oil wells. It was just Aramco, the Arab-American Oil Company, before it was Saudi Aramco. Westerners did the work; Saudis provided the land. Over time, the old rent paid kept rising in price until the Saudis accumulated enough wealth and forced the creation of the petrodollar due to the closing of the gold window to buy out the old Aramco completely.
They did wonders with this money, right? Look around the world. They have funded terrorism, built mosques, bought politicians, built Big Ben replicas in Mecca, bought expensive military hardware, and nearly gone bankrupt. Nothing good has come from this wealth, but did it have to be so? Of course not, but this time, American foreign policy is not to blame as much as the British backing the wrong horse. Recall that the American Empire is the Byzantine Empire to the Brit’s Roman Empire. We are just a continuation of their decisions and ideas. Some of the chess pieces on the board are there because the British misplayed the game.
Before the foundation of Saudi control over the Arab peninsula, the Saudis were aligned with Wahhabists. These were nomads in the interior of the peninsula of scorching heat and sand. These coalition was known for their piety and adherence to the Koran. They were also known for their raiding capabilities. There were other tribes, but a prominent one was the Hashemites. They claimed descent from Mohammed’s family and protected the holy sites on the western coast of the peninsula. They covered quite a bit of ground along the coast. The Hashemites were also the Arabs who rebelled against the Ottomans in WWI with Lawrence of Arabia. The Brits paid them back poorly.
The Brits were receiving reports from their foreign officers in the Middle East, and they did support the Hashemites. St John Philby had gone rogue a bit. Philby had fallen deep in with the Saud family, and nudged them along the path of fighting for the “King of the Arabs” title. There was friction between the Hashemites and the French and British at the end of the Great War, and this offered an opening to Philby and his clients, the Saudis. Philby believed in one ruler for the peninsula and pushed his man. Proof that the melody remains the same only the bands changes, Ibn Saud and his crew were even described as “democratic.” The Saudis were always sniping or agitating against the Hashemites, who temporarily had British backing. As the years rolled on and Philby moved up the foreign office ladder, the Saudis always had a strong backer whispering into the official British ears back home. Between his assignment to handling the Saudis and their eventual victory on the peninsula, not even a decade passed.
By the mid-1920s, the Brits decided on who should be the King of the Arabs and the Saudis received the scepter. The Hashemites received thrones in what is now Jordan and Iraq. The branch of the family in Jordan still rules today, and they have been a relatively good ally for the U.S. and a good neighbor in the Middle East. The branch that took the throne in Iraq was eventually destroyed in a coup by officers who had been bitten by the Pan-Arab bug. Those officers and their social strata had been educated in schools run by American missionaries and some even in the American University in Beirut. No coincidence where they learned of the power of self-rule or received inspiration for the Arab awakening that flourished during decolonization and perishes now fifty years later.
The criticism that the lines on the Middle East map are arbitrary is partially true. They are somewhat arbitrary and somewhat formed around tribal groups. Few if any could foresee the 20th century Muslim baby boom once modern medicine made its way there. Some nations were drawn to reward groups loyal to European colonial administration. Some just for European needs. The joke of Iraq is not just that it is a mish-mash of tribes because the Brits needed to link the oil fields in the southern part of Kurdish areas with a sea port. A childless Brit named Gertrude Bell made it her life work to start Iraq, and the name itself is rendered comical as Iraq comes from an Arabic folk word meaning “deeply rooted.” Decades before the foolish neconservative wars, Iraq was always viewed as this great potential state. There was a secular, literate urban class in Baghdad. There was so much oil, and there was an even more precious resource there: water. Iraq was never stable, and if one would argue it was under Saddam, it was only due to strenuous police state efforts.
The Saudis benefited from this arbitrary rewriting and erasing of old tribal splits. This does affect us today, as the Saudis would still collect all of that oil revenue, but they would lack one major thing. Part of Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy rests on its status as caretakers of Mecca and Medina. The only Schelling points for Arab nations seems to be brutal dictators with extensive secret police systems, and in their absence, Islam is the glue. Do not discount the power of the Hashemite claim that the Jordanians have. Israeli strategists once considered it powerful enough to push in propaganda if they used the Jordanians to enact the Oded Yinon Plan or Clean Break. The House of Saud can point to the holy cities to their west and claim piety. Those Muslim holy lands they guard for all Muslims. This feeds into the Wahhabi clerics’ power and influence, who then grant the House of Saud legitimacy as good Arabs and Muslims. They then keep billions to themselves, and the peasants get scraps.
How much of Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy is from holding those holy sites? Hard to tell. How much more resistance would the nomads given the Saudis in their decades of hoovering them into cities to turn them into just another mass of urban poor.
What is easy to see is that Saudi princes living hedonistic lives as their people eat crumbs would last a bit shorter if the Wahhabis were not there running interference and PR for them to those same masses. A split peninsula might have reduced the Wahhabi exporting, and it might have reduced the control the Saudis have. It may have even turned the peninsula into such a lawless and loose area that kindly Western oil firms would have to pump the ground without sharing the revenue. We owe much of this to the British selecting one desert warlord over another, and the words of a Brit who converted to Islam and went native.