The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is increasing its oilfield security forces from 5,000 to 35,000. This dramatic increase in security, at considerable expense, is a response to changes in the geopolitical landscape brought about by the events of 2001 and the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Saudi Arabia no longer perceives the United States as the ultimate guarantor of its security as it did back in the 1990s.
When Saudi Arabia appeared to be the target of Saddam Hussein’s armies in August 1990, the United States deployed hundreds of thousands of troops to defend Saudi Arabia, Operation Desert Shield, and only later was the liberation of Kuwait, Operation Desert Storm, considered. The initial concern was the defense of the kingdom and of course, its vast oil facilities and the world’s largest proved reserves.
What has changed since then to make the Saudis wary of their American allies? The Saudis only have to look north and see the turmoil in Iraq and the toll it has taken on American public opinion about the presence of American forces in the region. It is a two-edged sword for Riyadh. Not only do the Saudis believe the seemingly endless war in Iraq will result in the decline of American influence in the Persian Gulf region, they further believe it is ushering in the rise of Iranian power.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia has had ambivalent relations with Iran at best, and almost a war-like footing at worst. The two have always been at odds over who should be the power broker in the Persian Gulf. Note that only the Iranians call it the Persian Gulf and the Arabs refer to it as the Arab Gulf. Most of our politically-correct maps these days call it “The Gulf.”
Shifting American interests
American policy prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran was to engage both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the “twin pillars” strategy. Of course, after the fall of the Shah, our policy changed to ensuring the security of the Saudi monarchy-theocracy, despite its lack of democratic procedures and a poor human rights record. During the "twin pillars" days, the United States could press for reforms in the kingdom. That ability, however, was removed with the Shah. Stability in Saudi Arabia became even more vital to American foreign policy interests. Our policy focus became the free flow of oil from the Gulf, rather than democratic reforms in the kingdom.
America's continued mishandling of the war in Iraq provides a real opportunity for Iran to make a play to become the key power in the Gulf region, and Tehran has taken full advantage. Iranian special forces teams are operating in Iraq supporting and arming Shia militias, including that of Muqtada al-Sadr. It continues to expand its military and develop additional capabilities, including longer-range missile systems, and has embarked on what almost every rational thinker believes is a nuclear weapons program.
The rulers of Saudi Arabia, the House of Sa’ud, are increasingly concerned that the United States may not be willing to play a stabilizing role in the region, especially if a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq hands Iran a victory and breeds a new isolationist attitude in the minds of most Americans. The Saudis likely assess that in the not too distant future, it will be forced to defend itself from threats foreign and domestic. Who can blame them?
Understanding Saudi Arabia's al-Qaida connection
Saudi Arabia, incubator of many of the world’s most infamous terrorists, now also finds itself in the crosshairs of al-Qaida. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden openly declared war on the royal family, which was off limits for the group for many years. Although the royal family had been despised by bin Laden since the late King Fahd invited American troops to the holy ground, the continuous flow of money from wealthy Saudis to al-Qaida was critical for the group’s survival. When Saudi authorities responded to American demands that they choke off the funds, al-Qaida reacted.
Bin Laden has publicly called for attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. In February 2006 there was a failed attack on the huge Abqaiq oil processing compound, an attack that awakened the Saudis to the vulnerability of their oil facilities. It also indicated al-Qaida’s intent to damage the oil infrastructure as an attack on both the Kingdom and the West.
The Saudis believe they have threats from two fronts, al-Qaida and Iran. They also are wary of American resolve to ensure their security. Is that assessment valid? Perhaps it should be of concern to them but the bottom line is that the security of Saudi Arabia was, is, and will be, a vital interest of the United States for some time to come. While there are questions about our policy in Iraq, there are none about the importance of the free flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf.