In the context of Britain’s economic interests, its foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, declared in 1949: ‘In peace and war … the Middle East is an area of cardinal importance to the United Kingdom, second only to the United Kingdom itself.’
The impact of Britain’s weakened post-war economy was a source of concern to Bevin, but he was equally concerned over the worldwide Communist threat. His fear was shared by a number of other decision-makers, one of whom in 1946 argued that if Britain moved out of the Middle East, the Russians would move in. This is somehow akin to the fear of President Trump that should the US take punitive action against Saudi Arabia for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, then Russia and China would intervene.
By the end of the Second World War, Roosevelt, on his return from Yalta in February 1945, met the Saudi monarch and declared that his country was ‘more important to US diplomacy than virtually any other nation’. Soon, Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, were working directly with Big Oil, as the world’s six or seven largest publicly traded oil and gas companies were then known, for strategic assistance.
From the perspective of the US political interests, the strategy was intended to shore up the Marshall Plan, to exercise ‘veto power’ over Japanese imports, and to help control the spread of Communism in Asia. The geopolitics of the Cold War clashed with the reality of the oil market and the global economy, whose rough outline was only just beginning to take shape in the mid-1970s.
The murder of the Saudi dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, can be seen in the context of the Wahhabi kingdom being a metaphor for the corrupting influence of oil on America’s national security policy. Given its giant petroleum reserves and untapped production capacity, Saudi Arabia could flood the market by pumping enough surplus crude into the system to break the pricing structure and drive prices back down.
This is evident since the U.S.-Saudi oil coup directed against the Shah’s leadership of OPEC in 1977. This had contributed to the collapse of Iran’s monarchy in 1979. It was Saudi Arabia that released oil to stall the OPEC price increases in 1973 and during the Gulf War in 1990-91. Within 24 hours of 9/11, nine million additional barrels of Saudi oil were released to keep prices stable. The other pillar of postwar US oil policy ~ Iran ~ had to contend with revolutionary Islam.
The investigation into Khashoggi’s death has already been subsumed by the way Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is overplaying the Iranian threat, under cover of which he had undertaken a disastrous bombing campaign against Iranian- backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in an apparent plea to contain Iranian influence in the civil war, which, according to the United Nations, is driving 14 million people to “pre-famine” conditions.
The murder of Khashoggi cannot derail the US-Saudi alliance, but if America takes a dim view of the journalist’s murder, it will reinforce the impression of the wilful use of power by MBS. He has imprisoned his rivals and many prominent Saudi officials in a perceived effort to fight corruption. This is happening with full connivance of the US. Apart from the excesses in Yemen, the Trump administration has tacitly backed the questionable actions of the Crown Prince, such as the clash with Qatar or the kidnapping the Lebanese Prime Minister.
In 1980, US foreign policy suffered a jolt when four American women were shot in El Salvador. The Reagan Administration, wary that Nicaragua had fallen to a “leftist government”, believed that the events there were being influenced and perhaps even instigated by Cuba and the Soviet Union. But the death of a civilian, or a few civilians, is of little moment when the talking point is the relationship between two countries of great strategic proximity.
The killing of Daniel Pearl could not stave the US off Pakistan. Hence the speculation that the death of Khashoggi would be overshadowed by the altar of the strategic imperative of the US to be close to the Al-Saud princes and vice versa. The US President had initially referred to Crown Prince Salman as an “incredible ally”, but has now expressed reservations over Saudi deception and prevarication, even frustration over the cover-up.
Most Americans rarely bother about the monarchy that rules Saudi Arabia, the status of its citizens, or the fundamentalist Wahhabi branch of Islam practised by many. They care little about the fact that Saudi Arabia is an extremely theocratic country where Saudi men never get to see a woman who is not a direct relative, and where Saudi women themselves cannot leave the house without a male chaperone, and live largely behind the purdah.
It is the world’s most gender-segregated nation. America has a long history of dabbling with zealots and autocrats as heads of nations as long as they served American interests. Trump is already known to befriend some of the world’s most loathed autocrats, including Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, whose extralegal death squads have killed many.
The US arming of the Saudi air force in Yemen with precision-guided weapons, missiles, anti-missile weapons and intelligence, and with casualties mounting by the day, Saudi Arabia has little reason for concern over such ‘small’ acts of transgressions like the killing of a dissident journalist. The House of Saud can feel complacent that a death is too petty an irritant considering the goodwill around another $110 billion arms deal with the US.
The Saudi royal family has always understood that petropower signifies more than creating wealth, developing its economy, and preserving power. Oil is also Saudi Arabia’s’ primary weapon of national self-defence and the key to its security and survival.
The message that this ghastly act of killing conveys is one of brazen impunity; that Saudi Arabia, by dint of its proximity to the US, can get away practically with everything and can continue to enjoy the support of the Anglo-Americans, even with an act of killing of an American resident at Saudi Arabia’s own consulate, and that too, within the borders of a country that is a NATO ally of the United States.
Khashoggi’s murder might compel the comity of nations to be focused on Yemen. Patronage without accountability might well jeopardise America’s current posturings against Iran and its Middle East policy in the larger context.
The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues.