Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed June 1996
Copyright ©1996 by William O. Beeman

Saudi bombing is the result of unwelcome American presence

By William O. Beeman
William O. Beeman, professor of anthropology at Brown University, is a widely published specialist in Middle East relations. He lived and conducted research in Iran for nearly a decade and has studied the political implications of the Gulf War.

"As we continue to cause the destruction of those we would protect, it is imperative to rethink the entire philosophy that continues our unwelcome presence."

The bombing of the foreign military compound in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday, June 25, was a tragedy waiting to happen. It was an action designed to destabilize the Saudi Arabian royal family by exposing and attacking their greatest crime in the eyes of Saudis and others in the Arab world - the establishment of a permanent American military presence on Saudi soil.

There are several historical threads leading to this event. The first is the long effort on the part of the United States to establish a permanent land-based military presence in the Gulf region. The second involves the declining fortunes of the Saudi royal family. The third is the growing presence of revolutionary groups in the region willing to use violence to overthrow governments they view as corrupt.

For almost a century the British had been the guardians of the Gulf region, and of the oil supplies that were for so long a mainstay of energy for the industrialized world. The British pulled out of the region in 1972, unable to sustain the high cost of this military operation, and the United States moved in immediately to fill the gap.

Washington established a "twin pillars" policy in the region, whereby local governments would serve as U.S. surrogates to protect Western interests. One of the "pillars" was Iran, and the other was Saudi Arabia. This policy had a fatal flaw. Close association with the United States poisoned the leadership of these nations in the eyes of many of their people. The Iranian revolution was fueled by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's charges that the Shah was corrupting his nation through close association with America. The Shah's departure toppled the first of the pillars and put the Saudis on notice that they might be next.

The Saudi royal family knew how dangerous it was to be too closely allied with the United States. The family does not rule through a constitution; it presides over a nation consisting of a confederation of tribes. These conservative, intensely Islamic tribal groups looked with suspicion on the American presence in their country, and suspected that the Saudi family was using the United States to prop it up.

There is truth to this allegation. Saudi Arabia is a uniquely sacred place for Islam. It is the site of Mecca and Medina, Islam's most sacred cities. Despite claims of piety and Islamic purity, the Saudi family is notoriously corrupt, and somewhat out of control. There are more than 50,000 royal princes from the family of Ibn Saud. They have political and fiscal carte blanche in their own country and live decidedly non-Islamic lives. They have been able to maintain their power using severe authoritarian measures, including the liberal use of capital punishment.

The United States had been unable to effectively police the Gulf region without some land-based military presence. No Gulf nation - indeed, no Arab nation - would risk having the United States based on its soil for fear of arousing the local population. For a time in the 1970s and 1980s the United States maintained "advisors" to the Saudi air force in Dhahran, but it was an open secret that these military personnel were in fact combat troops. Still the presence was semi-covert, and the need for supply lines thousands of miles long made any military operation in the region extraordinarily inconvenient and expensive.

The Gulf War with Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91 finally provided the United States with a cover event that would allow the establishment of something more permanent. Since the Gulf War, hundreds of U.S. Air Force personnel have been established in Saudi Arabia as a cautionary force and a staging operation to contain further aggression from Iraq. Their presence may be a necessary evil. But they have been a magnet for terrorism ever since.

At this writing it is not known who actually set off the bomb. Despite heavy local security, neither the Saudis nor the Americans were able to stop the terrorists from driving a truck up to a residential compound and setting off the massive explosion that killed 19 persons and injured hundreds more. This suggests that those who perpetrated this action had aid from fairly powerful persons in the Saudi regime. This alone is a chilling fact that should warn the royal family that the attackers are literally at the gates.

In fact, however, there are plenty of candidates. There are currently a half-dozen groups attempting to overthrow the Saudi royal family. Paradoxically the Saudi Mujaheddin, a paramilitary group aided by the C.I.A. to fight the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, may be the most likely suspect group. U.S. aid provided this group with access to the kind of weaponry they could never obtain through official Saudi military channels. This group is young, intensely militant and intensely Islamic. They have no love for the Saudi royal family or the United States despite their C.I.A. connections.

Although it is tempting to focus on locating the perpetrators of this crime, there is a greater and more profound question for the United States. This is to try to understand why our policy in this region has continued to lead to destabilization rather than stability. As we continue to cause the destruction of those we would protect, it is imperative to rethink the entire philosophy that continues our unwelcome presence.