The State of Our Warfare Industry

Wars used to be fought for control of land, resources and people.  Some went on a long time, but they all ended.  Now, however, war is for the USA an industry.  Its goal is not peace and stability, but ever-growing war and instability.

Media bloviating about protecting the homeland, supporting allies, and spreading democracy is a well functioning distraction.  Industry leaders are expected to deliver growth, so warfare industry leaders are promoting terror.

Over the past decade the Middle East warfare market has been well penetrated to become a base for expansion throughout the area encircled by the “Functioning Core”:

Air_and_Space_MajGenMcDew [Compatibility Mode]

The GlobalFirePower project, which tracks defense spending around the world and shows our spending ($577B) to be four times higher than our closest competitor, China, and almost ten times higher than our former arch-rival, Russia, headlines its website: “Going to war is never a decision to be taken lightly, especially when considering the overall cost of such ventures.”

So how did it happen that we no longer consider the cost of wars, and why is it that we no longer decide whether to undertake them, only where we will make wars?

As these Federal Budget charts illustrate, we categorize military spending ($598B) as “discretionary” unlike Social Security and Medicare which are funded via dedicated taxes.  Discretionary means not mandatory, but no politician proposing big cuts in military spending is electable.

I’ve written before about Our Sacrosanct Jobs Program (“One man spoke of the mass unemployment of the 1930s and said that if we could attain full employment by killing Germans, we could have full employment by building houses, schools and hospitals”) and I’ve written about our arms export industry whose collapsing market after the Cold War was rejuvenated by President Bush’s War on Terror.

International Transfers of Major Weapons

It was only in President Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address, when he would never again seek election, that he warned:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.  The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Two years later, in 1963, President Kennedy tried again.  Condemning the demonization of Soviet leaders, he warned against the Pax Americana we still seek to enforce today:

“What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war … I am talking about genuine peace – the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living … let us not be blind to our differences – but let us direct attention to our common interests and to means by which those differences can be resolved.”

President Kennedy was soon assassinated, his successor, President Johnson, led us into the Vietnam nightmare, in the next decades we greatly increased our military spending while fighting only small wars, and then President Bush hoodwinked us into a War on Terror that can by definition never end.

Now, when President Obama endorses spending $1,000B+ over the next three decades to enhance our ability to fight nuclear war using weapons with more flexible targeting and a range of yields even down to that of large conventional weapons, Ike is not among Obama’s potential successors.

Ike, Trump and Cruz

Let’s take stock.  How is Pax Americana going?

Late last month Iraqi forces retook the provincial capital, Ramadi, from the Islamic State.  That was possible primarily due to US airstrikes which, as a side-effect, destroyed over 80% of the city.  Victories like that destroy peoples’ means of existence.

As I wrote here when I began researching the Middle East:  “We have come to believe it is not only right but good to send our children to kill, and we revel in the destruction our media presents.”

Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Mali are already failing or failed states, we will drop another 23,000 bombs on them and others this year, and our drones will go on creating “collateral damage” there, in Pakistan and beyond.

Back when I was a Senior Vice President of a large global enterprise, I sometimes imagined my colleagues’ decisions that would have bad results to be stupid.  They were not.  I was the stupid one, not recognizing those results were desired.  Now, our warfare industry leaders and I want different results.

The War on Terror will continue to grow our market.  The state of our warfare industry is strong.

Sunni vs Shia in Context

Muslims split into two camps, Sunni and Shia, soon after Muhammad died in 632, they have battled ever since, and their violence has spread here.  Is that true?  Should we be afraid?

The Sunni-Shia divide over the succession to Muhammad obscures both what all Muslims accept and significant differences between five Sunni and three Shia schools of law as well as many schools of theology, some of which are accepted by both Sunni and Shia sects.

The seed that grew into today’s conflict was sown in the early 1500s when the Safavids, a Kurdish Sufi mystic order that turned militant, gained control of Iran and established a Shia sect as their empire’s religion to differentiate it from the previous regime, the Sunni Ottoman Empire based in Turkey (see this excellent article for a comprehensive geographic history of the Islamic states.)

Islamic States 1550

Today’s battles do reflect sectarian differences but they are primarily about worldly power.  I’ll say more about those differences and what every Muslim accepts, then review events in the recent past that made the early 1500s split newly relevant.

The Quran, Allah’s words to Muhammad, is the foundation for all Muslims.  There are also Hadiths, reports on Muhammad’s words and actions that correspond to the gospels about Christ’s words and actions.  Some Hadiths are followed by both Sunni and Shia, others only by one or the other.  The major Hadiths happen to have been collected by a Persian Muslim.

The Hadith of Gabriel is the most important and is accepted by both Sunni and Shia.  It includes the mandatory Five Pillars for all Muslims — faith in Allah and Muhammad, five daily prayers performed in a prescribed way, charity (because all things belong to God), fasting (to purify worldly desire), and pilgrimage to Mecca.

The mode of prayer is essentially the same for all Muslims and although the prayer leader in any mosque belongs to one of the Sunni or Shia schools, unlike Catholic or Protestant churches where the fundamentals of practice are different, Muslims of any school can pray in any mosque.

The main Sunni schools of law are Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shaf”i.  They are associated with different territories as with any organized religion:

  • Hanafi has the largest number of followers and is dominant in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, parts of Iraq, India and Bangladesh, and a vast area to the east and north that includes most Russian Muslims
  • Hanbali is strictly traditionalist and is dominant in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  The Saudi regime enforces a harsh, fundamentalist form of Hanbali known as Wahhabism
  • Maliki is in Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and NE Saudi Arabia
  • Shafi’i was the most popular school but was superseded by Hanafi under the Ottoman Empire

The major Shia traditions are the Fivers, Seveners, and Twelvers who differ on which of Muhammad’s successors are legitimate.  The Twelvers’ Jaʿfarī is the school of law for most Shia Muslims because Twelvers are a majority in Iran and among the Shia Muslims in Bahrain and Iraq.  They are also a significant minority in Lebanon.

Overall, around 85-90% of Muslims are Sunni, 10-15% Shia.

Sunni Shia Map

Now the events beginning in 1979 that made the Sunni-Shia split newly relevant.

The leading political movement in the Middle East in the 1950s and ’60s was Arab nationalism.  Sunni-Shia distinctions were almost irrelevant then.  The important issues were shared Arab ethnicity, which is different from Turks and Persians, and their long suffering under colonial powers who divided them.

What changed all that was Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrowing the pro-Western shah.  Iran’s theocratic revolution was both popular and anti-monarchist, and the new regime encouraged uprisings in other Middle Eastern nations.  That threatened Saudi influence and their monarchy itself.

Then came the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.  The Saudi regime supported Iraq’s 1980s war against Iran to preempt revolution by Iraq’s Shias, but Saddam Hussein considered both Saudi Arabia and Iran enemies.  Removing him disrupted the balance between the powers and left a power vacuum in Iraq.

Next the Arab Spring, starting in Tunisia in 2010, spread to Syria and other Middle East nations.   Saudi Arabia and Iran, in rivalry for influence, amped up Sunni-Shia sectarianism.  Their power plays, the Saudis’ heavily supported by the US and Israel, greatly increased the violence.

In Syria protests grew into rebellion then civil war.  Rebels, encouraged by US policy to oust President Bashar al-Assad, were armed by the Saudi regime and Qatar.  The Saudi regime wants Assad replaced by a Sunni government because Assad is Alawite, a Shia sect.  They fear a potential “Shiite crescent” from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.  Seeing the civil war recast as anti-Shia, Iran’s regime encouraged Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon to battle the Sunni rebels.

Those rebels include Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham (funded chiefly by Kuwait), and Al Qaeda’s spinoff, the Islamic State.

Israel shares the Saudis’ fear of Iran.  Shia group Hezbollah in Lebanon, one of whose chief goals is the elimination of Israel, gets substantial support from Iran.  Sunni group Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, also seeks to establish an Islamic State in what is now Israel.

Meanwhile in Yemen, where civil war also rages, Saudi bombing, justified by greatly exaggerating Iran’s support for Houthi Shia rebels, has greatly worsened the humanitarian disaster.

And meanwhile in Iraq, changes there illustrate how Sunni-Shia strife is not the norm.  Iraq’s population is 75%-80% Arab and almost all Muslim, half to two thirds Shia.  Saddam’s regime was Ba’athist, a movement aiming for a single Arab state that would be Muslim by tradition but more importantly, socialist (see comment.)  Most of Saddam’s government were Sunni.  Shia were oppressed by them, but there was little conflict between Sunni and Shia people until we made Iraq essentially lawless.

Sunni and Shia lived side by side in much of Baghdad, even in 2005.  But as chaos grew, Sunni and Shia began to form self-defense militias, then saw each other as threats.  Neighborhoods in Baghdad that had been mixed were starkly divided two years later.

Baghdad Shia-Sunni Map

The Sunni-Shia split is real enough to excite support for political leaders, but it is their contests for power that are the root of today’s Middle East violence.  Our military interventions to prop up or topple these autocrats are counter-productive and greatly increase the suffering of the people.

Middle East conflict has spread to the USA only in the sense that we replaced the 20th century British and French Empires as the power whose actions aim to dominate the Middle East.

Should we be afraid of the variously named ISIL, ISIS or Islamic State?  It is famous for beheading opponents and now controls most of Syria, but we do not condemn the Saudi regime for beheadings.  Should we then support Syria being ruled by ISIL, a regime similar to Saudi Arabia’s?

No, we should stop being afraid, and we should stop compounding violence.

The Pathetic Fallacy – Nations

I wrote in Pathetic Fallacy – Corporations that a pathetic fallacy — personifying what is not a person — masks reality with an idea and triggers false emotion from false perception.

Thinking of a nation as an entity with a will is as misleading as thinking that a corporation decides what to do.  Nations and corporations are not beings with a mind of their own.  They are artificial entities that enable real people, their leaders, to command resources and project power.

To see that a nation is a concept just like a corporation, consider nations to be a form of business.  For example:

  • The business known as England, where I grew up, was owned and operated as the Tudor family business from 1485 until 1603 when it was taken over by the business operated by the Stuart family since 1371 that was known as Scotland
  • The USA business, where I have lived all my adult (hah!) life, resulted from the hostile takeover of what we term the “Indian nations.”

Indian Nations Map

But what actually is a nation?  There are many forms of nation, just as corporations are only one form of business, so there are many definitions :

  1. “A large group of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, or history
  2. “A large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own
  3. “A large area of land that is controlled by its own government

The USA is not a nation of the first kind since we do not have a common language — there are 45 million Spanish-speaking Americans — or a common culture, ethnicity or descent.  It is also not a nation of the second kind, not unified in a deep way, as this election season makes so clear.

As Colin Woodard’s excellent historical analysis shows, the USA is better understood as eleven nations, each with a different culture.

Eleven American Nations Map

So the USA is a nation of the third kind, one with the same system of government for more than two centuries whose territory kept expanding until it spanned its ocean borders.

What about other nations, those in the Middle East, for example?

A map of their territories suggests that:

  • Large ones on the periphery — Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — are likely to fight over those in the center — Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon
  • Iraq is likely to want to control Kuwait to get ocean access
  • Saudi Arabia is likely to want to control Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAR, Oman and Yemen

Middle East Map

But we are misled by our delusion that nations are natural entities, especially Saudi Arabia, whose eastern and western coastal borders make it seem to be a nation of the third kind like the USA.

In fact, the territory now known as Saudi Arabia only came into existence in 1932.  It is, to continue the business analogy, an Ibn Saud family-owned oil production business.  Their administration happens to require the people in that territory to conform to an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam.

The territory now known as Iran, however, part of whose borders are also coastal, is a nation of the first kind.  It has a distinct ethno-linguistic population and a common culture formed by operating from 530 BC to 1979 as the Persian Empire.  Its secular dynastic rule was then overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini who established a fundamentalist Shia Islam theocracy.

The territory now known as Iraq, with no natural borders, has an even longer history as Mesopotamia.  It is where the world’s first cities formed around 5300 BC.  Unlike Iran, the majority of Iraq’s people are Arabs although there are also Kurds where it borders Turkey and Iran.  Mesopotamia was conquered by Muslim Arabs in the 7th century, later absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, briefly stable under Saddam Hussein after 1979 but its territory is now battled over by an elected government and unrecognized new nations, Kurdistan and Islamic State.

The territory now known as Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire from 1299 to 1922 when it was re-established by Kemal Ataturk as a secular democracy whose natural borders are coastal.

And the territory known as Egypt, with desert and coastal borders, was managed as a kingdom for three thousand years, then by the Arab Muslim Empire for six centuries and as part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 until that empire fell.  Its monarchy was overthrown in 1952 by Gamal Nasser.

So Iran, Egypt and Turkey each has a long history during which an ethno-linguistic majority established a culture in a territory defined largely by coastal borders.  Iraq also has a long history but lacks natural borders and has a divided population.  Saudi Arabia lacks agricultural potential and has only been a nation since oil was discovered.  The government of all five nations is in fact quite new.

The future of territories is determined to a great extent by geography.  The behavior of people is influenced by cultures that diverge over time.  But the behavior of what we imagine to be nations is decided not be those conceptual entities but by individuals such as Ibn Saud, Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Nasser.

That’s a critical distinction because a territory and its people can, when characterized as a nation, inspire fear, hatred and violence, replacing what is real — people like us — with fantasy, an alien mass against which appalling violence seems necessary and right.

Terrible things happen when we condemn entire populations whose existence in the form of a nation is the product of our imagination.

We teach children who crush their thumb with a hammer not to fly into a rage at the hammer.  We must see for ourselves that it is not corporations and nations that take action but their leaders.


Beyond the Media Hype: Egypt

Egypt is on the Mediterranean and Red Seas with the Suez canal connecting the two.  It borders Libya in the west, the Gaza Strip and Israel in the east and Sudan in the south.  It is about the size of Texas plus New Mexico.

Most of Egypt is desert, about two thirds of it part of the sandy and extremely harsh Libyan desert.   A more mountainous desert extends from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea.  The Sinai Peninsula east of that is also desert.  The only agricultural land is in the Nile Valley and Nile Delta.

Egypt Detail Map

The Nile runs about 500 miles to its delta from the Aswan Dam near the Sudan border.  The dam was built in the 1960s to control flooding, provide irrigation and generate electricity.  The annual Nile floods used to wash away crops in high-water years and failed to support them in low-water ones.

The great majority of Egypt’s 88 million people, over half of whom are under 20 years old and 91% of whom are ethnic Egyptians, live near the banks of the Nile, about half of them in urban areas, mostly Cairo, Alexandria and other major Nile Delta cities.  The entire Nile Valley and Nile Delta account for about 5.5% of Egypt’s land, and since much of that delta is marshland, 98% of the population lives on only 3% of Egypt’s entire territory.

Egypt Population Density

An estimated 90% of Egyptians are Muslim, 9% Coptic Christian and 1% other Christian denominations.  An estimated two thirds of the Muslims are Sunni, 13% are non-denominational, 17% are Egyptian-Sufi, and 3% are Shia.  Over 90% of the Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

Egypt’s known history begins twelve thousand years ago with a grain-grinding culture.  When climate changes or overgrazing a couple of thousand years later began to turn the land to desert, the people moved to the Nile Valley.  Some of the earliest developments in writing, agriculture, urbanization, organized religion and central government were made there where a unified kingdom was founded five thousand years later and a distinctively Egyptian religious and artistic culture began to flourish.  Many of the great pyramids were built in that time.

Christianity arrived in Egypt three thousand years later as its native civilization was fading, then it was conquered by Muslim Arabs in 639–42. They ruled Egypt for the next six centuries and were followed in 1250 by Mamluks, a military caste of Turkic slaves brought by Muslim rulers to Iraq in the 9th century.   Although the Mamluk regime was conquered by Ottoman Turks in 1517, they continued to rule semi-autonomously until France invaded in 1798.  When they were driven out in 1805, an Ottoman military commander took over.  His dynasty ruled until 1952 although they were by then British puppets.

Eight hundred years of benign, oppressive or behind the scenes military rule explains much about Egypt today, along with the results of several hundred years of rule by colonial powers, persistent social injustice and now, a very high percentage of under twenty year-olds.

Egypt’s debt to European banks from its partnership with France to complete the Suez Canal in 1869 was so great that it was soon forced to sell its share to Britain.  Expecting great benefit since the canal cut 4,300 miles off the sea distance between Europe and South Asia, Egypt instead got British and French controllers in its cabinet.

When the Ottomans allied with Germany in WW1, Britain replaced Egypt’s anti-British ruler and declared it a Protectorate.  The country rose in revolt after the war when Britain exiled leaders of the nationalist movement that won the first election.  Britain declared Egypt’s independence in 1922 but retained control and maintained a military presence until 1956.

Opposition to British rule led in 1928 to formation of the Muslim Brotherhood which focused first on education and charity but soon became a political force, too, advocating for the disenfranchised, modernization of Islam, and Egyptian nationalism.  During WW2 the Brotherhood sabotaged British forces in Egypt and supported terrorism in British Palestine.  In 1945, educated, lower middle class army officers established a secret Free Officers Movement within the Brotherhood.  In 1948, the Prime Minister outlawed it and was assassinated by one of its members.

In 1950, Gamal Nasser was chosen to head the still secret Free Officers Movement and began preparing to end British influence once and for all.  The military coup d’etat he organized in 1952 was quite peaceful, the Egyptian Republic was declared the following year and he became President in 1956.  Although the revolution was supported by the Brotherhood, they were given no role in the government.  When a Muslim Brother tried to assassinate Nasser during his 1954 speech celebrating the upcoming British military withdrawal, his response from the podium: “My countrymen, my blood spills for you and for Egypt. I will live for your sake and die for the sake of your freedom and honor” made him a hero.  He abolished the Brotherhood and imprisoned thousands of its members.

Nasser went on to became leader not only of Egypt but of many Arabs everywhere.  He promoted political unification of all Arabs.  All foreign powers would be expelled and Arabs would govern themselves via Arab Socialism, which meant not Communism but eliminating the exploitation of one group of citizens by another.

Nasser’s policy toward the Great Powers was neutral and wary.  He saw it as a continuation of British influence when in 1955 Britain, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey, encouraged by the US, formed the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) to counter Russian expansion.  After Israel attacked the Egyptian-held Gaza Strip the same year and Egypt’s forces were too weak to respond, he made an arms deal with Czechoslovakia.  The US had stopped supplying arms because Egypt was neutral toward the USSR.

In 1956, when the US withdrew funding for the Aswan High Dam, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.  France, Britain, and Israel invaded but US President Eisenhower forced them to withdraw.  Nasser later got funding for the dam from Russia.  He established a Constitution that enabled women to vote and prohibited gender-based discrimination.  By the end of the next year he had nationalized all British and French assets as well as other businesses, in total one third of the overall economy.

Pan-Arabism was by this time supported throughout the Arab world and Nasser seemed able to bring it about.  He opposed communism but the US saw pan-Arabism as a threat, too, and tried to build up King Saud as a counterweight.  When Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic in 1958, absorbed the Gaza Strip and aligned with North Yemen, King Saud’s plan to have Nasser assassinated became instead a triumph when he waved the Saudi check for shooting down his plane to cheering masses in Syria’s capital.

In 1961, Nasser helped establish, along with Burma, Ghana, India, Indonesia and Yugoslavia, the Non-Aligned Movement of developing countries opposed to the Cold War.  It now has 120 members.  The same year he made Egypt’s leading Sunni institution authorize coeducational schools and declare Shia, Alawaite and Druze no longer heretical.

When civil war broke out in North Yemen in 1962 after a republic was declared, Jordan and Saudi Arabia supplied military aid to the royalists.  Nasser supplied troops and weapons to the republican side hoping to go on and expel British forces from South Yemen.  The war ended in 1970 in stalemate.

Also in 1962 Nasser introduced another new constitution along with a National Charter that included free universal health care, affordable housing, free education, more women’s rights, a minimum wage, and land reforms that gave tenant farmers security.  Government ownership of Egyptian business increased to 51%.  The economy came close to collapse by the end of the 1960s.

When Russia told him in 1967 that Israel was about to attack Syria, Nasser deployed troops near Israel’s border, expelled UN peacekeepers and blocked Israel’s access to the Red Sea saying, “our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.”  King Hussein, fearing that Israel would seize the West bank, committed Jordan to join Egypt and Syria.  Israel quickly captured Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.  Russia then resupplied about half of Egypt’s arms and Nasser cut relations with the US.

When Nasser died in 1970 he was succeeded by Anwar Sadat who realigned Egypt from Russia to the United States and launched economic reform.  Nasser had suppressed Muslim movements but Sadat hoped to win their support.  He freed Muslim Brothers from jail but left the Brotherhood outlawed.  Allied with Syria, he launched an attack in 1973 to regain part of the Sinai Israel had captured.  That later enabled him to regain all Egypt’s Sinai territory in return for peace with Israel, but after signing a 1979 peace agreement with Israel, he was considered an enemy of Muslims and was assassinated in 1981 by a Muslim extremist.

Hosni Mubarek, an air force commander during the 1973 war, was elected next.  He was subsequently elected to three more 6-year terms (but was the only candidate in the first two).  Despite mass arrests the Muslim Brotherhood continued to push for more democracy and against Western erosion of Islamic culture, and they continued to gain support, mainly because of their social services.

In 1989, the USA designated Egypt a major non-NATO ally.  In 1991, Mubarak began privatizing the economy and passing severe freedom-inhibiting laws.  The economy flourished but terrorist attacks increased, too, and parliament had almost no role by the late 1990s.  In 2005, although Brotherhood candidates could run only as independents, they won 20% of the parliamentary seats.  Two years later, independent candidates were banned and thousands of Brotherhood members were arrested.  The Brotherhood boycotted the 2008 election and in 2010 there were more massive arrests and all but one of their candidates lost.

Mubarak ruled Egypt for over thirty years and intended his son to succeed him but widespread protests forced him to resign in 2011.  The Egyptian military then reemerged and took over.  They legalized the Brotherhood and held an election.  The Brotherhood’s newly formed Freedom and Justice Party won almost half the seats and its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president.

Morsi granted himself unlimited powers and proposed what opponents said was an Islamist constitution, then twenty to thirty million protesters took to the streets.  The military stepped back in, removed him and re-outlawed the Brotherhood.  The US withdrew military aid to protest the abuse of democracy.  Morsi was charged with crimes that include inciting jihad in collaboration with Hezbollah and Hamas.  The head of the military, el-Sisi was elected president in early 2014.  Today Morsi was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the killing of demonstrators in 2012.  Last year, the UN condemned the sentencing to death of 1,200 people in mass trials “rife with procedural irregularities.”

On April 1, 2015 (sic) the US restored $1.3B of military aid to Egypt, our second largest total after Israel.  In September 2014, Russia had agreed to a $3.5B arms deal with Egypt and a few months later Egypt had facilitated a Russian arms deal with Libya.

Escalating the Middle East arms race will not end well.  Egypt’s relations with Iran are strained by Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia, its relations with Turkey are strained by Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and it is militarily active in Yemen where Saudi Arabia and Iran are amplifying an age-old local conflict being exploited by Al Queda.

Meanwhile, Egypt is riven internally by the conflicting aims of Muslim Brothers, Coptic Christians, secularist and military leaders.  And there are no jobs for 39% of the under twenty year-old half of Egypt’s population.

Beyond the Media Hype: Arms Exports

Most of us think beheading is barbaric and are horrified by 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for a website advocating free speech.  We abhor child marriages and are appalled that women anywhere should need permission from a male guardian even to travel.

Sweden’s foreign minister recently denounced those policies and acts by Saudi Arabia as extreme violations of human decency.

She went on to say it would be wrong for Sweden to continue military cooperation with such a regime.  European Union countries had after all in 2008 established a Common Position on arms exports making “respect for human rights in the country of final destination” a precondition.

The Saudi regime’s response was to withdrew its ambassador and stop issuing visas to Swedish businessmen.  Its allies condemned Sweden’s ‘unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’  The United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassador, too.

How would the Swedish government respond?  Sweden sold more than half a billion dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia from 2011 to 2014 and the Saudi regime is expected to buy 52% more arms this year than last.  Would Sweden give up such a huge opportunity?

And the impact could be much broader than Sweden’s arms exporters alone.  Denmark was hit with a major international boycott when a Danish newspaper published Muhammed cartoons in 2005.

Lobbying by Sweden’s business leaders began immediately.  Thirty chief executives signed an open letter saying that breaking the arms trade agreement ‘would jeopardize Sweden’s reputation as a trade and co-operation partner.’

Sweden’s king called the foreign minister to his palace and told her to back off.  The Constitution grants him no power, but…

And the Saudi regime positioned the minister’s denunciation of their human rights abuses as anti-Muslim hatred.

It looked like business priorities would trump human decency.  But, after no doubt agonized debate, the Swedish government announced the cancellation of its military cooperation with Saudi Arabia.  And a couple of weeks later Saudi Arabian media published a fabricated apology by Sweden along with the news that its ambassador would return.

This is a heartening story for anyone who thinks beheading and so forth is barbaric.  But it was little reported in Europe and almost not at all here.  So we must also note a couple of other things.

First, our US government supports the Saudi regime not just because we want their oil but because since we destroyed Iraq, it alone balances Iran’s power in the Middle East.

Middle East Map

Americans fear Iran.  We do not remember overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953 and replacing it with the Shah’s dictatorship.  All we remember is the theocratic regime that overthrew our friend the Shah holding our Embassy staff hostage.  We imagine an Iran that we have always treated well but which is our mortal enemy for religious reasons.  And our ally Israel considers Iran an existential threat because it supports its Shia fellows, Hezbollah and Hamas, working for the Palestinian State that Israel’s newly re-elected leader declared he will resist to the end.

Second, Sweden’s admirable decision removes a competitor for Saudi Arabia’s arms purchases.

Arms Exporters

This March 2015 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report notes that we delivered major weapons to at least 94 countries in 2010-14.

The world’s largest importer, India, increased its purchases by 140% from 2005-2009, chiefly from Russia.  The second largest, Saudi Arabia, increased its purchases  by 400%, supplied chiefly by the UK (36%) and the USA (35%).Arms ImportersWe delivered $8.4 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia and their Iran-facing neighbor United Arab Emirates last year, up from $6 billion the previous year.

A growing share of big fast-growing markets is what every business leader wants.

The Swedish government decided human rights trump what arms business leaders want.  My government is sticking with the opposite decision.

Beyond the Media Hype: Palestine

Why is it harder to “understand” Palestine than Lebanon or other Middle East states?  Because Palestine lacks the conceptual framework of statehood.  It does not even exist on this map of Middle Eastern states that aims to illustrate the incoherence of our current alliances.

The map’s precise borders suggest stability, too.  Although Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen are sunk in civil war, they seem to be unified like currently stable Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

Middle East Alliances

Previous posts in this series have begun to illuminate the deep conflict between long-powerful Iran and recently-wealthy Saudi Arabia, why Yemen has become a proxy in their rivalry, and how Jordan, Lebanon and Syria became independent states.  Now we can explore why Palestine did not become one and start to think holistically about what is driving Middle Eastern conflicts.

The region between Egypt, Syria and Arabia known for thousands of years as Palestine was among the world’s first settled agricultural communities.  It is a crossroads for commerce, cultures and religions, the place where Judaism and Christianity were born.  Controlled over the centuries from Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, Turkey, Britain and more, its boundaries changed constantly.

Today’s Palestine is part of what was Greater Syria under Turkey’s Ottoman Empire.  That Syria was the entire region from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates and the Arabian Desert to southern Turkey’s Taurus Mountains.  When the Ottomans got control by conquering Egypt in 1517, they subdivided it into administrative districts, some of which correspond to today’s states.

When the Ottoman Empire fell at the end of WW1, the League of Nations granted Britain and France Mandates over the region.  Those Mandates placed former German and Turkish colonies under the “tutelage” of Britain and France “until such time as they are able to stand alone.”

Note:  If that sounds patronizing, it is worth noting that it is what we are currently trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Having secretly agreed during WW1 how they would divide it between them, Britain and France established states in their mandated territories.  That was when Lebanon and Syria became separate nations.  Britain divided its territory into Palestine and Transjordan, which later became Jordan.

Palestine and Transjordan Map

Europe’s concept of nation states had come to the Arab world late in the 19th century.  It gave rise everywhere to a growing rejection of colonialism and in Greater Syria to the theory of a pluralistic Syrian nationality that supported multiple religions: Sunni and Shia, Christian and Jewish.

The idea of an independent Palestine within Greater Syria arose when Britain established Mandatory Palestine with a modern nation-state boundary.  The desire for that independence greatly increased as a result of fast growing Zionist immigration into what is now Israel.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) founded in 1964 to liberate Palestine by armed struggle was secularist then like Greater Syria even though about 90% of Palestinians are Sunni.

Islam only became significant in Palestinian politics with the 1980s rise of the Hamas offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood founded in Egypt in 1928 as a religious, political, and social movement.

But let’s take a step back.  How did Ottoman Greater Syria become home to diverse people and religions, and what is the specific history of today’s Palestinian State?

The Roman Empire began converting to Christianity when it was reunified by emperor Constantine.  His mother brought Christianity to Jerusalem in 326 and Palestine grew to become a center of Christianity.  Although Greater Syria was conquered by Muslims in 636, the majority of its population remained Christian until the late 12th century.

Persecution of Christians began growing in the late 10th century during a long series of wars between Egyptian, Central Asian and Persian Empires and Europe’s Crusaders.  Then the decline of the eastern remainder of the Roman Empire in the early 13th century dramatically cut Christian influence throughout the region.

In the early 20th century, Zionist settlers began buying land in what is now Israel and evicting Palestinian peasants.  At the same time, support began growing in Britain for the establishment there of a Jewish homeland.

Jewish Owned Land in Palestine 1945

Muslim-Christian Associations formed throughout the area in opposition and became a national group that agitated for an independent Palestine.  Protests grew as mass Jewish immigration continued.  The protests developed into a 1936-1939 mass uprising.

After WW2 in 1947, the UN proposed the partition of Britain’s Mandatory Palestine into an Arab state, a Jewish state and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem.

Palestinian leaders along with those of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece, Cuba and India rejected any such plan of partition saying it violated the UN charter’s principle that people have the right to decide their own destiny.

Although Palestinian and Arab leaders now accept the partition in broad terms as a fait accompli, they continue to consider it unfair.

Jews owned 7% of Mandatory Palestine but were given 56% of it.  The area under Jewish control contained 45% of the Palestinian population.  Much of the Arab land was unfit for agriculture.

The Negev desert given to the Jewish state was also sparsely populated and unsuitable for agriculture but that area was a “vital land bridge protecting British interests from the Suez Canal to Iraq.”

Note:  To understand Palestinians’ reaction, imagine the UN establishing Native American homelands corresponding to where they lived before Columbus and returning 56% of the USA to them.

American Indians Map Census BureauPre-Columbian USA Culture MapCivil war broke out.  It became an inter-state war when Israel declared independence in May 1948.  Forces from Egypt, Jordan Syria and Iraq joined the Palestinians but Israel ended up with both its UN-recommended territory and almost 60% of the proposed Arab state.

Jordan took the rest of the West Bank and Egypt the Gaza Strip.  No Palestinian state was created.

During ten months of battles, around 700,000 Palestinians, 60% of all those in Mandatory Palestine in 1947, fled or were driven out.  In the following three years, about the same number of Jews immigrated to Israel, 110% of those in Mandatory Palestine in 1947.

Note:  Again to put numbers in perspective, imagine 193 million Americans (60% of of 321M) being driven out in less than a year and replaced in the next three years by the same number of Muslim immigrants (who we imagine already make up 15% of our population).


What happened next?  In 1967 Israel captured the rest of the former British Mandate of Palestine, taking the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

In 1973 Syria tried but failed to regain the Golan heights and Egyptian military forces invaded with some success.

Following the case fire, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and Egypt became the first Arab country to recognize Israel.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980.

In 1987, a new Palestinian uprising began.  The following year Chairman of the PLO Yasser Arafat declared Palestine’s independence.

In 1993, Israel and the PLO agreed to the creation of a Palestinian National Authority (PNA) as the interim self-government body to administer 39% of the West Bank under the PNA’s Fatah faction and the Gaza Strip under its Hamas wing.  Further negotiations were to take place but did not.

Israel continued to occupy 61% of the West Bank.

Palestine and Israel Map Now

In 2000, another uprising began.  That came to an end following the death of Yasser Arafat and Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza strip.  Israel retained control of the Gaza Strip air space and coast.

In 2011, the President of the Palestinian Authority and Chairman of the PLO submitted Palestine’s application for membership in the UN.

In 2012, the UN granted de facto recognition of the sovereign state of Palestine.  Canada, Israel and the USA voted against the upgrade.  President Obama said “genuine peace can only be realised between Israelis and Palestinians themselves … it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach an agreement on the issues that divide them.”

The State of Palestine can now join treaties and specialized UN agencies, pursue legal rights over its territorial waters and air space, and bring “crimes against humanity” and war-crimes charges to the International Criminal Court.

Palestine UN Votes

What may be the future for Palestinians, and what is indicated for our foreign policy?

A state with the territory of Mandatory Palestine could have become self-supporting.  One made up of the land-locked West Bank and the separate Gaza Strip can not.

Jordan’s first king may have been right–a state whose territory included the West Bank as well as today’s Jordan could have been good for Palestinians.

A non-viable but internationally recognized State of Palestine may be a necessary stepping stone for Palestinians and Israelis to make peace but a different arrangement of territories in that region is inevitable.

History shows the absurdity of our belief that the borders of existing nation states just need to be accepted and democratic elections established, then all will be well.  Borders make administration possible.  Believing people on the other side of the border are intrinsically different breeds fear and makes peace impossible.

Beyond the Media Hype: Lebanon

Lebanon’s location bordering Syria made it a trading hub between the Mediterranean and Arab worlds and resulted in it becoming the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East.  Its mountains isolated religious and ethnic groups from each other.

Lebanon Simple Map

Lebanon is north-south alternating strips of lowland and highland–a coastal plain, a mountain range, a central plateau, then more mountains.  Its shoreline is regular, rocky and has no deep harbor.   The Beqaa Valley between the mountain ranges is the main agricultural area but fruit and vegetables grow well on the very narrow maritime plain.

Lebanon Topography

The CIA estimates the population to be 40% Christian, 27% Shia, 27% Sunni, and 5% quasi-Shia Druze.  The Lebanese Information Center estimates 34% Christians while Statistics Lebanon estimates 46% Christian.  The 34% to 46% range for Christians is matched by a 27% to 40% range for Shia.

There are several Christian groups.  Maronite Catholics make up 21% of the overall population, Greek Orthodox 8%, Greek Catholic 5%, Protestant 1% and 6% other denominations.  When the last census was taken in 1932, Christians were 53% of the total.  It was about the same in 1956 but more Christians than Muslims have emigrated since then and the Muslim population has a higher birth rate.

Lebanon has over thousands of years been part of many empires.  It became an orthodox Christian center under the Romans.  They persecuted an ascetic Christian tradition established near Mount Lebanon in the late 4th century by a hermit named Maron.  Most of Lebanon was ruled as a Christian Crusader State from 1109 to 1289.

Most eastern Mediterranean Christian communities swore allegiance to the head of Eastern Christianity in Constantinople, but the Maronites aligned with the Pope in Rome, which led to centuries of support from France and Italy even after Lebanon became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516.

In 1842, fighting between Maronites and the Druze led to the Mount Lebanon area being separated into a Christian district in the north and a Druze one in the south, both of which reported to the governor of the Sidon district in Beirut.  France got the northern district separated entirely from Muslim Syria in 1861 to protect Mount Lebanon’s 80% Christian population

Lebanon Religion Map

In 1920, after the Ottoman Empire fell, the League of Nations gave Syria and Lebanon to France, and Palestine and Iraq to Britain.  France was welcomed by Christians around Mount Lebanon and vehemently rejected by Muslims in Syria.  It took until 1923 for France to gain full control.

France added Tripoli, north of which is primarily Sunni, to the former Ottoman district of Mount Lebanon, along with Sidon, south of which is chiefly Shia, and the Bekaa Valley, which has a mix of Muslims, Christians and Druze, and established it in 1926 as the democratic republic of Lebanon.

A political system was established that shares power based on religious communities.  There is an unwritten agreement that the president will be Maronite Christian, the speaker of the parliament Shia, the prime minister Sunni and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and the Deputy Prime Minister Greek Orthodox.  The Shia have considered themselves marginalized ever since.  They as well as the Maronites were persecuted by the Ottomans.

Lebanon Detail Map

When France’s puppet government during WW2 allowed Germans through Syria to attack British forces in Iraq, Britain invaded Syria and Lebanon.  France then said Lebanon would become independent with France’s ongoing support.  But when the newly elected Lebanese government abolished France’s mandate in 1943, France imprisoned them.  France was then forced by international pressure to recognize Lebanon as fully independent.  France withdrew its troops in 1946.

In 1958, Muslim demands for reunification with Syria led to the brink of civil war and US military intervention when Muslims wanted Lebanon to join the newly formed Egyptian-Syrian United Arab Republic.  Tension with Egypt had been growing since 1956 when Lebanon’s Christian president did not break with Israel and the Western powers that attacked Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal.

Internal tensions continued to grow.  In 1975, civil war broke out between a Christian coalition and an alliance of Druze and Muslims with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  Syria sent troops, allegedly for peace-keeping, that remained in Lebanon until 2005, long after the end of the war.

The PLO leaders had set up new headquarters in Beirut after they lost the 1970-71 civil war with the Sunni monarchy for control of Jordan.  The PLO was founded in 1964 in Jordan where Palestinian refugees from Israel had become the majority population.

Thousands of Palestinian fighters fled to Lebanon after the Syrian civil war, preceded by refugees from Israel and followed by more from Jordan.  There are 450,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon now, primarily in the south.

In 1978, Israel invaded southern Lebanon to push PLO forces away from the border.

In 1982, PLO attacks led to a second Israeli invasion through Shia southern Lebanon and a siege of Shia Beirut.  The militant Shia political party Hezbollah came into being in the next few years to expel Israel forever and end Shia marginalization.


The civil war ended in 1990 with an agreement to disband all non-governmental Lebanese militias and deploy the Lebanese army on the border with Israel.  But Syria’s Shia government, which controlled Lebanon then, with fundamentalist Shia Iran’s support, allowed Hezbollah to continue fighting a guerrilla war against Israel and the South Lebanon Army in Shia areas occupied by Israel until 2000.    Many see Hezbollah as a proxy of Syria and Iran.

Hezbollah has continued fighting with reduced intensity since then to liberate Shebaa Farms in the Golan Heights, territory occupied by Israel since 1967.  The UN considers Shebaa Farms Syrian territory.  Both Syria and Lebanon consider it part of Lebanon.  UN resolutions in any case require Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories.

In 2005, a former Prime Minister who worked to end Syrian dominance of Lebanon was assassinated, for which some accused Syria, others Israel.  Demonstrators supported by the West demanded the end of what some consider military occupation by Syria and its undue influence on Lebanon’s government.  A 1991 treaty made Syria responsible for Lebanon’s protection.

In 2006, Hezbollah launched rocket attacks and raids into Israel.  They responded by invading southern Lebanon, and with airstrikes throughout the country that destroyed bridges, ports, power stations, water and sewage treatment plants, schools, hospitals and homes.

Lebanon locations bombed 2006

The latest threat to Lebanon’s stability is the Syrian civil war.  Of Lebanon’s total 5,883,600 population, 450,000 are Palestinian refugees and 1,200,000 are recent Syrian refugees.  Refugees make up almost 30% of the population and 20% are very recent arrivals.

Diverse populations are not easily governed even in a democracy.

Most nations in the Middle East are autocracies–Sunni in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Shia in Iran and Syria, first Sunni now Shia in Iraq.  Lebanon is a parliamentary democratic republic a quarter or more of whose population is either Christian, Shia or Sunni citizens, or refugees from Palestine, Jordan and Syria, most them Sunni.  That’s a formidable challenge.

And Lebanon’s government was dominated by Syria from 1975 to 2005, while southern Lebanon still is dominated by PLO and Hezbollah forces, which makes it a battle ground with Israel in the quest for a Palestinian nation state.

Lebanon’s future is inextricably tied with Syria, which is in turmoil, Palestine which does not exist as a nation state, and Israel.  It seems to have been a mistake to have established Lebanon as an independent nation state and/or not to establish Palestine as one at the same time.

Beyond the Media Hype: Kuwait

Kuwait is just smaller than New Jersey.  Its key geographic feature is Kuwait Bay, a sheltered harbor with almost half the country’s 120 miles of coast on the Persian Gulf.  It has a well accepted 155 mile border with Saudi Arabia and a 150 mile contested one with Iraq.

Less than 1% of Kuwait is arable land and 90% of the population lives around the Kuwait Bay.    Kuwaitis make up only around 30% of the 4.1M population, which also includes 1.1M Arab expatriates and 1.4M Asian expatriates.  Most of Kuwait’s citizens are Muslim, an estimated 60%–70% Sunnis and 30%–40% Shias.

Kuwait Physical Map

Kuwait’s strategically located deep water port has since ancient times been important for trade.  It was colonized by Greece, fell to the Persian Sassanid Empire, then to a Muslim Caliphate in 636 AD, to a kingdom in Iraq and in 1521 to the Portuguese.  Then Arabs moved in from Saudi Arabia and took control.

The king who established Kuwait’s dynasty declared allegiance in 1752 to the Ottoman governor of Iraq.   Kuwait was then nominally governed from Basra in southern Iraq.  In practice, it was largely autonomous.  It took over much of the trade that passed through Basra when that city was attacked by Iran from 1775-79 and quickly became the primary center for shipping between Arabia, Iraq, Syria, East Africa and India.  Ships made in Kuwait carried most of the area’s trade from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth century.

Kuwait’s borders were defined in 1913 when Britain made an agreement that it was part of the Ottoman Empire.  It encompassed all land within about 110 miles from the capital.  Britain confirmed that definition in 1922 when it controlled Iraq.  Limiting Iraq’s access to the Persian Gulf to about 35 miles of swampy coastline made it almost impossible for Iraq to become a naval power.

Iraq gained independence from Britain in 1932.  In 1938 it asserted a claim to rule Kuwait, and although it formally recognized the existing border in 1963, it continued to press for control over Bubiyan and Warbah islands through the 1960s and ’70s.

In August 1990, Iraq invaded and claimed all of Kuwait.  The UN restored its independence the following year and a UN commission reconfirmed the border, but Iraq did not accept the result.

Kuwait’s economy was devastated in the first half of the 20th century by a British trade blockade when Kuwait supported the Ottoman Empire in WW1, then by a Saudi Arabian trade blockade from 1923-37 whose aim was to annex Kuwait, and also by the Great Depression which drastically cut European demand for goods shipped via Kuwait from India and Africa.

Kuwait’s king in 1896 was assassinated and replaced by his half-brother.  When his brother’s former allies got Ottoman backing he asked Britain for naval support.  They agreed, seeing it as an opportunity to counter German influence in the region.  In 1899 Kuwait pledged never to cede territory without Britain’s consent, which gave Britain control of Kuwait’s foreign policy and security.

Kuwait  was saved by British forces when it was invaded by Saudi Arabia in 1919-20.  Britain redefined its border with Saudi Arabia after that at a conference where Kuwait had no representative.  Although Saudi Arabia got more than half Kuwait’s former territory, they continued their economic blockade and intermittent raiding.

Kuwait’s large oil reserves were discovered in 1937 but exploration was delayed by WW2.  When oil exports began in 1951, most Kuwaitis were still impoverished.  A major program of public works was begun almost immediately and by 1952, Kuwait was the largest exporter of oil in the Persian Gulf region.  That attracted many foreign workers, especially from Palestine, Egypt and India.

The royal family’s rule had been relatively limited up until WW2 but oil revenues eliminated their financial dependency on merchants who had always been Kuwait’s primary source of income.  Oil now accounts for nearly half of GDP and 94% of export revenues and government income.

Kuwait Oilfields Map

Kuwait gained independence from Britain in 1961 and became the first Gulf country to establish a constitution and parliament.  It embraced Western liberal attitudes and most Kuwaiti women did not wear the hijab in the 1960s and ’70s.  It consistently ranks as having the freest media in the Arab world, outranking Israel since 2009, and is the only Gulf state ranked even “partly free.”  Its legal system is mostly secular with separate family law for Sunni, Shia and non-Muslim residents.

Kuwait supported Iraq in its 1980-88 war with Iran but refused to write off the $65B of loans it had made.  Then came economic rivalry after Kuwait increased oil production by 40%, and in 1990, Iraq claimed Kuwait was stealing oil by slant drilling into its Rumaila field near the border.  Iraq attempted to annex Kuwait later that year.

Before the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Kuwait was the Gulf’s only pro-Soviet state.  Its relationship with the US had been strained ever since independence in 1961 and it refused to allow USA military bases in 1987.  But now, since Iraq’s 1990 invasion, the US has 10,000 soldiers based in Kuwait.

I knew nothing about Iraq or Kuwait at the time of that invasion.  I supported the US-led response to what I accepted as a war of aggression.  Now I’m not sure what I think.

Kuwait does not have the geography of a state.  It is tiny and lacks natural borders.  Its borders were defined arbitrarily by Britain.   Until Britain gained control, it was governed from Iraq.  Iraq’s desire for it as a deep water port on the Persian Gulf makes sense.  But Kuwait’s government has been pretty good for its citizens, enormously better than Iraq’s, or Saudi Arabia’s.

Beyond the Media Hype: Saudi Arabia

Where next to combat my ignorance about the Middle East?  Here.  We Americans fear and loathe Arabs in general but we imagine Saudis to be our friends.

Saudi Arabia is mostly inhospitable desert that covers 80% of the Arabian Peninsula.  The prophet Muhammed united nomadic tribes here in the early 7th century and established an Islamic state that his followers rapidly expanded.   The center of the Muslim world soon moved to better lands and most of what is now Saudi Arabia reverted to tribal rule.

In the 16th century, Ottoman rulers of Turkey north of Iraq added the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula to their empire.  Their control of the area varied over the next four centuries.  In 1916, tribal leaders encouraged by Britain mounted a failed revolt then the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of WW I.  Ibn Saud, who founded today’s Saudi Arabia and avoided the revolt, continued his three decades long campaign against his regional rivals.

He established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 as an absolute monarchy governed under a puritanical form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabi that is practiced by 85–90% of Saudis.  The other 10-15%, who face systematic discrimination, are Shi’a.   No faith other than Islam is permitted, conversion by Muslims to other religions is outlawed and so is proselytizing by non-Muslims.

The royal family controls all the kingdom’s important posts.  Around 200 of more than 7,000 princes occupy the  key ministries and regional governorships.  The country in effect belongs to the Ibn Saud family.

Saudi Arabia is bordered by Jordan and Iraq to the north with Egypt, Israel and Palestine to Jordan’s west.  Syria is in the northwest and Iran is a few miles east over the Persian Gulf.  These borders were drawn up by the British and French at the end of WW I with little regard for tribal, religious or ethnic realities.

Saudi_Arabia_map(Map created by Norman Einstein, February 10, 2006)

Saudi Arabia is interesting to two communities.  Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammed and the site of his first revelation of the Quran, is Islam’s holiest city.  Non-Muslims are prohibited from it and a pilgrimage to it is mandatory for Muslims.  That Saudi Arabia is the world’s dominant oil producer and exporter and has the world’s second largest proved petroleum reserves motivates our interest.

Oil was struck in Pennsylvania in 1859, Russia found it in the Caucasus in 1873, then the British found it in Iraq in 1903.  They promptly declared they would “regard the establishment of a naval base or a fortified port in the Persian Gulf by any other power as a very grave menace to British interests, and we should certainly resist it with all the means at our disposal.”  Five years later, they struck oil in Iran.

Three years after that, the British began converting their navy from coal, of which they had ample supplies, to oil, of which they had none.  They landed forces in Iraq in 1914, captured Baghdad and began projecting power from there.  More oil was found in the Persian Gulf, starting in Bahrain in 1931 and followed by Kuwait and Qatar.  Then in 1933, Americans found oil in Saudi Arabia.

American businessmen were cautiously welcomed by the Saudi king as less threatening than Britain or other colonial powers.  He negotiated well with Aramco executives, the business established to export the oil, and later with the US government, trading oil for infrastructure development that transformed Saudi Arabia in a very short time from a medieval fiefdom to a 20th century one that became leader of the petroleum exporters, OPEC.


Saudi Arabia gained control of 20% of Aramco in 1972, full control in 1980 and was by 1976 the largest oil producer in the world.  In 1973, Saudi Arabia led an oil boycott against Western countries that supported Israel in its war against Egypt and Syria.

The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 led Saudi Arabia’s king to fear rebellion by the Shi’a minority in the east where the oil is located, and in the same year protesters against laxity and corruption in his government seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca.  These events led to enforcement of much stricter religious observance and a greater role in government for Muslim legal scholars.

The royal family’s relations had been primarily with Aramco leaders until the reign of King Khalid starting in 1975.  After 1975 was when Saudi and US foreign policy grew closely aligned.

Saudi Arabia provided $25B to Iraq in its 1980-88 war against Iran, which we supported.  It condemned Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and allowed US and coalition troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia.  But it did not support or participate in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.  The US by then no longer seemed a dependable ally.

There is significant opposition in Saudi Arabia both to US influence, and to the absolute monarchy.  The strongest opposition comes from Sunni religious leaders who want a stricter form of Islamic rule.  Others want the opposite.  The Saudi government was rated the 5th most authoritarian government out of 167 in 2012.  Women have almost no rights, it’s the only country in the world that bans them from driving.  There is also opposition from the Shi’a minority as well as tribal and regional opponents.

The Saudi royal family’s greatest fear, however, until the recent rise of the Islamic State whose stated goal is leadership of an Islamic world, has been Iran’s growing influence.  They are more alarmed now the US and Iran seem to be inching closer to a rapprochement.

So the Saudi royal family needs US military support but is at odds with us among other reasons because, like every other nation in the Middle East, they opposed the creation of Israel and are supportive of the Palestinians.  They have condemned the Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, but the Saudi royal family is Sunni and Hezbollah are Shi’a.

The royal family must also deal with anti-American feeling among the Saudi people.   Osama Bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and it is widely believed, in former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s words, that: “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Very recently, the king criminalized “participating in hostilities outside the kingdom” fearing that Saudis taking part in Syria’s civil war will return knowing how to overthrow a monarchy.  Syria now defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based.”  One of the groups they have named as a terrorist organization is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fear of its neighbors motivates Saudi Arabia to spend more than 10% of its GDP on its military, among the highest percentage of military expenditure in the world.  The kingdom has a long standing military relationship with Pakistan.  Some believe it funded Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and could purchase such weapons from them for itself.

A good representative of what the Saudi government fears is Safar al-Hawali, a scholar who was a leader of the 1991 movement opposing the presence of US troops on the Arabian peninsula and a leader of a 1993 group that was the first to openly challenge the monarchy.

No surprise that al-Hawali is also a critic of the US government.

In 2005, al-Hawali wrote in An Open Letter to President Bush “the Roman Empire claimed to be the symbol of freedom and civilized values, just as you referred to America in your first statement after the incidents of September 11.  It was the greatest world power of its day, the heir of Greek civilization.  It had a Senate and a façade of democracy.  The Roman citizen had freedom of religion and personal behavior.  All this made it superior to other Empires throughout the world, and yet history does not speak well of this Empire because of the repulsive crime with which it stained its reputation: the persecution of the Christians.”

Elsewhere, al-Halawi wrote: “Since World War II, America has not been a democratic republic: it has become a military empire after the Roman model … the American way can be discerned and defined in one word: war.  America unhesitatingly enters into war anywhere in the world … Thus we notice that America is always seeking an enemy, and if it does not find one it creates one and inflates it using its terrible media to persuade its people’s conscience that the war it has declared is necessary and for a just cause.”  (“Inside the Mirage” Thomas A. Lippman, p. 328)

We imagine Saudi Arabia is our friend, but our thirst for oil provokes their memories of colonial powers.  Saudis and others in the Middle East don’t understand our unquestioning support for Israel.  Their Muslim leaders are as suspicious of American Christians as we are of them.  Inside Saudi Arabia the Shi’a minority is oppressed by their Sunni rulers, Wahhabi fundamentalists battle progressives, and nobody except the royal family can have a role in government.

Preconceptions like the ones we and Saudis hold about each other are not a dependable basis for friendship.  Instead, they fuel hatred.