Loose Canons

Fear and Loathing on the Arab Trail

What happens in Saudi Arabia on March 11 could severely disrupt our already-shaken economy.

By 2.28.11

Send to Kindle

It's tough to tell who's more eager to commence military action to oust Libya's Moammar Gaddafi. It's a close race between the American liberals who have made it their life's work to disarm the West, and the collection of Arab despots and dictators who don't want the current unpleasantness in Libya to spread to their nations.

But the whole matter of Gaddafi is a sideshow. What happens on Saudi Arabia's "day of rage" on March 11 could severely disrupt our already-shaken economy.

Typical of the newly bloodthirsty liberals is the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson who urged the president to demand Gaddafi's resignation, which Barry promptly did. But Robinson also urged that we -- and our NATO allies, such as they are -- declare a "no-fly" zone over Libya to ground Gaddafi's air forces. He went on, of course, to say that we really wouldn't enforce the no-fly zone. Robinson wants only to "influence" people into violating Gaddafi's orders.

A "no-fly" zone that allows Gaddafi to use air forces with impunity?

The New York Times entered the fray saying it would "be best" if the UN Security Council imposed sanctions "…but that takes too long." So, the Times said, we should impose unilateral sanctions freezing Libyan assets. Which proved the Times as prescient as it usually is. The Security Council declared new sanctions in near-record time but, as always, sanctions are inconclusive because some nations -- Italy and France, who depend on Libyan oil, come to mind -- always refuse to abide by them.

If the sanctions don't stop Gaddafi's murder of rebels, says the Times, we should establish and enforce a no-fly zone like we did over pre-2003 Iraq and in the Bosnia intervention in the early 1990s. That call was echoed by a chorus of neocon nation-builders, some of whom were responsible for getting us involved in the Bosnia conflict.

But Bosnia wasn't and Libya isn't our fight. If it is anyone's, it is the Arabs'. The panic among Arab despots is widespread. What has happened in Egypt, Tunisia, and now Libya can happen anywhere in their world. The Saudis realize this and look ahead with increasing anxiety to the mass protests scheduled there for March 11. Last week that anxiety turned into panic.

A highly unusual public confirmation of the panic came in the Saudi government-controlled Arab News on Thursday. In an editorial, the Saudis called for military intervention in Libya to protect the Libyan rebels. The editorial condemned the UN (!) for its divisiveness and ineffectuality. Most tellingly, it called upon the Arab League to decide on intervention and ask its member states to act in its behalf, saying the League had "a moral duty to do so."

The desperate despots' editorial called for the militaries of Egypt and Tunisia -- both of which have fallen governments (Tunisia's now has fallen twice since January) -- to send forces into Libya. The Saudis have the largest and most capable Arab military, but -- as they always do -- they want someone else to do the fighting.

In the three days since the Thursday editorial, the Saudis have apparently realized that their call for Arab League intervention went unanswered. Yesterday, in an even more strident and complicated editorial, Arab News reiterated the need for action, but called on the Arab League only to use all its resources to help the people of Libya. It pointedly didn't restate the call for Arab League military intervention, but ended with this warning: "If efforts are not made to put out the blaze in Libya and soon, its flames will start scorching the whole region -- and beyond." By which they mean Saudi Arabia itself.

Saudi Arabia is a Wahhabist gerontocracy ruling a population made up of young Saudis (average age 25) and a vast number of non-Saudis. Nearly 25% of its population is composed of non-Saudis who make up about 75% of the labor force. Some 10% of its population is unemployed. Last September, a surprisingly broad wave of dissent hit the streets, and the Saudi royals became afraid.

What will they face on March 11? That we cannot foresee, but the principal actors are working hard to control the result. To interdict widespread rioting, Saudi King Abdullah is spreading about $37 billion in gifts among the public. But there has been no relaxation of the strict Wahhabi code of conduct. Behavior police still roam the streets arresting or beating people who aren't in compliance.

And Saudi Arabia has a sizeable Shia minority. Iran has seen -- thanks to Wikileaks -- the Saudi royals lobbying America to bomb the Iranian nuclear sites. And the ever-more aggressive Iranians would very much like to overthrow the Saudi government or at least destabilize it sufficiently to interrupt the flow of oil to America and Europe. The Iranians will certainly employ whatever covert forces available to achieve that goal.

It is very difficult to see how a rebellion would threaten the Saudi regime or even manage sufficient sabotage to materially affect the export of Saudi oil. Their military is not only large but quite capable and its officer ranks are tightly interwoven with the royal family. They have become rather expert in counter-terrorism of late because they are a sometime target. But to say it would be hard for Saudi Arabia to become the next Egypt is not to say it is impossible. The Saudis have been living on the edge for decades, and now the edge is moving.

Since its inception, the Saudi royal family has been playing a double game with the West. Its Wahhabist dogma, which is as radical as any found in Islam, thrives on Western oil purchases. We know that its members contribute massively to terrorist groups including its purported enemy, al-Qaeda, but we turn a blind eye because we are apparently incapable of doing anything to free ourselves from dependence on Saudi oil.

So what happens if -- on March 11 or some later time -- the Saudi regime falls? There is no possibility that military intervention will keep the oil flowing because the oil fields and oil export facilities are too large and widespread to protect or rebuild in the face of a determined rebellion. We, even with the tiny forces of our NATO allies, would be unable to keep the oil flowing. If the Saudis are overthrown and their successors unable or unwilling to sell us the oil we need, our economy will suffer a depression that will make the 1930s look mild.

For the present, we can do little to save the Saudis. But we can do something to save ourselves. Drill. Drill here, drill now and keep drilling on and offshore. House Republicans should make this their priority, second only to budget cutting.

America's is a carbon-based economy totally addicted to foreign oil. There's no use talking about cutting consumption or switching to wind power and such. We need oil, and if we don't produce it ourselves we will have only ourselves to blame when the despots and dictators who sell it to us go out of business.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. You can follow him on Twitter @jedbabbin.