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With Friends Like These

Editorial Notebook

By Andrew P. Winerman

Saudi Arabia, as one of America’s primary allies in the Middle East, was never a candidate to be part of the “axis of evil.” However, Saudi Arabia’s support for worldwide Islamic extremism has been more of a destabilizing force in the world over the last decade than Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

The fact that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers and Osama bin Laden himself were Saudis cannot be ignored. They came from a society that indoctrinates its children with fundamentalist Islam. The Saudi government has used its oil money in the past to export these same radical views throughout the Muslim world. Saudi money paid for many of the Pakistani madrassas that were the breeding grounds of the Taliban. And after the NATO bombing campaign freed the Kosovars from the threat of genocide by the Serbs, Saudi money financed the development of mosques in Kosovo that still preach the extreme Wahhabi sect of Islam.

Even before Sept. 11, it was apparent that Saudi Arabia was on a dangerous demographic and economic path. According to State Department figures, it has an annual population growth rate of 3 percent, meaning that its population is due to double in less than 25 years. Meanwhile, its share of the world market for oil is declining as rivals, especially Russia, develop their oil export capacity.

The combination of declining oil market share and exploding population has led per capita GDP to decline tremendously in Saudi Arabia over the last decade and a half. According to a recent New York Times article, per capita income has fallen from $28,000 in the early 1980s, on par with the United States, to under $7,000 today. But these still respectable figures mask extreme inequality. Much of the oil money is pilfered by the extravagant and rapidly growing—7,000 princes and counting—royal family.

Since Sept. 11, this peril has become readily apparent. The Saudi government has been tepid in its support of the U.S. war on terror for fear of alienating its own people. The State Dept. makes an effort to present Saudi Arabia as helpful, informing Americans on its website that the kingdom is “providing assistance in the military, diplomatic, and financial arenas.” But this is only partly true. Militarily, the Saudis did reluctantly allow the US to run the air war over Afghanistan from Prince Sultan airbase near Riyadh. Financially, the Saudis finally froze some of the assets of suspected terrorists on the UN watch list Feb. 7.

But it is farcical for the State Dept. to claim that Saudi Arabia has been of any diplomatic help. Saudi Arabia has loudly criticized the U.S. over the war in Afghanistan and U.S. policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even the marginal assistance it gave in the financial and military areas came only after much heel-dragging by the regime. The Saudis are still loathe to explain their support for the U.S. anti-terror campaign to their own people because of widespread, popular anti-Western sentiment.

The U.S. must unhitch its horse from the Saudi Arabian cart. The country is on a demographic and economic path to revolution. Falling living standards due to explosive population growth and declining oil revenue will focus public attention on the un-Islamic nature of the ruling regime’s extravagant lifestyles. We need not and must not be at the Royal Family’s side when things fall apart.

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