Successor aims to end subservience to the West


SAUDI ARABIA: The death of King Fahd will be greeted with anxiety and unease by the West and the Saudi royal family now that Crown Prince Abdullah has succeeded the corrupt 84-year-old despot.

The House of Saud will be fearful because Abdullah plans to cut back on royal corruption and extravagant lifestyle. The White House and London will be nervous because the new king believes his country should be less subservient to western military and strategic interests in the Gulf.

During his 23-year reign, King Fahd acquired a personal fortune of $20 billion (€16.4 billion). He encouraged what the CIA called "a culture of royal excess" and Saudi princes brazenly cashed in on British and US defence contracts.

Unlike most senior princes, however, Abdullah is not corrupt. He has turned his back on the palatial luxuries of Riyadh and Jeddah. He has always been an aberration in the House of Saud. He represents the Bedouin, conservative, tribal interests in the kingdom. His rare concession to modernity is the bank of 33 television sets in his office, which allow him to monitor all available satellite channels.

Abdullah is determined to curb royal corruption, which escalated in the mid-1990s despite running up multibillion dollar deficits. He is also likely to be more non-aligned, reducing Saudi dependency on America to increase peace prospects in the Middle East.

For decades, Saudi Arabia has been acquiescent in supporting US strategic interests. The wars against Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were launched from bases in the kingdom and Gulf states and were dependent on unencumbered use of Saudi airspace.

Access to Saudi bases was helpful but not essential. What was crucial was Saudi support for US access to other Gulf bases.

"After the 1991 Iraq war, none of the Gulf states were likely to do anything much with us militarily unless the Saudis wanted it to be done," said Walter Slocombe, former US undersecretary of defence.

The House of Saud has also not been shy at bankrolling US foreign policy, notably $32 million to the Contra rebels against the Nicaraguan government, $4 billion for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and

$17 billion for the 1991 Gulf war.

The biggest favour of all: supplying cheap, plentiful oil and manipulating the price to benefit the American economy.

Less than 24 hours after September 11th, the Saudis authorised a sharp increase in daily oil production. This kept the price low and helped to ensure the US experienced only a slight inflation increase.

Wielding its surplus oil capacity as a political weapon has given the Saudi royal family real power and influence over the West.

In return, the US and Britain protect the kingdom from Islamist insurgents and neighbouring states, sell it weapons at inflated prices purely to produce kickbacks for its senior princes, support its negotiations with the IMF and World Bank, overlook its complicity in support for terrorism and turn a blind eye when British citizens are tortured in Saudi jails.

The House of Saud's subjugation to US strategic interests has increased support for al-Qaeda and Islamist militancy, which has produced instability in the Middle East and terrorism in western Europe.

Crown Prince Abdullah shows all the signs of being more independent, tougher and pragmatic. Politically, he is a traditional Islamic Arab nationalist. Among the Saudi public, he is popular and viewed as straight-talking and honest.

He does not speak foreign languages, preferring the traditional Bedouin style of Arabic, much to the annoyance of Prince Sultan, the defence minister, who craves the patronage of western powers.

The death of King Fahd is a rare opportunity to clean up a medieval monarchy that virtually runs the international oil economy, tortures at will, allows its religious elite to promote terrorism and enables the US to dominate the Middle East.

Mark Hollingsworth is co-author with Sandy Mitchell of Saudi Babylon: Torture, Corruption and Cover-Up Inside the House of Saud (Mainstream Publishing). - (Guardian service)