Human Rights Watch released a report last week confirming allegations that Saudi Arabia had used American-made cluster bombs banned by international treaty fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen and that this use may have also violated American law. The report included photographs showing unexploded but potentially lethal bomb fragments which are likely to cripple and maim in the years to come.
The blowback likely to come from these operations should compel the public to question American priorities in the Middle East including its long-standing alliance with Saudi Arabia.
In November, the Obama administration's State Department concluded a $1.29 billion arms deal with the Saudis, building off a record $60 billion deal in 2010 which was the biggest in American history up to that point. The deals went forward in spite of Saudi Arabia being ruled by what one journalist has called a "totalitarian theocratic gerontocracy," in which a small clique loots all the wealth and represses social and political rights. According to the State Department's own assessment, the Saudi regime restricts universal rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, association, movement and religion, and promotes "torture" in overcrowded prisons where there is a denial of due process.
In January, the Saudi regime gained publicity for executing 47 people for terrorism including a leading Shia cleric. A blogger was previously sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison, and his lawyer to fifteen years.
The Saudi regime subscribes to the Wahhabist religious faith, whose strictures it has long sought to export. According to a 2009 cable from Secretary of Hilary Clinton revealed by Wikileaks, Saudi donors constitute "the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide." Following the Arab Spring, the Saudis sent the National Guard to crush a Shia uprising in Bahrain against the Al-Khalifa ruling dynasty, and with Pakistan, was among three key governments to support the Taliban in Afghanistan. As part of its aggressive foreign policy, the Saudis also backed the Al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front and possibly the Islamic State in Syria.
Saudi nationals angered by America's stationing of military bases on Muslim Holy Ground near Medina and Mecca meanwhile constituted 15 of the nineteen hijackers on 9/11 and Saudi money may have helped pay for bin Osama bin Laden's move to Sudan in the early 1990s and contributed to the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) which supported Sunni terrorists in Southeast Asia, Chechnya, Kenya and Bosnia. So as to not embarrass its ally, the CIA and FBI agents protected from investigations Saudi nationals implicated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and even alleged hijackers on 9/11 (Khalid al-Midhar and Nawafal-Hazmi), who may have received funds indirectly from the Saudi embassy in Washington according to researcher Peter Dale Scott.
The American Saudi alliance dates back to the 1933 signing of a U.S.-oil concession agreement that enabled the growth of the Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco) into a global petroleum power. The broker of the deal, British spy-agent Harry Philby (father of KGB defector Kim), had helped Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi Brotherhood consolidate their kingdom after World War I. In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt agreed to guarantee Saudi Arabia's defense. Standard Oil and the Texas Oil Company (both part of the ARAMCO conglomerate), as Richard Dreyfuss wrote in Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, convinced FDR to tell Britain's Lord Halifax: "Persian oil is yours. We share the oil of Kuwait and Iraq, but Saudi Arabian oil, its ours."
In 1973, to create more demand for the U.S. dollar, the Nixon administration convinced the Saudis to demand payment for all oil sales in American dollars. The U.S. in turn financed the Saudi National Guard under the cover of police training programs and hired private mercenary companies like Vinnell Corporation, which in 1979 provided the tactical support needed by the Saudi Princes to put down a leftist rebellion and recapture the Grand Mosque at Mecca.
In return for continuous cheap access to oil, the Clinton administration in the 1990s sold the Saudis 1,500 Raytheon AIM-9L missiles (CIA Director John Deutch sat on Raytheon's Board), 700 laser-guided bombs and some of the Textron BU-97 cluster bombs used over a decade later in Yemen, setting the groundwork for even more expansive arms deals under Bush and Obama. These deals included the transfer of F-15 fighters and missiles, naval warships and Apache and Seahawk helicopters.
The U.S.-Saudi alliance is emblematic of the corruption of money in politics and perils associated with America's dependence on imported fossil fuels. CIA agent Robert Baer put it best when he subtitled his book "How Washington Sold Its Soul for Saudi Crude."
Times, however may be changing. The Bernie Sanders campaign has galvanized opposition to special interest control over politics while championing a clean energy revolution which would make the U.S.-Saudi alliance obsolete in the coming years. In his stump speeches and debates, Sanders should bring up Saudi Arabia and the double-standards associated with U.S. foreign policy there more. He should match-up his support for clean energy and a reduction in military spending with calls for a strategic reset in which the United States will stop providing high-tech weapons banned under international law to states which contribute to regional destabilization and promote terrorism.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is J.P. Walker assistant professor of history, University of Tulsa and author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012).