Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Saudi Arabia: the Nixon Years

"Politics, as we all know, is a game played by the powerful on a field of irony. 
And irony, just like politics, makes for curious bedmates…" Al Reinert
"Bob and George Go to Washington," Texas Monthly (April 1974).

Long Live the Saudi King 

Abdulaziz ibn Saud (full name Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman, or just Ibn Saud for short) had founded the House of Saud in 1932--deposing his half-brother, Muhammad Ibn Talal, the previous king. Once Ibn Saud deposed Ibn Talal, he arranged a marriage between one of his own son's and a daughter of the deposed King. This daughter, Watfa, married Musaed (Musa'id), a son of Ibn Saud, born in 1923 to wife, Jawhara of the Al Sudairi family. Jawhara's sister Haya was another wife of Ibn Saud and the mother of three of his approximately 40 sons by assorted wives. Ten of those sons rose to hold the title of Crown Prince and are pictured below.

Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia (click to enlarge)
Rashidi family, published 1997

Musaed and Watfa had a son, Faisal bin Musaed, born in 1944 before they divorced. Faisal was then sent to live with his mother's family, the Rashidis, of which Muhammad Ibn Talal, who died in exile in 1952, was a member. Meanwhile Faisal's father, Prince Musa'id, remarried, had other children, and did not hold any significant administrative positions--never viewed as a possible successor.

King Faisal bin Abdulariz was shot and killed in March 1975 by an estranged nephew, Prince Faisal bin Musaed bin Abdulaziz. By June 18 the nephew had been convicted and beheaded by Saudi leaders, who were quick to label him "deranged."

The 27-year-old assassin had lived in the United States from 1966 until 1973 while studying political science and obtaining a degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1971. He then moved to UC Berkeley for graduate studies. Called a "radical" by his Saudi countrymen, he had attempted unsuccessfully to convince Saudi Arabia to put an end to Islamic rule.

Nixon's Balancing Act in the Middle East

In August 2018 I published a long-researched piece about the history between the United States and Saudi Arabia called "Within the Netherworld of International Currency Exchange Rates." That research helps to understand the financial crisis that haunted Nixon on a daily basis at the end of his first term and into his re-election.

During Nixon's first term, Secretary of State William P. Rogers had negotiated, and "international oil companies" had signed on, with six of the ten OPEC countries in Tehran on February 14, 1971, to a five-year oil tax and price agreement. The six countries of the Persian Gulf did not include Libya, Algeria, Indonesia or Venezuela. The terms of the agreement gave the six countries (Abu Dhabi, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) a 30% increase on their price for oil with further increases through 1975.

Just prior to that point in time, Nixon and his cabinet officials were attempting to maintain a balancing act between Iran and Iraq, achieved somewhat with help from the Kurds' resistance in Iraq. According to Foreign Relations, 1969–1972, Volume E–4, Iran and Iraq, in the Office of Historian Summary:
The Nixon administration’s tilt toward Tehran [Iran] led to significant shifts in its policy toward Iran and Iraq in 1972. First, the United States abandoned its sporadic efforts to rein in the Shah’s extravagant military spending. During his May 1972 visit to Tehran, Nixon promised to sell the Shah any American arms (short of atomic weapons) that he desired. Second, at the same meeting, the President conceded the Shah’s point that Iraq, now a close Soviet ally, was a security danger to the Gulf region. To help keep the Ba’athist regime [Iraq] off-balance, the U.S. Government began to support the Iraqi Kurdish rebellion under Mullah Mustafa Barzani in July 1972. Although the Shah had funded Barzani for years, Washington had resisted Kurdish appeals for aid on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. After the Iraqis signed a treaty with the Soviets in April 1972, however, U.S. officials “particularly in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)” agreed that the threat from Baghdad warranted U.S. attention.

King Faisal Issues a Threat

Rogers resigned as Secretary of State as of September 3, 1973, and Henry Kissinger replaced him. Only a week after Rogers' departure, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia issued a dire warning to the Nixon administration:
"America's complete support of Zionism against the Arabs makes it extremely difficult for us to continue to supply U.S. petroleum needs and even to maintain friendly relations with America."
Balance in the Middle East could no longer be achieved on a binary scale. With King Faisal, purportedly speaking not only for Saudi Arabia, but for all six OPEC countries bound by the terms of the 1971 Persian Gulf Agreement, the scale was almost impossible to manipulate, especially with Israel re-entering the fray--threatening to boycott U.S. oil companies if the U.S. government conceded to Faisal's additional demand that Israel "return Arab land it had been occupying since 1967."

Nixon had to choose between the demands of two strong allies--Israel or Saudi Arabia--while also keeping the Shah of Iran as a friend. All that had to be done for the Shah was to open the door for him to buy all the weaponry he could wish for.

Roham Alvandi wrote in 2012 that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran):
had normalized Iran’s relations with the Soviet Union and now sought Iranian primacy in the Persian Gulf in the wake of Britain’s withdrawal from the region in 1971. Mohammad Reza Shah had seen five American presidents  pass  through  the  White  House;  each  in  turn  had  frustrated  and disappointed him in his ambition to make Iran the region’s leading power. But now, under the Nixon Doctrine, the United States would rely on the shah to maintain stability in the Persian Gulf.

Two Crown Princes Passed Over

Faisal had been the third King of the Saudis following the death of Ibn Saud. After Faisal was assassinated in 1975, as shown in the chart above, the succession followed in an orderly process until Salman became the new King of Saudi Arabia on January 23, 2015 following the death of his half-brother. Note that two crown princes were ahead of him to be king, one of whom was already deceased:
  • Talal bin Abdulaziz (died December 2018) and 
  • Nayef bin Abdulazriz (died June 2012).
Why were Talal bin Abdulaziz (whose son was the well-known and wealthy pro-American  Alwaleed bin Talal) and the sons of Nayef (notably Mohammad bin Nayef) skipped from the line of succession?

Reports leaked out in 2017 (shortly after President Donald Trump's inauguration) that Nayef was removed as a result of a plot organized by the man commonly known today as MbS, Mohammed bin Salman about whom it was said at the time:
The decision to oust Mohammed bin Nayef and some of his closest colleagues has spread concern among counterterrorism officials in the United States who saw their most trusted Saudi contacts disappear and have struggled to build new relationships.
And the collection of so much power by one young royal, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has unsettled a royal family long guided by consensus and deference to elders.
Jamal Khashoggi
As early as 1989 while "Saudi intelligence ... was coordinating aid to the fighters as part of its cooperation with the CIA against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan," Jamal Khashoggi, who had traveled with the Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan, "criticized Prince Salman, then governor of Riyadh and head of the Saudi committee for support to the Afghan mujahideen, for unwisely funding Salafist extremist groups that were undermining the war." Jamal's rise "was linked with the Faisal clan — Turki and his brother Saud al-Faisal, the longtime Saudi foreign minister. Educated at Georgetown and Princeton, respectively, the Faisal brothers represented the thoughtful, moderate face of the royal family."

As for the Talal branch, James Wynbrandt wrote in 2010:
The attack [on September 11, 2001]  brought long-festering antagonisms between the two nations to the fore. The Saudis were blamed for exporting an intolerant brand of Islam and donating large sums to groups that supported terrorism. The United States was blamed for its unbending support for Israel, which was seen as the root cause of the attacks. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, son of the founder of the Free Princes movement [formed in 1962 and ended in 1964], came to New York to express his sympathy and offered a $10 million donation for the victims, along with advice for the United States to rethink its Middle East policy. New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani rejected the advice and the $10 million donation, and the episode came to represent the vast gulf that had suddenly opened between the two longtime allies.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal
Prince Talal and his son, in short, were, according to David Ottaway, "liberals" compared with their countrymen--a term traditionally used to mean those advocating more democratic reforms and limiting autocratic power of leaders. The father had been forced out the cabinet for his suggested reforms in 1961, but in 2007 he was again a member of the Allegiance Council, which was supposed to be consulted when one of the members of the ruling family died before another was admitted in his place. When Prince Nayef ascended as Crown Prince in November 2011 without consulting anyone, Talal resigned from the Council, watching his country became ever more undemocratic until Talal's death two months after Jamal Khashoggi's murder.

In 2015 Jamal had convinced the son of Crown Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, whom the Washington Post referred to as "a reform-minded Saudi billionaire," to finance a news channel in Bahrain. It was unfortunately removed from the airwaves by Bahrain after only 24 hours for featuring an "interview with a prominent Bahraini Shiite politician who had criticized the regime."

Jamal Khashoggi at Alwaleed's news channel

Two years after Jamal's plan to liberalize the media failed, Prince Alwaleed was arrested "plus at least 10 other princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers," as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's plan to consolidate power, and Jamal fled the country.

Greg Olear wrote in Medium, after reports of Jamal's murder began to surface, that "Trump and Kushner both have skin in the game." He continued:
Saudi Arabia was the first state visit Trump made as president, a trip organized and pushed for by Kushner, who is chummy with MbS and has acted as the de facto ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi was not banned from Saudi media for his criticisms of MbS, but rather for his criticisms of Donald Trump. More importantly, U.S. intelligence knew of a plan to lure Khashoggi back to arrest him, so the president and the de facto ambassador to Saudi Arabia must have also known. If they knew and did not share the information with Khashoggi, they are liable.
Alwaleed was released in January 2018, ten months before Jamal Khashoggi's murder. When he spoke in an interview with Fox News the following December, he sounded like a defeated man, one who had made a deal with his captors, whom he now insisted were honorable. It was a secret deal, so we may never know the truth.


"Saudi Arabia: Creation of the Petrodollar" has been in draft form for several years, being added to and edited as time permitted. Because of the length and complexity, I have decided to divide it into several parts. The next segment will follow soon.