Saudis wonder if the Americans have gone mad

Cars make their way over the King Fahd Causeway that links Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Oct. 11, 2001.</p>

Cars make their way over the King Fahd Causeway that links Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Oct. 11, 2001.

BOSTON — When plans were being laid for the great causeway that today links the island nation of Bahrain to Saudi Arabia 30 years ago, I heard mutterings among the Saudi establishment that there might be a downside.

The Iranian revolution had just brought a hostile Ayatollah Khomeini to power, and there were Saudis who worried lest bad influences seep into the Saudi kingdom along with traffic.

After all, there was alcohol available in Bahrain where none was allowed, at least officially, in Saudi Arabia. Might there not be intoxicating ideas, too — ideas about the role of women and the way men should be governed that might upset conservative Saudis coming west across the King Fahd Causeway?

Then there was the question of the Saudi Shias who lived in the kingdom’s oil producing east, co-religionists to the feared Iranians. Was not Bahrain a Shia-majority kingdom, even if it was ruled by a Sunni royal family? Might not the causeway bring unwanted Khomeini-like revolutionary ideas coming across to incite Saudi Arabia’s restless Shias?

(Read full coverage of the protests and subsequent crackdownin Bahrain.)

But the causeway was built, linking the two kingdoms. Soon 40,000 to 60,000 vehicles were using it each day. And when infectious political ideas rose in Bahrain this winter and spring, with Bahrainis demonstrating for reforms, Saudi Arabia’s suspicions and fears were realized.

The Saudi response was military intervention, sending soldiers and armored vehicles rolling east across the causeway to restore order and protect the Sunni ascendency in fragile Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia was aghast at America’s abandoning its old ally, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, after he had served American interests for so long. Saudis asked: Were the Americans mad?

The political causeway between the United States and Saudi Arabia is longer and older than the physical one linking Bahrain. It had been forged between kingdom’s founder, Abdul Aziz, and Franklin Roosevelt aboard the USS Qunicy in the Suez canal in 1945. In those days the Saudi capital, Riyadh, was a mud-hut town with a public gallows and unpaved streets, a far cry from the modern high-rise city of today.

The deal that was struck was simple — oil for America and security for Saudi Arabia — and it had stuck for six decades. But now, in 2011, that cozy arrangement seemed to be falling apart. Was Saudi Arabia’s great protector becoming unreliable? The same fears were being expressed in Israel.

Indeed, in all the region’s capitals it seemed as if the entire Middle East chess board had been kicked over. All the carefully considered maneuvers of the post-war kings, knights and rooks were now on the floor with the pawns yelling to be in charge.

Ever since 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah, Iran had been seen in Riyadh as a growing threat to Saudi interests. At first the United States had backed Iraq in its armed aggression against Iran, giving it important access to intelligence in the 80s. And when Iraq then threatened the kingdom by taking Kuwait, America was there again as protector and friend. But when George W. Bush over-reached and actually invaded Iraq, the result was a Shia government, heavily influenced by Iran, taking over from a Sunni regime. No good could come of that, Saudis felt.

Yes, the United States had put sanctions on Iran, but didn't seem about to “cut off the head of the snake,” as Saudi's King Abdullah had advised. And now Yemen to the south was staggering under popular demonstrations and the United States was calling for the ouster of yet another friend, Ali Abdullah Saleh, with once-suppressed terrorists now on the roam — or so it seemed in Saudi Arabia.

Now America was once again involved in a war in a Muslim country, in Libya, and was going beyond what had been tentatively approved by the Arab League. Saudis have no love for Col. Gaddafi after he tried to have Prince Abdullah, now king, assassinated. But wouldn’t the West’s war mean yet another distraction away from Iran, leaving Saudi Arabia dangerously exposed? And what if President Obama left Gaddafi in power in a truncated Libya? Another lesson has it that if you set about to shoot the king, don’t miss.

The Saudi Royal family had done its best to guide modernity in the most religiously conservative Muslim country on earth. Wahabism, the strict and puritanical code born in the Arabian desert, burst forth into the greater world when Ibn Saud seized Mecca and Medina in the 1920s.

When the telephone came to Saudi Arabia, the religious authorities first thought it was the devil’s work and wanted it banned. The story is told that Ibn Saud brought the religious authorities together into a room with a telephone, and when it rang he answered and passed the receiver over. It was prayers being read from Mecca, so the Mullahs relented.

The royal family consider themselves reformers, but cautious reformers, because the lesson learned by the Shah of Iran, and by countless impatient reformers as far away as Afghanistan, has always been: Don’t push reforms too fast or the counter reaction will overwhelm all you have tried to do.

And now the mobs were in the streets all over the Arab world howling for reforms. But what reforms? What devils-you-don’t-know would emerge to take the place of devils you do? Yes, as has been pointed out, hereditary kings were doing better than autocratic presidents in the Arab world, but wouldn’t this chaos, if allowed to continue, ultimately benefit extremists such as Al Qaeda? After all, the Saudi monarchy was Al Qaeda’s first target. The United States was only the “far enemy.”

Well, at least the Saudis could say that Obama has remained silent about the Saudi effort to crush dissenters across the causeway in Bahrain while he sent American bombers to defend rebel dissenters in Libya. For Saudi Arabia there was at least a little comfort in that double standard.