Saudi Arabia Encouraged the 1991 Gulf War

Saudi hypocrisy

By Gwydion M. Williams

When the Gulf crisis first blew up, there were widespread rumours that the United States had imposed its presence on a reluctant Saudi Arabia: that the Saudis would have been happy to let diplomacy take its course. At the time, I believed this, and therefore concluded that a Gulf war would probably not take place. Given that a war is now occurring, a rethink is obviously necessary.

One complication is the way in which Saudi society operates. In a society like Britain, there are many ways in which the government can be restrained or punished if it starts following some secret policy of its own that most of its supporters would find distasteful. It doesn’t always work, but it does work most of the time. And such policies should be distinguished from things like the ‘shoot to kill’ operations against terrorists or urban guerrillas, which the Tory government almost certainly has been operating from time to time, and which most Tories would approve of, even though few them would say so in public. That sort of a secret policy can work because the government is covertly doing things that the public mostly approve of. A distasteful secret policy would be something like Britain supporting the military crack-down in the Baltic states. I very much doubt if John Major would be secretly supporting it; and if he was, it would be the sort of thing that would almost certainly get exposed and ruin him.

In Saudi Arabia, things are different. While society was still tribal, autocratic chiefs or kings probably did provide a reasonably representative government. They maintained a society which we in Britain would not approve of, (since it included things like slavery and tribal warfare,) but which the people living in that society thought altogether right and proper. Chiefs got involved in secret conspiratorial politics, but provided that the results were beneficial for the tribe, everyone felt that this was OK. A chief whose conspiracies failed, who led the tribe into defeat or hunger, would be deposed and replaced by someone who might do better.

What we now have in Saudi Arabia is a decadent tribal society, a tribal society that has arbitrarily been granted huge amounts of wealth by a totally different and alien system. The various Gulf states are described as oil producers, but most of them are simply oil owners who play no part in the actual extraction or refining of the stuff that happens to lie under their land. Iranians and Iraqis play a part in the production of their oil wealth: the rest rely mostly on foreign labour.

The small Gulf states, including Kuwait, are arbitrary products of British interference in the region. During the 19th century, Britain chose to prop up the decaying Ottoman Empire as a counter to Russian ambitions. This meant Christians in the Balkans were oppressed by Muslim Turkish rulers for much longer than need have been the case. The British Foreign Office has never let moral considerations get in the way of what it deems to be British interests. (The FO frequently deems wrongly, and ends up pushing policies that are inexpedient as well as immoral, but that is another story.) The point is, Britain chose to keep the Ottoman Empire in being for some decades after it might otherwise have collapsed, and the Ottoman rulers knew it And Britain got various payoffs for this protection. One of them was the island of Cyprus. Another was various small territories around the Gulf, cities with a long tradition of trading, smuggling and piracy, which became British protectorates, and are these days classed as sovereign states.

Having spent decades propping up the Ottoman Empire and restraining the Russians, Britain in World War One found itself in alliance with Russia against the Ottomans. As I said, FO policies are often as inexpedient as they are immoral, and the whole war had resulted from an instability in the Balkans that British policies had contributed to. Anyway, the net result was that T. E. Lawrence was able to raise the standard of Arab revolt on a semi-official basis. There were complications resulting from rival policies from rival government departments – there was even a case where the Foreign Office and the India Office backed rival Arab armies, which ended up fighting each other. Still, some sort of promise of Arab freedom was made, and was immediately broken after the war, with British and French colonial rule being imposed instead.

Saudi Arabia was an independent development, the result of an alliance between the Saud dynasty and the Wahhabis, an anti-Turkish and puritanical form of Islam. British policy was mostly to oppose them, but it failed to stop them. However, the Saud dynasty successfully purged Wahhabism of its popular and dynamic elements. Rigid adherence to certain formal aspects of the religion, frequently based on very hard-line interpretations of verses in the Quran which are open to many possible readings, went along with turning a blind eye to Islamic notions of community, equality and social justice.

In this form, Saudi Arabia was able to enter an alliance with Britain and America. The Saudi rulers could do anything they liked to the people they ruled over, which in practice meant clamping down in a rigid and conservative way on all possible social development. The outward forms of tribal society have been maintained, even while the social reality has become something completely different. In return, Saudi Arabia and the other oil sheikhs have recycled the vast bulk of the money paid for their oil back to the advanced industrial – economies as investments and luxury purchases.

The existence of Israel has always disrupted this cosy relationship. In terms of imperial self-interest, it made no sense at all for Western Imperialism to allow such a development It was an impossibly romantic notion that somehow managed to get off the ground, because the Old Testament was at the back of the mind of every Western politician and voter. Self-interest would have said that enormous numbers of Arabs and other Muslims should not be enraged for the sake of a relatively small number of persecuted Jews. But Jewish and Christian cultures overlapped, in a way that Christian and Muslim cultures did not, and romance won out over self-interest Moreover, although Western politicians several times left the Israelis to their fate, to be overwhelmed by the more numerous and better armed Arabs while statesmen shed crocodile tears, Israel kept winning unexpected and almost impossible victories, greatly increasing the popular and romantic aura surrounding a state that logically should not exist.

Only once, during the Suez Conspiracy, was there a real attempt to use Israel to help British and French imperial interests. Like the present Gulf crisis, it was an attempt to use military power for conservative ends – in that case, restraining Nasser and reversing his takeover of the Suez Canal. But war generally does not serve conservative ends: wars are inherently revolutionary. One of the incidental casualties of Suez was the monarchy in Iraq, which was overthrown a couple of years afterwards, beginning the process that led to Saddam Hussein and Ba’ath rule.

The existence of Israel is an embarrassment for Saudi Arabia. Popular Muslim culture does not consider that Jews or Christians have any rights at all, except to live as second class citizens under Muslim rule. The notion of Jews recovering territories that had belonged to their ancestors was unacceptable – so that the original United Nations partition plan was rejected out of hand. On the other hand, rulers of Muslim countries have usually been much more interested in doing down neighbouring Muslim rulers than in fulfilling the demands of popular Muslim culture. (It was this that allowed the early success of the Crusades, before Saladin imposed his rule on his rivals and united Muslim power to drive out the Crusaders.) Of all the Muslim states of the region, only Syria and Egypt seemed seriously interested in destroying Israel. Egypt dropped out: the realisation that Israel had atomic bombs, and that using just one of them to bust the Aswan High Dam would virtually wipe out Egypt, made the prospect no longer seem rational. Syria has probably made a similar calculation, except that it is nothing like as vulnerable, and can get some political kudos for acting as if it was planning to fight Israel while absorbing the shattered fragments of the Lebanon.

Neither Iraq nor Saudi Arabia have ever shown any practical interest in fighting Israel, although both naturally use anti-Israeli rhetoric whenever possible. Neither have played any significant part in the various Arab-Israeli wars, which have been basically Egypt and Syria against Israel, with Jordan getting reluctantly dragged in some of the time. Saddam Hussein and the Saudi ruling elite have been equally cynical in invoking popular Muslim sentiments. The Saudi elite seem more sincerely religious, because their continuing rule depends on the survival of a decadent tribalism in which Islam is the only cohesive force. But when it came to a crisis, they were quite prepared to ignore their own stated ideals. Non-Muslims could not be allowed freedom of private worship in holy Saudi Arabia. But non-Muslims were invited in to protect holy Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein. By inviting in the Americans, and by now allowing them to launch a war against Iraq, the Saudi elite have shown what they trust in when the chips are down.

Had the early Muslims behaved like the Saudi princes, there would have been no Islam. Had the Wahhabis not been prepared to defy both the Turkish Empire and the British Empire, there would have been no Saudi Arabia. The Saudi authorities are happy to impose narrow religious rules on their subjects. But, unlike the Iranian mullahs, they leave God out of the matter when it comes to calculating their own interests.

And, like the British Foreign Office, they have probably been inexpedient as well as immoral. Saddam Hussein’s jokes about the Saudis being defended by US servicewomen in shorts must have had an effect on all of the Saudi subjects, who are sincere Muslims and find such developments hard to accept It is now being put about that the Saudis were surprised when they found that US forces were totally integrated sexually, so that the women had to form part of the expeditionary force in defiance of all Saudi custom. No doubt many ordinary Arabians were indeed shocked and surprised. But that the elite itself should not have known is wholly improbable. They have the wealth and the contacts to keep themselves very well informed indeed.

As I said, I don’t think that Saddam Hussein is a sincere Muslim, in the sense of believing that the Quran as revealed to Muhammed is the absolute and final truth about God, Man and the Universe. What he does believe in is Ba’ath socialism, which has many points in common with Italian or Spanish Fascism, but is a progressive creed in the context of the Arab world. Assessments of Fascism get distorted by memories of Nazism, which tried to remake the whole world in its own image, and came quite close to actually doing so. Spanish Fascism was able to evolve peacefully into liberal democracy, after having stood neutral during the war in which Nazism tried to impose itself on the world. Italian Fascism was able to depose Mussolini and make peace with the Allies, although only after Italy had suffered several years of military defeats and the invasion and occupation of part of its territory. The present-day Italian state retains legal continuity with the state as it was under Mussolini, whereas Germany is a novel creation originally set up by Britain, France and the USA in their zones of occupied Germany.

As a Ba’athist, Saddam Hussein is ready to go down fighting, as a martyr to secular Arab nationalism, but with as many Islamic overtones as he can manage, since this is what is needed to bind the Arab masses to Ba’athism. Just as Joseph Stalin would have stood and died in Moscow, in the expectation that Leninist Communism would in due course triumph elsewhere, so too is Saddam ready to stand and die in Baghdad. Stalin would be remembered as a hero rather than a villain, had he lost the war against Hitler instead of winning it. Even had Nazism won on a world scale, he would have been remembered as a martyr by the anti-Nazi resistance. Becoming a villain or a hero in history is a peculiar business. But I am sure that Saddam Hussein intends to be remembered as a hero, and that living or dying are minor matters by comparison.

There are other possibilities. Thus President Ceausescu of Rumania has ended up being viewed as a nasty buffoon. It has been reliably reported that Saddam was in the habit of carrying round a picture of Ceausescu’s executed body, as a reminder of what might happen. Even before I heard of this story, I was quite certain that Saddam was not going to let himself be ordered out of Kuwait by the majestic presence of the United States, citing a system of international law that the United States has cynically disregarded on many occasions. Threats are not effective against a man who has beliefs that he is ready to die for.

In this context, it did occur to me to write an article comparing and contrasting Saddam Hussein and Salman Rushdie. On reflection, to write such an article would be a waste of time. Simply to mention them in the same breath says it all.

Saddam, Salman and the Saudi elite share an experience and understanding of the power of Western secular civilisation that makes simple Islamic faith impossible. Rather, it is only possible on a radical and heroic basis, the basis chosen by the Iranians and other Islamists (‘fundamentalists’). The Saudi elite show no sign of including any belief in God or in Islam in their practical political calculations. And yet their subjects are still mostly simple and devout believers, who would be likely to overthrow the Saudi elite if it did not seem to be as religious as they are. Or, if ordinary Arabians started to see things from a secular viewpoint, they might decide that being ruled over by autocratic Saudi princes was an anachronism and an absurdity. The Saudi elite try to keep out Western influences and to maintain traditional beliefs and social structures, because almost any conceivable change would be against their interests.

Saddam sees things from an opposite perspective. Almost any conceivable change will in the long run benefit Arab nationalism, even if he himself loses, which he must know to be probable. Rather than betray his own beliefs, he will take on the strongest existing military powers. Just as George Washington and the American rebels took on the power of Great Britain, the strongest military power of their day, in a cause that seemed hopeless and that did indeed suffer numerous set-backs and defeats. ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ is not a sentiment confined to Americans. Western political leaders keep on forgetting this simple truth.


[What actually happened was an upsurge in Sunni Islamic militancy.  This surprised everyone, and was very different from the existing Shia Islamic militancy of Iran.  And a much worse enemy to Western values than a revived Arab nationalism would have been.]


This article appeared in March 1991, in Issue 22 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at