Oil and the Intifada

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An attack on Iraq will lead to more instability in the Middle East.

The assertion of US power explains in general the attack on Iraq, but there is a more specific reason which helps to explain its timing and gives it added urgency. This is the US rulers' fear of the spread of the spirit of the Palestinian intifada to other Arab states, beginning with Saudi Arabia.

In recent years there has been an important shift in relations between the US and Saudi Arabia. Once the closest of allies, since the first Gulf War there has been a growing rift, initially fuelled by the resentment created by the presence of US bases and troops. This has developed alongside an improvement in relations between Saudi Arabia and its Muslim neighbours, in particular Iran. Between 1980 and 1988, the Saudis, like the US, aided and abetted Saddam's war against Iran. Therefore, Iraq's occupation of Kuwait was seen by the Saudi rulers not only as a military threat but also as a gross betrayal.

The Saudi ruling family claims to rule in the name of Islam and has throughout its history sought the approval of the dominant Wahhabi clerics. King Fahd turned to them for permission to allow US troops to be stationed on Saudi soil (normally out of bounds to non-Muslim soldiers). This was grudgingly given. The Iraqi threat was quickly removed by the 1991 war but the US troops were not. Their continuing presence has aroused deepening resentment.

Anti-American sentiment has been hugely reinforced by Israel's continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and its brutal repression of the Palestinian intifada. The extent of the Saudi people's support for the intifada can be gauged by the funds raised on its behalf, the highly risky demonstrations that have taken place, the bombings that have targeted westerners and the arrests of activists. Last April a telethon raised $92 million in 11 hours for the families of Palestinian martyrs. In the same month the Arabic Al Jazeera television station, based in Qatar, reported that thousands of Saudis had been arrested following a pro-Palestinian demonstration in the eastern Saudi city of Al Khuber. The Saudi rulers have felt the increasing grassroots pressure on the Palestinian question. Just after its outbreak they pledged $1 billion in aid to the intifada. They also donated funds to build some 600 houses in Palestinian cities.

There is also the growing anger towards one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Saudi Arabia has been described as the largest family business in the world. Its extended royal family (some 7,000 people) wields despotic power over the entire society and economy. There is no political freedom, hence public protests are rare--especially as its judicial system is one of the most secretive and oppressive in the world.

In addition, a growing economic crisis is fuelling popular discontent. There has been a massive decline in average incomes due to stagnating oil revenues, huge outlays for US-led wars and a rapidly increasing population. Average income per person fell from $28,600 per year in 1981 (broadly comparable to the US at that time) to $6,800 in 2001. Unemployment is also increasing.

These factors have given rise to the largest Islamic opposition movement in Saudi Arabia since the late 1920s, representing a far greater threat to the Saudi rulers than terrorism or Saddam Hussein. The fears of the US ruling class begin to be clearer. They calculate that if they lose Saudi Arabia, with the world's largest oil reserves, they must at least control Iraq, with the world's second largest.

However, Iraq is not immune from the groundswell of radical opposition that has been enveloping Saudi Arabia. Iraq's Shi'ite population is 60 percent of the total (compared to a Sunni minority of 17 percent) and concentrated in the poorer districts of Baghdad and in the oil-rich south around Basra. At the end of the first Gulf War, George Bush Sr called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The southern Shi'ites took him at his word and rose up against their regime. These generals didn't ask the US for help, merely for access to captured Iraqi equipment. But the US refused and allowed the tanks of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard to hurry south, and watched from the sidelines as the uprising was brutally crushed.

Shi'ites have long suffered discrimination by the regime, but since 1991 this policy has become one of brutal oppression, with Shi'ite leaders routinely assassinated. The Iraqi Communist Party website records an uprising in the Shi'ite-dominated south in March 1999 which was savagely suppressed, with hundreds executed. It also reports ongoing armed resistance to the regime. The nightmare scenario for the US is a Shi'ite-dominated Iraq allied to Iran, an even worse outcome than Saddam Hussein remaining in power.

The US wants to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but does not want the Iraqi people to be the ones to achieve this. The US and Israel would also like to impose a settlement on Palestinians demoralised by an Iraqi defeat.

The US has the confidence that flows from its monopoly of superpower status. On 12 January, the Observer quoted the number three at the US State Department, John Bolton, as saying, 'There is no such thing as the United Nations, only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States.' As the Boston Globe put it: 'As the Bush administration debates going to war against Iraq, its most hawkish members are pushing a sweeping vision for the Middle East that sees the overthrow of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq as merely a first step in the region's transformation. After the eviction of Hussein, they say, the US will have more leverage to act against Syria and Iran, and will be able to rely less on Saudi oil.' It is right that the second slogan of the 15 February demonstration should be 'Freedom for Palestine' since their struggle for freedom remains at the heart of the coming war.