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That Eerie Feeling About Saudi Arabia

Is the Saudi monarchy echoing the final stages of the Shah’s monarchy in Iran?

January 14, 2016

Is the Saudi monarchy echoing the final stages of the Shah’s monarchy in Iran?

In 1979, when the Shah’s regime finally fell in Iran, official Washington was very perplexed. The U.S. government, with all its departments, including the intelligence apparatus, had steadfastly stood by its client.

The shock when it all came crashing down was palpable. So was the regional upheaval, with consequences visible to this day.

Why the surprise? Why the preceding ignorance? Because official Washington was far too invested in the continued presence of the Shah. He was the linchpin of U.S. strategy for the region.

Under those circumstances, the mere thought of him no longer being in power was too painful to bear.

That also made it basically impossible to give any proper consideration to alternative scenarios that could have helped to safeguard the strategic interests of the United States and the West in case the Shah’s regime failed.

Being invested in the Shah – lock, stock and barrel – meant that Washington simply bought into all the downsides of the authoritarian political set-up in Iran.

It paired brutal political repression with the unspeakable grandeur of the Shah’s and his clique’s more than opulent lifestyle.

The net effects of this amazing strategic blindspot are still with us almost four decades later.

Shah redux

The only difference between then and now is that the U.S. government appears hell-bent to repeat that mistake. For as much as official Washington had bought into the Shah and his regime four decades ago, to the point of casting a blind eye, so it is now with the Saudis.

Whatever the telltale signs of the Saudi royals’ decrepitude, it is stunning to see how few in Washington worry about that.

Doing so would (almost) break the code of silence that the city’s officialdom has pretty much imposed on itself.

Thinking through the consequences of a collapse of the Saudi regime at this juncture is indeed (almost) too much to fathom. The Middle East is already a powder keg, with many structures collapsing.

And once again, the old Washington rule of doing business – better to deal with the devil we know than the one we don’t – applies.

The Saudi lobby

In addition, since we live in times when the policymaking process is more monetized than it has been ever before, the Saudis are very skilled investors in buying a lot of silence in the American capital.

And there are a lot of hands in Washington trying to catch some of the money the Saudis drop on the American infidels who are so eager to suck up to them.

The Saudis must feel some very personal pleasure in reversing the role of who the real client state is.

In particular, they spend massive amounts of walking-around money via PR firms, lobbying outfits, foundations and the like, so as to co-opt many of the “players” and opinion-makers in public Washington.

What also helps the silencing of any proper American discussion of scenarios for Saudi Arabia’s future is that the country is somehow – and quite perversely – seen as Israel’s best partner in the region.

What complicates matters quite considerably is that the Saudis, for their part, have a big reason to be upset about Washington. After all, it was the U.S.’s amazingly shortsighted, if not idiotic decision to accelerate the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq without any replacement plan that really upended the Middle East order.

Inaction and bad actions

The always precarious balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East was twice altered by Washington, one time by inaction, the other time by ill-fated action.

The U.S. government’s decision not to act to stop the mounting abuses of its ally monarchy in Iran between 1953 and 1979 created the social and political conditions for massive radicalization – and religiosity – in Iranian politics.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Washington then added fuel to the fire when it decided to hasten the demise of Saddam Hussein’s floundering regime instead of letting an Iraqi compromise solution emerge from within to replace him.

The vacuum brought influence to Sunni radicals in western Iraq and power to Iranian-supported Shia politicians in the south and in Baghdad.

Once again, the net effect was to strengthen the Iranian factor in the Middle East, adding profoundly to Saudi worries about regional dynamics.

The trouble is that the accumulated evidence suggests that the United States, despite the many resources it devotes to the region and the vast size of its military and intelligence operations, has not shown itself capable of pacifying the situation.

Rather, its track record has been to make things notably worse and more radicalized on balance.

That does not bode well for stability in the region if and when the Saudi royals’ regime one day vanishes, as quickly and unexpectedly as the Shah did in his day.

The most astounding thing is that, then as now, the writing was on the wall for all to see clearly. But too many in Washington are paid not to see it.


The consequences of a collapse of the Saudi regime seems almost too much to fathom right now.

The US ignored signs of the Shah’s coming fall in 1979. Will it repeat the error with Saudi Arabia?

There are a lot of hands in Washington trying to catch some of the money the Saudis drop.