Officials in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have announced that once the war with Iraq is over, Western troops — particularly the Americans — would receive a letter of thanks and a return ticket home.
On the face of it, this seems like a good idea — a rare example of a “win-win” situation in the Middle East. Few Americans enjoy spending time on distant desert bases protecting a corrupt royal family and its retainers, who in turn resent this evidence of their own weakness. At the same time, the fanatical Wahhabis that control religion and society in Saudi Arabia would cheer the departure of the infidels. Indeed, this is the core demand of Osama bin Laden, the onetime Saudi citizen who founded al Qaeda and planned the mass terror of 9/11. Heeding bin Laden’s call, 15 more Saudis were recruited to carry out the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — helped along also by substantial Saudi funding and religious justification. Thus by ridding themselves of the “impure forces” on “holy Islamic ground,” the Saudi rulers can also appease bin Laden.
Indeed, once Saddam is gone and the threat from Iraq is destroyed (at least for now), the main justification for the presence of foreign military forces will also disappear. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 — and threatened to move against Saudi Arabia and seize its oil wells — American troops were dispatched immediately. Although a post-Saddam Middle East will still pose many threats to the Saudi royal family and its oil income, the security situation should improve, and, in any case, this will no longer be America’s problem. With Iraqi oil back on line and available after the war, any disruptions in Saudi production will have less impact.
However, the departure of the American and other forces from Saudi Arabia could create new and more menacing difficulties for the U.S., Israel and other countries. If the huge arsenals of the world’s most advanced weapons become available to radical groups and Islamic terrorists, the result could be a catastrophic case of “blowback.” Following the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, guerrillas who had been trained and armed by the U.S. (including bin Laden) turned their weapons against their former benefactors. The potential blowback from the Saudi arsenal of advanced aircraft and missiles would be many times more devastating.
The scope of this threat should not be underestimated. For over 30 years, Saudi defense officials (princes of the royal family) have been converting a significant portion of their oil income into weapons and bases. Multi-billion-dollar deals to acquire large numbers of the most advanced combat aircraft, tanks, missiles, and other systems were signed and implemented over the years, making Saudi Arabia one of the most highly armed countries in the world. In the early 1980s — and despite strenuous objections from Israel and within the U.S. — the Reagan administration agreed to sell AWACS airborne battle stations to the Saudis, as well as F-15s (over 150 of these advanced fighter-bombers are now in the Saudi inventory) and tactical missiles (such as the Maverick and Sidewinder). Large and modern bases were also built — including the Prince Sultan complex south of Riyadh, complete with a 15,000-foot runway and advanced air-traffic control, navigation, meteorological, and communications systems. The additional weapons purchased from France and Britain also should not be overlooked in this assessment.
Throughout this period, successive American governments rejected concerns that this arsenal could be turned against the U.S. and Israel. (While the Saudis are often portrayed as pragmatic and passive, they are at the forefront of anti-Israel incitement and anti-Semitism, and have sent symbolic forces to fight in past Arab-Israeli wars.) Repeated reassurances were given that these weapons could not be operated without American permission and cooperation.
But if the U.S. and other Western forces depart, huge stockpiles of some of the most advanced weapons in the world would no longer be locked away. In the likely event of a major political upheaval in Saudi Arabia — and the replacement of the royal family with an Islamic regime that is closely aligned with Islamic radicals or terror groups — these weapons and bases could become a central element in the war against the U.S. and the West. Pakistanis or others might be given access to these weapons, and with Pakistan spinning toward radicalism and nuclear-armed chaos, the prospect of what could follow is not encouraging.
Moreover, the intercontinental ballistic missiles it purchased from China many years ago could provide the foundation for a Saudi strategic force. A number of former diplomats and informants have claimed to possess detailed evidence of Saudi efforts to develop or purchase nuclear warheads (perhaps in cooperation with Iraq).
Given the scale of these dangers, American postwar planning for Saudi Arabia must also include neutralizing the possibility of blowback. If or when the U.S. forces depart, they should be sure to take all of their baggage with them. The advanced aircraft, missiles, electronics, and other systems can be flown or shipped out (with compensation based on the residual value of these weapons, of course). Whatever cannot be moved — such as the bases, radar antennas, and ground facilities — must be destroyed. The alternative is exposure to destruction and terrorism on an unimaginable scale.
— Gerald M. Steinberg is director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation Political Studies at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.