Imperialism and the Construction of Saudi Arabia

Western imperialism played a decisive role in shaping Middle Eastern politics and society by protecting the conservative monarchy of Saudi Arabia against left-wing revolutionaries in the 1950s and 1960s, and paving the way for Saudi elites to finance the rise of modern Islamic fundamentalism.      

Modern political discourse around issues of Middle Eastern conflicts, Islamic terrorism, and Western military interventionism tends to rely on assumptions that the West and the Middle East are, by and large, two separate objects.  Perhaps the best example of this is the framework of the “clash of civilizations”, which views issues of Islamic terrorism as part of a long-standing, ancient war between “East” and “West”, and calls for increased military mobilization and the expansion of the national security state.  Progressive-liberal discourse tends to also rely on a framework of separation, preferring to explain fundamentalism in the Middle East as a logical reaction to the violent excesses of the War on Terror, and calls for peaceful, developmentalist strategies for the West to address underlying issues of poverty and marginalization.

What both of these frameworks do is obscure the fact that more often than not, Islamic fundamentalism has been a key ally of “Western civilization”—or to be specific, global capitalism—and has played a central role in the development and stabilization of the modern US-lead imperialist order.  This relationship was born largely out of the strategy by Western capitalist states in the aftermath of World War 2 to maintain hegemony in the Middle East, and control over local oil supplies, against the Soviet Union, as well as against local nationalist and communist forces.  Western imperialism thus preserved and stabilized feudal religious monarchies in the Middle East, and incorporated them as a central plank of its regional order, and suppressed socio-political movements that sought to modernize, secularize, and socialize their societies.

In this history, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is central.  The very foundation of Saudi Arabia as a political power, and its conquest of the Arabian Peninsula, was dependent on foreign powers, particularly the British Empire and American oil companies.  As the region developed and the Arabian working class grew in size and consciousness, new political tendencies and movements took hold.  Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the conservative religious royals of Saudi Arabia were besieged by diverse and vibrant political trends—particularly socialist and republican movements—that sought to overthrow the monarchy, expel the imperial powers, and seize control of the region’s energy resources.  These movements had a real chance of success, but ultimately could not overcome the political, military, and economic support that the House of Saud garnered from the West.  It was only with the defeat of progressive forces that Saudi Arabia was able to consolidate its control over the Gulf oil fields, begin the export of right-wing fundamentalist Islam (in opposition to the diverse currents of the Islamic Left), and help recycle oil rents into the international financial markets—underwriting the neoliberal restructuring of global capitalism that began in the 1970s.

Put another way: “Jihad” was not simply a local force antithetical to the development of “McWorld”; McWorld, as it turns out, was really McJihad, a necessary combination of a variety of social logics and forces,” that helped establish the global economic and political order that we have today (Mitchell 2011: 213).

George Bush meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah in Texas, 2008

Colonial Beginnings

The 1700s saw the emergence of an energetic Muslim preacher in the Arabian Peninsula, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who advocated an ultra-conservative, sectarian, and dogmatic interpretation of Islam, which was eventually named after him: Wahhabism.  Wahhab’s views were in stark contradiction with the relatively diverse and syncretic Islamic traditions (i.e. Sufism) that had evolved and spread since the time of the original Muhammad; Wahhabism largely reflected the austere, socially conservative tribal life of the Arabian Desert.  But even in his homeland, Wahhab’s ideas found little traction; he was thrown out of one town after an attempt to brand local Shia as heretics and non-Muslims, and another when he and his few followers stoned a woman to death for adultery.  Wahhab’s own brother denounced him, and wrote a book criticizing his ultra-puritanical and anti-intellectual ideas (AbuKhalil 2004: 56-7, 59-60).

Wahhab eventually found refuge with the militaristic and ambitious tribal leader Muhammad Ibn Saud, and the two formed an alliance that merged uncompromising fundamentalism with warlord power politics.  The alliance launched a violent campaign of territorial expansion and forced conversion that became a multi-generational effort carried on by the elites of the two camps.

The Saudi-Wahhabi alliance, wielding the powerful weapon of religious zealotry, fought and won some significant victories in the late 1700s, capturing Mecca and Medina and slaughtering thousands in their wake.  They were subsequently pushed back by the Ottoman Empire back into the interior, where they were contained until the Ottomans collapsed after World War I.  By 1926, the al-Saud clan—lead by their newest patriarch, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud—and their fanatical Wahhabi allies—the Ikhwan, or “Brotherhood”—had once again seized control of the holiest cities in Islam, as well as important trading ports on the western coast of the peninsula.  Like the initial advances of the 1700s, It was a campaign that had been defined by bloodshed, forced conversions, enslavement, and the enforcement of the strict and eccentric laws of Wahhabism.  It was also a campaign that was grounded in an alliance between Abdul Aziz and the British Empire; a 1915 treaty turned the lands under Abdul Aziz’s control into a British protectorate, ensuring military support against rival warlords and uniting the two against the Ottomons (AbuKhalil 2004: 63-6, 78-81, Vitalis 2006: 4-5).


Map of Arabia in 1914

At this time, a split developed between Abdul Aziz and the Ikhwan over the direction of their alliance.  While Abdul Aziz had carried on the original pact between Muhammad Ibn Saud and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, he was ultimately more interested in creating a personal fiefdom and accumulating power and glory.  On the other hand, the Ikhwan were genuine fanatics, and wanted to continue their jihad into lands controlled by their patron, the British Empire.  Other problems also emerged: the Ikhwan grew increasingly angry about Abdul Aziz’s luxurious and hedonistic lifestyle, his family’s relations with the West, the relative lenience toward Shia (while they were being viciously repressed and marginalized, they weren’t being forcibly converted, deported, or executed at a desired rate), and the introduction of new technologies (the telegraph, for example, was viewed as being of satanic origin) (AbuKhalil 2004: 83-85, Coll 2004: 75-6).  Consequently, the Ikhwan began to openly rebel in 1927, shortly after Abdul Aziz signed another treaty with the British.  After some three years of fighting, Abdul Aziz—with some military assistance from the British Empire—defeated the rebellion and executed the leaders.  Then, in 1932, he confirmed his conquests by crowning himself as king of a new state, named after himself and his family: Saudi Arabia.

While the leaders of the religious revolt were executed, rank-and-file Ikhwan were incorporated into a new religious militia tightly controlled by the king.  This integration of the extreme fringes of religious radicalism into the state’s repressive apparatuses started what would become a fundamental feature of Saudi politics, as “the debut of a strategy employed by the Saudi royal family throughout the twentieth century: threatened by Islamic radicalism, they embraced it, hoping to retain control” (Coll 2004: 76).

This time period would see other important patterns emerge as well.  As the House of Saud reaffirmed their entrenchment in Wahhabi fundamentalism, they also initiated their historic financial dependency on oil, which itself was dependent on an oil company based in the United States.  As soon as the Ikhwan were defeated, Abdul Aziz opened negotiations with the Standard Oil Company of California (SOCAL).  Three years later, in 1933, the California Arabian Standard Oil Company (CASOC) was established, which was run by Standard Oil and paid royalties directly to the king.

The deal between Abdul Aziz and SOCAL provided crucial funds for the fledging king to consolidate his precarious rule; indeed, at the time, his rule was so tenuous that Britain had more control over the House of Saud than the House of Saud had over their own recently conquered dependencies.  SOCAL gave Abdul Aziz a $28 million dollar loan, and paid an annual payment of $2.8 million (adjusted for inflation) in exchange for oil exploration rights throughout the 1930s (Vitalis 2006: 5, 33).  The company finally struck oil in 1938 and began production operations; in 1944, the company was renamed to be the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO).

At an ARAMCO labor camp, 1935

The developing political economy of Saudi Arabia quickly became intertwined with ARAMCO and its American backers, as the company built labor camps, corporate towns, roads, railways, ports, and other infrastructure projects necessary for the production and export of oil.  The projects also tapped into subsidies from the US government that ran into the tens of millions of dollars (Mitchell 2011: 210, Vitalis 2006: 84-5).

Given the economic dominance of the oil company and the transparent self-interest of the tribal warlord-turned-king, the initial lack of any real political structure in Saudi Arabia was perhaps inevitable.  Abdul Aziz rejected the need to create a formal system of government, or institutions for political discourse and representation—his word, and that of Wahhabi interpretations of the Quran, would suffice, and hand-picked advisors (usually from his family) would function as his advisors and ministers.  Seventeen percent of the Kingdom’s budget was ear-marked for his personal bank account (AbuKhalil 2004: 88-9).  But this belies the lack of control that Abdul Aziz actually had over the development of his fiefdom; the kingdom resembled less a state, or even an actual kingdom, so much as it did a company town answering to a foreign headquarters.

The transformation of the landscape that became Saudi Arabia was wrought in great part by foreigners, arriving in increasing numbers in the 1940s and 1950s, financed by foreign investment, foreign private and public aid, and large loans secured by future oil royalties.  The king and his handful of agents had little capacity to direct or to even oversee these changes, and “government” of the economies…was essentially limited to keeping the [House of Saud] solvent (Vitalis 2006: 6).

Which is to say, the project of Saudi Arabia looked more or less like a colonial construction rooted in American imperial expansion.

However, the construction of Saudi Arabia would not remain an affair solely controlled by US officials and local autocrats.  As the workings of international capital implanted themselves into the Arabian Peninsula, they would stir up anti-imperialist, leftist, and nationalist movements that would challenge institutions of US imperialism and its royal agents, and seek to seize control of their lands, resources, and labor, and guide the destiny of their communities and peoples on their own terms.

Anti-Imperialism Vs. Energy Security

World War II accelerated a shift in the energy requirements for growing economies and expanding empires.  Securing oil resources—and denying them to the enemy—became a critical plank of war strategy.  Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union fought over the oil fields of Romania, Ukraine, and the Caucasus; Japan and the United States fought over the oil fields of Indonesia; Nazi Germany and Italy fought the British Empire and the United States over the oil fields of Iraq and Iran.  As Allied victory looked increasingly likely, the Western colonial powers started looking ahead to plan for ensuring their postwar hegemony.  For the US government, the increasingly productive oil resources of Saudi Arabia and ARAMCO were to play a central role in shoring up American hegemony.  An analyst in the State Department in 1943 labelled the Persian Gulf oil fields as “the greatest single prize in all history” (Vitalis 2006: 62-4).

As a result of the clear geopolitical importance of oil, US interests in the Arabian Peninsula expanded from being driven by ARAMCO’s economic interests to include a general political-military motivation.  The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), issued a report in 1944 identifying the Persian Gulf region as a key strategic interest, and advocated plans to maintain and expand US hegemony in the region against the older colonial powers (namely, the British Empire).  In 1946, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a report that commented on the importance of Iranian oil, and the need to protect US-controlled oil resources in the Arabian Peninsula from the Soviet Union, and keep communist influence out of Iran, Iraq, and other important Middle Eastern countries (Stokes and Raphael 2010: 84, Hanieh 2011: 36).  Consequently, the US President, Franklin Roosevelt, met personally with King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia in 1945, to establish a pact ensuring the royal family’s security, and the kingdom’s ability to export oil to the Western world; soon after, work began on a US military base in the oil-rich eastern regions.  Thus began the military entrenchment of the US government, and the steady transfer of local sovereignty from British hands into America’s.

The initial focus of US geopolitical strategy in the Middle East was to create a bulwark against the Soviet Union, while simultaneously pushing out rival Western imperial powers.  But the regional situation evolved, and the focus of the US government on the threat of Soviet communism was expanded to include a whole variety of social and political movements that were not amenable to US hegemony and the interests of global capitalism.  The chaotic post-WW2 era saw a growing upsurge in revolutionary and progressive-minded movements across the Middle East, that were typically guided by popular communist parties in tense alliances with more conservative nationalist groups.  They sought to topple feudal religious regimes (like Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies), expel the imperial powers (namely that of the US and the UK), and establish secular, anti-imperialist, and leftist republics.

In 1951, the budding democratic-republican government in Iran lead by the recently elected Prime Minster, Mohammed Mossadegh, nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC).  The nationalization was in the context of the heavy pressure from mass demonstrations spear-headed by oil workers linked with the Tudeh Party, the major communist party in Iran (Mitchell 2011: 107-8).  The next year, the pro-Western monarchy in Egypt was overthrown by nationalist military officers lead by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who would quickly garner widespread popularity across the Arab world for his anti-imperialist and Arab nationalist politics.  Syria was in the grips of a series of coups and counter-coups, which were kicked off by a CIA-backed coup in 1949 that dismantled the democratic institutions that had been blocking a pipeline deal.  And homegrown communist movements were becoming increasingly popular and influential, particularly in Syria and Iraq.

Protests in Iran calling for the nationalization of the country’s oil, 1951

The House of Saud was not spared from the rising tide of anti-imperialist, nationalist, and communist movements.  The kingdom saw its first labor strike in 1942, when two thousand laborers building a palace in Riyadh held a mass demonstration calling for reduced working hours; the leaders were beaten in the streets, and then thrown into prison for a year.  Labor unrest began hitting ARAMCO in 1945, when a small strike over bad food rations and mistreatment by company security forces spiraled into a general strike by thousands of workers over ARAMCO’s official policies of racial discrimination and segregation, imported from the Jim Crow institutions of the US.  Faced with escalating unrest, the company was forced to start negotiations around the workers’ demands (Vitalis 2006: 92-105).

Unrest continued for the rest of the decade, however, and escalated in the early 1950s lock-step with the increasing labor militancy that was rocking the rest of the region.  1953 saw a massive strike wave, involving nearly all of the workers at both ARAMCO and the nearby US military base, and the emergence of a leadership core drawn from local skilled and educated workers.  This time, the thousands of striking workers made explicitly political demands for unionization rights, democratic elections, a constitutional order, and the expulsion of the American military.  Coordination committees were formed that united workers across tribal, national, and religious lines.  ARAMCO spies reported that one organizer was convincing workers of the need to overthrow “first, ARAMCO, second the Saudi government, and third, Islam”, illustrative of the kind of revolutionary sentiment that was quickly becoming a new normal in Saudi Arabia and rest of the Middle East (Nehme 1994: 933, Vitalis 2006: 145-51).

Radical dissent also emerged within the small but growing administrative institutions of Saudi Arabia, as a band of progressive nationalist technocrats began to coalesce and steadily gain power in the late 1940s.  The most influential of these was probably Abdullah Tariki, who in 1949 became the supervisor of petroleum affairs in the Ministry of Finance.  Tariki was a fierce nationalist, and a persistent critic of ARAMCO’s racist policies and exploitative colonial practices, and he pushed hard for the oil wealth of the kingdom to be used to develop the local economy for all locals—not just for the benefit of the royals and the oil executives.  Tariki and his comrades were also supportive of the workers movement, taking advantage of Abdul Aziz’s death in 1953 and the incompetence of his successor, Saud, to establish a Labor Office, force ARAMCO into making concessions to the workers, and releasing imprisoned labor leaders.  Between increasingly restless workers and an emerging class of progressive nationalist technocrats, US power in Saudi Arabia was being increasingly challenged; a US embassy analyst in Riyadh at the time noted that “anti-Americanism was on the rise among all classes of Arabs in the kingdom” (Vitalis 2006: 105, 133-7, 154-5).

Abdullah Tariki, petroleum engineer and leftist Arabian nationalist

It was in this context of regional, locally-based unrest that US government officials decided that the major threat to Western interests in the Middle East was not the expansion of Soviet communism, but rather domestic socio-political forces that were developing and expanding within Middle Eastern society that positioned themselves against US imperialism.  A National Security Council (NSC) report in 1953 identified the key danger to Western hegemony in the Middle East as stemming not from the threat of Soviet military action, but from the rising tide of revolutionary and nationalist movements that sought to overthrow pro-Western regimes. By 1958, the NSC advocated the use of military force as a last resort to ensure enough oil supply to keep Western Europe stable, and its economy growing.  Saudi Arabia was a special point of interest to the US government; as the US ambassador put it in 1954, the security of the House of Saud and the assets controlled by ARAMCO were “the most important single American interest on the face of the earth outside the U.S” (Stokes and Raphael 2010: 85-86, Vitalis 2006: 164).

This was the line of reasoning that motivated the US government, in coordination with the UK government, to facilitate the 1953 coup in Iran, which supported the Shah in his violent ousting of Prime Minster Mossadegh, the dismantling of the country’s democratic institutions, and the construction of a ruthless police state.  While US analysts had known that Mossadegh was not a communist, and at best had a tense and unstable understanding with the Tudeh Party, a successful nationalization of Iran’s oil resources was viewed as an unacceptable precedent that would likely spark similar movements across not only the Middle East, but across the entire postcolonial world (Stokes and Raphael 2010: 88-89).

In Saudi Arabia, the US government supported ARAMCO and the House of Saud in their repressive containment of the growing labor movement.  US military advisors started training local security forces and helped build a new Ministry of Defense, which proved an especially useful investment for the military crackdown, mass arrests, and deportations that happened in the wake of the 1953 strike.  ARAMCO became a hub for CIA officers in the Middle East, and the company itself had its own intelligence division that was established in response to the strike waves of 1945 (Vitalis 2006: 95, 129, 143-5, 149).

Revolutionary Surges

As the 1950s dragged on, unrest and revolutionary sentiments continued to escalate.  Nasser’s Egypt was playing a leading role in fermenting anti-imperialist, Arab nationalist, and anti-monarchist republican politics.  The idea of an independent Arab republic, that erased colonial-era borders and united the intellectual and cultural centers of Cairo and Beirut with the vast oil resources of the Persian Gulf, was gaining enormous popularity across the Arab world.   And US strategy against Nasser and Arab Nationalism was struggling, complicated by the fact that the US government was still concerned about ensuring its supremacy over rival imperial powers in the Middle East.  Hence, when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, and the UK, France, and Israel invaded Egypt and sparked the 1956 Suez Crisis, the US government intervened economically and diplomatically in favor of Nasser, which “made unambiguous, even to the most nostalgic blimps, America’s supremacy over its Western allies.”  The outcome of the conflict sealed the demise of European imperialism and the ascent of US power—but simultaneously turned Nasser into a political rock star across the Arab world, and inflamed enthusiasm for anti-imperialism.

Nasser at a rally during the Suez Crisis, 1956

In Saudi Arabia, dissent grew increasingly radical.  Labor organizers exiled in 1953 made connections with leftists across the Middle East, and snuck back into the country to help instigate another round of unrest.  Pamphlets featuring the hammer and sickle and calling for the overthrow of the House of Saud grew increasingly common in the kingdom’s cities.  In 1955—a few months before Rosa Parks resisted bus segregation in Alabama and launched the Montgomery bus boycott—leftist ARAMCO workers organized their own bus boycott over unequal and segregated busing policies.  The head of the Ministry of Finance’s Labor Office, Abdul Aziz Ibn Muammar, was arrested and imprisoned for a few months on suspicion of being a communist and helping instigate the protests—not an unreasonable accusation, considering that ARAMCO spies had found out that some of the communist labor organizers from 1953 had been hired by Muammar to work for the Labor Office.  Unrest within ARAMCO continued for a full year, with sporadic rioting and several waves of strikes, and bold demands for unionization rights, the expulsion of the Americans, and democratic elections.  The increasing militancy was also connected with similarly militant labor movements on the upsurge in the neighboring states of Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain (Vitalis 2006: 156-7, 159-62, 171-83).

Another source of dissent, that was particularly unnerving to the House of Saud, was the military.  Around the same time the ARAMCO bus boycott began, loyalist security forces uncovered a plot by Egyptian-trained military officers to overthrow the monarchy in an effort to duplicate the events of Egypt’s 1952 revolution.  In response to this threat, the royals and the US government created a plan to reconfigure the military training programs to keep the formal Saudi military weak and divided, and instead funnel support to the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), a paramilitary organization that drew from conservative tribal fighters who were loyal to the monarchy—the same fighters who formed the backbone of the fundamentalist Wahhabi militants that helped found the kingdom several decades prior (Vitalis 2006: 161, Mitchell 2011: 211).

The SANG, armed with intelligence supplied by ARAMCO and trained by the US government, became the House of Saud’s main weapon of repression and internal security.  Saud—who finally got his bearings on how to rule as a proper autocrat—issued a royal decree that officially banned all strikes and demonstrations; labor organizers were hunted down, arrested, and deported, and striking workers were beaten back to work, with hundreds getting imprisoned, and some executed.  But while dissent within the oil fields was contained, the violence only exacerbated tensions across Arabian society.  Workers formed clandestine revolutionary organizations that connected with other revolutionary movements in the Middle East, like the communist-lead National Liberation Front, the Union of the Peoples of the Arabian Peninsula, and the Saudi branch of the Ba’ath Party, all of which linked militant workers with “students, school teachers, foreigners, and middle-class people from urban areas”; protests and bombs began to regularly rock the kingdom’s streets (Vitalis 2006: 173, 179, 182-3, Nehme 1994: 936).

Revolutionary Peaks

By the end of the 1950s, matters looked particularly bad for the US and its regional allies. In 1958, the pro-Western monarchy in Iraq was overthrown by a coalition of nationalist military officers and a mass communist party.  The same year, Egypt and Syria merged into the United Arab Republic (UAR), and the monarchy of North Yemen, under pressure from nationalist military officers, joined them in a confederation under the banner of the United Arab States (UAS).  Unrest continued to rock Saudi Arabia as well, with more military conspiracies being narrowly foiled, and revolutionary communist and Arab nationalist groups continuing to stoke unrest in the streets.

However, the surge in revolutionary mobilization was not monolithic, and in fact was largely driven by growing competition between Arab nationalist and communist movements, the rivalry between Egypt and Iraq, and efforts by the two camps to become the leading revolutionary force in the Arab world.  By 1958, communism was the strongest political force in both Iraq and Syria, and had an increasing presence on the Arabian Peninsula; in this light, from the point of view of the US, Nasser and Arab nationalism began to look like the lesser of two evils.  Eisenhower commented in the summer of 1958 that “we are about to get thrown out of the area, we might as well believe in Arab nationalism”; NSC analysis at this time unhappily observed that “the virtual collapse during 1958 of conservative resistance, leaving the radical nationalist regimes almost without opposition in the area, has brought a grave challenge to Western interests” (Schayegh 2013: 424-7, 430-1, Gerges 1995: 296-7).

Map of the Middle East circa 1958; pro-Nasser countries are shaded

The events of the late 1950s left the House of Saud in a similar state of desperate disarray, resulting in fierce factional infighting between King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal.  The palace chaos, as well as the unrest in the streets and the growth of the underground organizations, was hugely beneficial to the efforts of progressive technocrats like Muammar and Tariki, who managed to more or less seize control of the kingdom’s administrative apparatuses by 1960 and instituting radical reforms.  A framework for a representative parliament was written up, and free and democratic local municipal elections were held.  Tariki, who by then was being dubbed “the Red Sheikh” by ARAMCO executives, became head of a new oil ministry, drafted plans for the nationalization of the country’s oil resources, and became the driving force in the founding of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in September 1960.  Observers in the US embassy reported that the progressive administration had “support of a type never before accorded anybody in Saudi Arabia” (AbuKhalil 2004: 93-94, Hanieh 2011: 37-38, 42, Vitalis 2006: 208-22).

But the Saudi regime was not overthrown.  In 1961, the royals ended their infighting, with Faisal and his religious conservative allies seizing power, to deal with the progressive technocrats and their reforms, and the popular movement in the streets that supported them.  ARAMCO spies, CIA officers, and US military officials helped Faisal and the SANG intervene against yet another coup conspiracy in the military that sought to overthrow the monarchy in support of the progressives.  Their government was dismantled; Tariki and his comrades were stripped of their positions and thrown into exile, while Muammar—the intellectual architect of the budding democratic institutions—was thrown in prison (Nehme 1994: 935, Vitalis 2006: 216-7, 223-7).

The Fall of the Revolutions…

The dismantling of the progressive administration in Saudi Arabia marked the beginning of the decline of revolutionary nationalist and communist movements in the region, even as the struggle between the republics and the monarchies grew more intense.  The same year that Faisal and the conservative royals re-established their grip on the kingdom and purged the progressives, Nasser’s UAR dissolved, broken by a military coup in Syria.  One year later, the monarchy of North Yemen was overthrown, and turned into a proxy war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with Nasser supporting the nationalist republicans and Faisal supporting the royalists.  Insurgencies, largely instigated by leftists, also erupted in the British-controlled regions of South Yemen and the Dhofar region of Oman.

The US government initially tried to maintain its policy of attempting to coopt Nasser and Arab nationalism with regards to the war in North Yemen.  But at the same time, the Saudi monarchy’s survival after the tumultuous events of the previous few years emboldened the continuation of a regional strategy that prioritized the House of Saud’s security against internal and external threats; and after Nasser started bombing Saudi military positions on the Saudi-Yemeni border in 1963, the US government doubled down on their backing of the kingdom and the security of American hegemony over the world’s largest oil reserves.  A continent of fighter jets was sent to back up the monarchy in 1963, and the next few years would see the US government establish new military bases and missile defense systems in the kingdom, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in arms deals (Vitalis 2006: 238-9, 247-8, Gerges 1995: 307-9).  1963 also saw a violent, CIA-facilitated coup in Iraq, that brought to power the Ba’ath Party and exterminated thousands of members and supporters of the Iraqi Communist Party.

Anti-British protests in South Yemen during the ’60s

With the US ensuring the House of Saud’s security against hostile neighboring states, the royals consolidated their own power and launched widespread campaigns to suppress dissent.  Saud was forced to resign and go into exile, and Faisal was crowned king in 1964.  The institutions that the progressive technocrats built were coopted to facilitate the rule of the royals (including Tariki’s plan to nationalize ARAMCO); elections were abolished, and the power and scope of the SANG was dramatically expanded.  Dissidents were arrested, tortured, and executed, sometimes publically; and people from “troublesome” nationalities—typically Palestinians, Yemenis, Egyptians, and Syrians—were indiscriminately rounded up and deported (Nehme 1994: 934, 936-7, Vitalis 2006: 250, 256-8).

Meanwhile, the war in Yemen devolved into a stalemate, and became a disastrous quagmire for Egypt, which lacked the kind of foreign military support and oil wealth that the House of Saud had.  As thousands of Egyptian soldiers died, and billions of dollars were fruitlessly poured into the war effort, Nasser’s pan-Arab project started falling apart—as had been foreshadowed by the 1961 dissolution of the UAR.  He resorted to increasingly desperate measures, deploying chemical weapons against royalists in Yemen, and finally sealed his fate by going to war with Israel in 1967 in a last-bid effort to preserve his revolutionary credentials.

As the intervention dragged on, Egypt’s economic condition went from bad to worse, domestic discontent rose to dangerous levels, and mounting criticism from within the Arab world began to take its toll on Nasser’s reputation.  In May 1967, Nasser made a gambit to solve all of these problems by shifting world attention northward.

He marched his army into the Sinai desert in broad daylight, triggering an international crisis that erupted in six days of war with Israel.  The result was a catastrophic defeat, which led to the withdrawal of Egyptian forces from Yemen — thus making Israel the unlikely handmaiden of Saudi victory.

With Egypt now bankrupt, Nasser was forced to pull out of Yemen in exchange for a pledge of financial aid from King Faisal.  This transaction, which took place in August…symbolized the shift of power from Cairo to Riyadh that had occurred over the course of the war in Yemen. Nasserism was a spent force.

Egyptian soldiers surrendering to Israeli troops, 1967

After decades of struggle, Saudi Arabia and the surviving monarchies emerged as the victors against Nasser and Arab nationalism.  The House of Saud secured this geopolitical victory by continuing to clamp down on internal dissent, culminating in a massive wave of state violence in 1969.  Security forces, again with the critical help of US intelligence and military assets, uncovered and foiled a revolutionary plot based in a leftist coalition of air force officers, school teachers, and oil workers.  Thousands were arrested, and much of the underground revolutionary network was compromised (AbuKhalil 2004: 98, Nehme 1994: 936-7).

Saudi elites also began manipulating the composition of the Arabian working class and introducing new strategies of division and control, primarily through the introduction of migrant labor from Egypt and Yemen (and later, South Asia).  While the presence of other nationalities had been a key ingredient for instigating unrest by connecting Arabians with revolutionary movements abroad, the working class was still largely made up of locals; some 90% of the workforce in the early 1960s were Saudi Arabian citizens.  This began to change as the royals started to restructure the kingdom’s hierarchies and expanding the use of migrant workers; by 1980, migrant workers were over half of the Saudi Arabian workforce, even as the total labor force tripled in size between 1970 and 1980.  This strategy was mimicked by the other Gulf monarchies (Hanieh 2011: 61-2).

This politically-driven recomposition of the working-class via the importation of precarious migrant workers was a powerful tool to break the threat of labor organizing in the kingdom.

…this spatialization of class acts as a powerful mechanism of social control.  Because the spatial location of temporary labor in the Gulf is constituted through the social relations established in the course of the reproduction of capital–and not through birth or citizenship rights–this labor lacks any permanent right to space.  As soon as these social relations are severed through the termination of employment, these workers become “illegal” and are forced to return to their country of origin.  The fluidity of status is codified through laws that link residency visas with possession of employment.  Collective organization, strikes, and other forms of class solidarity are made very difficult because labor can be simply (and legally) threatened with deportation at the slightest evidence of discontent (Hanieh 2011: 65).

Between state violence and workforce restructuring, by the end of the 1960s one era of revolutionary struggle against monarchy and imperialism in Saudi Arabia had been forcibly ended.  But the rise of the House of Saud was just beginning.

…and the Rise of Wahhabis

The survival and ascendance of the Saudi royals amidst the revolutionary upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s would have far-reaching implications for the future of the Middle East.  The survival strategy of the monarchy relied not just on brute force and recomposing the working class, but also on grounding itself back into fundamentalist religious ideology and its Wahhabi origins, and cementing the differences between itself and the secular and radical republics.  Religion, financed with oil rent, became a weapon for social control and political demobilization, and a foreign policy tool by which the region’s conservative forces were unified.  It was a plan that also had backing from the US government; one CIA officer working through ARAMCO discussed the regional conflict through an explicitly religious lens, arguing the need for “a moral alliance between Christians and Muslims against the common threat of communism”, and Eisenhower himself saw his support for Saudi Arabia against Egypt as rooted in a strategy to cast the House of Saud as a conservative religious leader for the Middle East (Mitchell 2011: 212-3).

Throughout the 1960s, huge amounts of funds were poured into creating an education system dominated by religion.  The International Islamic University of Medina was founded in 1961; the next year, the Muslim World League was established, whose stated goals were to “unify the world of Muslims” and “fulfill God’s obligation by propagating his message and spreading it all around the world” (AbuKhalil 2004: 140).  More and more religious institutions were established throughout the decade, and “by 1970 the Mecca-Medina-Jidda triangle was home to the world’s largest concentration of Islamic religious institutions”, as well as the base for new Saudi-backed international Islamic charity organizations (Hegghammer 2010: 80-1).

The expansion of religious institutions in the kingdom occurred concurrently with a massive influx of fundamentalist Muslim activists, who were fleeing repression in the secular Arab republics in the 1950s and early 1960s, mainly from Egypt (after the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser in 1954), Iraq, and Syria.  The House of Saud was enthusiastic about giving refugee to the enemies of Arab nationalism and communism, and incorporated them into the project of cementing Saudi Arabia as the central power of the Islamic world.  Subsequently, these educated scholars, activists, and militants became the core labor force within the kingdom’s developing education system, as well as the new state-sanctioned international charity organizations that forged social and political connections across the Muslim world, and steadily boosted the social clout and legitimacy of the House of Saud (Hegghammer 2010: 81).

The Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo being torched during riots in 1954

These religious activists shared the fundamentalist ideology of the traditional Saudi Wahhabis, but had a pragmatic bent that distinguished them from the Saudi clerical establishment.  Unlike orthodox Wahhabis—parts of which were extreme to the point of refusing to acknowledge non-Wahhabis as real Muslims—the Muslim Brotherhood activists were interested in proselytizing, and in strategic engagement with Muslims who did not immediately share their particular religious standpoints.  The influx of these savvy, pragmatic, and experienced proselytizers proved instrumental in adjusting Saudi Arabia’s traditional Wahhabi clerical establishment into having more global ambitions—ambitions that were syncretic with those of the royal family.  The newly emerging Wahhabi Islamic institutions steadily became a crucial vehicle through which the House of Saud enacted its foreign policy, and enhanced its geopolitical hegemony (AbuKhalil 2004: 100-1, 104).

The entrenchment of Wahhabism into Saudi Arabian society also functioned as a way to disarm dissidents and indoctrinate locals against subversion.  Controlled and guided by the royals and their conservative clerical allies, the regime “produced a politically quiescent and conservative school of political thought that urges obedience” and “forbade revolt against rulers, regardless of the policies and conduct of those rulers”—with a key caveat being that these rulers had to be religiously sanctioned by a clerics who themselves were controlled by the state (AbuKhalil 2004: 61).

The entrenchment of religion within Saudi Arabia proved to be particularly useful in delegitimizing dissent from progressive, nationalist, and anti-monarchy forces within the Kingdom.  However, there were a number of contradictions that were inherent in the long-standing alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi clerics.  On one hand, both the royals and the clerics needed one another; indeed, this was something that the founder of Wahhabism himself had argued in the 1700s, that

…religion and state are indissolubly linked.  Without the coercive power of the state, religion is in danger, and on the other hand, without the shari’a the state becomes a tyrannical organization (Nevo 1998: 37).

And indeed, by the late 1960s this interdependency was more rigid than ever.  Religion was the only way that a small, autocratic circle of royals could legitimize their rule in the era of nationalist republics and socialist labor movements; and state power was the only way that fundamentalist clerics could empower their institutions and maintain their social positions in the era of rapid modernization.  The House of Saud depended on its clerics to condemn democratic political structures (like the ones that briefly emerged in 1960) as heretical, assure the public that royals and their actions were compliant with religion and constrained by the divine, and justify unpopular decisions with religious decrees.  The clerics depended on the House of Saud for coerced access to socio-political power, as well as basic economic and financial support (Nevo 1998: 45-6).

But even as Wahhabism was institutionally dependent on the House of Saud (and vice versa), this dependence did little to change the fact that it was still in its essence a rigid, militant ideology—a fact that had led to the civil war between Abdul Aziz and the Wahhabi militias in the late 1920s.  As a result, as the official state-sanctioned religious institutions went to increasingly greater lengths to justify the regime’s excesses and transparently irreligious reforms toward turning Saudi Arabia into a military and political power, space grew for a militant religious opposition that critiqued the regime on its own terms and in its own fundamentalist language.  In fact, conservative dissent appeared quite rapidly as a potentially destabilizing force, such as in 1965, when religious fanatics stormed the kingdom’s first television station, and had to be violently put down by security forces (Nevo 1998: 40-1, 50, AbuKhalil 2004: 97-8).

Regardless, Wahhabi Islam remained a powerful method by which Saudi elites stabilized their authoritarian rule and expanded their regional power.  The impact on Egyptian society—which until the end of the 1960s had been at the center of Arab political imagination, and appeared to be a solid anti-imperialist secular republic—exemplifies the dramatic changes that ascendant Saudi hegemony brought to the region.  The transfer of power in Egypt in 1970 from Gamal Nasser to Anwar Sadat, a former Muslim Brother and an acquaintance of the Saudi intelligence chief, lead to a total reorientation of Egypt’s policies.  Sadat’s Egypt would ally with the United States, open up the country to foreign investment, and begin a neoliberalization of the economy.  Sadat would also orient Egyptian society increasingly toward religion, releasing Muslim Brotherhood prisoners and institutionalizing Islam within a new constitution.  By the end of the 1970s, Egypt would become a subservient client to Saudi Arabia and the US—a total reversal from its position as a fiercely independent populist state two decades earlier.

Anwar Sadat and Henry Kissinger, 1970s

Imperialism’s Junior Partner

The regional supremacy achieved by the House of Saud would have global ramifications, even beyond its position as the central hegemon of conservative fundamentalist Islam.  Saudi Arabia—along with its allies in the Gulf monarchies—would become a key pillar of imperialism, based on its role as the world’s largest net exporter of oil, and play a crucial role in the economic restructuring of global capitalism.  Much of this would be triggered by the upheaval in the oil markets that began in 1973.

The 1973 oil crisis was triggered by a unilateral increase of the price of oil by OPEC members, and an embargo by Arab oil producers against certain Western nations over support to Israel during the October War.  Oil prices rose dramatically; for standard Saudi Arabian crude, the price per barrel rose from $2.59 on January 1, 1973 to $11.65 exactly one year later—a roughly 350% increase (Hanieh 2011: 34).  The crisis of oil prices, along with other key events such as the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system, accelerated the neoliberal restructuring of global capitalism that had already been underway since the late 1960s.

For Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, the most obvious consequence of the oil price hike was a massive and sustained flood of money.  The Saudi state budget from 1969 to 1974 was $9.2 billion; the next five-year budget, from 1974 to 1979, increased more than fifteen-fold, to $142 billion (Coll 2004: 79).  This new influx of wealth was largely recycled into North American and European banks, who increasingly opened up branches in the Gulf states.  A key sector that acquired petrodollars from the Gulf was the Euromarket sector, which were composed of dollar-denominated bank deposits, and had emerged in the late 1960s as a way to serve US corporations that sought to circumvent foreign investment and capital export restrictions.  Euromarkets facilitated a large expansion in global credit levels, and helped coordinate corporate capital flows across national borders (Hanieh 2011: 40-1).

The investment strategies of the new oil wealth was also coordinated to shore up US political and economic power—specifically, through conscious and calculated decisions to invest oil revenues into dollar-denominated assets, and to leverage Saudi political power within OPEC to compel the cartel to do the same, as part of an agreement between Saudi Arabia and the US government reached in 1974 to contain the effects of the embargo.  The deal ensured that Saudi Arabia deposited billions into US treasury securities, and structure investment and purchasing patterns to privilege the dollar.  By 1979, 90% of the Saudi regime’s revenue was in US dollars, and 83% of their assets were dollar denominated; for OPEC as a whole, reserves held in dollar-denominated assets increased from 57% in 1973 to 93% in 1978 (Hanieh 2011: 44-5).  These economic strategies reaffirmed the long-standing political alliance between US imperial power and the Middle Eastern monarchies.

…the Gulf states came to share an interest in the growing strength of the US dollar and US financial power.  With most of their reserves invested in US dollar-linked markets (whether the Euromarkets or directly in US securities)—and reinforced by the deep dependence of the Gulf’s autocratic and unpopular monarchies on US military protection—the Gulf states were integrated as junior partners into the reproduction of the system itself (Hanieh 2011: 45).

While the restructuring of capitalism at the global level proved beneficial to Western financial institutions and political power, it proved to be a large factor in the stagnation of the developing world.  The rise in oil prices hammered oil-importing countries, disproportionately impacting poor consumers in the Third World, and pushed developing world governments attempting industrialization to seek loans on the international financial markets, mainly from US and European banks.  The Euromarkets, awash with liquidity from the large influx of Gulf petrodollars, became a key source of deficit financing for the Third World: between 1974 and 1979, the Euromarkets’ share of developing world deficit debts increased from 25% to 50%.  Other lending institutions also became deeply integrated with the Gulf; for example, the largest lender to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after the 1970s was Saudi Arabia (Hanieh 2011: 47).  The massive amounts of debt accrued by the Third World would lead to the infamous debt crisis and structural adjustment programs of the 1980s, the imposition of neoliberal policies, and the global rollback of social welfare programs that had proliferated in the postwar era.

OPEC sub-committee meeting, 1973

Saudi Arabia’s key role in the transformation of the global economy also fed the regime’s expansionary political-religious project, as it directed its new wealth into supercharging and transnationalizing its Islamic institutions, and the proselytization of Wahhabi doctrine.  For example, the Muslim World League and its associated networks and charities saw a rapid expansion of its budget, increasing from about $3 million in 1975 to almost $18 million in 1980 (AbuKhalil 2004: 143).  Across the Muslim world, from Indonesia to Afghanistan to Palestine to Algeria, Saudi-funded preachers, teachers, and clerics began to spread the word of Wahhab, fusing it with existing ultra-conservative schools of thought like Salafism and Deobanism, and forming more militant political organizations that put increasing pressure on regional governments and societies to adhere to Saudi-Wahhabi interpretations of Islam.  This international Saudi-backed religious network would lay the groundwork for the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s, from which the modern transnational Islamist paramilitary system was born.


The trends that took root in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in the post-WW2 era are crucial to understanding the state of the region today.  The defeat of republican and socialist movements allowed for the establishment of a pro-Western religious monarchy as the regional hegemon, the maintenance of imperialist control over the Persian Gulf’s oil fields, and the stabilization and restructuring of global capitalism.

The critical centrality of the region to the making of global capitalism (and US power) meant that the working classes of the Gulf presented a significant potential threat to capital accumulation at a global scale.  Any attempt by labor within the Gulf to wrest control of the oil rents guarded by the ruling family could profoundly impact the stability of the world market.  This was not just a question of nationalization of oil supplies.  More fundamentally, it concerned the emergence of a potential link between the control of oil (and its revenues), and the ability to use this control to shape the politics of the region as a whole—moving it out of the gambit of US power or the capitalist world market (Hanieh 2011: 61).

Understanding this history is also crucial for dealing with popular (and typically bigoted) myths about the nature of Islamic fundamentalism and their extremist terrorist offshoots.  Reactionary religious ideals were not always the powerful socio-political force that they appear to be in the modern Middle East; and nor is the current “War on Terror” an escalation of a “clash of civilizations” between Western democracy and Eastern theocracy.  On the contrary, Western civilization has already long ago established its dependence on Islamic fundamentalism, built on a shared and mutual interest in securing oil resources and political hegemony against popular leftist movements.  One cannot talk about Islamic fundamentalism without talking about the construction and rise of Saudi Arabia as a pillar of imperialism, and the central role of oil as the material basis of this alliance.

The fact that oil money helped develop the power of the [Wahhabis] in Arabia after 1930 and made possible the resurgence of Islamic political movements in the 1970s has often been noted.  But it is equally important to understand that, by the same token, it was an Islamic movement that made possible the profits of the oil industry.  The political economy of oil did not happen, in some incidental way, to rely on a government in Saudi Arabia that owed its own power to the force of an Islamic political movement.  Given the features of the political economy of oil…oil profits depended on working with those forces that could guarantee the political control of Arabia: the House of Saud in alliance with the [Wahhabis].  The latter were not incidental, but became an internal element in the political economy of oil.  “Jihad” was not simply a local force antithetical to the development of “McWorld”; McWorld, as it turns out, was really McJihad, a necessary combination of a variety of social logics and forces (Mitchell 2011: 213).

And indeed, even the modern fundamentalist terrorist organizations that dominate the headlines (i.e. al-Qaeda, the Islamic State) are largely exceptions to the general rule of friendship between US hegemony and Islamic fundamentalism.  The militarization of the latter is rooted in the US-Saudi alliance against the Soviet Union during the 1980s, when billions of dollars was poured over the course of more than a decade to Islamist paramilitary groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which themselves were built from the right-wing Islamist social and political organizations that were sustained with Gulf funds during the 1970s (Coll 2004).  A small segment of the Islamist paramilitary veterans of Afghanistan mutated into al-Qaeda; but even after September 11th and the onset of the “War on Terror”, the imperialist use of Islamist paramilitaries continued, notably in Syria, where the US, Saudi Arabia, and al-Qaeda are de facto allies.  The sub-title of a recent essay in Harper’s Magazine by Andrew Cockburn comparing the wars in Afghanistan and Syria is explicit, if over-simplified: “The United States is teaming up with Al Qaeda, again”.

Of course, the spread of fundamentalism should not be seen merely as a social phenomena financed by the Gulf States and exacerbated by Western militarism, but also as a reflection of the way capitalism and class in the Middle East has been transformed over the last few decades, via neoliberal restructuring, for the benefit of the Gulf bourgeoisie.  By the time the Arab Spring erupted, Gulf elites had become the dominating class across the region, in control of major sectors of the Middle Eastern economy.  The Arab Spring—exploding decades of growing tensions over poverty, unemployment, and inequality—was thus not only a revolt against national dictatorships, but against a regional economic system that revolved around the Gulf capitalist classes, and the global imperialist order that secured their rise.  No wonder, then, that the Gulf states have played a leading role in organizing counter-revolutionary forces against the new mass movements not only within their own states, but across the region.

Ultimately, historical analysis should make clear what is necessary to deal with contemporary issues of Islamic fundamentalism, Middle Eastern dictatorships, US militarism, and global capitalism.  It is necessary to recognize the way these systems are rooted and produced through one another; a struggle against fundamentalism is a struggle against Saudi Arabia is a struggle against imperialism.  Contemporary leftists must connect with those who are currently carrying forward the legacy of the revolutionary movements of the 1950s and 1960s, such as migrant workers and youth militants, as well as double down on efforts to challenge imperialism from within the core countries.  No matter how bleak things may look, the rich history of the Arabian working class should serve as an inspiration to all who fight for a better future.

We are the sons of the Indians who sold Manhattan.  We want to change the deal. –Abdullah Tariki

Face-off between riot police and protesters in Saudi Arabia, 2011

Works Cited

AbuKhalil, As’ad.  The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism, and Global Power.  Seven Stories Press.  2004.

Coll, Steve.  Ghost Wars:  The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.  Penguin Books.  2004.

Gerges, Fawaz A.  “The Kennedy Administration and the Egyptian-Saudi Conflict in Yemen: Co-opting Arab Nationalism”.  Middle East Journal, Vol. 49, No. 2.  Spring 1995.  pp 292-311

Hanieh, Adam.  Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States.  Palgrave Macmillan.  2011.

Hegghammer, Thomas.  “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad”.  International Security, Vol. 35, No. 3.  Winter 2010/2011.  pp 53-94.

Mitchell, Timothy.  Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil.  Verso.  2011.

Nehme, Michel G.  “Saudi Arabia 1950-80: Between Nationalism and Religion”.  Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4.  October 1994.  pp 930-43.

Nevo, Joseph.  “Religion and National Identity in Saudi Arabia”.  Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3.  July 1998.  pp 34-53.

Schayegh, Cyrus.  “1958 Reconsidered: State Formation and the Cold War in the Early Postcolonial Arab Middle East”.  International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 45.  2013. pp 421-443.

Stokes, Doug.  Raphael, Sam.  Global Energy Security and American Hegemony.  John Hopkins University Press.  2010.

Vitalis, Robert.  America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier.  Stanford University Press.  2007.

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1 Response to Imperialism and the Construction of Saudi Arabia

  1. Pingback: Communist strategy, international coordination, and the pillar of the Gulf monarchies | Jnana Yuddha

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