The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East, Mitchell Bard, Haper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Pp 412 (HB), $27.99.
MITCHELL Bard’s The Arab Lobby is a disturbing reading. The facts in the book, an outcome of years of research, disturb the peace of mind, because it speaks of an invisible alliance of seemingly disparate interests and groups working in the US. “Historically the Arab lobby consisted of the oil industry, Christian missionaries and current or former US diplomats.” It disturbs also because India’s foreign policy has had a steadfast and inexplicably pro-Arab tilt. And when we say Arab, it has to be read as Saudi Arabia, because it is the leader of the Arab region today, controlling the richest oil deposits and Mecca, the holiest of Islamic sites.
Bard says, “The Saudis have had us over a barrel from the moment of the first gusher. For the first fifteen to twenty years, Saudi Arabia was a poor desert kingdom with an image as an exotic land run by sheikhs who lived in tents in the desert and carried the nation’s wealth in a treasure chest. From this earliest period, however, a pattern was established whereby the Saudis blackmailed the US government to do their bidding.”
The main objective of the book is to prove that an Arab lobby very much exists in the US, and that it operates within the government. Bard gives irrefutable evidence to prove that the denials about an Arab lobby are hogwash. And this lobby, he argues is working against the interests of America.
The book goes through the history of the US-Arab relations by analysing the statements and actions of successive Presidents. He points out how Presidents have taken different stands vis-à-vis Arab and Israel during campaign and while in office. Going by the accounts in the book Carter seems to have benefitted immensely from his pro-Arab stance. His institute has received billions of dollars in donations. Other than Kennedy no other US President before or since has ever tried to pressurise the Saudis to introduce social reforms. Kennedy forced Saudi Arabia to officially end slavery in 1962. The human rights condition in the kingdom is abysmal, it is not a democracy and the status of women is pitiable.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama made several pro-Israel statements. According to the book, 80 per cent Jews voted for him. Within a few weeks of taking office, “Obama seemed to pick a fight with the Israeli government over its settlement policy … When Israeli officials brought up the fact that certain understanding had been reached with Obama’s predecessor regarding what the United States considered to be acceptable construction, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied any such agreements had been made.” Obama’s first interview as President was to an Arab publication and his first visit to the Middle East omitted Israel.
Saudi Arabia, America’s biggest ally in this part of the globe today was little more than a pile of sand, fought over by rival clans that still practiced slavery in 1933. The tribe that emerged victorious in the end was led by Saud Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud. He conquered the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and declared himself king of a new country named after himself. The US was so uninterested in the Kingdom that it did not recognise it nor send an ambassador.
But the story changed and the US became an important ally of Saudi Arabia. Several key officials in the US administration have been trying to impress upon successive governments to reduce dependency on oil as fuel source and also minimise relying exclusively on the Middle East for it. In 1967 a state department assessment suggested “a crash program to obtain fuel energy from other petroleum areas and from other sources of energy (atomic power, coal, oil shale, tar sands).” Again in 1971, James Akins wrote a study for the State Department and predicted that by 1975, if not earlier, it would be possible for oil producers to “create a supply crisis by cutting off oil supplies.” He also recommended decrease in consumption, searching for alternate sources and supplies of fuel. Clearly these and the subsequent several such studies and suggestions were ignored because of the pressure from the oil lobby. However, it is interesting that in 1973, as the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Akins was speaking for the Arabs, advising them on arm-twisting the US government over Israel.
Israel is the biggest obsession for the Arab lobby. They try to scuttle any deal, especially arms sale, to Israel. They use all means fair and foul. And every time a deal goes through, Saudi Arabia demands more arms and gadgets. The kingdom indulges in blackmailing and the US always complies with the clichéd argument that if it didn’t sell, China or Russia would. In fact, during a particularly difficult deal, which involved selling high precision defence equipments, Saudi Arabia went to the UK, and struck the deal, in half an hour, in a meeting with Margaret Thatcher. That remains the biggest ever deal in British history, worth $86 billion. The British government squelched all discussions on the deal and suppressed an audit report on the grounds of national interest.
According to the book, all the deals were signed on a commission of five per cent, which the American business paid to a Saudi middleman, who was mostly a member of the royal family. The international arms dealer and in India known for the Bofors deal, Adnan Khashoggi was the middleman for 80 per cent of US-Saudi arms deal in the 1970s and 80s.
Saudi Arabia demanded that the companies that were doing business with Israel should be blacklisted in the Kingdom. Also, all the companies working in the Arabian countries were asked not to appoint Jews in any position. It scuttled the move by various countries to move their embassies in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Jimmy Carter, the book says converted from being peacemaker to provocateur. And this conversion was rewarded by millions of dollars as donations under various heads from Saudi Arabia. During his time, Saudis received arms worth $5.1 billion in 1979.
One of the Saudi princes, Prince Bandar was the ambassador to the US from 1983 for two decades. He was close to all the powers that be in Washington, so much so that Collin Powell said “Bandar was such a frequent visitor to top officials in the Reagan administration that he acted as if he were a member of the Cabinet.”
The US has always been aware that Saudi Arabia is the biggest funder of Islamic terror activities. The PLO was funded by the Saudis and the US looked the other way. But the 9/11 attacks brought this into sharp focus as it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. But unfortunately, much like in India, the US government too chose to suppress the truth. The report of the inquiry commission was doctored and 29 pages of the 900 page report were redacted to “protect Saudi Arabia.” The report said that there was “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior officials individually funded (Al-Qaeda),” but said Saudi Arabia “was a place where Al-Qaeda raised money directly from individuals and through charities.” Several subsequent reports have directly indicted Saudi Arabia for direct involvement in terrorism. But the US has continued to gloss over these, much as it is doing with Pakistan. On July 10, 2002, Rand Corporation analyst Laurent Murawiec told the Defense Policy Board that “The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader.” He was much criticized for the statement and the secretaries of state and defence and President Bush himself repudiated these statements and praised the America-Saudi relations.
Saudi Arabia directly invested in at least 16 Islamic and cultural centres in the US in California, Missouri, Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Maryland. At the peak of their activities, 35 to 40 diplomats were working in these at an annual budget of $8 million. “Many of the department’s officials were engaged in proselytising rather than diplomacy, but had entered the country with diplomatic visas. In 2003, the department was dissolved, and the embassy stopped distributing the Koran in the US.
According to the book, in the last decade, Saudi Arabia has recruited more than two dozen US firms as foreign agents, and spent nearly $100 million on American lobbyists, consultants and public relations firms. “These hired guns have attempted to rebrand the Saudis as allies in the war on terror, rather than as the leading purveyors of radical Islamic views through schools in the United States and around the world.” The author has given a partial list of firms hired and the income they earned from the kingdom. (See the parallel in the situation in India where we have a vociferous set of people who sell Pakistan as a victim of terror in the region and not the perpetrator. Only, here they go around in the garb of politicians, senior journalists and social activists rather than lobbyists.)
(To be concluded)
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