The Fall of the House of Saud

Americans have long considered Saudi Arabia the one constant in the Arab Middle East—a source of cheap oil, political stability, and lucrative business relationships. But the country is run by an increasingly dysfunctional royal family that has been funding militant Islamic movements abroad in an attempt to protect itself from them at home. A former CIA operative argues, in an article drawn form his new book, Sleeping With the Devil, that today's Saudi Arabia can't last much longer—and the social and economic fallout of its demise could be calamitous

In the decades after World War II the United States and the rest of the industrialized world developed a deep and irrevocable dependence on oil from Saudi Arabia, the world's largest and most important producer. But by the mid-1980s—with the Iran-Iraq war raging, and the opec oil embargo a recent and traumatic memory—the supply, which had until that embargo been taken for granted, suddenly seemed at risk. Disaster planners in and out of government began to ask uncomfortable questions. What points of the Saudi oil infrastructure were most vulnerable to terrorist attack? And by what means? What sorts of disruption to the flow of oil, short-term and long-term, could be expected? These were critical concerns. Underlying them all was the fear that a major attack on the Saudi system could cause the global economy to collapse.

The Saudi system seemed—and still seems—frighteningly vulnerable to attack. Although Saudi Arabia has more than eighty active oil and natural-gas fields, and more than a thousand working wells, half its proven oil reserves are contained in only eight fields—including Ghawar, the world's largest onshore oil field, and Safaniya, the world's largest offshore oil field. Various confidential scenarios have suggested that if terrorists were simultaneously to hit only a few sensitive points "downstream" in the oil system from these eight fields—points that control more than 10,000 miles of pipe, both onshore and offshore, in which oil moves from wells to refineries and from refineries to ports, within the kingdom and without—they could effectively put the Saudis out of the oil business for about two years. And it just would not be that hard to do.

The most vulnerable point and the most spectacular target in the Saudi oil system is the Abqaiq complex—the world's largest oil-processing facility, which sits about twenty-four miles inland from the northern end of the Gulf of Bahrain. All petroleum originating in the south is pumped to Abqaiq for processing. For the first two months after a moderate to severe attack on Abqaiq, production there would slow from an average of 6.8 million barrels a day to one million barrels, a loss equivalent to one third of America's daily consumption of crude oil. For seven months following the attack, daily production would remain as much as four million barrels below normal—a reduction roughly equal to what all of the opec partners were able to effect during their 1973 embargo.

Oil is pumped from Abqaiq to loading terminals at Ras Tanura and Ju'aymah, both on Saudi Arabia's east coast. Ras Tanura moves only slightly more oil than Ju'aymah does (4.5 million barrels per day as opposed to 4.3 million barrels), but it offers a greater variety of targets and more avenues of attack. Nearly all of Ras Tanura's export oil is handled by an offshore facility known as The Sea Island, and the facility's Platform No. 4 handles half of that. A commando attack on Platform 4 by surface boat or even by a Kilo-class submarine—available in the global arms bazaar—would be devastating. Such an attack would also be easy, as was made abundantly clear in 2000 by the attack on the USS Cole, carried out with lethal effectiveness by suicide bombers piloting nothing more than a Zodiac loaded with plastic explosives.

Another point of vulnerability is Pump Station No. 1, the station closest to Abqaiq, which sends oil uphill, into the Aramah Mountains, so that it can begin its long journey across the peninsula to the Red Sea port of Yanbu. If Pump No. 1 were taken out, the 900,000 barrels of Arabian light and superlight crude that are pumped daily to Yanbu would suddenly stop arriving, and Yanbu would be out of business.

Even the short pipe run from Abqaiq to the Gulf terminals at Ju'aymah and Ras Tanura is not without opportunity. If heavy damage were inflicted on the Qatif Junction manifold complex, which directs the flow of oil for all of eastern Saudi Arabia, the flow would be stopped for months. The pipes that connect the terminals and processing facilities can be replaced off the shelf, but those at Qatif require custom fabrication.

Promoters of Alaskan, Mexican Gulf, Caspian, and Siberian oil all like to point out that the United States has been weaning itself from Saudi Arabian oil, for protection against the effects of just such an attack on the Saudi oil system. Saudi Arabia may sit on 25 percent of the world's known oil reserves, they argue, but it provides somewhere around 18 percent of the crude oil consumed by the United States—and that is down from 28 percent in only a decade. What these people fail to mention is that Saudi Arabia has the world's only important surplus production capacity—two million barrels a day. This keeps the world market liquid. Not only that, but because the Saudis more or less determine the price of oil globally by deciding how much oil to produce, even countries that don't buy Saudi oil would be vulnerable if the flow of that oil were disrupted.

The Saudis have repeatedly used their surplus production capacity to stabilize the international oil market. They used it to break the opec embargo (but not before they had enriched themselves by tens of billions of dollars), in 1974. They used it again during the protracted Iran-Iraq war, to keep oil flowing to the industrialized West. They used it during the Gulf War, in 1990—1991; with help from a couple of other Gulf states, they produced an extra five million barrels a day, making up for the loss of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil.

And they used it again on September 12, 2001. Less than twenty-four hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Saudis decided to send nine million barrels of oil to the United States over the next two weeks. The result was that the United States experienced only a slight inflation spike in the wake of the most devastating terrorist attack in history. Had that same surplus capacity been taken out of play with twenty pounds of Semtex, all bets would have been off. The U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve can support the domestic market for only about seventy days. And if Saudi Arabia's contribution to the world's oil supply were cut off, crude petroleum could quite realistically rise from around $40 a barrel today to as much as $150 a barrel. It wouldn't take long for other economic and social calamities to follow.

Americans have long considered Saudi Arabia the one constant in the Arab Middle East. The Saudis banked our oil under their sand, and losing Saudi Arabia would be like losing the Federal Reserve. Even if the Saudi rulers one day did turn anti-American, the argument went, they would never stop pumping oil, because that would mean cutting their own throats. This, at any rate, is the way we looked at the matter before fifteen Saudis and four other terrorists launched their suicide attacks on September 11; before Osama bin Laden suddenly became for the Arab world the most popular Saudi in history; before USA Today reported last summer that nearly four out of five hits on a clandestine al Qaeda Web site came from inside Saudi Arabia; and before a recent report commissioned by the UN Security Council indicated that Saudi Arabia has transferred $500 million to al Qaeda over the past decade.

Five extended families in the Middle East own about 60 percent of the world's oil. The Saud family, which rules Saudi Arabia, controls more than a third of that amount. This is the fulcrum on which the global economy teeters, and the House of Saud knows what the West is only beginning to learn: that it presides over a kingdom dangerously at war with itself. In the air in Riyadh and Jidda is the conviction that oil money has corrupted the ruling family beyond redemption, even as the general population has grown and gotten poorer; that the country's leaders have failed to protect fellow Muslims in Palestine and elsewhere; and that the House of Saud has let Islam be humiliated—that, in short, the country needs a radical "purification."

We can try to wish this away all we want. But the reality is getting harder and harder to ignore. Per capita income in Saudi Arabia fell from $28,600 in 1981 to $6,800 in 2001. The country's birth rate has soared, becoming one of the highest in the world. Its police force is corrupt, and the rule of law is a sham. Saudi Arabia almost certainly leads the world in public beheadings, the venue for which is often a Riyadh plaza popularly known as Chop-Chop Square. Illegal arms routinely flow into and out of the country. Taking into account its murky "off-budget" defense spending, Saudi Arabia may spend more per capita on defense than any other country in the world (some estimates put the figure at 50 percent of its total revenues), and the House of Saud believes this is necessary for its personal protection. The regime is threatened by increasingly hostile neighbors—and by determined enemies within the country's borders. Popular preachers all over Saudi Arabia call openly for a jihad against the West—a designation that clearly includes the royal family itself—in terms as vitriolic as anything heard in Iran at the height of the Islamic revolution there. The kingdom's mosque schools have become a breeding ground for militant Islam. Recent attacks in Bali, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kenya, and the United States, not to mention those against U.S. military personnel within Saudi Arabia, all point back to these schools—and to the House of Saud itself, which, terrified at the prospect of a militant uprising against it, shovels protection money at the fundamentalists and tries to divert their attention abroad.

Recent examples of Saudi support for the fundamentalists abound. In 1997 a high-ranking member of the royal family coordinated a $100 million aid package for the Taliban. In Los Angeles two of the 9/11 hijackers met with a Saudi working for a company contracted to the Ministry of Defense. A raid on the Hamburg apartment of a suspected accomplice of the hijackers turned up the business card of a Saudi diplomat attached to the religious-affairs section of the embassy in Berlin. Most of the more than 650 al Qaeda prisoners being held at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba—"the worst of the worst," according to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—are rumored to be Saudis.

I served for twenty-one years with the CIA's Directorate of Operations in the Middle East, and during all my years there I accepted on faith my government's easy assumption that the money the House of Saud was dumping into weaponry and national security meant that the family's armed forces and bodyguards could keep its members—and their oil—safe. "The royal family is like the fingers of a hand," my colleagues at the State Department liked to say. "Threaten it, and they become a fist." I no longer believe this. Saudi Arabia is more and more a breathtakingly irrational state. For a surprising number of Saudis, including some members of the royal family, taking the kingdom's oil off the world market—even for years, and at the risk of destroying their own economy—is an acceptable alternative to the status quo.

Saudi Arabia has existed as a formal nation only since 1932, when the tribal leader Abdul Aziz ibn Saud gained control of much of the Arabian Peninsula, named the territory after his clan, and proclaimed himself king. But the House of Saud had been powerful in the region ever since the eighteenth century, when the radical cleric Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of the puritanical Wahhabi movement, wandered into Dar'iya, near present-day Riyadh, and made a bargain with its ruler, Muhammad ibn Saud. The Saud family would provide the generals, and the Wahhabis would provide the foot soldiers. Until recently it was a marriage made in heaven.

If I had to pick a single moment when the House of Saud truly began to fall apart, it would be when Abdul Aziz ibn Saud's son Fahd, who has been king since 1982, suffered a near fatal stroke, in 1995. As soon as the royal family heard about Fahd's stroke, it went on high alert. From all over Riyadh came the thump-thump of helicopters and the sirens of convoys converging on the hospital where Fahd had been taken.

Among the first to arrive were Jawhara al-Ibrahim, Fahd's fourth and favorite wife, and their spoiled, megalomaniac twenty-nine-year-old son Abdul Aziz—or "Azouzi" ("Dearie"), as Fahd called him. Anyone who knew how Fahd's court ran knew the extent to which Fahd had come to depend on Jawhara, who helped him with everything from remembering his medicine to handling intricate problems of foreign policy. If a prince wanted a matter immediately brought to Fahd's attention, he called Jawhara. As for Abdul Aziz, he was the youngest of Fahd's children and the apple of his father's eye. Fahd indulged him in everything. Stories circulated widely about Abdul Aziz's riding a Harley-Davidson inside his father's palace, chasing servants and smashing furniture. Most of the royal family found the king's indulgence strange. Abdul Aziz was pimply, craven, a bit slow. Apparently, though, he was regarded as the king's good-luck charm. Fahd's favorite soothsayer had once told him that as long as Abdul Aziz was by his side, the king would have a long, fulfilling life. So Fahd did not complain when Abdul Aziz spent $4.6 billion on a sprawling palace and theme park outside Riyadh, because Abdul Aziz was "interested" in history. The property includes a scale model of old Mecca, with actors attending mosque and chanting prayers twenty-four hours a day, and also replicas of the Alhambra, Medina, and half a dozen other Islamic landmarks.

Next to arrive at the hospital, in a great show of solidarity, were Fahd's full brothers—Sultan, the Defense Minister; Nayef, the Interior Minister; and Salman, the governor of Riyadh province. To outsiders, they were a tight bunch. Their mother, from the Sudayri clan, had taught them from an early age to stick together or risk being elbowed out by the forty-odd other children of their father.

Other princes—the children and grandchildren of Ibn Saud's children—hurried to the hospital too, from all over the kingdom and the rest of the world. Private executive jets were lined up wing to wing at Riyadh's airport. These princes couldn't get anywhere near Fahd, but by being close at hand they could pick up more-reliable news and, just as important, demonstrate their fealty. Most of them lived off his largesse—royal stipends, which ran from $800 to $270,000 a month. The princes knew they were breaking the treasury—all told, their brethren numbered 10,000 to 12,000. Would Crown Prince Abdullah—Fahd's half brother, a seventy-one-year-old reformer who was next in line for the throne—cut back on their stipends, or even eliminate them if Fahd died? They had to stick around to find out.

At this point Fahd's brothers were calling doctors in the United States and Europe. They wanted to know not whether Fahd would ever recover his mental capacities, or what kind of life he would be able to live, but what it would take to keep his heart beating and his body warm. Money, of course, wasn't a problem. They told the doctors they were prepared to lease as many Boeing 747 cargo jets as needed to bring in mobile hospitals and medical teams. The doctors couldn't understand the reasoning behind the questions—but only because they didn't understand the politics of the kingdom. What the family knew and the doctors didn't was that Crown Prince Abdullah had long been eager to take power. The only way to keep him at bay was to keep Fahd alive—God willing, until Abdullah died.

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Robert Baer served for twenty-one years with the CIA, primarily as a field officer in the Middle East. He resigned from the Agency in 1997 and was awarded its Career Intelligence Medal in 1998. This article is adapted from the forthcoming book Sleeping With the Devil (Crown Publishers), to be published in June.

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