- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

World wars make strange bedfellows. In the last one, the Western democracies had good reason to be grateful to Our Fighting Russian Allies, and scrambled to find something good to say about Comrade Stalin, a k a Uncle Joe.

That strange alliance required Westerners to consign the Nazi-Soviet Pact to the memory hole. Forgotten were the pictures of V.M. Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop making nice as they affixed their signatures to the deal that ushered in the Second World War. New circumstances required new allies.

To make history, a lot of history has to be forgotten, or at least put aside for the time being. Despite all its outward politesse, diplomacy can be a brutal sport, especially when survival is at stake. Asked why he was suddenly saying nice things about the Bolsheviks after excoriating them for years, Winston Churchill, that old Tory, explained that if Adolf Hitler invaded hell he might find some nice things to say about the devil, too.

And so, too, year in and year out, crisis after duplicitous crisis, Saudi royalty and American leaders have found nice things to say about one another. The survival, or at least the interests, of both depend on it, even though our values have about as much in common as our starkly different geographies.

But each society needs the other. The Saudi oiligarchy carefully calibrates the price of its petroleum to keep the rest of the world, developed and still developing, addicted to the stuff. Too low, and the Saudi princes might no longer be able to live in the ridiculously grand style to which they’ve long been accustomed. Too high, and the rest of the world might get serious about turning to other sources of energy, and all those thousands of Saudi nobles might have to work for a living.

So the Saudis have made a science of charging what an ever-larger market will bear — a calculation not entirely unlike the drug dealer who needs to keep his customers hooked. He doesn’t want to price himself out of the market, but he wants to get as much as he can for his stuff.

The Saudis have been just as cagey when it comes to the Islamic brand of terrorism. They have long financed the Wahhabi brand of religious extremism in exchange for the recipients’ kindly keeping their violence outside the kingdom itself. They’ve as much as told the fanatics they can operate freely within Saudi Arabia if they only do their terrorizing elsewhere.

Consider these words of Abdul-Mohsen al-Akkas, a member of the Saudis’ appointed parliament, after the latest series of terrorist attacks within the kingdom. One way to get rid of the terrorists, he told the Associated Press, was to point out that “there are lots of occupied territories that require resistance.” He specifically pointed toward Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and Israel — in short, anywhere but Saudi Arabia.

At various times, other Islamic nations have played the same double game, including our friends the Egyptians and Pakistanis. But of late the suicide bombers have come home to roost. Instead of Saudi terrorism being for export only, the number of attacks within the kingdom has mounted steadily. Now an American oil worker from New Jersey has been beheaded in the accepted al Qaeda fashion. More are sure to come, Saudi and Western.

Clearly, the Saudis’ longstanding, tacit agreement with the nutcases — we’ll support your cause if you’ll kindly refrain from killing us or our guests — is beginning to fray.

The loose-knit, highly decentralized terrorist network waging this latest world war, a k a jihad, is increasingly attracted to soft targets, and Saudi Arabia, with its oil riches, its holy sites, and its weak regime of uncertain legitimacy, is one of the softest and most inviting.

By repeating the extremists’ propaganda over the years, and by sympathizing with terrorism elsewhere, the Saudi establishment has disarmed itself morally. The question is no longer whether the terrorists will attack Saudi targets but when and where. And how long can this regime last?

Let’s hope that in a drawer somewhere in Washington, there’s a contingency plan for when the House of Saud begins to topple. Terrorists vying for control of Iraq and Muslims conducting a genocidal war against Christianity in the Sudan — these are perilous enough situations. But a terrorist band sitting atop the world’s largest pool of petroleum and in control of the holiest sites of one of the great and most volatile world religions — that’s another thing entirely.

However tricky an ally Saudi Arabia has proved to be, the West dare not let it be seized and transformed into an open enemy — which is the aim of all these attacks that seek to destabilize the kingdom. Some Saudis may still think they can ride this tiger indefinitely, but tigers have a way of devouring their riders.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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