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Oil dynasties

House of Bush, House of Saud

By Craig Unger

Published by Scribner (New York), 2004, $15.60

Reviewed by Geoff Jones

"WHY DID the Bush administration approve the secret airlift out of America of 140 Saudis, including two dozen relatives of Osama bin Laden, just after September 11?"

This question is posed on the cover of Craig Unger’s book, House of Bush, House of Saud. However, this is no Michael Moore–style easy read, but a serious analytical work. A bestseller in the USA, it is not published in Britain because of fear of the libel laws. Luckily you can order it from, and get it by return of post – from Germany!

Unger, a senior US journalist, ties together the history of two very different families. On one side is the Bush family – a dynasty of the elite of the US capitalist class, passing on power from generation to generation in both the public and private sectors. From investment banker Prescott Bush, through his son George HW, and George’s son, George W, the family has links with all the big names in the eastern establishment of corporate USA. On the other side, the Arab clan of al-Saud linked with Wahhabism, an extreme puritanical sect of Islam, anathema to traditional Muslims, which insists on professions of faith not unlike those of ‘born-again’ Christians.

The al-Sauds grabbed control of the Arabian peninsula in the 1920s with extreme brutality and established a reactionary religious state, where extreme adherence to Islamic codes still leads to barbaric punishments, such as public beheading or amputation of a hand for theft.

What links these two dynasties? In a word, oil. And oil makes a black stream through the history of US capitalism over the last half century. In 1948, George HW and family moved west to Texas at the moment that Texas was beginning its expansion from a poor rural state to millionaire capitalism based on oil. Bush built a business empire, profiting from the explosive growth in demand for oil in the post-war economic boom. But by the early 1970s, the oil wells of Texas were beginning to run dry and US capitalism looked to Middle East imports to feed its ravenous demand. In 1973, Arab oil producers imposed a boycott on the US in reaction to its support for Israel, causing petrol shortages, queues and near panic in the USA. From then on the whole of US policy in the Middle East has revolved around one thing – safeguarding oil supplies for its greedy gas-guzzlers.

This, of course, was where the al-Sauds came in. They found themselves sitting on around a quarter of the world’s oil reserves – which they considered their personal property. In the space of a few years, the al-Saud clan and their hangers-on became obscenely rich. Paying lip service at home to a very strict version of Islam, abroad the princes enjoyed a millionaire playboy lifestyle.

Dollars poured into Saudi Arabia and millions stuck to the fingers of those families in good odour with the royals. Two families were pre-eminent. The bin Mahfouz family acted as royal bankers and set up the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) to shift money around (and get around Islam’s prohibition on usury). In 1992, BCCI collapsed having defrauded investors of between $5bn and $15bn. The second was the bin Laden family whose construction firm hoovered up multimillion dollar contracts from the royal family. When dynasty founder Mohammed bin Laden was killed in a plane crash in 1968, his wealth was spread among his 25 sons, including ten-year-old Osama who received the equivalent of $200-400m at today’s prices.

The more acute Saudi royals realised that to keep their power they needed friends in the US establishment. At the same time, they had uncounted millions of dollars which could not just be lavished on luxuries – who needs two £3bn palaces? The dollars received from the US could be spent back in the US on buying armaments and investing in companies and organisations which put money into the pockets of political ‘friends’ (both Democrat and Republican). Furthermore, Saudi money, via BCCI, could be used by ‘friends’ to fund illegal US operations across the world. Saudi money paid the anti-Sandinista reactionaries in Nicaragua. In 1981, $10m of Saudi money was deposited in a Vatican bank to fund a campaign against the Italian Communist Party.

Unger spells out the most blatant links with companies involving the Bush family. George Bush senior was vice president from 1980 to 1988 and president from 1989 to 1992. In those years, Unger calculates that a sum of $1,476bn made its way from the Saudis to the ‘House of Bush’, its allied companies and institutions. No wonder Unger dubs George W Bush ‘The Arabian Candidate’.

All through the 1980s and 1990s, US administrations were happy to go along with the vicious and brutal al-Saud regime. To make sure the oil kept flowing, the watchword was ‘Don’t ask what happens in Saudi Arabia’.

But the US-Saudi link germinated the seeds of disaster. When the cold war enemy, Soviet Russia, became embroiled in Afghanistan, US strategists saw an opportunity to fight a war by proxy by arming and training groups of Islamic militants as guerrilla fighters against the ‘godless’ Soviets. Those forces were funded by Saudi dollars and the manpower came mainly from Saudi Arabia. In training camps in Pakistan and in battle in Afghanistan itself, one name became pre-eminent, Osama bin Laden, the bravest and most unyielding fighter, and the most rigorous of right-wing fundamentalists. After the Russians were forced out and the secular government was overthrown, bin Laden used his family money to establish al-Qa’ida as a multinational network. But the enemy changed. When Saddam Hussein (another maverick US client who had started his career as a CIA assassin) invaded Kuwait, US forces moved into Saudi Arabia in large numbers to protect oil supplies. This was anathema to bin Laden. The occupation of Islam’s holy land by ‘godless’ US troops was the trigger for the al-Qa’ida campaign against the USA which culminated in the destruction of the World Trade Center. The organisation built by US capitalism had become its greatest enemy.

A major point made by Unger is that the US administration consistently underestimated the danger of al-Qa’ida and still refuses to admit either that the majority of al-Qa’ida operatives in the USA are Saudi Arabian, or that the group who organised the 11 September massacre had been allowed into the USA with zero security screening in order not to upset the Saudis.

Al-Qa’ida apart, far from being the Arabian candidate, Bush junior turned out to be a disaster. As in many other dynasties, an intelligent politician father has been succeeded by a know-nothing son. The Middle East strategy of Reagan, Bush and Clinton through the 1980s and 1990s consisted of a careful balancing act: keeping the al-Sauds happy while placating the Zionist lobby in the US and not getting directly involved. Unger quotes a prophetic comment made by George HW in 1998, explaining why the US merely pushed Saddam out of Kuwait seven years earlier, rather than deposed him: "Had we gone the invasion route, the US could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land".

George W did not listen to his father. From the day of his inauguration he has been under the influence of fundamentalist Christian, strongly pro-Israel right-wingers. Their policy was from the start to cut loose from Saudi Arabia and install a trustworthy client in Baghdad to give them control of Iraq’s oil (the world’s second largest reserves), ‘roll back’ the anti-US theocratic regime in Iran, and impose a settlement on the Palestinians. The ‘balancing act’ policy lies in ruins, but George W is heading for further disaster. Since Unger’s book was published, Bush has given wholesale endorsement to Ariel Sharon’s plan to imprison the Palestinians in bantustan-type enclaves. This, together with the occupation of Iraq, has caused a typhoon of opposition in the Arab world. At a minimum, the al-Saud family will be forced, on pain of an uprising by their own people, to put pressure on Bush to back down. They have complete control of the volume of oil they export and hence, finally, on the price of petrol in the US. A major increase in petrol prices is already on the cards. This could have an incalculable effect on the US presidential elections and, more importantly, the prospects for the world economy. At worst (from capitalism’s point of view), the al-Sauds may be overthrown by a popular uprising and a theocratic anti-US regime installed.

Unger chronicles the political story of US capitalism’s wars for oil in exhaustive detail – almost a text book – with many footnotes to each chapter. He is no left winger, but this makes his indictment even more compelling. His book is essential reading.


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