China, Saudia Arabia and the Fate of the Uyghurs

Beginning with the 9/11 attacks, much of the left decided that Saudi Arabia was the chief engineer of a Wahhabi plot to impose its reactionary, feudal, and patriarchal values on the rest of the world. Supposedly, the USA was being punished for its licentious and ungodly ways even if it was one of Saudi Arabia’s chief supporters in the Middle East, alongside Israel. While 9/11 Trutherism is hardly worth taking seriously, another line of investigation has implicated the Saudi state as providing the logistical support that made the attack possible while the USA looked the other way. The truthers claim that the FBI and CIA ignored the threat because they were in cahoots with al-Qaeda. What could American imperialism have possibly gained by such an attack? The answer is an excuse to invade Iraq, a ridiculous idea. But is it any more ridiculous to believe that Wahhabism, the official religion of Saudi Arabia, explains the attack or Saudi foreign policy in general?

If you are looking for grounds for this, the 9/11 Commission Report  is a good place to start. It does not blame the Saudi state but its evil spawn al-Qaeda. The report stated:

In the 1980s, awash in sudden oil wealth, Saudi Arabia competed with Shia Iran to promote its Sunni fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism. The Saudi government, always conscious of its duties as the custodian of Islam’s holiest places, joined with wealthy Arabs from the Kingdom and other states bordering the Persian Gulf in donating money to build mosques and religious schools that could preach and teach their interpretation of Islamic doctrine.

For those who viewed Saudi Arabia as so devoted to ascetic values that it would be willing to mount a devastating attack on the WTC, a symbol of the financial system it was closely tied to, and the Pentagon, its chief military benefactor, there were some counter-indicators best left under the rug. For someone like Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, the former Saudi ambassador in Washington, who was supposedly the quartermaster supplying the jihadi hijackers, those values were not to be taken too seriously as Christopher Dickey reported in The Daily Beast: “When the prince was the ambassador he was the toast of Washington, and plenty of toasts there were. Bandar bin Sultan smoked fine cigars and drank finer Cognac.”

If you believe that Wahhabism explains Saudi foreign policy, you are either unaware of or simply ignore the long-standing relationship between the ruling class of the USA and the Saudi royal family. Saudi Arabia has been staunchly opposed to radical movements in the Middle East and supportive of stability in the West, where much of its oil wealth was invested. It supported the first Gulf War and has provided an open door to the construction of American military bases. In 2010 the USA signed a 60 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia, not exactly consistent with reports that they might be used to destroy American assets both economic and personal. Further investigation would reveal that Al Qaeda was as hostile to the Saudi royal family as it was to the White House and that most of the hijackers were from Yemen originally, just like Osama bin-Laden. As detailed in Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone”, the tribesmen of Yemen viewed the Saudis as virtual colonizers as I indicated in my review:

For example, despite the fact that the Quran has strict rules against suicide and the murder of noncombatants, tribal peoples fighting under the banner of Islam have often resorted to such measures, especially on the key date of September 11, 2001. In an eye-opening examination of those events, Ahmed proves that a Yemeni tribe acting on the imperative to extract revenge was much more relevant than Wahhabi beliefs. While most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi, their origins were in a Yemeni tribe that traced its bloodlines back to the prophet Mohammad. And more to the point, they were determined to wreak vengeance against the superpower that had been complicit in the murderous attack on their tribesmen in Yemen, an element of the 9/11 attacks that has finally been given the attention it deserves.

Fast-forward to the revolt in Syria and you get the same arguments rehashed except in this instance put forward to explain it as a holy war against the “axis of resistance” rather than against American imperialism. This time, the Saudis were bent on regime change in Syria, a supposedly religiously tolerant state even if the Baathists prioritized Alawite interests. Once that would succeed, the next domino to fall would be Shiite Iran. All of this would be a prelude to isolating and conceivably getting rid of Vladimir Putin, who was a committed adversary of jihadists. Indeed, Russia had a long record of punishing Islamic fundamentalists, starting with the intervention in Afghanistan that was designed to protect the government in Kabul against feudal-minded villagers. Later on, Russia—this go-round capitalist rather than Communist—invaded Chechnya twice in order to save the people from fanatical jihadists.

While Wahhabism certainly influenced the Chechen guerrillas, there were aspects to their ideology that defied facile and reductionist formulas. In a provocatively titled article “Che Guevaras in Turban” in the September-October 1999 New Left Review, Georgi M. Derluguian wrote about the admixture of Islam and Marxism that was at the heart of the independence movement:

During his brief period as a student in Moscow, aside from the fateful Professor Borovoy, [Shamil] Basayev met Cubans and learned from them about Ernesto Che Guevara. The young Chechen commander carried a picture of Che in his breast pocket through the Abkhazia war of 1992–93, where he was rescuing the fellow Abkhazian mountaineers from the marauding Georgian warlords—and where he was apparently trained, supplied, and supported by the Russian military who saw their interests as lying in the subversion of Georgia’s independence. Basayev had that picture on him during the raid on Budionnovsk and, who knows, may still cherish it today…One might cite as another example the brilliant and wonderfully opportunistic journalist Movladi Udugov, the autodidact master of Chechen war propaganda, who blends quotations from Gramsci, Samuel Huntington and the Koran into his anti-American diatribes and the caustic philippics directed against the ‘so-called Russian democrats’. If one puts aside the exoticism attributed in the Western cultural tradition to the world of Islam, such examples look scarcely more eccentric than Latin American liberation theology.

Turning now to the war in Syria, which by all accounts has virtually come to an end, there is an odd disjunction between a Saudi Arabia that was capable of organizing hijackers to demolish the top symbols of American finance and military power on 9/11. Capable of such bold initiatives, why would it be so stingy about supplying rebels with the weaponry they needed to neutralize the Syria air force. It was not even a question of denying them Manpads but actively intervening in partnership with the CIA to keep them out of rebel hands as the Wall Street Journal reported on October 17, 2012:

U.S. officials say they are most worried about Russian-designed Manpads provided to Libya making their way to Syria. The U.S. intensified efforts to track and collect man-portable missiles after the 2011 fall of the country’s longtime strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

To keep control of the flow of weapons to the Syrian rebels, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar formed a joint operations room early this year in a covert project U.S. officials watched from afar.

The U.S. has limited its support of the rebels to communications equipment, logistics and intelligence. But U.S. officials have coordinated with the trio of countries sending arms and munitions to the rebels. The Pentagon and CIA ramped up their presence on Turkey’s southern border as the weapons began to flow to the rebels in two to three shipments every week.

Some analysts attribute this blockade to a fear of civilian airplanes being shot down by jihadis but why would Saudi Arabia be worried about this if it had already been the lynchpin of the 9/11 attacks? Does any of this make sense? Only if you are addicted to binary oppositions ideologically.

In reality, Saudi Arabia supplied Syrian rebels with mostly light arms that were useless against aircraft. In the 1960s, Trotskyists used to refer to Soviet support to the Vietnamese as doled out with an eyedropper. The same thing can be said about Saudi support for Syrian rebels. It was sufficient to establish a modicum of credibility in the Sunni world but insufficient to change the battlefield outcome.

Furthermore, keep in mind that until March 2011 relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria were not marked by Wahhabi/Alawite sectarian strife. On October 8, 2009, the UAE-based Gulf News reported:

The Riyadh-Damascus rapprochement comes at the same time as a cautious warming takes place between Damascus and Saudi ally Washington under President Barack Obama.

“It’s not surprising that this meeting is taking place during the Obama administration,” said Amr. “The US wants to bring Syria more into the fold.”

Al Assad and Abdullah have met several times in regional forums since Abdullah became king, although there have been no official visits until now.

Analysts say ties began to improve at an Arab summit in Kuwait in January and a second in March when outrage over Israel’s turn of the year invasion of Gaza became the basis for greater unity among Arab leaders on regional issues.

You’ll note that Obama wanted to bring Syria more into the fold. That jibes with what Hillary Clinton, his Secretary of State, said about Assad in March 2011: “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

Now that those inconvenient rebels that Obama dismissed as former farmers, teachers or pharmacists are out of the picture, it is back to business in the Middle East. Turkey, another supposed Islamist state bent on removing Assad, now works closely with Russia. For that matter, there are signs that Saudi Arabia is becoming part of the progressive, anti-imperialist left in light of a growing affinity with Russia. At the G20 Summit meeting in Argentina in November 2018, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) grinned at Putin while high-fiving an equally grinning Putin before they sat down next to each other. Widespread anger at the Prince’s role in murdering Jamal Khashoggi was evidently not shared by Russia whose deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov defended MBSs pending assumption of the throne in Saudi Arabia against those who would deny him this right by saying “Of course we are against interference. The Saudi people and leadership must decide such questions themselves. The King made a decision and I can’t even imagine on what grounds someone in America will interfere in such an issue and think about who should rule Saudi Arabia, now or in the future. This is a Saudi matter.”

With Saudi Arabia and Russia mending fences in November 2018, it hardly comes as a surprise that the fiercely fundamentalist regimes are also turning back the clock to pre-2011 days when all the Arab states were united in their fear and hatred of angry former farmers, teachers or pharmacists. The United Arab Emirates announced that month it was negotiating the reopening of its embassy in Damascus and restoring full ties with Syria. It certainly would have not taken this measure unless encouraged by Saudi Arabia that will inevitably follow suit before long.

As the latest sign of how far Saudi Arabia will go in cementing ties to its new friends in the “anti-imperialist” camp, it has now endorsed the right of the Chinese to impose its rule over the Uyghurs. This week Chinese state media cited MBS as saying that China has the right to undertake “anti-terrorism” and “de-extremism” measures. This will probably impress the bloggers at Grayzone who have been ardent supporters of the crackdown in Xinjiang and who regard reports of concentration camps as fake news.

Perhaps this might lead to them reevaluating their stance on Saudi Arabia as a reactionary Wahhabist state even though this would not be the first time they have made the fight against “terrorism” sacrosanct. In 2017, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton co-wrote an article  for Alternet (a magazine that booted them before long) about a citizen journalist named Abdul Kareem they fingered as an al-Qaeda agent. As I pointed out days after their article appeared, their proof of his ties relied on Saudi media, which was anxious to demonize Kareem since he was a supporter of the Qatari government. For those who follow internecine Islamist feuds in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have opened an offensive against Qatar for its ties to Iran. As they say, “You Can’t Tell the Players Without a Scorecard!”

What motivation would Saudi Arabia have for developing ties to China, a state that represses Muslims? It has everything to do with the Silk Road that is at the heart of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It will revive a trade route between China and the Arabian peninsula that opened about 3000 years ago with the export of silk from China to trading centers in the Middle East. There have already been trade agreements between China and Saudi Arabia that will be the first in a series culminating in a new version of the BRICS that includes Saudi Arabia, a state supposedly joined at the hip with Washington (when it wasn’t intent on leveling the Pentagon, of course.)

In 2017, King Salman made a six-week tour of Asia that included a mid-March visit to China, where he signed a $65 billion Sino–Saudi trade and investment package that included more than 20 agreements on oil investment and energy. Among them was a memorandum of understanding between Saudi Aramco and China North Industries Group Corporation to build refineries in China and an agreement between Saudi Basic Industries Corporation and Sinopec to develop petrochemical products.

Do you think that China or Saudi Arabia would allow some Uyghurs to get in the way of such a partnership, especially since most of them were probably former farmers, teachers and pharmacists?

It was their bad luck to have lived for eons in East Turkistan that would be colonized by China and renamed Xinjiang in the 18thcentury by the Qing Dynasty. China might not have been as grandiose a colonizer as Great Britain but it would make damned sure that whatever territory it seized like East Turkistan or Tibet would remain under its control, even if it required the kind of forced assimilation that the British and Americans visited on native peoples.

Xinjiang was the first leg in the Silk Road that connected China to the Arabian peninsula. Not only is it pivotal to Chinese ambitions, it is a mineral-rich region that the “Communists” are determined to control. On August 28, 2008, the Financial Times reported:

The increasing importance of the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang autonomous region as a source of the energy and minerals needed to fuel China’s booming eastern cities is raising the stakes for Beijing in its battle against separatists agitating for an independent state.

“The Chinese didn’t want to let Xinjiang be independent before, but after they built all the oilfields, it became absolutely impossible,” said one Muslim resident in Korla, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution by government security agents.

The desert around the city is punctuated every kilometre or two by oil and gas derricks, each of them topped with the red Chinese national flag, an assertion of sovereignty over every inch of the energy-rich ground.

In 2005, Xinjiang’s local government was allotted only Rmb240m ($35m, €24m, £19m) out of the Rmb14.8bn in tax revenue from the petrochemical industries that are based in the region.

To make sure that the restless natives are blocked from sabotaging such valuable assets, the Chinese have lined up an anti-terrorism expert second to none, especially one that has valuable hands-on experience dealing with jihadists.

This month Erik Prince, the head of Blackwater, signed a deal with China in the name of his new company Frontier Services Group to build a training camp in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang. What a clever title for a new company. Surely, he must understand that the USA was second to none in both expanding and protecting its frontiers in its rise to number one capitalist power in the world. Like Frederick Jackson Turner, Erik Prince understands “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”. Turner wrote “The appeal of the undiscovered is strong in America. For three centuries the fundamental process in its history was the westward movement, the discovery and occupation of the vast free spaces of the continent. We are the first generation of Americans who can look back upon that era as a historic movement now coming to its end.” Yes, it was coming to an end but that has been a long drawn-out process as the agonies of Trump’s wall might indicate.

Many people on the left, especially those with a fuzzy idea of socialism, welcome China’s rise as a new hegemon since anything opposed to the USA has to be backed, even if involves putting Uyghurs into concentration camps, hiring Erik Prince to make sure that those out of prison mind their p’s and q’s, and cozying up to Saudi Arabia. I don’t include myself in that wing of the left and invite you to join the club. We can and must do better.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.