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Sooner or later, America is going to face a major economic and military crisis because of Saudi Arabia. It’s time to start thinking about whether our long-time policy of propping up the royal family in Riyadh is worth the inevitable price.

Of course, no such dramatic and courageous change of course in foreign policy is likely to be made during the rudderless Clinton administration. But big changes take time — and planning. And, with God’s grace and, maybe, a congressional backbone transplant, the scandal-plagued Clinton-Gore regime could be history long before the year 2000.

For starters, the Saudi government is an archaic, barbaric dictatorship that has no moral authority to rule. As you read this column, for example, non-Muslims are being persecuted, satellite dishes and other connections to the outside world are being smashed, books are being confiscated and burned and an 8-year-old girl is facing the prospect of being beheaded by sword because her parents are drug smugglers.

How and why America would find itself in bed with such a detestable, corrupt and anachronistic monarchy is a long story. Sometimes geo-strategic decisions require unholy alliances. But this one is in dire need of review.

Why? It’s only a matter of time before the Saudis face an internal or external threat that will either draw the United States into war or cause us grave economic dislocation. Remember the Gulf War? It was fought not over Kuwait, but over Saudi Arabia. With the unconscionable cuts in the U.S. military budget wrought by the Clinton administration, America would be incapable of mounting such an offensive again. And, anyway, the next challenge the Saudi government faces is more likely to be a civil war.

There’s much resentment of the Saudi royal family brewing among the 17 million people who live in the vast desert kingdom. While the Saudis control about a quarter of the world’s oil reserves, only a tiny minority of the population has enjoyed the great wealth we associate with the country. That tiny minority have not been good stewards of the nation’s incredible resources. In fact, they have been profligate. This has led to widespread jealousy and a growing, if still quiet, domestic opposition.

“The Saudis have two armies so that if one revolts they can pit the other one against it,” explains economic intelligence analyst Richard Maybury. “Their primary means of preventing revolts has been to spread some of the wealth around in the theory that if the population can be kept in a kind of welfare stupor like domesticated cattle, few will have the initiative to revolt. So far it’s worked.”

Of course, there is no freedom for dissent. The press is controlled. There are no political parties. Activists are tortured in medieval fashion. And if anyone speaks out publicly against the royal family, he is likely to disappear.

Iran, meanwhile, under the control of Islamic fundamentalists, eyes Saudi Arabia with hatred and covetousness. Mecca and Medina are the two holiest cities for Muslims — Jerusalem being a distant third. Tehran views the Saudis as little more than corrupt puppets of the Satanic West.

While Iran is not likely to mount a direct military offensive against Saudi Arabia as Saddam Hussein attempted to do, it is not above using its vast network of secret agents there to foment revolution — just as it has been doing in Egypt and Algeria. Remember, Iran is vying to lead the Islamic world. If it could pull off such a coup in Saudi Arabia and neighboring Kuwait, Tehran would effectively control the flow of half the world’s oil.

So what is the alternative for the United States? Do we have another option than to back the corrupt Saudis against the rising tide of Islamic militancy? Well, it’s time for a roll of the dice.

The U.S. should begin fostering the ideas of freedom and democracy in Saudi Arabia. I know it’s a long shot. There are cultural barriers. Not a single Arab nation has anything close to the kind of freedom we take for granted in the West. But we do live in an information age, and, as they were in the Eastern Bloc, freedom’s best allies can be television, radio and, in the 21st century, the Internet.

It’s time to start demanding that Saudi Arabia open up its society, begin recognizing the inalienable rights of people and beat the Islamic radicals to the punch. Otherwise, once again, we’ll find ourselves on the wrong side of history.

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