Pose a threat to the stability of Saudi Arabia, as the Shiite upsurges are now doing in Qatif and al-Awamiyah in the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province, and you’re brandishing a scalpel over the very heart of the long-term U.S. policy in the Middle East. The fall of America’s ally, the Shah of Iran, in 1979 only magnified the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia.

In 1945, the chief of the State Department’s Division of Near Eastern Affairs wrote in a memo that the oil resources of Saudi Arabia are a “stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” The man who steered the Saudi princes towards America and away from Britain, was St. John Philby, Kim Philby’s father, and with that one great stroke he wrought far more devastation on the Empire than his son ever did.

These days, the U.S. consumes about 19 million barrels of oil every 24 hours, about half of them imported. At 25 percent, Canada is the lead oil supplier. Second comes Saudi Arabia at 12 percent. But the supply of crude oil to the U.S. is only half the story. Saudi Arabia controls the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ oil price and adjusts it carefully with U.S. priorities in the front of their minds.

The traffic is not one-way. In the half century after 1945, the United States sold the Saudis about$100 billion in military goods and services. A year ago, the Obama administration announced the biggest weapons deal in U.S. history—a $60 billion program with Saudi Arabia to sell it military equipment across the next 20 to 30 years.

Under its terms, the United States will provide Saudi Arabia with 84 advanced F-15 fighter planes with electronics and weapons packages tailored to Saudi needs. An additional 70 F-15’s already in Saudi hands will be upgraded to match the capabilities of the new planes.

Saudi Arabia will purchase a huge fleet of nearly 200 Apache, Blackhawk and other U.S. military helicopters, along with a vast array of radar systems, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, and guided bombs. The U.S. trains and supplies all Saudi Arabia’s security forces. U.S. corporations have huge investments in the Kingdom.

Say the words “Saudi Arabia” to President Obama or to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the high-minded prattle about the “Arab spring” stops abruptly. When the Saudis rushed security forces across the causeway and into Bahrein, counseling the Khalifa dynasty to smash down hard on the Shiite demonstrators in the homeport of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the noises of reproof from Washington were mouse-like in their modesty.

Could the uprisings in Saudi Arabia spiral out of control? We’re talking here about two different challenges. The first are the long-oppressed Shiite, making up just under a quarter of the population. The second is from the younger generation in the Sunni majority—youth under 30 accounts for two-thirds of the Saudi population–living in one of the most thoroughgoing tyrannies in the world.

In February of this year, perturbed by the trend of events in Egypt and elsewhere, the 87-year-old King Abdullah announced his plan to dispense about $36 billion in welfare handouts—about $2,000 for every Saudi. He correctly identified one of the Kingdom’s big problems, which is that over 40 percent of people between 18 and 40 don’t have a job.

A few days ago, Abdullah offered Saudi women a privilege—to participate in certain entirely meaningless municipal elections (if approved by their husbands.) What municipal elections can be meaningful amid resolute repression under an absolutist monarchy?

The American Empire has effectively lost Iran and Iraq. What of Saudi Arabia? Suppose, fissures continue to open up in the Kingdom itself? I doubt, at such a juncture, that we would hear too much talk from Washington about “democracy” or orderly transitions. The Empire would send in the 101st Airborne.