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Are the Saudis Destined to Become Our Enemies?

Today, no single relationship affects the economic security of the United States-and indeed, the industrial world as a whole-than the one between America and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime controls a quarter of the world's oil reserves and the bulk of unused oil production capacity, serving as the linchpin of the OPEC cartel. Saudi Arabia's role assures customers price stability in the global oil market, keeping inflation and interest rates low--a virtual prerequisite for sustained economic growth. In addition, the Saudi kingdom exerts influence across the Muslim world through the control of the holy mosques and pulpits of Mecca and Medina. It was to keep this power and influence out of the hands of Saddam Hussein that the United States and its allies went to war in 1991.

Since the outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in September 2000, a crisis atmosphere has prevailed in relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Arabs, including many Saudi citizens, have come to regard the U.S. as a supporter of Israeli transgressions in the Palestinian territories. The relationship was further imperiled by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which were conducted by a group of mostly Saudi men, enraging Americans against Saudi Arabia. Now, the Bush administration's policy of confronting Iraq is enmeshed in the larger U.S.-Saudi tangle, having run afoul of a widespread view among Arabs that the United States is a dangerous aggressor.

At each stage in this progression, a small community of specialists, academics, and Saudi hands have engaged in sometimes anguished debate, posing questions such as: How far will matters go before the two sides manage to patch up the relationship? To what extent will Saudi Arabia participate in reviving the peace process/waging the war on terrorism/fighting Iraq? What sort of steps might the Saudi government take to distance itself from the United States? How harmful to American interests might those steps be? Will the present situation lead to a total breakdown in economic and security ties? If so, what will be the price?

Both sides should have a great deal to fear from a blowup. Despite decades of massive military expenditures, Saudi Arabia remains dependent on Americans for protection from Iraq. Saudi interests dictate a strong preference that the U.S. economy thrive, since the kingdom's prosperity depends on continued, American-led growth of global energy demand. Saudi leaders also do not wish to strengthen the hand of the hostile camp in the United States, witnessing what America is prepared to do in Iraq.

For the U.S., Saudi financial cooperation and intelligence-sharing appear to be crucial to dismantling al-Qaeda, whose key financiers allegedly include Saudi citizens. Access to Saudi ports, airbases, airspace, and territory could be equally critical against Iraq. In addition, the expert consensus holds that, regardless of developments elsewhere, the kingdom will remain the dominant actor in the global oil market, where price stability or instability will drive or stifle economic growth in the U.S. and beyond.

Segments of America's opinion elite do not acknowledge the last point, express repugnance at Saudi foreign and domestic policies, and some even argue that a breakdown in relations would be desirable--mirroring much of current Arab opinion about the United States. The U.S. government, for its part, is divided about which way to go. While many members of Congress have expressed profound doubts about Saudi intentions and reliability, the Bush administration remains loath to admit any difficulties in public, apparently for fear of exacerbating them.

This article offers neither policy advice nor prognostications. Instead, it attempts to place the current situation in the context of Saudi-American ties over the last seven decades. The relationship has been subject to numerous ebbs and flows, and in many respects, the present adheres to the patterns of the past. In other areas, they diverge. With these points in mind, readers should be better able to make their own judgments.

A Narrow Base

From the start, relations have featured minimal public support or positive involvement, relying mainly on a handful of individuals experienced at maneuvering between two starkly opposed cultures and political systems. Notable among the "navigators" have been:

· St. John Philby, a British expatriate who served as adviser to the first Saudi king, Abd al-Aziz, and negotiated the first oil exploration contract with an American firm in 1933;
· William Eddy, a Lebanon-born Marine officer, spy, and ambassador, who translated during the famous meeting between King Abd al-Aziz and President Roosevelt on a U.S. warship in 1945;
· Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi minister who presided over the oil embargo of 1973-74 and later oversaw the nationalization of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco); and
· Prince Bandar bin Sultan, confidant to the (now ailing) King Fahd and ambassador to the United States since 1983. He translated during the famous meeting of Fahd and U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney just days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. More recently, he met with President George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas shortly before the president's September address concerning Iraq before the United Nations General Assembly.

This pattern remains unaltered.

What has changed is the mobilization of public sentiment in each country against the other side. In Saudi Arabia, the spread of Arabic-language satellite television and the internet have helped to stoke anger against the United States, fueling a boycott of American consumer goods in the name of the Palestinians. In the U.S., Congressmen, journalists, and media commentators have called attention to the Saudi role in tolerating or even promoting Islamic radicalism, and exposed anti-Americanism and antisemitism in Saudi media, government, and mosques. Both governments have responded with elaborate and unprecedented public relations efforts. Saudi diplomat Adel al-Jubeir has pitched the kingdom's anti-terror activities on American television talk shows, while State Department official and former advertising executive Charlotte Beers has managed a "public diplomacy" campaign seeking to persuade Muslim audiences worldwide that Islam is thriving in a free and tolerant United States.

Security Arrangements

Since U.S. warplanes were first based in the kingdom, in 1946, Saudi authorities have struggled to gauge whether the benefits of deterring hostile neighbors outweighed the burden of undermining the royal family's legitimacy in the eyes of the public and the ultra-conservative religious authorities. The Americans, in turn, have balanced Saudi security concerns against the implementation of their own strategies for the containment of the Soviet Union, and later Iran and Iraq.
As often as not, the two nations' policies have fallen out of sync. Presidents Carter, Reagan, and George Bush all pledged to defend the kingdom, but the Saudis have generally preferred that U.S. forces remain "over the horizon" until immediate danger appears. Only small groups of American military trainers have consistently remained on Saudi soil.

In the early 1950s, attempts to build an anti-Soviet alliance in the Middle East united America with the Saudis' foes in Iraq, Iran, and Britain. King Saud responded by sending home a U.S. aid mission and signing a mutual defense pact with Nasser's government in Egypt. The Saudis even invited Egyptian military trainers into the kingdom, in uneasy parallel to their American counterparts.

The situation improved in 1956, when the United States came to Egypt's aid during the Suez Crisis. But in the following years, Egypt grew in strength and regional influence, and the Saudis decided to eject American forces rather than provoke Cairo. But in late 1962, when the Egyptians began small-scale attacks on Saudi territory, the Saudis briefly invited the Americans back in.

On this and other occasions, American leaders sometimes seemed less concerned with protecting Saudi Arabia than with not antagonizing the Saudis' enemies, so long as the oil fields were safe. At the end of 1978, responding to Riyadh's worries about the Iranian revolution, the Carter administration pledged to send F-15 warplanes to visit the kingdom. Then, concerned about the effects of the announcement on the volatile course of events in Iran, the Americans announced that the planes would not be armed. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Saudi officials recalled the F-15 affair well enough to worry that the Americans would not show up in sufficient strength.

Simultaneously, they also feared that the Americans might stay too long. When Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney briefed King Fahd and his advisers in Riyadh, he declared, "After the danger is over, our forces will go home." According to one account, Crown Prince Abdullah muttered, "I would hope so," a remark that Bandar let pass without translation.

Cheney's pledge notwithstanding, U.S. and British warplanes remain in Saudi Arabia over a decade later, patrolling the "no-fly zone" over southern Iraq and stirring dissent in their host country. The bombing of American military sites in Riyadh in 1995 and Dhahran in 1996, as well as an apparent failed surface-to-air missile attack in 2002, underscore these tensions. Defense and Aviation Minister Prince Sultan insists that the Western aircraft are not defending Saudi Arabia, but merely enforcing relevant UN Security Council resolutions. Saudi opposition figures, including Osama bin Laden, take the extreme opposite view, denouncing the monarchy as the puppet of foreign occupiers.

What most distinguishes the current situation from the past is the absence of a Soviet threat, either directly or through proxy states and communist subversion in the region. The Saudis seem to consider Saddam Hussein's regime to be effectively contained and non-threatening, an assessment that clashes with the current American view. If a conflict is inevitable, Riyadh undoubtedly would like to see America prevail, but continues to waver over its own degree of cooperation. One possible factor in the outcome is whether the UN Security Council explicitly authorizes force against Iraq, allowing the Saudi government to justify participation to their own people in a manner consistent with their past explanations of related activities.

Oil, Money, Power, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israel, but has normally been able to disregard the contradictions between U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Israeli relations. The main exceptions have come during the chronic bouts of active Arab-Israeli conflict that have punctuated the past half-century, polarizing the region. At these times, the Saudis and other Arab oil supplies have attempted to exert leverage by cutting off oil supplies to Israel's friends in Europe (1956) or America (1967), but at first without much effect.

In the early 1970s, this situation changed. The U.S. and Israel built a new partnership at a time of ongoing Israeli clashes with Egypt, which had allied with the Soviet Union. Being on the "wrong side" of a running Arab-Israeli fight put pressure on Riyadh and created a new irritant in U.S.-Saudi relations.
Around the same time, the underlying dynamics of the world oil market had shifted. The growth of the global economy had outstripped the ability of the United States, once the world's top oil producer, to expand production. The oil producers of the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, came into their own. Great sums have flowed into Saudi coffers since that time, peaking at over $116 billion in 1981. The kingdom also gained a unique position in the world oil market, coming into possession of the bulk of spare production capacity worldwide. As the global "swing producer," Saudi Arabia has the last word on any attempt to drive up prices through cutbacks. The rise of these new market realities enabled the deployment of the "oil weapon" during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, leading to the oil embargo of 1973-74.

Today, the Saudi government again finds itself on the "wrong side" of Arab opinion by virtue of its relationship with the United States. But since that time, several factors have combined to make a new oil embargo undesirable. A drop in oil prices starting in the mid-1980s, the costs of the Persian Gulf War, and a population boom have put the kingdom deeply into debt. Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, has ruled out any possibility of an embargo. Nevertheless, others have hinted at employing alternative levers against American Middle East policy:

· Restricting the use of Saudi airbases against Iraq;
· Restricting the use of Saudi airspace against Iraq; or
· Selling oil in euros instead of dollars. This would lead to oil consumers' using their dollars to buy euros, thereby driving down the value of the dollar. This change would increase the cost of imports in the U.S., creating inflationary pressure that would probably result in higher interest rates, retarding an economic recovery.
· It is also possible to imagine a deliberate slowdown in cooperation against al-Qaeda.

But as noted at the outset of this article, anything that hurts the U.S. war effort in Iraq or the U.S. economy also hurts Saudi Arabia; that goes doubly for anything that would help the violently anti-Saudi al-Qaeda movement. Therefore, the use of more extreme measures of this sort probably would reflect desperate feelings among the Saudi leadership. That is the great unknown in U.S.-Saudi relations: what the government judges that its public is prepared to tolerate. On this subject, the high-ranking princes of the royal family keep their own counsel.

This article is excerpted from Josh Pollack's"Saudi Arabia and the United States, 1931-2002," and was published by the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal (Sept. 2002). For a free subscription to MERIA Journal, write gloria@idc.ac.il. To see all previous issues and MERIA materials visit http://meria.idc.ac.il and http://gloria.idc.ac.il.