Are the Saudis Destined to Become Our Enemies?

News Abroad

Mr. Pollack is a Washington, DC-based defense consultant.

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.


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Gus Moner - 1/18/2003

The author gives us a brief and necessarily limited summary of the complex security relationship between the USA and the Saudi family, the absolute rulers of a country that bears their name, Saudi Arabia. It is as it should be, since it is related from the perspective of a defence analyst. The Saudi relationship with the USA, however, is an offshoot, or the child if you will, of the Saudi-British entanglement of the Ottoman period and after that empire’s demise. The USA merely took over the British role at the close of WWII.
The Saudi regime was imposed by the British in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire when they favoured them over Hussein’s Hashemite tribes, the former sheriffs of the Holy Sites, who were the original prodigal sons of British Arab policy during and after WWI. We must bear in mind, like it or not, that Arab culture, and Muslim areas in general are organised, governed and influenced by tribal allegiances. Nation states are a very modern development imposed after WWI. (The Hussein Hashemite clan was given part of Palestine, what is now Jordan, as compensation for not getting all of Arabia and Syria after WWI, as the UK had promised).
No current government in a Muslim nation is freely elected, except perhaps in Turkey and to a lesser degree, Iran, where that freedom is controlled by the high priests who have ultimate arbitrary power. None of these governing tribal oligarchies is strong or popular enough to govern without police and political repression. The cause of this can be traced to the tribal and religious orientation of the areas in question.
To say that Egypt or some other nation supports this or that policy is a delusion sold to the US public by the US government through the media conglomerates. Public sentiment is not represented in the governing cliques anymore than it is in our democracies. The ruling party or oligarchy does as it pleases with the full weight of the political-security apparatus. As evidence, the sentiment of the 87% of Britons who do not approve of war with Iraq without a full UN debate and vote on the issue are no more represented by their government’s policies than are the sentiments of the Egyptian Turkish or Saudi citizen’s feelings and beliefs represented by their government’s policy of cooperation in an Anglo-US attack on Iraq. Thus, the author asserts correctly that “From the start, (Saudi – US) relations have featured minimal public support or positive involvement, relying mainly on a handful of individuals experienced at manoeuvring between two starkly opposed cultures and political systems”.
The stationing of the US forces in the area with numerous bases and military presence in the Muslim holy lands is the primary issue cited by al Qaeda for opposing the USA. Not found anywhere on their agenda, as Mr. Bush would have us believe, is their hate for our freedom or way of life.
US relations with Muslim nations are at another defining moment. We have missed the boat by creating the “War on Terror” as the pillar of our anti-terrorism policy. By focusing it as a military struggle rather than the geopolitical-social conflict it is, we have fallen into the trap of further entanglement, which will make these few radical groups appear to have been prescient. Any significant political move to ameliorate their grievances regarding Palestine and foreign military presence in Muslim lands, through which the unrepresentative regimes stay in power, would help evaporate anti-US or anti-Western feelings from which terrorist draw adherents and support. The cessation of interference with foreign aid to prop-up unpopular regimes would help these nations achieve truer self-determination at their own pace, in their own way.
US support for its client state, militarised Israel, which is another beneficiary of large dollops of aid from the government and tax-exempt religious donations, is usually cited as the most abrasive point in US Muslim relationships. Where the US to oblige Israel to accept a Palestinian state, cease interfering in Palestinian internal affairs and withdraw troops and settlers from the rump that remains of Palestine, we would see perhaps the most significant sore removed from the US-Muslim body politic. These two policy elements, the elimination of interference and the military presence and creation of a Palestinian state for Palestinians would radically alter the perception of US military and economic interference in their lands.
The ensuing relationship that would result would be one of economic trade, respect and non-interference, much like these nations have now with the rest of the world. After all, they sell oil to Asia, including China, Korea, Japan as well as all over Europe without this sort of interference from these other nations. Why the insistence by the USA, absent the Soviet Union, to control and dominate the region. It is precisely the perception that the USA wants to dominate and control the area to preserve their hegemony over oil reserves that engenders terrorism. Continuing military adventures in the area have, as the author says, increasingly reinforced the perception that “the US is a dangerous military aggressor”.
The US does not want Saudi democracy, nor true democracy in any state that has a lot of oil. If the people chose their leaders and they followed the will of the people, they wouldn’t sell oil to the USA unless they controlled an Israel run amok, nor would they accept military bases, troops, interference or occupation. As the author points up, “ The (US-Saudi) relationship is one of dependence”. The US depends on the oil, and its nightmare is having it fall into the ‘wrong hands’. The Saudis depend on the US economy as a safe haven where they can safeguard the hundreds of thousands of millions their extended family have stolen and stashed away over the years, while their nation’s living standards have been dramatically falling. Their nightmare is seeing these fortunes evaporate in economic instability, recession or inflation. Moreover, economic growth under current oil-dependent conditions ensure a stream of revenue for the Saudi oligarchy over the next century.
That a neighbourhood bully, such as Egypt or Iraq would try to conquer these reserves for themselves is indeed a threat to the Saudis, and ultimately perhaps to the OECD economies addicted to oil. The solution to this threat, hovering over us since 1967, lies not in conquering the Iraqis or controlling the Saudis, or any of the failed and expensive policies of the past and present. It ultimately lies in the redirection of the OECD economies into renewable energy consumption and decreasing their dependence on oil until it is naught.
If energy policies initiated during the Nixon and Carter regimes were still in force today and had not been watered down or eliminated by the Reagan and Bush administrations, we in the OECD block would never have continued to slide down the road to being economies of petroleum junkies. Energy efficiency in transportation, renewable resource development and better building construction would have been the result. That would have led to a very significant reduction in petroleum dependency. We would likely have seen electric and natural gas lorries and busses on the road 10 years ago, rather than seeing them today as bizarre experimental ‘futuristic’ models, exactly what they were 20years ago. Imagine if the miles-per-gallon requirement for car manufacturers had remained in force! Imagine if public transportation in urban areas had been truly regenerated.
The relative importance of oil in world politics would have been steadily reduced, and the horizon would augur a day when these sources would become irrelevant. The benefit, besides more energy independence, would have been less pollution, global warming and improved air throughout the developed and developing economies, indeed, throughout the globe. Perhaps we’d have perennial snow caps on Kilimanjaro. Perhaps we’d never have got the world upset with us for rejecting the Kyoto agreements. Hell, perhaps they would not have been necessary.
Had that occurred, no one would be considering going to war in the Middle East today. It would be as important an area as, say, Namibia. Is anyone clamouring for war in Namibia, Zimbabwe, or elsewhere? Undoubtedly, we tolerate and respond to N Korea’s nuclear madness with diplomacy because it hasn’t oil.
The price of oil would not be a determining factor in either political or economic policy. We would not be sliding into recession or inflation with every spike of the price of the barrel of oil. Economic development would not depend on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Iraq’s behaviour. Bear in mind, the world went from coal dependence to oil dependence in fifty years.
One could provide the feasible counter-argument to Mr. Pollack’s assertion that “the spread of Arabic-language satellite television and the internet have helped to stoke anger against the United States”. The spread of satellite news in the US has led to a small number of controlling groups disseminating the air waves, propagating anti-Muslim propaganda and self-censorship on the serious issues of the day. These networks treat increasing ‘anti-Muslim radicalism’ and ‘interventionist militarism’ as natural and normal events, while treating Muslim radicalism as the black plague.

Regarding ‘Security Arrangements’ US policies in the Middle East have been determined by the aforementioned dependence on oil. Thus, Cold War machinations and later, those anti-Iranian, and anti-Iraqi strategies have been premised by the wrong-headed US security need to not have any other player but itself dominate the region. Because it is absolutely hooked on oil. Chemically dependent.
A good government would have seen the imbecility and futility of depending on oil from other nations for our survival and would have promoted the development and mass implementation of independent and renewable energy sources. There are so many homes and over 100 million people today in areas of the USA that are wind and solar rich as to make the need for wired electrical supplies redundant. Each home could be energy independent. Imagine that if this had happened, Enron might never have happened!
I remember as a youngster having a solar water heater in our home, with an electric back-up. That, dear readers, was over 50 years ago. How far have we advanced today? How many children bathe with solar heated water in the USA today? In fact, things got worse. We got rid ourselves of the solar heater and became energy dependent in my family. It was ‘modern comfort’ we were told.

In summary, regarding security, the entire security and dependence issues that have us on the verge of war today, for the second time in 10-12 years, are wrongly focused. The true security of this nation and the entire OECD group of nations lies not in continuing to clash, dominate, rule, control, have surrogate governments, client states etc. in oil-rich nations. No, it lies in some real leader having the balls to get up and say, enough! We are going to become energy independent, and the oil and power companies had better change their focus and lead in this new area or join the scrap heap of industries that have become obsolete. That would be real leadership, that would be real independence, that would bring real peace.

Oil, Money, Power, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Under this heading we read about how the US–Israeli relationship has exacerbated US-Muslim relations. Saudis, as dependent allies of the OECD nations, are on the wrong side of the street in their neighbourhood regarding this issue. Allied with the ‘enemy’, the friend of their enemy should also have been their enemy. But, Alas, no. We see the Saudi oligarchy aligned with the US and yet opposing Israel’s occupation of Palestine, a real conundrum if there ever was one. As the author rightly states, “today, the Saudi government again finds itself on the "wrong side" of Arab opinion by virtue of its relationship with the United States”.
The Saudis do have weapons other than an embargo, as mentioned, and the most logical, long-term damaging one would be to price crude oil in Euros. Restricting the USA’s use of bases and airspace is unlikely given the dependence on the US for its economic well-being and defence. Not cooperating on al Qaeda would be to turn the entire western world’s wrath on the Saudi clan, not a pleasant thought for these comfortable absolute rulers. However, even the change to Euros would carry the risk of diminishing the value of Saudi US investments, another example of the symbiosis that characterises the relationship. If they did this, and it is a big if, they might implement it progressively or in stages, as salvo shots across the bow of US policy regarding Israel and other area issues.
In the end, these oil-induced entanglements are very costly to the USA. To base our economic security on a raw material half way round the world is madness. To attempt to control the entire region is to continue to punt for what has brought us into conflict with 1,000 million people.
As I mentioned earlier, the solution to this entire mess, for the USA, is to become energy independent by using its vast technological advantages to produce energy from renewable resources. New ‘cleaner’ businesses and industries would emerge, new jobs would replace the ones in energy now. The vast expenditures decade after decade in projecting power half-way around the globe could be re-channelled towards assisting local governments in developing energy independence. In two decades, we could see the price of oil as being just another of many factors in our economic life, rather than a matter of war or peace, life and death. We’d all be happier and live better for it and the planet would be infinitely cleaner as a result.