Sand in Our Eyes: U.S.-Saudi Relations after Iraq

Article excerpt

OSAMA BIN LADEN has certainly achieved one of his cherished goals from the appalling mega-terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that destroyed the World Trade Center and mauled the Pentagon. He has upset U.S.-Saudi relations and effectively wrecked an alliance that had previously endued for six decades to the vast benefit of both parties. Before 9/11, the Saudis had been viewed by U.S. policymakers, especially in the Republican foreign policy establishment, with great favor. Certainly, Democrats tended to be less comfortable with the Saudis--troubled both by the Kingdom's illiberal domestic policies as well as its staunch opposition to the state of Israel. However, all administrations generally found it possible to find a modus vivendi that permitted the smooth functioning of the "special relationship" with the Desert Kingdom.

Within days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, however, the way in which Washington policymakers and pundits viewed Saudi Arabia was transformed. And many of those that for generations had been the most enthusiastic about the "special relationship" with Saudi Arabia became, effectively overnight, its fiercest critics. On the Saudi side, there was no equivalent sudden shift, because Saudi attitudes towards the United States had been inexorably changing over the last several years, and not for the better. The American reaction to 9/11 has accelerated these trends and brought them to a head.

What is at stake is the relationship that was forged, if a single dramatic political event can be said to start it, when President Franklin Roosevelt met the ailing but still potent, powerful and shrewd old King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud on the cruiser USS Augusta in 1945.

The U.S.-Saudi Compact

FROM THE beginning, the U.S.-Saudi relationship was firmly grounded in realpolitik considerations. FDR and Ibn Saud both opposed continued British hegemony in the Middle East, each for their own reasons. Both saw Britain exhausted by the Second World War and in no real position to block the expansion of Soviet influence and its atheistic ideology (which Ibn Saud loathed) throughout the region. The shield of American protection as well as the lure of limitless U.S. petrodollars beckoned.

On this basis, the relationship flourished for decades. The United States emphasized its role as the protector of a conservative, religious Saudi Arabia against a godless Soviet superpower. Soviet communism threatened both America's liberal democracy and Saudi Arabia's theocratic monarchy. In return for security, America was to have guaranteed access to an inexpensive and steady source of petroleum.

The bargain was interrupted in 1973, in the form of the Yom Kippur War. Along with Iran, another long-standing U.S. ally in the region, Saudi Arabia decided to alter unilaterally the terms of the arrangement. Along with Iran, the Saudis became one of the prime motivating forces behind the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and succeeded overnight in quadrupling the price of oil. The Saudis briefly became, in American eyes, the villains of the piece. But after King Feisal Ibn Abdul-Aziz--the son of the old king who had relaxed with FDR on the decks of the Augusta--was assassinated by a deranged young fringe member of the royal family in 1975, power passed to Feisal's younger brother, the ailing King Khalid and, functionally, to Khalid's self-indulgent but exceptionally bright and pro-American sibling, Crown Prince Fahd. While the Saudis continued to use OPEC as a way to gain more revenue by keeping oil prices higher than their pre-1973 levels, their general demeanor towards the United States became far friendlier. They perceived a renewed threat from Soviet expansionism to their own survival, which was heightened by the development of a Soviet navy able to project power in the region. So, when Ronald Reagan entered the White House, the stage was set to recreate the U.S.-Saudi special relationship.

Reagan and his colleagues over the next eight years embarked on a series of interlocking policies, first to contain and then to drain the Soviet Union, and Saudi Arabia was at the heart of their calculations. It was the golden age of the special relationship. The Saudis helped to fund anticommunist movements around the world, with America's blessing. In particular, the Saudis poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Pakistan to send clandestine aid to the mujaheddin in order to bleed the Red Army in Afghanistan. Even when the Soviet Union collapsed, the decisive and successful U.S. response to Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait in 1990 appeared to confirm that the Saudis would need America's protective shield as much in the chaotic and unpredictable new world following the collapse of communism as they had in the old Cold War one.

In return, the Saudis were happy to use their role as the key, low-cost, high-quality "swing" producer on global petroleum markets to lower energy prices. The great Reagan and Clinton booms, the longest and biggest sustained surges in prosperity in history, were raised on a huge tide of ever-cheaper, high-quality global crude thanks to Saudi cooperation.

And when the George W. Bush Administration took office in January 2001, there was an almost universal expectation that the incoming team would end the strains in the relationship that had developed during the eight-year tenure of a Democratic president. After all, both parties stood to gain from a continuation of the status quo. This remained the comfortable U.S. assumption through to 2001, and neither Republican nor Democratic policymakers and foreign policy analysts by and large queried it.

Signs of Strain

EVEN BEFORE the thunderbolts of 9/11, however, there were growing signs of strain in the relationship that the old compact might not be able to assuage. The pro-American Crown Prince Fahd became king upon his brother's death in 1982, and continued his policies of close cooperation with the United States, particularly with President Reagan. But Fahd grew old and infirm, and so, over time, effective power in the Kingdom passed into the hands of the next in line of old Ibn Saud's sons, Crown Prince Abdullah, who remains the effective ruler of the Desert Kingdom today. Abdullah was not as pro-American as his brother, and by the second Clinton Administration, Abdullah's disenchantment had grown with U.S. policy. The Saudis in general felt the United States remained far too partial and indulgent towards Israel, even during the superficially halcyon years of the Oslo peace process. Yet Abdullah's fears of Iran and of a possible resurgence of Saddam Hussein kept him, publicly at least, on the U.S. team in the region--but he was not an enthusiastic ally.

In the spring of 1999, Crown Prince Abdullah had quietly authorized a policy of cooperation with Iran to shore up global oil prices. Many were the American pundits who proclaimed that the diversification of primary oil sources and the cost-effective revolution wrought by new technologies had smashed the OPEC's cartel power for good. They were wrong. Buoyed by the new backbone of Iranian-Saudi cooperation, oil prices rapidly rose from an anemic $10 a barrel to more than $30 a barrel.

And the return of a Republican administration to power in Washington in 2001 did not herald a return to the Reagan-Fahd model of partnership. The Bush team turned out not to be "Daddy's" administration after all. Under "Bush 43", U.S. policy in the region was far more openly partial to Israel and far more outspoken in its rhetorical opposition to the practice of terrorism in the region against Americans or Israelis. And the new president showed a determination to confront and contain, even eventually topple Saddam Hussein, unlike his more cautious father. Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi insiders said, felt his concern about the moralistic, pro-Israel and unpredictable nature of U.S. policymaking was confirmed rather than relieved by the new team.

More disquieting was the fact that the Bush Administration was prepared to be more openly critical of the Kingdom's internal and external policies than any previous Republican administration. The small but articulate and highly influential neoconservative group in the Republican Party had always been highly critical of the Saudis for their opposition to Israel and resistance to allowing any democracy--at least as Americans generally understood the term--into the Desert Kingdom. There was no longer a godless communist menace to provide grounds for common cause. And the critics who had been out of power during the Clinton years were now occupying key positions, especially in the Pentagon and the vice president's office.

Even the holy grail of the relationship--energy--was under scrutiny. Did the United States need to "coddle" Riyadh if new sources of supply--particularly in the former Soviet Union offered a real alternative to Saudi Arabia? Perhaps now was the time for the United States to try and "drive down the price of oil" and "break the ability of OPEC to set prices", and in the process, deprive Saudi Arabia of the income it could use to promote anti-American and anti-Israeli policies.

Further, the Saudis noted proposals and visionary predictions generated from conservative think tanks known to be highly influential with the Administration that a democratic, pro-U.S. Iraq could supplant the Kingdom in the role of keeping global energy prices down. And they could not help but notice that, even before 9/11, the administration appeared far more interested in exploring the possibility of expanding U.S. oil imports from Nigeria and other west and central African countries with significant deposits.

Discovering the Saudi "Enemy"

BY SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, therefore, the premises on which the U.S.-Saudi relationship was based were under question. Americans and Saudis soon found themselves looking at each other as strangers.

For the neocons, the attacks vindicated their position that the dangerous "swamp" of Middle East Arab backwardness needed to be "drained" with policies that ensured more open and tolerant democracies in the region and that deprived, in particular, the Saudis of the financial revenues that helped to fund terrorism. But the neocons were not alone. As the American media shone a new spotlight on Saudi practices, disturbing features never hidden but previously ignored or explained away came rapidly to light. >From the madrassa system to Afghanistan and the "creation" of Osama bin Laden, hindsight seemed to paint a clear picture of Saudi malfeasance over more than a decade. (1) As these grim developments became clear in the shocked aftermath of 9/11, U.S. policymakers and opinion-shapers reacted fiercely. Some probably felt embarrassment or even shame that they had overlooked such trends. Others rushed, as always happens when any unforeseen crisis erupts, to make up for lost time. However, for all the expressions of understanding and pledges of efforts at more understanding on both sides, in the two years after 9/11, U.S-Saudi relations became ever more a dialogue of the blind and the deaf.

Saudi policymakers were at first largely deaf to U.S. concerns. There was, it seemed, no serious effort to rein in or reform the curriculum in the madrassa school systems across Asia. Saudi television continued to fund and broadcast telethons raising money for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers after the Oslo peace process broke down in 2000. According to estimates supplied by Riyadh's own security and intelligence services, almost 1,000 Saudi Muslim clerics were linked to or openly in sympathy with Al-Qaeda in the months after the 9/11 attacks.

Before 9/11, Saudi religious conservatism was seen as preferable to communism, so these supposed quirks were tolerated. But soon after the attacks, Washington policymakers and think-tank intellectuals that had been so comfortable for so long about the Saudis rushed to make up for lost time. Many of them swung like a crazed pendulum from one extreme to the other. Saudi oil wealth was suddenly seen as the core source of all the problems the United States faced. Cut off that wealth flow, some argued, and the "swamp" of extremism would rapidly drain. Allow it to fester unchecked, and things could only get worse. Before 9/11 such views were expressed in Washington only by individuals with no serious clout in policymaking and usually with strong links to the extreme right in Israeli politics far beyond the Likud Party.

Like most Manichean, overly simplistic, black-and-white formulations, this one only served to blind its adherents to the very different realities of the situation. For starting in May 2003, the Saudi leadership belatedly came to realize that the proliferation of extreme Wahhabi teachings posed a fundamental threat to their own security. The rhetoric of "draining the swamp" is simply a reckless use of metaphor that bears no connection with the problems U.S. policymakers face in dealing with Islamic extremism and rethinking the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

But there is no doubt that following 9/11, supposed "solutions" that involved wildly ambitious geopolitical redrawing of Middle East maps gained ground in influential Washington circles. Influential figures in and close to the Bush Administration had not hesitated to say as much--and more. On July 10, 2002 the Defense Policy Board, an advisory committee headed by Richard Perle, on which former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other political and policy heavyweights sat, had listened to a presentation from Laurent Murawiec of the Rand Corporation. He described Saudi Arabia as "the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent" the United States faced in the Middle East. If the Saudis refused to comply with U.S. pressure, the United States should "target" Saudi oil fields in unspecified ways.

In fact, such ideas never came close to being adopted as official U.S. policy. But the U.S. drive to invade Iraq was real enough. Suddenly, unprecedented and previously unthinkable things were happening in the region. From the Saudi point of view, with Saddam toppled so easily, what would or could stop America doing the same thing to them next?

Furthermore, with so many openly supportive friends of Israel in high places in the Bush Administration and the U.S. government--in Saudi eyes certainly--abandoning any pretense of even-handedness between Israelis and Palestinians, suddenly the United States no longer appeared to be the safest, most secure place for Saudi wealth to be. By the end of 2002, some 15 months after 9/11, huge amounts of Saudi investments had quietly but rapidly been removed from the United States. Experts believe the figure is certainly in excess of $100 billion. Some estimates claimed it was as high as $600 billion. No one knows for sure. The details would be embarrassing for both the U.S. and Saudi governments, so neither was eager to spotlight the process. But the increasing weakness of the U.S. dollar against even the chronically weak euro in recent months certainly appears to have been affected by the move.

As the Saudis began to look for balance against a far more unpredictable United States, previously unthinkable options rapidly became reality. Like Saudi Arabia, Russia's future hopes for prosperity and stability rested on strong global energy prices; thus, Russian oil and financial interests entirely coincided with Saudi ones. Moreover, the Saudis were alarmed, not just by the prospect of the United States seizing de facto control of Iraq's oil reserves, but also that President Bush really believed the rhetoric he expressed about the need for democracy throughout the Middle East.

To be sure, the far weaker, still impoverished Russia of President Vladimir Putin was a very different country from the overstretched, ideologically driven superpower of Leonid Brezhnev a quarter of a century before. The Saudis and many other conservative Arabs had come to see--and fear--the United States as the revolutionary disrupter of the regional status quo that needed to be guarded against and contained. It was exactly the way they had seen and feared the Soviets for so long. But now, in Saudi eyes, the dangerous, revolutionary and unstable ideology that an alien and secular superpower was determined to unleash upon the region was not communism but democracy, on U.S. terms and with U.S.-defined free markets as well.

Toward a New Relationship

WHAT, THEN, can and should be done to repair the gaping chasm that now yawns between the United States and Saudi Arabia? Is there anything U.S. policymakers can and should do, short of abject passivity towards the Saudis or unrelenting hostility towards them?

Indeed there is. U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia should not be allowed to lapse back into either the delegated complacency of the pre-1973 Aramco era or the triumphal but equally uncritical love-fest of the Reagan Golden Age. The Saudi role in funding Pakistan's nuclear program and the radical madrassa systems, and turning a blind eye to Bin Laden and the spread of radical Islamist ideology throughout the Muslim world, cannot be ignored.

But on the other hand, the now widely proclaimed "solution" of forcing radical change in the Desert Kingdom and forcing Western definitions of media and political openness and democracy down the Saudis' throats is no solution either. In fact, it will only make things worse.

There is an extraordinary irony in the fact that such panaceas come in large part from those who inspired the revitalization of conservative foreign policy concepts for dealing with the then-dominant Soviets in the 1970s. For that was the very era that liberal President Jimmy Carter undermined the shah of Iran by promoting precisely such values.

There is no doubt that Carter meant well, but the road to hell, as has been so often said, is paved with good intentions. Carter's policies fatally undermined the shah and opened the way for the first great triumph of radical Islamic fundamentalism in the region, an exceptionally hate-filled and destructive new ideology wrapped in the robes and language of the revered and comforting ancient Islamic faith. It was revolution posing as tradition. Neither Soviet nor Chinese communism had ever managed to blend such a potent appeal.

At the time and thereafter, realist and the school now known as neoconservative analysts and scholars alike lambasted Carter for his well-meaning but catastrophic naivety. Yet today, virtually identical arguments are regularly made in the American media arguing the need to force greater openness and change on the Saudis. Alas, if such policies were to be implemented tomorrow or in the next few months, there can be virtually no doubt that the result would be just as it was in Iran, and with even more catastrophic consequences. Control of what remains the largest high-grade and cheaply available oil resources in the face of the earth, along with control of the two most ancient holy places of the Islamic faith, would pass into the hands of Bin Laden or other extreme fundamentalists wedded to their vision of a Muslim world united in implacable hatred against the West, against Israel and most of all, against the United States.

U.S. POLICY towards Saudi Arabia, therefore, must avoid the Scylla of passive, defeatist compliance with every long-established Saudi bad habit and the Charybdis of seeking to undermine, destabilize, weaken or just "democratize" the current regime. Realists and conservatives should remember the 200-year old tested wisdom of Edmund Burke--one does not try to repair one's house in the middle of a thunderstorm.

The United States needs to renew its strategic dialogue with the House of Saud at the highest level. Figures at the level of the vice president or the secretary of state--for no one at any lesser level would carry credibility, however impassioned his assurances--should visit Riyadh, not just for a few hours as part of one of the "whistle-stop", "blink and you miss it" stopovers that have become all too much a part of U.S. diplomacy, but for days of dialogue and serious negotiations. The Saudis need to be given serious U.S. assurances that the United States is renewing its commitment to the kingdom and that it will not embarrass or undermine them by any public calls or pressure for reforms or concessions they regard as unwise.

In fact, since the Al-Qaeda suicide bomb attacks in Riyadh on May 12, 2003 that killed 35 people, the Saudis belatedly woke up to the security threat they faced internally. The cozy informal concordat with their own most extreme clergy that had endured for 14 years since Islamic extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca during the 1979 Hajj was thrown aside. All the 1,000 or so clerics openly sympathetic to Al-Qaeda were either fired or banned from addressing the faithful after weekly Friday prayer meetings.

In light of all this, U.S. policy towards the Saudis in dealing with their own internal problems should be clear. First, the United States needs to maintain its own pressure on Riyadh either to slash general madrassa funding or to reform their curricula--including removing inflammatory, hate-filled teachings about the United States and its allies. (2)

Second, the Saudis should be supported in the efforts they themselves have already initiated to revise their relationship with their own Wahhabi religious establishment. But U.S. diplomats, intelligence officers and analysts need to work with more culturally sophisticated officials from countries like France and Britain in pursuing this end. It is typical both of traditional U.S. policymaking as well as the fashionable mantras now embraced by the Bush Administration that they will seek broad and unrealistic goals that can only alienate the Saudis from their own people when much narrower, more focused goals are really required.

While it would be nice to see free elections, freedom of the press, full democracy and women's rights in Saudi Arabia, none is essential or indeed more than peripheral to U.S. national interests. Preventing the Al-Saud from being toppled by a fundamentalist Wahhabi revolution is central. So is cutting off the educating and funding of future generations of young Muslims in extreme sentiments and values at odds with the historic traditions of their own religion. U.S. policymakers need to focus on what is essential and achievable, not on what is desirable and impossible.

Third, U.S. policymakers must be restrained and cautious in preparing any "shopping list" of reforms they wish to see implemented in Saudi Arabia. As the current experience in Iraq grimly demonstrates, reckless U.S. enthusiasm for hands-on policies around the world, especially in the Arab Muslim Middle East, can rapidly backfire or spin out of control. The worst thing the United States can do in Saudi Arabia is force the Saudis to move too far too fast. The second worst thing is already happening: The Al-Saud have been given the impression that key policymakers in the Bush Administration are determined to topple and destroy them. Until such fears are convincingly laid to rest, no senior Saudi policymaker can be expected to trust any advice from current Administration figures, no matter how altruistic or well-meaning it may be.

For in dealing with Saudi Arabia today, U.S. policymakers are handling an unexploded bomb, and many of them do not seem to realize it. Sixty percent of the Saudi population, conservatively estimated at 18 million (and perhaps as high as 25 million) is below the age of 21. Popular sympathy for Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda appears to be widespread. Whatever problems the United States has in dealing with the Al-Saud, any radical takeover--and realistically there can be no other kind--would be worse. If moderating the madrassa system is a key first step to "draining the swamp" of Islamic extremism, pushing too much change too soon on the Desert Kingdom would be dynamiting the flood gates that protect us all, from being swept away in an Islamist deluge.

There is more. To restore the sundered bonds of trust between Washington and Riyadh, the Saudis need to be convinced by a serious commitment that the United States will not initiate any new ambitious operation or strategy for "regime change" in neighboring countries such as Syria or Iran. To those who would argue that it is not realistic for the United States to foreswear putting such pressure or leverage on Syria and Iran, I would only reply that avoiding confrontation with either country, especially Iran--at a time when 135,000 U.S. troops are stretched to the limit and at least 20,000 more may soon be required in Iraq--is the height of realism and common sense. The United States will not be able to "settle" Iraq without coming to some kind of accommodation with current or future rulers in Tehran. Nor can the Bush Administration realistically hope that Israel may "tame" Syria by toppling President Bashar Assad.

Of course, the United States retains many economic and diplomatic, not to mention military, weapons in its arsenal to deter Tehran or Riyadh alike. Sensible caution in pursuing policies is very different from craven appeasement. But the fevered dreams still heard in some Washington circles about using the brilliant success of democracy in Iraq to effect change in Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia is quite simply a fantasy without any empirical evidence to support its practicality. Does Iraq look peaceful and content now? How long will it take to make it that way when the British Empire failed most notably to do so in forty years of military occupation from 1918 to 1958? The dream of "exporting democracy" from Iraq to its neighbors reminds one of World War I British First Sea Lord Sir John "Jacky" Fisher's favorite recipe for cooking jugged hare. "First catch your hare."

Indeed, far from giving Riyadh the impression that Washington is in any way prepared to return to its complacent "hear no evil, see no evil" policy towards the Desert Kingdom, the Saudis need to be warned that the light of U.S. intelligence henceforth will be shining continually on operations and fund-raising activities by Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and similar groups. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Saudi intelligence did indeed provide much extremely valuable information to the United States. The United States must develop a mutually beneficial intelligence-sharing relationship with the Saudis. And just as President Reagan convinced the Saudi leaders of his day that the lowering of oil prices was in their interests, U.S. leaders need to be able to convince today's Saudi leadership that while they recognize its need to shore up global oil prices, America will require some measure of energy-price stability.

Developing this kind of give-and-take in the second Bush Administration, or, for that matter, in the first Kerry Administration, will not be easy. But it is not impossible either. The old realist wisdom that great powers usually are ready to abandon the indulgence of emotion, whether of gratitude or grudge, to further their own enlightened self-interest should guide our future policies towards Saudi Arabia. Despite their new relationships with Iran and Russia, the Saudis recognize and fear U.S. power. They recognize the potential internal threat they face from Al-Qaeda and its allies all too well. The United States still has much to offer Saudi Arabia and the Saudis have it in their power to deliver much that the United States needs too. The old "special relationship" can never be revived and restored as it once was. But recognizing that should open the way to build a new relationship based on realism and mutual interest.

(1) For example, since 1979, Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi religious establishment has spent an estimated $70 billion on Islamist missionary work, including the creation and support of 12,000 madrassas in Pakistan alone. At any given time, they have 700,000 boys enrolled from ages six to 16. The Philippine island of Mindanao alone has another 3,000 Saudi-funded madrassas.

(2) The Clinton Administration failed to enforce such controls on education on the Palestinian Authority with the result that, from 1994 (when the PA first began to take administrative control of West Bank territory) to 2000, a generation of Palestinian youths were taught genocidal hatred of Israel, even while the supposed "peace process" was going on.

Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International.