Thicker Than Oil

Thicker Than Oil

Thicker Than Oil

Thicker Than Oil


For fifty-five years, the United States and Saudi Arabia were solid partners. Then came the 9/11 attacks, which sorely tested that relationship. InThicker than Oil, Rachel Bronson reveals why the partnership became so intimate and how the countries' shared interests sowed the seeds of today's most pressing problem--Islamic radicalism.
Drawing on a wide range of archival material, declassified documents, and interviews with leading Saudi and American officials, Bronson chronicles a history of close, and always controversial, contacts. She argues that contrary to popular belief the relationship was never simply about "oil for security." Saudi Arabia's geographic location and religiously motivated foreign policy figured prominently in American efforts to defeat "godless communism." From Africa to Afghanistan, Egypt to Nicaragua, the two worked to beat back Soviet expansion. But decisions made for hardheaded Cold War purposes left behind a legacy that today enflames the Middle East.
In this landmark work, Bronson exposes the political calculations that drove this secretive relationship. Her lively narrative is interwoven with colorful stories of diplomatic adventures and misadventures--including details of high-level backchannel conversations, awkward cross-cultural encounters, and a bizarre American request for the Saudi government to subsidize Polish pork exports, a demand the U. S. Ambassador refused to deliver. Looking forward, she outlines the challenges confronting the relationship. The Saudi government faces a zealous internal opposition bent on America's and Saudi Arabia's destruction. Yet from the perspective of both countries, the status quo is clearly unsustainable. This book shows how this crucial relationship evolved, and suggests ways to chart its future course.


The plane touched down on the hot and sandy Riyadh airstrip at 5 p.m., behind schedule. America's representative in Saudi Arabia, J. Rives Childs, stepped off the aircraft, followed by two young American foreign service officers, Donald C. Bergus and Hermann F. Eilts. It was March 1949, and Childs was in Riyadh to upgrade America's diplomatic presence in Saudi Arabia to an embassy, a step suggesting the evolving importance of that country. Until that point, America had been represented by a legation, a small diplomatic mission operating out of Jeddah. the embassy Childs established would not move from Jeddah to Riyadh until 1984.

In 1949 Saudi Arabia was cautiously engaging the modern world. Jeddah, one of its most cosmopolitan and dynamic cities, was an old walled city of about thirty thousand people. It didn't have a single paved street, and camels wandered through the middle of town. There were no public utilities of any kind—no electric lights, running water, or sewage system. Fifty-gallon tanks from Wadi Fatimah, twenty miles away, were hauled in each morning to provide the legation with water. the tanks usually ran dry by about two in the afternoon.

Royal escorts met Childs' flight and guided his small team to the king's guest house, a simple mud hut with straw-filled mattresses. Until the early 1940s fewer than a hundred American and Europeans had set foot in Riyadh. According to convention, each visitor received a gift of traditional Arab clothing. One did not meet the king in Western attire. Childs had his own Arab costume, but the two young officers gratefully accepted the gifts.

A tailor arrived to shorten the oversized garments, but since the plane had arrived late and it was now nearly prayer time, he left with a promise . . .

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