United States relations with Saudi Arabia
by Victor Davis Hanson
American Jewish Committee
Even if we were not attempting to prosecute a war against terror, the time would have long since arrived to reconsider our relations with Saudi Arabia.That the Saudis, of all people, should now be regarded as a virtual ally in this conflict only underscores the need at last to settle matters between us. Although the catalog of disagreements on our agenda is long, and many of the items are by now familiar, it is helpful to review the list.
BY ANY modern standard of civilization, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a bizarre place. In an age of spreading consensual government, the House of Saud resembles an Ottoman sultanate staffed by some 7,000 privileged royal cousins. The more favored are ensconced in plush multi-million dollar palaces and maintain luxury estates abroad in Paris, Geneva, Marbella, and Aspen. All 7,000 haggle over the key military and political offices of the kingdom–normally distributed not on the appeal of proven merit but more often through a mixture of blood ties, intrigue, and bribes.
Polygamy is legal, and practiced, among the Saudi elite. Everywhere in the kingdom, women are veiled, secluded, and subject to the harsh protocols of a sexual apartheid. A few female Saudi professionals who in 1991 drove cars as a sign of protest mostly ended up arrested and jailed. Women who have traveled to the West remain under the constant surveillance of the Committee for the Advancement of Virtue and Elimination of Sin, a Taliban-like government watchdog group of clerics and whip-bearing fanatics.
There is no religious tolerance in Saudi Arabia for creeds other than Islam; in our State Department’s own muted nomenclature, “Freedom of religion does not exist” there. The Wahhabi strain of fundamentalist Islam–over 30,000 mosques and growing–is prone to occasionally violent spasms. The Saudi constitution is defined officially by governmental decree as the Qur’an, and the legal system is the domain of clerics who adjudicate by an array of medieval codes and punishments. Presently the UN Committee Against Torture is asking the Saudis to curtail flogging and amputations; so far, they have answered that such punishments have been an integral part of Islamic law “for 1,400 years” and so simply “cannot he changed.”
Although Westernized Saudis in suits and ties, often personable, with impeccable English and an array of American friends, are ubiquitous on our air waves, they are mere darting phantoms of a free press. Dozens of state-run papers and private but publicly subsidized media vent the most virulent anti-Semitic hatred in the Arab world–fundamentalist screeds or “poetry” equating Jews with monkeys and calling for their extermination. Editors are free only in the sense that they can draw on their own creativity in expressing real dislike for the United States and Israel, perhaps to be rebuked on the rare occasions when such venom is made known to the very deferential American media elite who interview the royals on our evening television shows. The Saudi Press Agency is as careful in monitoring news accounts as informers are in observing classrooms or as clerics in scrutinizing cultural events for the presence of women.
Criticism of the royal family, Saudi government, and religious leaders is legally forbidden and strictly monitored. The few dissident writers in the kingdom are jailed, blacklisted, and sometimes have their books banned and driven off the Arab-language market. The names of the censoring ministries–Supreme Information Council, Press Information Council, Ministry of Information, Directorate of Publications–come right out of Orwell’s 1984.
AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, the world is slowly learning how the Saudi princes have pulled off their grafting of a high-tech cultivar onto medieval roots. It has been accomplished through bribes to clerics, cash to terrorists, welfare to the commons, and largesse to prominent Americans: money in some form to any and all who find the House of Saud either too modern or too backward. Such inducements have been indispensable because the vast wealth that Western petroleum companies developed for the royal family, plus the tourist treasures of Mecca and Medina, brought neither a stable economy nor general prosperity. The kingdom’s accidental boon was not invested broadly in viable industries, secular education, or political reform, but instead lavished on ill-conceived projects and a royal elite who consumed too much of it on luxury cars, houses, clothes, jewels, gambling, and trips abroad–sins against both Islam and Western laws of economic development.
But now the Saudis are $200 billion in debt. The population is soaring. The imams are worried more about unrest than about their stipends. Thirty percent of Saudis remain unschooled, and nearly as many are barely literate, their resentment against a coddled elite mitigated only by carefully measured doses of anti-Western Wahhabism and the satisfaction that at least the millions of guest Asian and Arab helots, imported for much of the society’s wage labor, are more unfree than they. Efforts at creating viable irrigated agriculture and petrochemical industries have had but mixed success–and then only thanks to massive infusions of oil-dollar subsidies.
It is not just human capital that is bought from abroad. Almost every item deemed important to the modernization of the kingdom–from drilling bits and heavy machinery to the phone system and power grid–is shipped in. The expertise to use, repair, and improve such critical appurtenances rests either with foreigners or with the few thousand Saudis trained abroad.
The Saudi royals are thus these days an increasingly troubled bunch. They are quite understandably exasperated that they have failed to earn needed capital by developing nonpetroleum industries, and that their citizenry lacks either the practical skills to create thriving commercial enterprises or the individual drive and initiative to build businesses from the ground up. They are even more irked that their imported gadgets have brought with them hostile ideas, critical lectures, and unwelcome advice, as if air-conditioners and neurosurgeons should come without consequences and as freely as oil out of the desert. And they are still more dyspeptic that some people persist in thinking there is something unhealthy in the fact that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on September 11 were Saudi nationals.
IT IS common to hear that Osama bin Laden, a naturalized Saudi Arabian whose family still has close ties to the inner circles of the monarchy, deliberately chose Saudi nationals for the September 11 murders in order to poison the otherwise amicable relations between the kingdom and the United States.
Maybe so–but the gambit, if that is what it was, was certainly made easier by the thousands of Saudis who willingly traveled to Afghanistan over the last few years to train in bin Laden’s terrorist camps. Royal denials notwithstanding, Saudi government money has for years been funneled into madrassas to encourage radical anti-Americanism as well as to fund the al Qaeda terrorists. Allegedly the purpose has been as much to provide insurance against subversive activity directed at the kingdom itself as to subsidize attacks on the United States. And there may be, after all, a sick genius in a system that can shift the hatreds of an illiterate Saudi youth away from the jet-setting sheiks who have diverted his nation’s treasure and onto the anonymous Americans who created that wealth, who ship the kingdom its consumer goods, and who defend it from the neighborhood’s carnivores.
But that anomaly raises the key question: why have close relations with the Saudis been a cornerstone of American foreign policy for decades, as brought to our attention most recently in a series of slick Saudi-financed ads showing American Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush in warm embraces with a variety of sheiks? The answer is banal: oil, and nothing more. Otherwise, Saudi Arabia’s small population of 22 million would earn it less clout than Egypt. Otherwise, the kingdom is no more strategically located than nearby Yemen. Otherwise, its sponsorship of terrorism would ensure it a place on the State Department’s list of rogue states like Syria and Iran. In fact, a more sinister status: Saudi terrorists have killed more Americans than all those murdered by Iranians, Syrians, Libyans, and Iraqis put together.
The actual Saudi percentage of the world’s crude oil and gas reserves is a matter of dispute. On the one hand, there are still unexplored vastnesses in the kingdom itself; on the other, there is an indeterminable amount of oil lying beneath Russia, West Africa, the Arctic, and the seas. But it is reasonable to suppose that Saudi Arabia holds 25 percent or more of the remaining petroleum now known to exist. Thus, for at least the next two decades, the kingdom’s oil is thought to be critical to the world economy and in particular to the prosperity of Japan, Europe, and the United States.
In the past, our devil’s bargain with the kingdom was as utilitarian as it was unapologetic. They kept pumping the oil–either to us directly or as untraceable currents into the huge world pool–and we promised to ignore both the primeval nature of their domestic society and their virulent hatred of Israel. In the cold war the geopolitics of containing an expansionist Soviet Union made this mutually beneficial concordat easier to stomach. There was also a certain familiarity bred by the growing multitude of Americans who traveled to Saudi Arabia to construct the civilized veneer of the kingdom and of Saudis who came here to obtain the expertise that would presumably ensure some kind of future autonomy. Perhaps the idealistic among us once thought that their intimate and sustained exposure to Americans might eventually lead to liberalization.
EVEN AFTER the cold war, however, “stability,” rather than autonomy or liberalization, was the operative word when it came to our interest in Saudi Arabia. In theory, we did not press the royal family for democratic reform on their assurances that something far worse and far more radical–a la Algeria or Iran–might come to power in the chaos of elections. This seemed fair enough; who wanted another Khomeini or Mullah Omar atop a quarter of the world’s oil supply? Or, worse, a Hitler-like thug who would hold one election and one alone? So we both shrugged as the Saudis permitted our troops to defend them, our experts to train them, and our merchants to profit from their oil while they, for their part, managed to hold their noses at our liberated women, prominent Jews, and crass dissemination of videos, fast food, raucous music, and general cultural wantonness.
Marshall Wyllie, a former charge at the embassy in Saudi Arabia, once summed up the American policy best: “We need their oil, and they need our protection.” Armed to the teeth with American weaponry that for the most part they are unable to maintain or operate competently, * bolstered by a frontline tripwire of uniformed American soldiers, and static in their resistance to change, the Saudis preened that they were the reliable deliverymen of inexpensive and plentiful oil in a way that the lunocracies in Iraq, Iran, or Libya were not. And admittedly there was something to that claim, at least enough to enable us to think that our policy toward them was neither illogical nor even inherently amoral.
Saudi princes did tend to choose predetermined successors when the ruling sheik of the day passed on, without the gunplay typically seen in succession fights elsewhere in the Arab world. Unlike the Iraqis, they never torched the oil fields; unlike the Iranians, they never stormed our embassy for hostages; unlike the Libyans, they never bombed our airliners. But as if in imitation of their own perspective on reality, our approach to them has also been static and equally blinkered, and in particular has taken no account of the huge alterations in the post-cold-war world.
These changes were already in play well before September 11. The international oil matrix is far more complex than during the Gulf war even a decade ago. Russia is now rapidly becoming the world’s most important producer, and the demise of the Soviet bloc has meant that the entire world is now under active exploration. Whereas most other nations are no longer overly worried about the politics of oil exportation, and are positively indifferent to the old Marxist rhetoric about Western capitalist exploitation, the petroleum policy of Saudi Arabia–which has threatened or implemented at least three embargoes in past decades–remains both entirely self-interested and never far from the radical interests in the Middle East.
The sheiks, however, are being led by events that are rapidly careering out of their control. If Saudi Arabia pumps less oil, there will be shocks and disruptions, but eager new producing countries will soon fill the void; if the Saudis export more, then the price may well collapse altogether. And because new, nonpetroleum-based technologies are on the horizon, both to produce electricity and to power transportation, not to mention the increased efficiency promised in the near future by hybrid engines, most exporting countries now worry about getting what oil they have out of the ground rather than watch it sit untapped and decline in value in the latter half of the century.
In sum, a Saudi Arabia with a sizable debt and no real nonpetroleum economy needs consumers as much as, or more than, buyers need Middle Eastern producers. Saudi Arabia is ever so slowly losing its vaunted place as the world’s price-fixer, and its past history and present machinations reveal it to be no more or less a friend of the United States than any other Islamic exporting country. If the Saudis declared another embargo, it might fare about as well as Saddam Hussein’s recent ban of exports to the United States–and cause a surge in pumping and exploration from Russia and South America.
THERE IS, then, no real need for us to be frightened by the loss of the kingdom’s oil friendship. But we should be concerned by the evidence of its strategic enmity. It may be true that the Saudis are neither Iraqis nor Iranians nor Libyans; but it is quite dangerous enough that they are Saudis.
The PLO archives made public by the Israeli army in the wake of its recent operations on the West Bank have confirmed that the kingdom actively gives cash to a variety of terrorist organizations and showers with money (or free trips to Mecca) the families of suicide bombers. This bounty can no longer be seen as mere postmortem charity, but rather as premeditated financial incentives for murder. What that means is that the kingdom’s suicide-killers of September 11 who butchered our civilians were not so at odds with basic Saudi approaches to conflict after all.
The much-vaunted Saudi “peace plan” for the Middle East does not alter this troubling picture. What was striking (stunning, really) about the proposals was not the grudging willingness after a half-century to recognize the existence of the state of Israel but the complete absence in them of any gesture–planned state visits to Tel Aviv, direct talks with Jerusalem, cessation of state propaganda, curtailment of terrorist subsidies–that might suggest more than a public-relations ploy to deflect growing American furor after September 11. Current Saudi peace-feelers are mostly explicable as salve for wounds the Saudis themselves have inflicted, and which they are suddenly worried have become infected in a very aggrieved host.
Then there is radical Islam. Despite suicide bombings in Lebanon, the first World Trade Center attack, the 1996 assaults against the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 bombings at the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the hole blasted in the USS Cole, distracted Americans used to believe that such vicious wasps deserved little more than an occasional swat. But after the murder of 3,000 Americans, and the various anthrax, dirty-bomb, and suicide-attack scares, Americans are finally seeing militant Islam not merely as a different religion, or even as a radical Jim-Jones-like cult, but as a threat to our very existence.
Saudi Arabia is the placenta of this frightening phenomenon. Its money has financed it; its native terrorists promote it; and its own unhappy citizenry is either amused by or indifferent to its effects upon the world. Surely it has occurred to more than a few Americans that, without a petroleum-rich Wahhabism, the support for such international killers and the considerable degree of ongoing aid to those who would destroy the West would radically diminish.
Finally, Saudi Arabia has shown an increasingly disturbing tendency to interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States, both in religious and political matters. Whereas our female soldiers, who are in the Arabian desert to preserve the power of the sheiks, cannot walk about unveiled, their hosts show no such cultural inhibitions when here in America. Right after September 11, the FBI was asked by the monarchy to help whisk away members of the bin Laden family from the Boston area to find sanctuary back home. Any government that can request–and promptly receive–federal help for the family of a terrorist, whose operatives, 75 percent of them Saudis, had hours earlier vaporized 3,000 American civilians, has too much confidence in its clout with the United States government.
Saudi television commercials seeking to influence American public opinion are now nightly fare. Thousands of Saudi students are politically active on American campuses. Local imams reflect the extreme and often anti-American views of senior Muslim clerics who channel the biggest subsidies from the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s cash infusions to Muslim communities in America ensure that Wahhabi fundamentalism takes hold among Arab guests living in the United States. As Daniel Pipes has tirelessly documented in these pages, the danger to us now is not just without but within, and its ultimate address is, more often than not, Riyadh.
To RECAPITULATE, all the old reasons that prevented us from breaking away from Saudi Arabia are no longer compelling. More and more, the royals’ oil policy is neither pro-Western nor so crucial as it once was in determining world pricing. The present government has been an active abettor of terror, and perhaps the most virulent anti-Israeli Arab country in the region. Al Qaeda and other terrorists have received bribe money from the Saudis, without which they could not operate so effectively. That the monarchy has not been forthcoming in tracking those with ties to the September 11 murderers reflects its real worry about where such investigations might lead. And Saudi cash has been a force for radicalism right here in the United States, casting into doubt the legitimacy and purpose of almost every Islamic charity now operating within our borders. Nor should we forget that no country in the world is more hostile to the American idea of religious tolerance, free speech, constitutional government, and sexual equality.
Can the U.S., then, revamp its policy toward Saudi Arabia, perhaps to conform with our stance toward similarly belligerent regimes like Libya or Syria? The beginning of wisdom is to acknowledge that such an about-face would hardly be easy–if for no other reason than that many of the royal family are close friends of powerful Americans in the oil and defense industries, on university campuses, and within government. Their pedigree stretches back to the likes of Clark Clifford, Spiro Agnew, and Richard Helms in the days when ARAMCO used to lobby to prevent American networks from broadcasting such delicacies as the 1979 film Death of a Princess (a surreal chronicle of the public execution of a royal Saudi princess and the beheading of her lover on charges of fornication).
Moreover, most elite Saudis here in America are longtime residents, generous hosts, and superficially friendly. They tend to be adept at American-style public relations, whether emerging in coats and ties for interviews, receptions, and political galas or time-traveling back to the ancient netherworld of flowing robes and headdress when negotiations toughen. The few American journalists who bring up the sordid side of Saudi behavior usually appear gratuitously rude to guests who come across as sensitive, hurt, and in full denial.
But the point in any attempt to change our relationship is not so much to punish the Saudis for past hostility and duplicity as to create a landscape for real revolution in the Middle East–a reordering that might in its turn prevent a future clash of civilizations. Such an attempt must be made with no illusions that we have any real control over distant events, and with full recognition of the impracticability of growing democracy in a culture without the soil of tolerance or a middle class. Are there Saudi dissidents who are committed to democracy and can stand up to Wahhabi madness? Our task is to find them, or help to create them, and then to aid them all.
This will sound like a mission impossible, but consider: American businessmen may find the royal family hospitable (over $300 billion in arms sales since the 1991 Gulf war), but most foreign workers in the kingdom mistrust their employers; most Arabs elsewhere resent the abject corruption and conspicuous consumption of the House of Saud; and most Saudis themselves would be happy to see the pampered princes go–some, admittedly, in exchange for Islamist clerics, but others for any consensual government that could end the present kleptocracy. Besides, while we were pursuing this long-term goal, there are steps that could and should be taken in the meantime.
One of them is to recalibrate our oil policy, encouraging–with loans, joint pipeline ventures, and long-term contracts–exploration in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Not only would such suppliers increase the pool of the world’s oil and gas, and thereby lessen Saudi influence, but at least in the case of Russia we would be buying from a struggling democracy rather than from a small elite already as rich as many of its own silenced people are poor. And, speaking of energy, there are things to be done on the home front as well: conservatives might withhold their opposition to government-mandated efficiency standards for new cars and trucks, liberals their opposition to Arctic oil drilling.
Another interim but absolutely crucial step is the seemingly peripheral matter of dealing with Iraq. In a world where our enemies are perfectly prepared to blow up our buildings and murder our civilians at work, we can no longer tolerate the continuance of a mad regime with access to poison gas and potential nukes. Iraq is significant, moreover, not just for the evil that it is today but for the good that it might represent tomorrow. Once freed from Saddam Hussein, its rather prosperous and secular people could help change the moral balance of the Middle East, immediately posing a challenge to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf states. Not only would a liberated Iraq become a friendly oil producer, but its very existence would raise a host of fruitfully embarrassing questions about such matters as why there need be American troops in Saudi Arabia at all, and against whom those troops are defending the sheiks if not their own people.
WHAT THE United States should strive for in the Middle East is not tired normality–the sclerosis that led to September 11, the Palestinian quagmire, and an Iraq full of weapons of mass destruction. Insisting on adherence to the same old relationship is akin to supporting a tottering Soviet Gorbachev instead of an emerging Russian Yeltsin, or lamenting the bold new world ushered in by the fall of the Berlin Wall–a radical upheaval that critics once said was too abrupt and perilous given the decades of dehumanizing Soviet tyranny, the inexperience of East European dissidents, and the absence of a Westernized middle class. Wiser observers have long argued that where governments hate us most, the people tend to like us more, sensing that we at least oppose those who bring them misery.
Only by seeking to spark disequilibrium, if not outright chaos, do we stand a chance of ridding the world of the likes of bin Laden, Ararat, and Saddam Hussein. Just as a reconstituted Afghanistan eliminated the satanic Taliban and turned the region’s worst regime into a government with real potential, so too a new Iraq might start the fall of dominoes in the Gulf that could wipe away the entire foul nest behind September 11.
Even should fundamental changes go wrong in Saudi Arabia, the worst that could happen would not be much worse than what we have now–thousands of our citizens dead, a crater in New York, millions put out of work, Israelis blown up weekly, and a half-billion people in the Arab world unfree, hungry, illiterate, and informed by the perpetrators of evil that America and Israel are at fault. As a student said to me shortly after September 11, “What are we afraid of? Are they going to blow up the World Trade Center with thousands in it?”
* Saudi weapons are impressive, since 40 percent of the country’s income is devoted to buying imported arms. But their pilots, their high command, and their men in the field have no record of distinction in modern modes of warfare. In the past, most of their expensive AWACS surveillance planes had to be either manned by mercenaries or stay grounded. The billions of dollars’ worth of ultra-sophisticated jets, helicopters, and bombers simply lack qualified pilots to fly them, much less adequate mechanics to fix them. Those who do fight are hardly inspiring: had Saddam Hussein kept his tanks moving through Kuwait in the summer of 1991, he could have swallowed the kingdom in a few days well before we arrived to save it.
©2002 Victor Davis Hanson