Realist Bibliophile

Inside the Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia.

Inside the Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia. Thomas W. Lippman.  Westview Press, 2004.

Thomas W. Lippman's Inside the Mirage puts flesh on the skeleton of the U.S.-Saudi relationship of the last half century.  Relying not only on archives, but also on scores of interviews with those intimately connected with the relationship for the last fifty years--including many of the "ordinary" American specialists and their families who lived and worked in the desert kingdom--Lippman creates a compelling story backed not only by facts and figures, but memorable anecdotes.

What this book does--and does effectively--is to illustrate how the U.S.-Saudi "bargain" functioned.  Saudi Arabia wanted access to the West's modern technology and benefits without undergoing cultural Westernization.  The U.S. wanted access to the kingdom's oil and strategic location.  Since both realized that large numbers of Americans were needed to bring about these joint objectives, and that Americans could not, in turn, be "Saudi-ized", compromises had to be created that would allow Americans to live in the kingdom, more or less as Americans, without "infecting" the larger Saudi society.

Both sides, at various points in the relationship, were prepared to compromise on fundamental values.  The kingdom had to convince its own conservative elites to permit the bending of traditional values and mores to accommodate Americans. The American side, in turn, accepted that principles of gender and religious equality (and, later on, legal transparency) would not be insisted upon as a precondition for Americans to do business with the Saudis.

Two trends are apparent in reading this book.  The first is that the Saudis tended to grow more confident and assertive not simply as their oil wealth grew, but as they began to acquire the skills needed to operate the infrastructure they imported from the West, the need to accommodate Westerners in the kingdom declined (Lippman records Michael Ameen's observation [Ameen being the head of ARAMCO's representation office in Riyadh], that Americans were, in essence, training themselves out of jobs in the kingdom.)

The second is that while the interests of the two states are closely enmeshed, the personal web of ties that used to bind the two countries are beginning to unravel.  The Joint Economic Commission that sent thousands of American specialists to modernize and rationalize the Saudi government has ended.  The American-constructed infrastructure is now largely peopled by Saudis.  In the aftermath of 9/11, Saudis may look elsewhere--to Europe or Asia--for training and education.  Lippman aptly concludes, "The marriage of convenience continues, helpful to both partners, but they are now spending more of their time in separate bedrooms."

Where the relationship is headed is anyone's guess.  But Lippman's narrative makes it clear that the marriage is entering a midlife crisis.