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

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

Mini Teaser: Relations with the Desert Kingdom suffered before 9/11. Now they're on the ropes. But Washington can ill afford the loss of this critical ally, even when it's not on its best behavior.

by Author(s): Martin Sieff

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.

Essay Types: Essay