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

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. 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 lovefest 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.

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