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

U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia, therefore, must avoid the Scylla of passive, defeatist compliance with every long-established Saudi bad habit and the Charybdis of seeking to undermine, destabilize, weaken or just "democratize" the current regime. Realists and conservatives should remember the 200-year old tested wisdom of Edmund Burke--one does not try to repair one's house in the middle of a thunderstorm.

The United States needs to renew its strategic dialogue with the House of Saud at the highest level. Figures at the level of the vice president or the secretary of state--for no one at any lesser level would carry credibility, however impassioned his assurances--should visit Riyadh, not just for a few hours as part of one of the "whistle-stop", "blink and you miss it" stopovers that have become all too much a part of U.S. diplomacy, but for days of dialogue and serious negotiations. The Saudis need to be given serious U.S. assurances that the United States is renewing its commitment to the kingdom and that it will not embarrass or undermine them by any public calls or pressure for reforms or concessions they regard as unwise.

In fact, since the Al-Qaeda suicide bomb attacks in Riyadh on May 12, 2003 that killed 35 people, the Saudis belatedly woke up to the security threat they faced internally. The cozy informal concordat with their own most extreme clergy that had endured for 14 years since Islamic extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca during the 1979 Hajj was thrown aside. All the 1,000 or so clerics openly sympathetic to Al-Qaeda were either fired or banned from addressing the faithful after weekly Friday prayer meetings.

In light of all this, U.S. policy towards the Saudis in dealing with their own internal problems should be clear. First, the United States needs to maintain its own pressure on Riyadh either to slash general madrassa funding or to reform their curricula--including removing inflammatory, hate-filled teachings about the United States and its allies.

Second, the Saudis should be supported in the efforts they themselves have already initiated to revise their relationship with their own Wahhabi religious establishment. But U.S. diplomats, intelligence officers and analysts need to work with more culturally sophisticated officials from countries like France and Britain in pursuing this end. It is typical both of traditional U.S. policymaking as well as the fashionable mantras now embraced by the Bush Administration that they will seek broad and unrealistic goals that can only alienate the Saudis from their own people when much narrower, more focused goals are really required.

While it would be nice to see free elections, freedom of the press, full democracy and women's rights in Saudi Arabia, none is essential or indeed more than peripheral to U.S. national interests. Preventing the Al-Saud from being toppled by a fundamentalist Wahhabi revolution is central. So is cutting off the educating and funding of future generations of young Muslims in extreme sentiments and values at odds with the historic traditions of their own religion. U.S. policymakers need to focus on what is essential and achievable, not on what is desirable and impossible.

Third, U.S. policymakers must be restrained and cautious in preparing any "shopping list" of reforms they wish to see implemented in Saudi Arabia. As the current experience in Iraq grimly demonstrates, reckless U.S. enthusiasm for hands-on policies around the world, especially in the Arab Muslim Middle East, can rapidly backfire or spin out of control. The worst thing the United States can do in Saudi Arabia is force the Saudis to move too far too fast. The second worst thing is already happening: The Al-Saud have been given the impression that key policymakers in the Bush Administration are determined to topple and destroy them. Until such fears are convincingly laid to rest, no senior Saudi policymaker can be expected to trust any advice from current Administration figures, no matter how altruistic or well-meaning it may be.

For in dealing with Saudi Arabia today, U.S. policymakers are handling an unexploded bomb, and many of them do not seem to realize it. Sixty percent of the Saudi population, conservatively estimated at 18 million (and perhaps as high as 25 million) is below the age of 21. Popular sympathy for Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda appears to be widespread. Whatever problems the United States has in dealing with the Al-Saud, any radical takeover--and realistically there can be no other kind--would be worse. If moderating the madrassa system is a key first step to "draining the swamp" of Islamic extremism, pushing too much change too soon on the Desert Kingdom would be dynamiting the flood gates that protect us all, from being swept away in an Islamist deluge.

There is more. To restore the sundered bonds of trust between Washington and Riyadh, the Saudis need to be convinced by a serious commitment that the United States will not initiate any new ambitious operation or strategy for "regime change" in neighboring countries such as Syria or Iran. To those who would argue that it is not realistic for the United States to foreswear putting such pressure or leverage on Syria and Iran, I would only reply that avoiding confrontation with either country, especially Iran--at a time when 135,000 U.S. troops are stretched to the limit and at least 20,000 more may soon be required in Iraq--is the height of realism and common sense. The United States will not be able to "settle" Iraq without coming to some kind of accommodation with current or future rulers in Tehran. Nor can the Bush Administration realistically hope that Israel may "tame" Syria by toppling President Bashar Assad.

Of course, the United States retains many economic and diplomatic, not to mention military, weapons in its arsenal to deter Tehran or Riyadh alike. Sensible caution in pursuing policies is very different from craven appeasement. But the fevered dreams still heard in some Washington circles about using the brilliant success of democracy in Iraq to effect change in Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia is quite simply a fantasy without any empirical evidence to support its practicality. Does Iraq look peaceful and content now? How long will it take to make it that way when the British Empire failed most notably to do so in forty years of military occupation from 1918 to 1958? The dream of "exporting democracy" from Iraq to its neighbors reminds one of World War I British First Sea Lord Sir John "Jacky" Fisher's favorite recipe for cooking jugged hare. "First catch your hare."

Indeed, far from giving Riyadh the impression that Washington is in any way prepared to return to its complacent "hear no evil, see no evil" policy towards the Desert Kingdom, the Saudis need to be warned that the light of U.S. intelligence henceforth will be shining continually on operations and fund-raising activities by Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and similar groups. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Saudi intelligence did indeed provide much extremely valuable information to the United States. The United States must develop a mutually beneficial intelligence-sharing relationship with the Saudis. And just as President Reagan convinced the Saudi leaders of his day that the lowering of oil prices was in their interests, U.S. leaders need to be able to convince today's Saudi leadership that while they recognize its need to shore up global oil prices, America will require some measure of energy-price stability.

Developing this kind of give-and-take in the second Bush Administration, or, for that matter, in the first Kerry Administration, will not be easy. But it is not impossible either. The old realist wisdom that great powers usually are ready to abandon the indulgence of emotion, whether of gratitude or grudge, to further their own enlightened self-interest should guide our future policies towards Saudi Arabia. Despite their new relationships with Iran and Russia, the Saudis recognize and fear U.S. power. They recognize the potential internal threat they face from Al-Qaeda and its allies all too well. The United States still has much to offer Saudi Arabia and the Saudis have it in their power to deliver much that the United States needs too. The old "special relationship" can never be revived and restored as it once was. But recognizing that should open the way to build a new relationship based on realism and mutual interest.

Essay Types: Essay