Courting the Saudis-and Catastrophe

Courting the Saudis-and Catastrophe

To fully appreciate President Bush’s recent addresses to the nation one must follow the footsteps of his vice president—to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


To fully appreciate President Bush's recent addresses to the nation one must follow the footsteps of his vice president-to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The counsel that King Abdullah delivered to Dick Cheney during his whirlwind November 2006 trip to Riyadh provides a vital context for Bush's State of the Union and January 10 speeches.

Abdullah summoned Cheney to a brief meeting in order to summarily quash two of the expected recommendations to be offered in the Iraq Study Group report. Abdullah challenged the report's anticipated recommendations that the United States engage Iran and convene a security conference with all the regional countries. I would also speculate that the Saudi king also told Cheney that any Shi‘a government in Iraq would be unacceptable because it would cooperate with Iran.


The president has now rejected the ISG recommendations that Abdullah deems objectionable with notable explicitness-and potential consequences. While Bush referred on Tuesday to "Sunni extremists" committing acts of provocative sectarian violence in Iraq, he did not point to any state sponsors or financiers of such extremists. In directing his presidential focus on the Shi‘a, though, Bush singularly pointed to Iran: "Radical Shi'a elements, some of whom receive support from Iran, formed death squads. The result was a tragic escalation of sectarian rage and reprisal that continues to this day."

Bush went on to say: "In Iraq, multinational forces are operating under a mandate from the United Nations. We're working with Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the Gulf States to increase support for Iraq's government.

The United Nations has imposed sanctions on Iran, and made it clear that the world will not allow the regime in Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons."

Not only does the president reject by omission "working with" Iran, in the same breath Bush also unmistakably assigns that country a rogue status-directly challenging the carefully constructed recommendations that ten notable Americans labored for several months to produce, with a focus on U.S. national interests. The report also advocated discussions with Syria and gaining the support of friends, such as Saudi Arabia, especially with the Sunni tribes in Iraq, and convening the regional security conference.

Could the Al-Sauds help with the Sunni insurgents and make the regional conference a success? Yes. The Al-Sauds could support U.S. policy interests, but they won't. Instead they want the United States to follow the Saudi policy of isolating Iran, a country with which Saudi Arabia has had bad relations since the Iranian Revolution due to paranoid fears of a challenge from the mullahs in Tehran.

Fear and Loathing in Riyadh

The Al-Sauds loaned, and later gifted, over $40 billion to Saddam Hussein to invade Iran and to use outlawed biological and chemical weapons on Iranians. The Al-Sauds also aimed their Chinese missiles on Iranian targets. Ironically, the Al-Sauds were later threatened by the same Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait.

After the first Gulf War and beginning with President Bush senior, the Al-Sauds' major request to the U.S. was to keep Iran isolated. The United States acquiesced. Washington has compromised its international policy options to curry favor with the Al-Sauds. Even if this tactic were to work in the very short run, this looming question remains: will an isolated Iran be a source of long-term stability in the Persian Gulf?

And Iran is not Saudi Arabia's only problem. The Al-Sauds fear a Shi'a dominated Iraq in part because they are afraid of their own Shi'a minority, who live largely in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia where most of Saudi Arabia's oil is located. These are the same Shi'a the Saudis have mistreated for decades. But nothing, even the directives from Riyadh, will change the reality of Iraq's demographics, which include a significant Shi'a majority that has been abused throughout the ages. While the United States faces possible disaster in Iraq, the Bush Administration seems to be willing to make U.S. policy interests subservient to the Al-Sauds' domestic fears.

The Al-Saud Stranglehold

Realizing that his country needed external support for his family to keep its throne, and foreign expertise and capital to develop its oil, Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud met President Roosevelt aboard a U.S. ship in 1945. The United States would protect the Al-Sauds against internal upheaval and external aggression in return for access to Saudi oil. But little did Roosevelt know how Saudi Arabia would, or more correctly would not, develop.

The Al-Sauds sell the United States oil at the world price level-not at a discount. U.S. politicians seem to forget that oil producers cannot drink oil. They need to sell it. While some parties may have benefited enormously from the Al-Sauds-such as some U.S. corporations and their executives and shareholders, in the form of sweetheart contracts-the United States as a whole has not. Britain "naively" embarked on an investigation of corruption in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, only to abandon it in the name of national security about a month ago, after the Al-Sauds threatened not to buy another piece of weaponry from the UK.

Taking a broader perspective, it is difficult to discern positive actions on the part of the Al-Sauds. Saudi Arabia funneled money to the Contras during the Reagan presidency. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia helped fund the mujaheddin and Osama bin Laden. In 1986, unbeknownst to the United States, Saudi Arabia acquired long-range Chinese CSS-2 missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and of reaching Israel and currently targeting all major Iranian cities. Some in the intelligence community even speculate that Saudi Arabia may have already acquired a crude nuclear weapon from abroad to put atop its Chinese missiles. Most importantly, Saudi Arabia is the country that produced Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is still directly killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the insurgents receiving financial support from Saudi citizens, if not from the government.

How did Saudi Arabia produce the likes of Osama bin Laden? Saudi textbooks preached, and continue to preach, hatred for the West. And many Saudis, including Al-Qaeda, blame the United States for supporting the Al-Sauds and stifling any internal change, whether democracy, as wished by the majority of Saudis, or extremist theocracy, as advocated by the likes of Bin Laden.

U.S. support for the Al-Sauds has been the enabling factor that has allowed the family to run the country in their own narrow self-interest. Indeed, the Al-Sauds see themselves as the country's first-class owners, with the premier tribes of Saudi Arabia as second-class citizens, other Sunnis as third-class citizens and the Shi'a as fourth-class citizens. This is a country that could implode at any moment.

What's more, the U.S. marriage of convenience with the Al-Sauds has not escaped wider Middle Eastern scrutiny. How can the United States expect Middle Easterners to react favorably when Washington in effect imposes rulers on them? Washington's anointing of certain dictators as moderates does not make them any more palatable. Ironically, the reason that the majority of Iranians like America, whereas the Arabs hate it, is that the U.S. has not bolstered the regime at hand.

What would the United States have done if Iran, Syria or any number of other countries had produced Osama bin Laden-with his attack on 9/11 and footmen fighting the United States in Afghanistan and in Iraq-and allowed its citizens to finance insurgents in Iraq? Would we be dutifully sending our vice president to hear and obey their demands? Would we call them a friendly and moderate nation?

Cheney's trip, and its apparent resonance in Bush's major addresses, is the latest episode in America's relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf in a stranglehold. The apparent U.S. commitment to support and defend the Al-Sauds no matter what they do, and not do, will eventually end in an unimaginable regional catastrophe. It's time for the U.S. Congress to hold hearings and look into the foundations of this exceptional relationship.

Hossein Askari is Iran professor of International Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.