Rachel Bronson, the CFR’s top Middle East expert and author of a new book on Saudi-American relations, Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership With Saudi Arabia, says that she does not expect Saudi-American relations to approach the closeness of the Cold War years, when the two countries were allied against the spread of Communism. “We should expect it to be a rockier road, although I do expect the relationship to muddle through,” says Bronson, a senior fellow and director of Middle East Studies at the CFR.
“Saudi Arabia is extremely concerned over the possibility of Iran’s nuclear proliferation,” Bronson says, “and is very concerned about its seeming relentless bid to acquire a successful nuclear program.” She notes that the strict form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia has its current origins in 1979, following the rise of Ayatollah Ali Khomeini in Iran.
In his State of the Union address, President Bush set a goal of a 75 percent reduction in U.S. oil imports from the Middle East by 2025, hoping, of course, that the United States will find alternative-energy sources that time. What is the overall outlook for the U.S.-Saudi oil relationship?
Oil is obviously incredibly important to that relationship. Saudi Arabia is the largest Middle East country from which the United States imports oil. Saudi Arabia sits on one quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves. When the president talks about reducing dependence on Middle East oil, first and foremost he’s talking about Saudi Arabia. Most experts, while welcoming that sentiment to reduce our overall export imports, recognize that it won’t happen anytime soon and that there isn’t a serious plan for how one would go about reducing oil imports. Saudi Arabia in the past has been the number one exporter to the United States in terms of oil. Currently it’s either third or fourth.
The important thing to remember with the U.S.-Saudi relationship and one of the key points in my book is that, while oil is very important, the relationship is also supported by two other very important pillars: Saudi Arabia’s strategic location—where it actually physically sits on the map—has been very important going back to World War II and remains that way in the present. The fact is that it borders on Iraq and is across the Persian Gulf from Iran, and is quite close to Israel. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s religiosity has been very important in the region. For example, in terms of its strategic location in the contemporary period, Saudi Arabia is extremely concerned over the possibility of Iran’s nuclear proliferation, and about its seeming relentless bid to acquire a successful nuclear program.
So it shares a U.S. concern?
On Iran it most certainly does. One of the things we’ve seen from the Saudis is a call for a nuclear-free Arabian gulf. In the past they’ve talked about a nuclear-free Middle East with clear reference to the Israelis. Now they’re very focused on their immediate neighbor to the east and their immediate efforts are to try to ensure a nuclear-free Arabian or Persian gulf.
This was a proposal put forth by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saudal-Faisal early in the year. But nothing happened. Is it just dead in the water?
Well, no, it’s not dead in the water, but the important thing is what it says about Saudi Arabia’s threat perception and how serious [it’s] taking the Iranian threat. When the Saudis look at the region, they see the Iranians gaining momentum in Afghanistan, gaining momentum in Iraq, having continued influence in Lebanon, and potentially gaining momentum in Gaza and Palestine. So they’re very concerned about Iran from a regional point of view, but also for the specific unconventional weaponry.
I thought the Saudis were actually trying to improve relations with Iran recently, but is that a misconception?
Well, the Saudis go back and forth on whether or not they can work with the Iranians. The current ambassador to the United States, Turki al-Faisal, has repeatedly said that he doesn’t want to talk about Saudi-Iranian negotiations if you will because presumably they’re going on, and you can see that from his interviews on Charlie Rose and his comments here at the Council. But I think those statements that are being made are clear signals that any sort of negotiation is not because they are appeasing the Iranians; they are very, very worried about Iran. They’re very worried about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
They’re worried this is a return back to Khomeini-ism. The Iranian revolution was truly problematic for the Saudis and actually was part of the reason they reverted to a much more radical interpretation of Islam themselves. This was in response to what was happening across the gulf to their east. So we shouldn’t mistake—and I don’t think the [Bush] administration mistakes—any quiet conversations between the two as anything but trying to understand what Iran’s motives are and how to defuse a very, very tense situation in the region.
Now, of course, Iran being a Shiite country, predominately, and Saudi Arabia, except for its eastern provinces, a major Sunni power, how much of those tensions are based on religious differences?
There’s a religious and an ethnic and a geopolitical component to it. And this actually takes us back to this third pillar I was talking about, in terms of religion and how the United States and Saudis in the past have actually worked together in some ways, and Saudi Arabia’s religiosity was very important to the United States. Currently it’s very important; the Saudis are very worried about what the Iranians are up to with the Shiites in Iraq, and they’re probably more worried about that than we are, but we’re also very concerned about it.
President [Richard] Nixon in the late 1960s and early 1970s had his two twin pillar policies for the Gulf, with Iran and Saudi Arabia being those two pillars. With the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Saudis became very concerned about the rise of a new Islamic republic. Until then, they viewed themselves as holding the mantle of Islam. And the rise of the Persians rather than the Arabs, the rise of the Shiites rather than the Sunnis, the rise of a major new power that seemed to have aggressive intents was very disconcerting to a status-quo power. Saudi Arabia began responding to that by, in a sense, standing with the most radical and extreme clerics within their society.
Now it wasn’t only the Iranian revolution, but it was over the course of 1979, when you had two very important things happen, which was in November of 1979 the seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca by Sunni extremists. These extremists claimed that the al-Saud [the ruling family] was not really religious; that they were partygoers, gamblers, womanizers—and Saudi Arabia deserved better. Then, within weeks you had the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a Muslim state. And to all three of these events, religion seemed to provide an answer for how to organize the polity. Crown Prince Fahd [bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud] at the time started standing shoulder to shoulder with the most radical of those within Saudi Arabia. Women disappeared from television, and the authorities closed down the women’s hair salons. All of these extremes that we now think about as typically Saudi Arabian really were legislated in the early eighties, in part because it could help the Saudis build some internal cohesion against the Iranians, but it also helped them motivate fighters to go up and fight the jihad in Afghanistan, all of which was very understandable from a Washington point of view; geopolitically it made a whole lot of sense to do that, and there was very little push back from our point of view about what was going on. In part we didn’t notice, but for those who noticed, it was perfectly acceptable because we viewed the international threats in a similar way.
Of course, all these events led in a way to al-Qaeda and the events of 9/11 and the terrible U.S.-Saudi relations that followed. What are the relations now between the Saudis and the United Statesin the aftermath of 9/11? Have things changed?
Well, they’ve changed a few times. Certainly after 9/11 there was the complete rupture in relations. It took the Saudis twenty months to fully acknowledge that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi and begin taking responsibility for it. They didn’t do so until after May of 2003 and November of 2003, when successive bombings attacked Saudis and the Saudi royal family. After that, Saudi Arabia got very, very serious about acknowledging and dealing with its homegrown terrorist problem. The United States also got better at dealing with the Saudis, and we simplified our approaches to the Saudis.
We stopped sending over a new delegation every month. We started organizing better and appointing one particular person at the National Security Council to take the lead on U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism efforts. Saudi Arabia welcomed the FBI to work shoulder to shoulder more publicly inside the kingdom and there was a real turnaround in U.S.-Saudi relations at the highest of levels. And then, of course, you got the recent meeting in Crawford in April of 2005, between then-Crown Prince Abdullah and President Bush.
That was an important turning point. So at the highest of levels things got better. I don’t think they’re ever going to be what they were, only because there’s no longer this overarching set of interests that we shared fighting the Soviet Union, but they have improved. The challenge is now at the popular level, where the publics are much more involved in the relationship. Neither the American nor Saudi public understands what the relationship is for, nor understands what we get from it, and is extremely angry about the treatment the other has received in the press. So there’s a long road to haul in terms of understanding this relationship in its strategic context. Coming back to the book, I spent a lot of time thinking about the subtitle, which is “America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia,” and I didn’t use the word relationship, because often we think of this as a very personalized relationship; we don’t like them, they don’t like us.
But we tend not to think of it in its strategic context, about partnerships and alliances; whether or not it serves the United States well and whether it serves Saudi [Arabia] well. I think overall Saudi Arabia’s been a difficult ally for the United States, but France has been a difficult ally for the United States too. In some ways, Saudi Arabia is the France of the Middle East, and we have real problems that we must continue to focus on—namely, to continue to watch and regulate the money, and insist that the Saudis continue to watch where the money goes and demand a high level of accountability.
Are you basically optimistic for the next ten years or so?
I am. I do think the relationship will be more difficult than in the past. I don’t think it’s going to be severed, and I don’t think we’re going to ever see the divorce that people were threatening a few years ago. We should expect it to be a bumpy road, though, because the overall strategic interests aren’t there the way they were during the Cold War. There are still important pockets of shared interests, and we talked about some of them, but there’s obviously not going to be this turn to “Oh, but we do agree on the Soviets,” the way that we did during the Cold War, and so we should expect it to be a rockier road, but I do expect the relationship to muddle through.