Thicker than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia
In Thicker than Oil, the first full history of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, Council Senior Fellow Rachel Bronson reveals why the partnership became so intimate and how the countries’ shared interests sowed the seeds of today’s most pressing problem—Islamic radicalism. Join her as she discusses what we stand to lose if the partnership collapses and suggests ways to steer its future course.
**Please note special time**
5:45 - 6:00 p.m. Registration
6:00 - 7:00 p.m. Meeting
7:00 - 7:30 p.m. Reception and book signing
Council on Foreign Relations
DAVID B. OTTAWAY: In “Thicker than Oil,” the first full history of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, Council Senior Fellow Rachel Bronson reveals why the partnership became so intimate and how the countries’ shared interests sowed the seeds of today’s most pressing problem—Islamic radicalism.
I would like to remind you that this is on the record, and that following this meeting there will be a reception, I believe here—is that right, Rob? Outside?
Tonight we’re discussing Rachel Bronson’s “Thicker Than Oil.” And just to field my own reflections on her book, I was thinking of one word that sort of summarized the spirit, the tone of her work, particularly as compared to most of the other books that have come out since 9/11, with the exception of Tom Lippman’s. And the word that came to mind was “dispassionate.” This is an attempt to look at the relationship between the two countries, warts and all, the high points and the low points. And I think Rachel has done an excellent job in trying to look at both sides of the relationship and how we’ve interacted and misunderstood and understood each other.
One thing I really appreciated in her approach was to not just put all the blame on one side for the deterioration of our relationship, particularly after 9/11, and to really show how this deterioration has been taking place really over the last decade, and that 9/11 just sort of brought out many of the problems that were already bubbling in the relationship.
The book I would say is both thematic and historical. She deals with three key issues: oil, God, as she says, and real estate—and I’ll be asking her shortly what she means by that. And it’s historical in the sense that it starts from the time of the discovery of oil right up to today. So we have a long period to look at, and that allows her to see some patterns in the relationship and the ups and downs and why they took place.
So with that I would like to start by asking Rachel whether this was the extension of her Ph.D. thesis at Columbia, or how you got going on this.
RACHEL BRONSON: No, it wasn’t. It would have been a lot easier if it was. First of all, I just want to thank everyone for coming out tonight. I really appreciate the audience, and it’s really delightful to be here, and thank you, David, for moderating.
The term “dispassionate”—we have a communications department here at the Council on Foreign Relations, and their buzzword is that, to be passionate about whatever you’re talking about. So if I deflated when David said “dispassionate”—(laughter)—you know some of the background to that.
OTTAWAY: In comparison to what else,
BRONSON: That’s right. (Laughs.) And I think my colleagues would chuckle at the thought of me being dispassionate. But I’m glad actually for this book, that that’s the word that you come up with, because in a sense much of Middle East politics I think is often analyzed sort of from the heart rather than from the head. And so to the extent to which we can stop and think about Middle Eastern states and whether they’re strategic partners or not and why I think is useful, and so I’m delighted actually with that term.
No, it’s not an extension of my dissertation. I worked on Syrian foreign policy in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
What the book actually comes from, and this probably won’t be surprising to many, is really September 11th. I had been down in D.C. in the late ‘90s and had been working on political military issues in the Persian or Arabian Gulf, and some smaller Gulf States, and actually working around Saudi Arabia for a number of years. When September 11th happened, I think like probably many people in the room, I went to the bookstore, because I realized that I didn’t have a good sense for all the time that I invested in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, I didn’t really have the deep sense of where this relationship had been, and I wasn’t very impressed with a lot of the testimony that came out after September 11th, either defending or attacking our policy, nor the books that came out. I didn’t think it was helpful, and it didn’t give our policymakers a lot of options of how to think about the relationship. And like many people, I went to the bookstores, and there really wasn’t much there. And I decided it was a book that needed to be written. And when I started probing and thinking, sort of querying whether this was a subject I should take on, the first reaction I got from many was, Don’t do it—in part because it’s too hard. There’s no data. It’s all president to king. You’ll never get any information. And that just struck me as not true. Our archives are opened from the ‘70s earlier, and there’s a lot of material out there to help set the stage for why we found ourselves in this very, very closely tight partnership.
And then what I found for the years after the ‘70s was the decision-makers are all around to talk about—to talk to, and many of them—not everybody, but many of them were very happy to talk, because they had to defend why they had spent so much time spending this relationship. It was controversial on both sides. And the decision-makers in Saudi Arabia had to talk about why they had built up this very controversial relationship. And so in many ways—again, not everybody—there were people who wanted to talk about why it was that they had invested the time. And the books that had come out—you know, selling our soul for Saudi crude—it’s not what I knew for our decision-makers. And so all of the reasons for not writing it got me more interested in writing it, and that’s sort of the genesis of the book.
OTTAWAY: Your three main themes—oil, God and real estate—can you explain to us briefly what you mean by these?
OTTAWAY: I mean, oil was obvious, but the others weren’t.
BRONSON: That’s from the U.S. perspective, what I think the pillars of this relationship had been for most of the Cold War, and really continued to a large extent through today. And it was oil, God and real estate.
If you look at how our decision-makers often think about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, oil is central. It’s very, very important to the relationship. You know, the normal characterization, the oil for security bargain—it’s there, to be sure. But it’s so much more than that. And I try to boil it down to what else is it about.
From the U.S. side there was God and real estate. Real estate—you just look at a map and look where Saudi Arabia is located—the strategic geography is actually very important, with the Red Sea on one side and the Persian Gulf on the other side. And if you think of, again, the Cold War, which really did define so much of the formative years of the relationship, we were counting allies everywhere in the world. You were either with us or the Soviets. And to have Saudi Arabia, both because it’s an oil producer, also it had Mecca and Medina inside its territory, and also because of its proximity to other issues that we cared about was very important.
I don’t spend as much time in the book, because I’m actually very fascinated by the notion of God, and the fact that Mecca and Medina was—is in Saudi Arabia. That was and continues to be a very, very important part of U.S.-Saudi relations, and decision-makers throughout history have recognized it, that it is better to have the rulers who can speak for Mecca and Medina on your side than not. During the Cold War we were fighting communists, the God was communist. The Saudis were happy to use religion to fight the Soviets, and in many ways saw the Soviets as a threat to them, because of the original religious political pact. In part, the—(inaudible)—does depend on some sort of religious legitimacy. Because of that, a God-less, someone propagating this notion of atheism was very, very troubling and a moral threat, and the Saudis didn’t have to be convinced. And from the U.S. point of view, religion was good. It wasn’t that they were seeking out Saudis’ religiosity, or that they even cared that much about the interpretation of Islam. But if you were a religious person, that was good, because you weren’t as susceptible to the Soviet message.
The Saudis used their competitive advantage, if you will, in the battles against Nasser and Arab nationalism. They heavily funded the charities that we’ve heard about in the ‘70s and ‘80s, in part because it fit with their (apostolic higher notion ?)—it was easy to do so. But it also fit within their geostrategic world view. And it was that shared view that made it very, very say for the United States and Saudi Arabia to partner. And I don’t want to keep taking us back in history, but it’s fascinating that in the 1950s in the State Department they were working on our public diplomacy towards the Middle East—that sounds familiar, because it is. And they’re trying to figure what the message is going to be, and they kept coming up with the fact that—remind them we’re on the side of the Muslims, and especially when you go talk in Saudi Arabia. Now, I’m sure for Muslims in the room and throughout the world, there’s sort of a question, Is Saudi Arabia the right partner if you want to be on the side of the Muslims? But we didn’t get that far. The fact was to have Mecca and Medina on our side was very, very useful.
Where I think that comes up today, to say this continues, is that it’s truly my belief that if we end up with the United States on one side of the ideological divide and Saudi Arabia on the other, that is truly when you do have a clash of civilizations. Some people may say we’re there—I don’t think we are though. But in my mind it is actually worth being very careful about this relationship, and sort of some people’s willingness to stay up on it and trash it, because if you really do end up ideologically at odds, you truly do have a clash of civilizations.
Now, there are sort of red lines to be crossed and things to watch for, and I talk about it a little in the book, but that importance of God and understanding also that much of the Islamic radicalism that we see today is in part a legacy of these past political decisions, world views and strategies that we and they showed in fighting the Cold War. If we understand that sort of historical context, I think it both gives an appreciation for where it comes from to raising questions about how we address it, and whether democratization is the answer to all of our problems, but also shows how sort of the threads of this and the pillars of this relationship continue on, even though the Cold War, the context in which the relationship was formed, still plays a very important role in the pillars.
OTTAWAY: And the third theme of real estate, what do you mean by real estate?
BRONSON: Well, the real estate is the strategic location, the fact of where Saudi Arabia sits physically in the world. And in the Cold War you have to understand the real estate too is important for oil. The Persian Gulf is very important for oil. But think of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia’s proximity to Afghanistan, the role it could play, was actually quite important. Iraq today, the fact that Saudi Arabia is right on the border makes it that much more important to think about what role that they’re playing.
The Middle East is very important for a number of reasons, oil being one of them. But it has been a center point in America’s thinking about strategically the world, and Saudi Arabia is a big massive territory right in the middle of it.
OTTAWAY: I wanted to ask you some questions specifically on oil and defense. You say at one point—you’re talking about the changing nature that oil plays in our relationship—and I’m quoting you here: “As the world’s top oil producer and its largest oil consumer, Saudi Arabia and the United States are now bound in a less political and more transactional relationship.” What did you mean by that?
BRONSON: What I meant by that is oil will continue to be a very important issue between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In the past, there were a lot of favors we did for each other, because it made sense strategically. I don’t think that that is necessarily going to continue to be the case. Let me give you an example. Saudi Arabia a couple of years ago had a number of very important contracts up for bid. U.S. companies normally would have been the obvious companies to give the contracts to. The U.S. didn’t get any of them. French Total got, the Chinese got—(inaudible)—very important sort of for Russia—the Security Council—that’s where I’m going to—Security Council votes. Now, if you talk to the American players and you talk to the Saudis, they’ll say, don’t read too much into it—it was purely economic. And I think that’s in part right. But that never used to be the case. Others didn’t get things because it made sense economically. In my mind, when you hear people say, well, economically it makes sense—it makes sense for Saudi Arabia to explore options with China economically. It makes sense for China to be looking at Saudi Arabia. You’re absolutely right. There’s an absolutely defensible economic rationale for doing that. The truth of the matter is, though, that economic rationale did not trump for most of the relationship in most of recent history. It was political calculations. So now what you do have is as the policies is changing, the global politics change, so will the decisions, and it won’t—the benefits will not always accrue, the economic benefits, to the United States. There’s sort of good and bad associated with that, and I go into in the book a little bit, you know, there’s reason to expect the world’s largest producer in the world, largest consumer, to seek out a relationship. But I think that the politics which were very beneficial in many ways to the United States for a very long time will not sort of be the glue in the same way it was just because the geostrategic context has changed so dramatically.
OTTAWAY: On issues of security and defense, you say, and I quote here: “The end of the Cold War has introduced new security threats for both Saudi Arabia and the United States. The differences over Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and the region will cause and have already caused new points of tension. Still, given Saudi Arabia’s strategic real estate and shared concerns about Iran and Iraq, the two states will likely seek ways to establish a strategic accommodation.” I was struck by the term “strategic accommodation,” since we’re used to talking about a special relationship between the two countries. Are we into a new phase where the special relationship is gone and we’re working on some kind of strategic accommodation?
BRONSON: Yeah, I’m delighted that you picked up on that, because I struggled with that, and I chose it very carefully, because I didn’t use that term during the rest of the book. I do think it has been downgraded. I still think that we’re very, very close partners in comparison to others. But I do think that there is a serious erosion of the special relationship. I think that obviously September 11th played a role in that. But I think there’s—and I do think that there’s some effort to build back, but it’s not what it was. We don’t share the global interests. It’s now much more about particular sets of issues, and at the moment—and I think this will continue to be—we will find reasons to cooperate, because we will probably see events in the region somewhat similarly. Iran is a perfect example of a shared perceived threat. I think the Saudis are worried that the United States may strike out and that they may be on the receiving end of an Iranian response. But the Saudis are very, very worried about Iran. What was interesting about going through and kind of thinking about Saudi foreign policy was that there is one sort of organizing principle that I could come up with of Saudi foreign policy it was a fear of encirclement. They were worried about being encircled by the British, and they were worried about being encircled by the Soviets, and I think now there’s a fear of being encircled to some extent by the Iranians, if you think about where the Iranians are on the map. They’re involved in Afghanistan, they’re involved in Iraq, and they’re involved in Lebanon. And just in the papers today the Iranians are offering $50 million for Hams in the Gaza Strip—not good news. So I think there is a shared concern about places like Iran. But I think these are going to be much more issue-focused, and require a whole set of working out to try to figure out where we stand and what each is trying to do, and how the other is going to try to respond, whereas in the past it was much easier. We knew where the other one stood. And so I do see us working together, but I see it more as a strategic accommodation, maybe better characterized that way than a special relationship.
OTTAWAY: On the issue of God and religion, you say, “In order for the two states to work together in the future, Saudi Arabia must reverse its decade’s long institutionalization of religious radicalism, both at home and abroad.” Do you see this happening? Do you think it’s possible, when religion is so important to Saudi Arabia?
BRONSON: I do. I think it’s harder than we appreciate, but I do see it happening. And I think that’s why I was just in an interview earlier today and the interviewer said, you know, why is the Bush administration always defending the relationship? And what’s so interesting is after September 11th the administration was actually very, very quiet on Saudi Arabia. They didn’t go out and intentionally try to damage the relationship, but they certainly didn’t support it—vocally. They’re very quiet—and let a lot of these books and a lot of the attacks sort of sit there out in the open.
When the Saudis got serious about going after al Qaeda on the peninsula after the May and particularly November 2002 bombings, that’s when you heard the administration get much more vocal, when the Saudis got serious about not only blowing up cells, but monitoring charities. The Saudis were more helpful I think than we knew at the time between 2001 and 2003. But when they really sort of got behind, kind of roll up some cells and crack down, make it harder to move money internationally, to go after cells, to begin to kind of stop the clerics who were calling for fighting us in Iraq, when they started rounding up 2,000 of the worst clerics and putting them through reeducation programs. When they started doing that, that’s when the Bush administration became more vocal in their support. And then it was a year and a half or two years later that you had the meeting at Crawford, where it was sort of the next step of improving relations.
So I do think that the Saudis are doing things. And another thing that’s very interesting that goes on at home is how to reinterpret the founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab. What can you say now about Ibn Taymiya. These are very important thinkers in sort of the Saudis strand of Islam, and you could be much more critical now about Ibn Taymiya than you could be. And I asked a journalist when I was in Saudi Arabia who had written an article, and had been tossed from his paper, in part for religious commentary. And I said, If you had written that now, would you have been tossed from your paper? Would you have been threatened with jail time? He said, Absolutely not. That’s (tiny ?) compared to what’s going on now. So there is an element.
Now, is it all a good news story? No. We still have significant problems with major Islamic global charities that the Saudis are saying that they are monitoring and holding accountable. In D.C., the administration, Treasury, is not convinced. And so there still are real issues. And those are the issues I think we should focus on, and I think are appropriate to have hard conversations with the Saudis on. Some of these others are issues where just knee jerks and Saudi bashing I think are unhelpful. It diverts us from what is truly important, which is making sure the money doesn’t continue to go to bad actors that ultimately will hurt the United States and our partners.
OTTAWAY: Finally, before we open it up to a general discussion, I wanted to ask you about—you talk towards the end of the book about U.S. support for pragmatists or moderates, and you say: “Washington must find ways to help the pragmatists prevail in their domestic battle.” How do we do this, and how do we do it without putting a curse on the very people you’re trying to support and bolster?
BRONSON: It’s hard, and I don’t think that’s the whole answer, to do that. But one of the best examples that—well, two examples—these are the small things, these are the stupid things you care about: the public diplomacy. This isn’t the centerpiece of what I think we should build our policy around, but it is very, very important. It’s things like visas and things like education. One thing in Saudi Arabia that the United States is still very highly regarded for is our education system. It is shocking when you go there how Americanized the elite is. I have found no Arab country that even rivals anything like Saudi Arabia in terms of how Americanized their elite is. They all go to the United States for higher education. In Jordan they go to Britain. In Iraq they went to Moscow. In Saudi Arabia they went to the United States. And so education is still very, very highly regarded.
There’s now active support—$100,000 USAID put in to helping a girl’s college, women’s college, in Jeddah build an engineering program—had enormous play in Jeddah—enormous positive play—probably one of the few things that we’ve done that was unabashedly positive, and received that way—$100,000. It’s nothing. Think of how much money we put into these things. So those kind of programs—and we are supporting more of them—a lot of them don’t come from government aid, they come from universities themselves—are important I think in terms pragmatists.
There are other things that pragmatists want from us that we’re not going to do. There’s some concern about our Israel policy, the policy towards Israel. It probably would help them if it changed—(inaudible)— But there are other things—visas—you saw when the president met with then-Crown Prince, now King Abdullah. They talked about getting more visas for Saudis to come over. And in fact the Saudis put through a program now for 5,000 students to come over. So things like that I think are helpful.
But one of the things in the book—well, two things, and we can end on this—one is what was fascinating in Saudi Arabia, what happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is the pragmatists and the zealots could come together to defeat the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the ‘90s, the zealots sort of won out, and now what you see are the pragmatists trying to regain that footing. What do I mean by that? It was okay—everybody was calling for the jihad in Afghanistan—the pragmatists who wanted to work with the United States, because it was globally good; the pragmatists who wanted to be part of a capitalist Western system—it was good to call for the jihad. We thought it was good to call for the jihad to go to Afghanistan. The zealots wanted it because—well, it was just good to fight jihad anywhere. And so what happened was the two actually also there had shared interests. And I think what you’re seeing now is a sort of bifurcation in many ways of the Saudi polity, and I call it the struggle for Saudi Arabia’s soul, who owns Saudi Arabia, who gets to speak for Saudi Arabia.
Leaving that aside, one of the points in my book—and this I’m sure is a very contentious point—is that this open call for democratization. I think it’s a good thing for the United States to promote democratization. It’s who we are. It’s who we are as a country. It’s morally what makes us tick. But we should not be under any illusions that that’s going to somehow end their problems with terrorists. I am not—I don’t wholly subscribe to the notion that you get Islamic terrorists because they can’t participate in the political decision-making of their country. I think that you get Islamic radicalism—and this goes back to the beginning—because it has been cultivated and supported for 30 years, and that we have to figure out a way to build alternatives to that, not just open it up—open up the political process, which as we have seen and as we will continue to see, actually welcomes in the most radical in society to run and win positions of power.
OTTAWAY: Well, thank you very much. That’s an introduction there.
Let’s begin with, sir, back there?
QUESTIONER: (Off mike)?
BRONSON: One of the lessons is that you should never say that the House of Saud is more stable than most people say, but I say that the House of Saud is more stable than most people say, and so that’s sort of one lesson I probably should have learned I haven’t. But that’s a little slick, but it’s important. I think it actually plays into why we keep saying the House of Saud might fall, the House of Saud might fall—in some weird ways because, well, you don’t want to be the one saying Saudi Arabia is the island of stability in a sea of instability.
When I look at Saudi Arabia—I mean, the question I think larger is, Is the House of Saud stable? Will we be working with the House of Saud in 10, 15 years? I actually do believe so, because when you look at Iran, what was happening—when you had the Ayatollah come back, you had this very interesting coalition between the merchants and the bazaaris and the religious establishment around Ayatollah Khomeini. You don’t have that kind of sort of popular support any more you may have had in the ‘90s in Saudi Arabia, and I think that’s when the question was very relevant. We don’t have it now. Now that you have a new king, King Abdullah, he is slowing bringing—I believe, he is bringing much of the population along with him, and this notion of calling the jihadis deviants is actually working and it actually resonates.
The threat to the House of Saud is also viewed as potentially internal in the military. Remember in the Shah’s Iran, over time the military sort of backed out and said, We’re with the Ayatollah. They ultimately at the end sort of transferred loyalties. There was a concern in Saudi Arabia that jihadis, taqfiris, al Qaeda types—that they may have penetrated pretty deeply into important elements of the Saudi military, and you never know what you don’t know. But the Saudis’ attention to this group and these groups since 2003 was probably one of the best things for the House of Saud and their own stability. So that’s the first issue. I think when you look at the cleavages in Iranian society and actually what happened right before the revolution, you don’t really see that happening in Saudi Arabia.
Now, there’s a second point though, which is the king is 83 years old and the crown prince is ill, and it’s a question of who’s going to go first. And then you have a series of brothers, and then when you get to the grandsons. So that’s a bit of a different question, but it’s often the second part of it.
If you look at Saudi history, they’ve actually weathered their succession crises—and there’ve been many—quite well. And I think people underappreciate how many brothers are potentially in line. The last son was born in 1947 I think—he’s dead—but you’ve got 60-year-olds waiting in the wings who are still brothers. So you still have time. And the question is when you get to the grandsons. As of now I don’t see this being a massive crisis that will bring the family down. I don’t see the factions in the streets. Nobody thinks they’re going to be on the streets. This will be resolved. This will be hard, raw family politics constantly, but it’s part of the normal Saudi politics.
Now, we could come back in five years and they’d all be gone, and you can say, You were wrong—but I’ll take the bet. I think they’re around for a while, and I think actually they will make the transition to the grandsons. It will be hard for them—also in part because many of the reformers that I call think that could be a lot worse if there wasn’t—if the House of Saud wasn’t there. And I think also you have between 4,- and 7,000 princes who have a vested interest, and they know it, in this current system, and ultimately have more to gain by the continuation of it than an alternative one. So that’s my—I am more bullish than many of my colleagues, but I think many of my colleagues remember what they were saying in 1978 Iran and don’t want to repeat it.
QUESTIONER: Jon Alterman, CSIS. Rachel, at the beginning of your talk you mentioned—noted properly—that most U.S.-Saudi relations have gone between the king and the president. Was that a mistake? Was there an alternative to it? And going forward should we build on that model or should we seek to change it?
BRONSON: That’s a good question, Jon, as usual. I don’t think we have any choice in some ways but to change it. I think it’s just a different world. And you’ve written authoritatively on the media—there’s no going back. And so I don’t think even if that was a good thing—and it probably wasn’t—that we can create that. And that’s one of the real challenges of our public diplomacy now.
In the past the Saudis really shielded their population from—they didn’t really have much choice in the matter. They shielded their population from it, and we were fine with it. I don’t know that we could have broken that down. I don’t think they wanted to go out and—be good for them not to defend the relationship.
And then from our side it was a little different. There were ethic battles, as you know, between Congress and the executive, and very legitimate battles about what were our strategic priorities in the region. But I don’t think we could have done anything, because the Saudi leadership itself did not want to have to defend it, and it was easier not to.
But building on your work, and others, it’s a very different world out now. And I remember I was sitting in the Gulf one—I forget what country—I was flipping channels, and there was—this was in the mid ‘90s—so you had election going on in Iran, and then the next channel is Chinese educational reform in China, and then we were going through our own primaries here, and you’re sitting sort of flipping through it, and it’s head-spinning. You know, it’s head-spinning to get Al-Jazeera and Fox News and CNN and then the coverage from Asia. And this is a population that had in many ways none of it and now have way more of it than we have here, and the sort of whiplash that the population is going through.
So was it a good thing? Probably not. There’s no way to recreate it anyway, and that’s where the real challenge in terms of public diplomacy is: What are we going to do when Saudi Arabia was the one country when polled 51 percent of the Saudis said that they didn’t like the American people—not American policy—people? So it’s a very long row to hoe.
QUESTIONER: One of the sharpest criticisms against the Saudis is that they fostered anti-Americanism as sort of a steam-release valve for public concern about the quality of governance in Saudi Arabia. Do you think that’s true at any point in historical time? And, if so, has it stopped?
BRONSON: You know, I think that the way they may have fostered it was that they didn’t try to counter it, and I think that was true for much of the Middle East, is sort of anti-Americanism was fair game, you could sort of—that there was no defense, coming back to Jon’s point—that there was no defense of the relationship. And so there was not a lot of attention given to the horrible things that were said. And I think that’s true for much of the region actually.
Has that stopped? I think it has stopped in the sense that those same people are often the ones who were also calling for jihad. It wasn’t as conflated as it was now, but were also the ones who were saying very awful things about different aspects—and those are the sort of targets now are getting rolled up. But is it tolerated still? Yeah. Not to the extent it was before, but it’s—I don’t think—it’s still—it’s not the forefront of what the people—what the royal family goes after now. It’s so easier to be anti-American than to say something bad about the royal family.
QUESTIONER: Lloyd Hand, DLA Piper. Just sort of a two-part question. One is, as you probably know, a few years ago it was a prevailing view of the Pentagon and some that the Saudis made a deal with the Wahhabis for about $10 billion. Wahhabis would not create problems in Saudi Arabia, and they would fund their activities elsewhere. I’d like you to comment on that.
Secondly, from the perspective of the Saudis, why should they be attempting to foster good relations with the U.S.?
BRONSON: From the perspective of the Saudis? You know, in terms of that deal—and I don’t know about that particular deal, $10 billion—there certainly was to some extent throughout the ‘90s throughout the region a sense, Don’t bother us and we won’t bother you—keep the stuff from our territory, you can do whatever you want. Afghanistan was the best place to do it, Sudan—go do it somewhere else.
In Saudi Arabia—and that’s in the ‘90s—I mean, before that the context was, Go fight in Afghanistan. If this kind of stuff—if this interpretation helps mobilize fighters to go to Afghanistan, it’s okay. We were very much in that situation too. You know, you had Casey under Reagan constantly going up saying, How many more guys can you get up to go? So it was a very different context. But in the ‘90s there was some extent to that. And the best example is the ambassador here who knew bin Laden and was hot on his trail and ultimately tries to get him back to Saudi Arabia to get him out of Afghanistan. But there was a notion of, Okay, let bin Laden sit in Afghanistan—what harm could he do there? I mean , it’s isolated, it’s mountainous. You want some training camps? You’re going to treat them nonsense? Do it in Afghanistan. I don’t think anybody fully sort of appreciated the extent to which this could be doing more things to spread global jihad that we confronted.
So did that—was there—it wasn’t—I wouldn’t say it wasn’t the Wahhabis, it was the jihadis. It was guys who were going to pick up a rifle and go and fight. Was there a sense of, Do it somewhere else? Yeah, there was. Did we get wind of it? It wasn’t a high priority of ours until 1999—1999 was the first time that Vice President Gore brings it up with the crown prince to say, You have got to do something about it. It was—it was before the Cole but it was after the twin bombings in Africa. We had already had Khobar Towers, we had already had the 1995 attacks, and now we had the twin bombings in 1998. That’s when America began to take note, serious note, at the highest level. The ambassadors were aware of it before that, but at the highest level. Nineteen ninety-nine is when we get serious about it, and then two years later you get 2001.
Why should the Saudis care about working with the United States? I think they have more options now than they had in the past. They are much more mature country. They’re not this young nation sort of putting itself together. And they do have more options, and they are looking around. I think that there’s an element of a legacy that what’s fascinating is I was talking to some teachers who were trying to build some sort of Internet education so their students could get out there, and they all went back to the University of Texas, because that’s where they had graduated from. So there’s the legacy aspect of it. But strategically there still are things that America’s security umbrella is useful for—not everything—but there still are some things. And on those things there’s no substitute to the United States. And they’re desperately in need for foreign direct investment. And others take their signals from the United States, and when the United States is hesitant, others are hesitant too. So there are still things that we offer, but I don’t think it’s as clear-cut across the board as it has been in the past.
OTTAWAY: Way in the back there.
QUESTIONER: If we actually have sectarian civil war in Iraq, what role is Saudi Arabia playing in that scenario?
BRONSON: I think Saudi Arabia is still deciding what role it’s going to play in that situation. And I think that’s really an open question and an important question.
QUESTIONER: What role do we want them to play?
BRONSON: What we don’t want—and I think something just to keep our eyes on—is there was a—I was talking to a Pakistani official who started seeing some Saudi money going back into Pakistan. It had shriveled up to some extent—it had never gone dry, but it had been reduced, and it seemed to be on the upswing again. And his interpretation was this was to counter some of the empowerment of the Shania. That’s exactly what we don’t want to see.
One of the things we do want to see which we did see is Saudi efforts to try to get out the vote, when we wanted the Sunnis out there actually voting, to participate. The extent that the Saudis can be helpful—they have enormous connections throughout the Sunni tribes in Iraq. To the extent to which they can usefully get the Sunnis to participate in a potential government, that’s helpful. That’s the kind of thing that we want. Are the Saudis going to do that? They have done it to some extent, but you can’t get a government in Iraq right now. And the Saudis aren’t feeling terribly confident about our abilities in Iraq right now. And I think everybody is really quite nervous.
Another thing that we want to see is continued efforts to make sure fighters don’t bleed into Iraq. We’ve seen some of that, and you cannot just go to Syria and go in and fight the way you could. Now jihadis are being, those who are being found in Iraq, they’re hopscotching to get to Syria to get in. It’s not as easy. Those are the kinds of things that you want to make sure. But as things get worse in Iraq, the Saudis have the potential to play both sides of this, and what decision they make is sort of the wait and see what they do. But the kinds of things—there are helpful things they can do. They can try to crack down on—continue to crack down on their clerics who are calling to fight the jihad. They have done some of that, to make it harder for people, for Saudis, to end up in Iraq. They’ve done that for their own self-preservation to some extent. To continue to press hard to control money flows. Money is ending up in Iraq, and Treasury and others believe that’s not a (country of ?) Saudi citizens, continue an increased vigilance on that is useful.
QUESTIONER: Steve Myrow, Export-Import Bank. To follow up on the point you just raised about Shi’a empowerment, and to probe you a little further on the stability of the House of Saud, I think it was a few years ago in Foreign Affairs, in “The Schizophrenic Saudi State,” that in the article they raised that it’s not just about the balance between the pragmatists and the zealots as you say, but there’s the friction point of the Shi’a minority inside Saudi Arabia. And if you said in the beginning that there’s a lot of talk among the Saudis, both pragmatists and zealots, about the external threat of Iran, a lot of that translates also into the internal concern about the empowerment of the Shi’a within Saudi Arabia. So what’s the potential for that friction point to turn into a flash point?
BRONSON: I think the Saudis are concerned about it. I mean, let’s just sort of remember what we’re talking about: the Shi’a make up about 10 percent, maybe a little bit more, of the Saudi population—disproportionately located in the Eastern Province, so about 30 percent in the Eastern Province. So it’s not like a situation like Iraq, where it’s 60 percent or 50 percent throughout the country.
In 1979, when you had the revolution, there was real friction, and you did have protests and violence and activity. And the Saudis did send—it was interesting—they send one emissary out from the royal family with basically orders like, you know, Tell them to shut up or go home—and go home was to Iran. And they realized that wasn’t going to work. That was a bad strategy and it only made the situation worse. And they started figuring out that they actually needed to do things to try better incorporate with the Shi’a or placate on some of their social demands.
And what you have seen from King Abdullah—and this has been very important—is the national dialogues which were established after 2003. You’ve had—he has met personally with Shi’a, and he’s had Sunni and Shi’a clerics sit down and talk with each other, and it’s opened up this very interesting conversation in Saudi Arabia about, huh, we have some Shi’a citizens. So you’re beginning to sort of have that. And you’re also beginning to have some—spending more money for some sort of social issues.
If you look at what the Shi’a are doing, the Shi’a are largely—they’re not calling for secession, they’re not calling for the fall of the House of Saud. They’re calling for reform. Actually they’re probably the leading advocates of the social reform agenda, because more sort of open politics have helped them, their demands. It’s useful for them, and that’s how they can peacefully communicate some of their interests.
One thing that was interesting though—you think about the concern from Iraq and how this can radicalize, and what happened is after the attack in Samarra, the mosque there, it sort of brought Iraqi to press, civil war. The next day there were protests. There were Shi’a protests. And they had emissaries to say, We don’t want you on the streets. Get off the streets—from the royal family—and they basically did. The next day they also had the attack on Abqaiq, on the oil facility, by Sunni jihadis. Were the planned? No. Was it in coordination? No. But, boy, is that a wake-up call that the problems in Iraq can easily bleed in and make the situation between Sunnis and Shi’a worse. So I don’t think it’s a flashpoint, but I do think it’s something that makes the Saudis nervous, because they do have an underrepresented Shi’a population who is not happy about their status. And you do have these jihadis who hate the Shi’a. This is sort of the recruiting ground for al Qaeda. So when they go after those guys—you know, I was just in the Eastern Province talking to some Shi’a leaders when I was there in February, and they were saying, Look, the United States did a really good jobs in saying, you know, look at your textbooks—get this stuff out, the Christians and Jews. But it’s still—all the Shi’a stuff is still in there, and nobody has—everyone has sort of forgotten that, but there’s still in there, and there’s terrible discrimination. And so I think it’s an issue. It’s a real issue for Saudi Arabia. Is it a flashpoint that’s going to lead to the kind of fighting we’re seeing in Iraq? Not any time soon. Does it have the potential at some point? Perhaps. And I think the Saudis are worried about that. But it’s nothing we’re talking about in the immediate term.
QUESTIONER: Rhonda Hudome. I have a question regarding energy policy. I’m curious, Rachel, what you found in your interviews in Saudi Arabia. For the successive U.S. administrations, everybody knows Saudi Arabia when sitting around the OPEC table is the white hat—really the country that controls the most and the country that makes the decisions, and that for years and years, since I think ‘73, Saudi Arabia and OPEC haven’t used oil as a weapon, and they’ve been a very responsible, stable, secure supplier. So the question is from a Saudi perspective: Why don’t they push more on getting credit for what they do for instance after September 11th? I think the Saudi supply—I forget what the figure is—millions of barrels of oil for two weeks directly to the United States, just to keep the U.S. I guess safe, you know, to not have the U.S. worry about energy supplies. So the question is from the Saudi perspective: Why isn’t it they push more to get more credit? And from a U.S. policy perspective, why isn’t it that the U.S. doesn’t vocally give them more credit for doing so?
BRONSON: I think it’s a political loser for both sides. I don’t think that the Saudis feel that they win domestically when they go out and say, you know, Well, we just helped stabilize oil prices and made it easier for the United States to get through a crisis. So I don’t think it’s necessarily in their interests. And certainly I know in conversations that I had at the White House around this book, it’s important—you know, “political loser” was actually used. It’s not my term—it’s theirs. Nobody wins. So I think that goes back to Jon’s point about the sort of population. And in part my book was to try to get at some of this, about where are both sides in this? Both what have they done for each other and what have they done against each other? And that role obviously has been an important one. It hasn’t been the only issue, which was the other parts of the book, but it has been important. And also I don’t think for then certain constituencies that they care about, like OPEC partners, nobody is under any illusions about the role that they play.
OTTAWAY: Rachel, if I can ask you a question. If Iran goes nuclear, gets nuclear weapons in the next five years, what do you think Saudi Arabia
BRONSON: (Laughs.) There are three options that Saudi Arabia has. They can try to build their own robust program. They can fund others to do so. Or they can look for the security umbrella of the United States. Will they go forward hard with their own program? They could. They didn’t have a particularly happy experience with the CSS-2 missiles that they put on their own territory. I think more likely is that they will quietly seek to help countries like Pakistan with their program. I think the Pakistani-Saudi connection—that’s just conjecture—but if you look at some of the connections and you think about what’s in their interests, I think they will build up other programs rather than take the rest on themselves. Or they can decide that working with the United States, that they have all the confidence in the United States’ ability to protect them with their nuclear umbrella. And it’s an argument in my book, which is we need to think about what we want countries like Saudi Arabia to do, because if we really don’t want them moving hard on other people’s program in support, we have to give them reason to be confident that we will protect them in a strike. I don’t think we’re at that point in the relationship at the moment. I don’t think they feel terribly confident in our commitment, and probably for good reason. But they’re not—I don’t think any country is going to sit around, and they’re certainly not going to sit around and watch this return of “Khomenism” as they define it on their border, again with nuclear weapons.
QUESTIONER: Spurgeon Kenny, National Academy of Sciences. One of the most striking examples of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States was the unusual action right after 9/11 when President Bush allowed the Saudis to evacuate all senior Saudis and members of the bin Laden clan at a time when all aircraft was stood down. Could you illuminate a bit on the relationship at that time and what this illustrates?
BRONSON: I think the most striking example of collusion between the two states is actually Afghanistan, and our African policy in the 1970s. In terms of that, the 9/11 Commission sort of answered it, which was that it went through the normal protocol. I mean, it ended up on Richard Clarke’s desk, and he didn’t see anything untoward about the flights going, and he approved them. So it went up to the highest chains at the NSC. That Saudis were one of the first planes after the planes were allowed to go, those were one of the first planes to go that had members of the bin Laden family on it. Those—the 9/11 Commission—at the time they were not viewed as a threat. The 9/11 Commission went back and relooked at who was on it with their own investigation and found that they weren’t a threat. That’s really all I can say about it.
QUESTIONER: Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Embassy. Is the issue of Wahhabism a serious issue to debate, to understand relations between the administration and the Saudi government, or is it just an element of Saudi bashing in books, in media, in newspapers?
BRONSON: You really should be up here answering some of these questions. (Laughs.) You know, is Wahhabism sort of a term to debate? Yeah, I think that the Saudis actually did use religion politically. I think we did as well. And I think the notion of radical Islam does need to be part of the conversation. Is that Wahhabism? No. The Saudis have been Wahhabis for decades, for generations, for hundreds of years. But I’m more interested in the way that Wahhabism became or Islam became interpreted through the ‘70s and ‘80s, and there was a political purpose to that. and you know King Fahd made the decision in the ‘80s to stand next to the most radical of clerics on television, and that was a decision after 1979 you had the revolution in Iran, the Shi’a revolution in Iran. You had some other leader was claiming the mantle of Islam. You had the Soviets invading a Muslim country. And you had the siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979. Religion became the answer to all of these, and it became very radicalized and a very specific interpretation—the women’s hair salons were shuttered and women got taken off the news, and the society itself became much more zealous. And in my interviews that I was doing, terms like, “We’re paying the price for 1979,” “This is the legacy of 1979”—this is a different construction of Saudi society than maybe existed in the ‘60s when people were saying they remember being out with their brothers and friends in the fields. That stopped. How to undo that I think is essentially a political question. The way we sort of bandy about Wahhabism, you know, a lot of that is silly and harmful. But is there a real issue under that? Yeah, I think there really is, and I think that we can’t fight the—we cannot fight Islamic radicalism alone. We can’t do it alone. We will not win. And so we need the help of others in the region. And to the extent that the Saudis can be helpful on that, I think it’s extraordinarily helpful to us. And that’s I think—that needs to be the ongoing conversation at the highest of levels. I think religion has to be essential to that conversation. I don’t think it is—but because of that legacy that has been created, due to the politics of the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s.
OTTAWAY: Well, thank you very much. I think you’ve gotten a good flavor of the book, and I think it’s available outside or downstairs. And thank you, Rachel, very much, really enjoyed it. (Applause.)
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