Author: Rachel Bronson, Former Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
A CFR Book. Oxford University Press
For fifty-five years, the United States and Saudi Arabia were solid partners. Then came the 9/11 attacks, which sorely tested that relationship. In Thicker Than Oil, 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.
Drawing on a wide range of archival material, declassified documents, and interviews with leading Saudi and American officials, Bronson chronicles a history of close, and always controversial, contacts. She argues that contrary to popular belief, the relationship was never simply about "oil for security." Saudi Arabia's geographic location and religiously motivated foreign policy figured prominently in American efforts to defeat "godless communism." From Africa to Afghanistan, Egypt to Nicaragua, the two worked to beat back Soviet expansion. But decisions made for hardheaded Cold War purposes left behind a legacy that today enflames the Middle East.
In this landmark work, Bronson exposes the political calculations that drove this secretive relationship. Her lively narrative is interwoven with colorful stories of diplomatic adventures and misadventures—including details of high-level back-channel conversations, awkward cross-cultural encounters, and a bizarre American request for the Saudi government to subsidize Polish pork exports, a demand the U.S. Ambassador refused to deliver. Looking forward, she outlines the challenges confronting the relationship. The Saudi government faces a zealous internal opposition bent on America's and Saudi Arabia's destruction. Yet from the perspective of both countries, the status quo is clearly unsustainable. This book shows how this crucial relationship evolved, and suggests ways to chart its future course.
"This is the most solid book to date on the vital relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, with important new historical material and a hardheaded look at our tough policy choices for the future."
—Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations
"Dr. Bronson provides a highly readable survey of the twists and turns that have typified the U.S.-Saudi relationship. While there is plenty of intrigue, she also paints a picture of a relationship far more complex than most would expect. The author brings a refreshing sense of balance to one of the hot-button topics of our day. Thicker Than Oil points the way to redefining the national interests of both America and the Saudis."
—Robert W. Jordan, United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 2001-2003
"Rachel Bronson has written a book, at once 'cool' and authoritative, on a subject of great controversy and importance. She makes her own way through the thicket of U.S.-Saudi relations. A work of careful scholarship and analysis loaded with interviews and drawing on a vast literature. No axe to grind, just the story told with care and judgment."
—Fouad Ajami, Majid Khadduri Professor and Director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies
"Thicker Than Oil is a highly engaging book on a critical topic—the nature and future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Rachel Bronson brings much-needed balance to an issue that has too often been the subject of unhelpful polemics, and she has proven herself to be a world-class researcher, unearthing numerous gems about that relationship. Her book is a vital reminder of the value of our long-time allies at a time when we have developed a bad habit of taking them for granted."
—Kenneth Pollack, Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and author of The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America
"Smart, balanced, and wonderfully readable, Thicker Than Oil is the perfect antidote to the sensationalism that has recently characterized books and movies about U.S.-Saudi relations. With an eye for the telling detail, Rachel Bronson brings down the temperature of the debate and tells the fascinating story of how the Saudis and the Americans came to be blood brothers, brought together not simply by the black gold but by geography and a common interest in fighting godless Communism. This well-documented study should be required reading for policymakers, students, and indeed anyone interested in truly understanding this most crucial and tense relationship at the crossroads where it now stands."
—Noah Feldman, Professor of Law at New York University, and author of After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy
"An excellent piece of scholarship."
"A thoughtful history of U.S.-Saudi relations."
"The best sections of her impressively researched book explain the complexity and ambition of joint U.S.-Saudi undertakings against communist governments and guerrilla movements during the Cold War—not only in Afghanistan, where they famously worked during the 1980s to support the mujaheddin fighting the Soviets, but also in the Middle East, Africa and Central America.... [Bronson] has produced a reliable, efficient book that policymakers and regional analysts will find useful."
"In Thicker than Oil, Rachel Bronson... offers a probing examination of the tangled history of U.S.-Saudi relations. An assiduous researcher, she expertly chronicles the actions of both sides from the 1940s down to the present."
"Bronson points out the need for gradual reform in Saudi Arabia to prevent the collapse of the current regime. [This] scholarly and balanced book addresses topics of vital interest and [is] useful for readers seeking to understand the complexities of Saudi society and U.S. interests. Thicker Than Oil is accessible [and] equally well founded on extensive research and strong judgment on American policy and the relevant literature."
"This book is all about complexity in our relationship with the Saudi kingdom, difficult challenges that defy governance by slogan."
"[Bronson] challenges common misconceptions and reveals a deeper history behind the complex and often controversial partnership between the two nations."
—United Press International
"Bronson... details the history based on extensive research and interviews, with the kind of prolific footnotes that befit an academic historian."
"[An] important and timely examination of the extraordinary sixty-year partnership between the world's leading democracy and a desert kingdom with political, religious, and cultural characteristics totally alien to those of most Americans."
—Brooks Wrampelmeier, former U.S. Consul General, Dhahran (1987-89), in Middle East Policy
Rachel Bronson is a senior fellow and director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She holds a PhD in political science from Columbia University and lives in New York City.