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Our Saudi Ties Lie on Shifting Sands

Author: Michael Mandelbaum, Christian Herter Professor, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University
January 23, 2002


COLLATERAL DAMAGE describes the destruction unintentionally caused when bombs go astray and hit something other than the target. The events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath have inflicted the political equivalent of collateral damage on one of America's most enduring international relationships: its alliance with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

For 60 years that alliance has rested on a simple bargain: Saudi Arabia, which controls a quarter of the planet's oil reserves, has supplied the world's most valuable mineral to the United States and the other industrial democracies. In return, the United States has offered one of the last absolute monarchies on Earth protection from its enemies, most notably in 1991 when American armed forces evicted Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait, where it was in a position to threaten and even conquer Saudi Arabia itself. But in the wake of Sept. 11 Americans made three discoveries about Saudi Arabia that, together, call into question continued American support for the Saudi regime.

The first discovery was that this erstwhile ally was the country most responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington. Fourteen of the 19 men who hijacked four airplanes on Sept. 11 were Saudi nationals. Osama bin Laden, the head of the al-Qaida network that recruited, trained and sponsored them, was born, raised and educated in the Saudi kingdom. The Saudi government revoked his citizenship in 1994 but he continued to receive generous financial support from Saudi citizens.

The second alarming discovery was that the association between Saudi Arabia and anti-American terrorism was not accidental. The official religion of the Saudi regime is an austere form of Islam - Wahhabism - that lends itself to hostility to non-Muslims and to the West.

Saudi-funded religious schools in northern Pakistan inculcated leaders of the Taliban regime with Wahhabi principles. Saudi-sponsored mosques in Western Europe were where al-Qaida recruited many of its terrorists.

The foreign policy of Saudi Arabia - supporting the propagation of a violent anti-American creed all over the world - thus looks very much like that of America's great Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union.

If the Saudi government's policies abroad run counter to American interests, Saudi practices at home violate deeply held American values. This was the third discovery. In keeping with Wahhabi precepts, women lack the rights Americans take for granted. They cannot vote. They cannot drive. They are segregated from men in public places, where they must cover themselves from head to toe in black cloaks. Colbert King, a columnist for The Washington Post, compared the Saudi treatment of women to the South African treatment of blacks under the system of apartheid.

For six decades close Saudi-American ties have depended on the American public's knowing little and caring less about this particular ally. What Americans have learned about the desert kingdom since Sept. 11 places those ties in jeopardy, for it is difficult to sustain a close relationship with a country that carries out policies that the American people find repugnant.

This is a lesson learned by Richard Nixon when he tried to improve relations with the still-Communist Soviet Union in the 1970s, by Ronald Reagan when he sought to maintain cordial ties with the apartheid regime of South Africa in the 1980s, and by the first President George Bush when he worked to keep relations with China on an even keel after the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989.

For the Saudi-American relationship, three different futures are possible. The one on which the Saudi regime is surely counting is the restoration of the status quo before Sept. 11. The Saudi royal family undoubtedly hopes that, as the events of that day fade into history, Americans will pay less and less attention to Saudi Arabia.

A second possibility is that Saudi Arabia will change its ways, discarding Wahhabi Islam in favor of more democratic principles. But this future is unlikely to find favor with the present Saudi regime: The rationale for its existence depends on its embrace of Wahhabism. The monarchy's claim to rule the Arabian peninsula and control the extraordinary wealth from the oil that lies beneath it rests on its contention that it is putting into practice the precepts of the purest and truest version of the Islamic faith.

For the foreseeeable future, the United States and its allies will continue to need access to the Arabian oil. If tolerable relations with the current Saudi regime become impossible, a third possibility will arise - the United States, perhaps acting in the name of and on behalf of the international community as a whole, taking control of that oil. This possibility is not, at present, the likeliest one. But it is far likelier now than it was before Sept. 11.

Michael Mandelbaum is a professor of American foreign policy at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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