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Saudi Arabia

Author: Judith Kipper
April 1, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations


Pundits, politicians and the press have been questioning the commitment of

key US allies in the war on terrorism in recent weeks with a particular emphasis on Saudi Arabia’s behavior as a coalition partner. Why now? After more than five decades of a special US-Saudi relationship, Saudi Arabia has not changed its vital relationship with the United States. In fact, change in Saudi Arabia comes only rarely and ever so cautiously as to be barely visible. It is Americans who may be changing their outlook to finally view Saudi Arabia more realistically. Learning to look at Saudi Arabia and other key US allies as they are and not the way we might wish or imagine them to be is critical to our own national interest.

Saudi Arabia, like some other coaliton partners, is a country with such a different system, culture and values that Americans often find difficult to understand and to accept, however, the strategic value of the relationship is crystal clear.

Saudi Arabia has about 25% of the world’s oil reserves and along with the other oil rich Gulf states accounts for about 66% of the world’s oil supply.

The special relationship that the United States established with Saudi Arabia in l944 has worked well for both and guaranteed many important opportunities for American oil companies. This critical cooperation has accounted for a degree of global energy security throughout the Cold War and since. Oil production and price have always been topics of close consultation between Riyadh and Washington. Saudi Arabia has demonstrated repeatedly that its decisions on oil policy are intended to stabilize markets and prices in cooperation with the United States and others. The Saudis have recognized their own self-interest in working closely with the US on American strategic goals.

But, sharing a strategy with the US on petroleum does not always translate to other areas of concern or a willingness by Saudi Arabia to really let Americans into their society. Americans are fascinated by what is often a distorted perception of Arabia and are frustrated when the Saudis claim they want to be understood though they seem unable or unwilling to help in the process.

Saudi Arabia is by their own description a tribal society and a fundamentalist state that follows a strict interpretation of the Koran which is extremely conservative. A desert Kingdom, Saudis appear to Americans to be overly secretive and inaccessible. This is partially due to the fact that there are no real experts on Saudi Arabia because few, if any, understand their decision making process.and their cultural-religious traditions. Even those who have lived there and developed close friendships, sometimes with important princes, are not privy to the mysteries of Arabia and that’s just the way the Saudis like it.

Many Saudi men and women are absolutely bicultural which appears to Americans to be contradictory or even hypocritical. They may be educated in the US or Europe, own homes, raise children and live a totally Western style life when they are away from athe Kingdom. What is truly remarkable is that most seem to have no problems of adjustment when they return to Saudi Arabia. Some Saudis do live in lavish palaces, but most live more modest lives in basically Western style housing. Saudi malls, shopping centers and offices do not look much different from those found anywhere in the US. Nevertheless, though the style of living conditions may be modern, even Western, Saudi culture is decidedly not Western.. Religion is the foundation of Saudi Arabia. The Koran is the constitution according to Saudi officials and Sharia (religious law) is the guiding principle of Saudi society.. Tradition and the critical social role of the extended family is the glue that holds it all together. An elite segment of society lives with the apparent contradictions without interfering with their adherence to religious and traditional mores. Another important segment of Saudis rejects what they perceive to be negative Western influences on their conservative society..

Saudi Arabia, the primary beneficiary of the oil embargo of l974, earned billions of petrodollars without working for it. This new found wealth produced ultramodern infrastructure and a class of multimillionaires. The per capita income jumped to about $l6,000 annually which at that time was substantial. Today, the per capita income is only about $6,000 in part because Saudi Arabia’s population doubles about every 20 years with 7 being the average number of children per women. Some 50% of the Saudi population is under the age of l8. It is a very rich country, but many Saudis are feeling the economic pinch and some are even living in poverty.

While there are some traditional avenues for dialogue, dissent from and criticism of government are definitely not encouraged. If it exists, discussion of policy takes place only among royal decisionmakers and the Kingdom’s finances are not subject to scrutiny as there is no transparency. The powerful Saudi religious establishment has gained influence in recent years asserting its considerable authority, sometimes with a heavy hand, to impose strict observance . Islamic universities educate young Saudis in religion. The government then assures them jobs in the already bloated bureaucracy when they graduate though they are not qualified leaving many others unemployed and resentful.

Threats to the stability of Saudi Arabia are exaggerated,, but the events of September ll raise serious and now unavoidable questions for the Saudis themselves about the evolution of their society. How to be a modern Islamic state in a globalized world.is what the Saudis have to ask themselves. Serious domestic challenges in the Kingdom are now exposed to a world which is asking what Saudi Arabia is going to do about them.

Saudi Arabia continues to be a strategic ally, however, the demands on coalition partners in the anti-terrorism campaign requires a much more difficult level of cooperation that may persuad the Kingdom to examine why a militant and violent idealogy in the name of Islam resonates among so many Saudis. This is no longer just a question of serious concern to the Saudis, nor is it the only country that must face up to this reality which poses a direct threat to them and to us..

It is now important to strengthen the US-Saudi relationship by working even more closely to fight terrorism. This requires timely and full cooperation in intelligence sharing, investigation and arrest of individuals, freezing financial assets of groups and organizations known to support extremism. Both countries also share a responsibility to promote genuine stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan by generously providing immediate economic and financial assistance.

The United States and Saudi Arabia need each other and will remain strategic allies... If the changes brought about by September ll are understood in Riyadh and Washington, the anti-terrorism campaign could be a renewed opportunity for each side.to improve an enduring special relationship by telling the truth, even when it’s difficult, to each other especially when interests may be in conflict. The real and shared threat of the Al Queda brand of terrorism to both countries leaves no other option.

Judith Kipper is the Director of the Middle East Forum, Council on Foreign Relations and Director, Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.