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Saudis in ‘Dramatic Debate’ Over U.S. Relations, Says Council's Middle East Studies Fellow Youssef Ibrahim

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Youssef Michel Ibrahim
December 4, 2002

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Youssef Ibrahim, a Council senior fellow in Middle East Studies, argues that since 9/11, Saudi Arabia is undergoing a “dramatic debate” about its relationship with America—the most heated such debate in 50 years. With Crown Prince Abdullah pitted against embittered hard-liners within the royal family and with critics of the Saudis within the Bush administration livid after 9/11, U.S.-Saudi relations are increasingly fraught. But Ibrahim warns that Saudi Arabia’s unique capability to pump extra oil will continue to make it indispensable to the global economy—and that a post-Saddam Iraq would be no substitute.

Ibrahim, who is also manager of strategic planning for the Council’s Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies, made these comments in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, contributing editor for cfr.org, on December 3, 2002.

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Q. What’s your analysis of the current Saudi-American relationship?

A. It is confused, to say the least. It reflects confusion and a debate inside Saudi Arabia itself. In my opinion, this is a dramatic debate. Since they removed King Saud 50 years ago, I don’t think that the Saudi royal family has been engaged in as dramatic a debate about its relationship with America as it is today.

And this debate is taking place between two wings of the family. You have got to remember that the crown prince is a bit of a maverick. It reflects a clash within the royal family over relations with the U.S. and what it should be. It reflects Crown Prince Abdullah’s desire to solidify this relationship with the United States.

One of the dramatic highlights of this [debate] was Abdullah’s invitation three years ago to American oil companies to come, after 20 years of absence, and participate in energy projects in Saudi Arabia. And it is interesting to see how three years later it has been sabotaged.

It has been sabotaged by two elements. First, any national oil company in the world will resist foreign companies coming in, and the Saudis are no different. The temptation is to say we can do it ourselves.

The other element has been, to a very large extent, political. The initiative has been sabotaged to some extent by the deteriorating situation between Israel and the Palestinians. Before 9/11, Abdullah had sent a couple of angry messages to President Bush complaining about the Israeli-Palestinian situation. And of course then came 9/11, which changed everything for Saudi Arabia in this country and created a feeling of hostility, which has largely contributed to the paralysis which has come upon not only our relationship with Saudi Arabia, but projects like the oil initiative.

Q. Let’s talk about the politics. Crown Prince Abdullah initiated an approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was endorsed by the Arab League. Was there opposition in Saudi Arabia to that initiative?

A. When he made that initiative, it broke completely and dramatically the waves of attacks going on against Saudi Arabia in the United States, and it abruptly changed the climate in this country toward Saudi Arabia. Yes, of course, Abdullah was opposed in Saudi Arabia. A big wing of the royal family argued, “This is not the Saudi way. We do not do initiatives. We always let other people do initiatives, and we support [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, for instance. Why are you putting us up front like this? You are putting us at risk.” And the next thing you know, the initiative was sunk when [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon invaded the West Bank, and all the trouble worsened.

Then Abdullah arrives at the Arab summit in Beirut. Half the Arab presidents don’t show up. It is deeply embarrassing. And you get the royal family saying, “We told you so. We told you not to put us up front.”

It gets worse. He comes here. The meeting with the President Bush at his Crawford ranch goes so badly that, basically, the initiative dies completely. True, the president came out and said, we support a Palestinian state, and all of this. But there was a lot more talk than action. And here’s Abdullah’s initiative, gone.

Q. Isn’t it unusual that the president would even invite a Saudi leader to Crawford? He doesn’t invite many leaders there.

A. It is remarkable. It is an indication of the appreciation for Saudi Arabia of the old crowd in the Bush camp—in other words, Bush’s father’s crowd. This is an important element of the American national interest in Saudi Arabia. After all, the Saudis sit on so much oil, and they sit in a strategic area. And of course, the whole idea in Bush’s invitation was “You’re a farmer, and I’m a farmer. Come and spend two days on my farm, and we’re going to make friends.” But as you know, the visit went very, very badly. It was supposed to be a two-day visit in Crawford. Instead, Abdullah arrives and he has a meeting with Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice before traveling to Crawford. And Abdullah was telling Cheney, “You have come to the region. You have asked us to help you on Iraq, and I’m telling you, you have to do something about the Palestinians.” And Cheney argued that Iraq and the Palestinians were separate issues.

That night, Cheney flew to Crawford to brief the president. And the first day of the visit in Crawford didn’t happen. Abdullah was so angry that they had to call Bush senior to meet with him on his way to Crawford. The meeting in Crawford ended up being 4 hours instead of 48. Abdullah walked out. There was no joint press conference. The president gave one himself. The people in Saudi Arabia who were attacking Abdullah kept saying, “See, we told you that you should not have gone to Crawford.” Instead of an improvement in Saudi-American relations, a further deterioration developed.

Q. How bad are U.S.-Saudi relations now?

A. I think there is a wing in the U.S., led by Colin Powell and probably the president himself, who are trying to salvage it. But there are others in the administration who say we don’t need Saudi Arabia. And many of those who say that also strongly favor regime change in Iraq.

Q. How important is Saudi oil to the U.S. and the world?

A. It is more important to the world than to the United States. We now consume 20 million barrels a day in the United States. We import 9 million barrels a day. Of that, 1.5 million barrels come from Saudi Arabia. We can do without it. We can buy the oil from neighbors, from Mexico and Venezuela. It will not change the fact that the world still needs to consume 75 million barrels of oil a day. And the clients who Mexico has to drop, the Saudis can pick up. Only the Saudis can produce more oil. They have excess production capacity. Others are pumping as much oil as they can, so if they sell oil to us, they are going to have to drop someone else. That somebody will go to Saudi Arabia. The result is the Saudis continue to sell their oil, and we lose our influence in Saudi Arabia, so that is not very smart.

Q. What if there is a regime change in Iraq? Wouldn’t that mean more oil for the U.S. and less dependence on Saudi oil?

A. The issue of Iraq is non-expert talk. Experts know it is a miracle that the Iraqi oil industry has managed in the past 12 years, without spare parts, to continue to function at the level it is functioning at—about 1.5 million barrels a day or 2 million. This is testimony to the skill and education of the Iraqi engineers who have kept it going. But the system is in very bad shape. It’s running essentially on band aids.

To stabilize a system like this, you will need at least one to two years and an expenditure of probably up to $6 billion to $10 billion. To take it beyond that—to transform Iraq into an American pumping station, for example—you will need another four to five years and several billion dollars, at least $40 billion to raise production from, say, 2 million barrels a day to 4 or 5million barrels. We assume that any Iraqi government will want to do this. But that is a wrong assumption, because no government that has oil as a national resource would want to see that oil sold cheaply.

Q. And the Saudis produce how much?

A. They produce 7.5 million barrels per day. If they turn the valves on, they can raise production to 11 million barrels a day. The Saudis are the only ones who can do this.

Q. Let’s go back to 9/11. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists were Saudi. Should we hold the Saudis partly responsible for 9/11?

A. We should certainly hold the Saudis responsible for permitting, for years and years and years, a group of extremely fundamentalist, radical preachers take hold of their educational system and to produce, in the process, people who became very vulnerable to being recruited by someone like Osama bin Laden. That certainly harmed not only the Saudis but the entire Arab and Muslim world. When the Saudi oil money arrived, that Wahhabi strain of Islam suddenly possessed enough money to spread its wings around the world.

You had a complete reversal. You have to remember that 25 years ago, the Saudis went to countries like Egypt, or Lebanon, or Syria, or Iraq—secular countries, which were practicing a secular version of Islam for their education—and they returned home bringing a very modern and moderate version of Islam to their country. The oil revolution reversed this completely. Suddenly you had 6 or 7 million poor Egyptian workers over the years going to Saudi Arabia, getting that version of radical Islam, and bringing it back to Egypt. So instead of things going in the direction of moderating Islam, it went into the direction of radical Muslim fundamentalism.

Q. There has been a lot of talk about controlling money going to Islamic charities. Are the Saudis taking steps to control things?

A. They are doing things. In fact, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill has gone to Saudi Arabia at least five times, and the Saudi secretary of the treasury has come here, and we have formed a committee on banking transactions. The Saudis said now that they would coordinate charities, and all, in the end, would be collected and then channeled through the religious ministry, which they can control. But that is easier said than done. One of the five tenets of Islam is that you have to give a fifth of your income to charity. A lot of Saudis and people in the Gulf states are very religious and very rich, and they do give a lot of money to charities. It happens across the Arab world. ….The second problem is that once you give money to a charity, it is difficult to follow it to the nth degree. All you can do is give it your best. Remember that when Irish Americans gave money, [former British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher complained that some of it ended up with the IRA. So are the swamps being dried? Yes. Are they going to be completely dry? No.

Q. In the Saudis’ debate, who is opposed to Abdullah?

A. You have to think of Saudi Arabia as two countries. One is modern Saudi Arabia, which we call the Hijaz. These are Saudis who live along the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, who have been traveling and trading with the rest of the world. And there is the Najd, the heart of the Saudi desert. This is where the hard-line, very closed tribal elements live. They are big proponents of the Wahhabi strain of Islam.

These tensions exist in the royal family themselves. There are at least 20,000 princes in the royal family. Of these, 5,000 to 6,000 are “on hand” princes who are running things—deputy governor there, governor there, minister of this, minister of that. It is like a corporation. They really run the country.

Q. Let’s talk about succession. King Fahd is in a coma?

A. For all practical purposes. King Fahd changed the rules and decided that the next older brother does not have to succeed. Abdullah is, in fact, the next older brother, and he would normally be expected to name Prince Sultan as his successor. But this could change. Abdullah heads the National Guard and Sultan, the defense minister, heads the army. So there is a balance of power.

Q. Does Sultan agree with Abdullah on the United States?

A. Sultan and the minister of the interior, Prince Nayef, think the U.S. is taking Saudi Arabia for granted. They think that Saudi Arabia should make a stand and say, “If you do not feel you should make Saudi Arabia part of the U.S. national interest, we also feel we have other alternatives.” Abdullah is of the camp that feels the U.S. has been our friend and ally for 60 years, and even though there are elements inveighing against the Saudis, the president and the State Department will prevail. But there is one golden rule in Saudi Arabia. They stand and fall together. They will have arguments and family councils, but in the end they will agree and abide by the decision.

I see some signs of reform in Saudi Arabia. Abdullah gave a very rough speech to the religious establishment to tell their preachers to stop inveighing against others, and two days ago, Prince Nayef launched a vicious attack on the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is the tent from which all the movements radical developments began. It’s a stunning development.

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