The United States and Saudi Arabia form one of the world’s most misunderstood partnerships. The Saudis are a longtime oil supplier for the U.S. economy—but on 9/11, their kingdom accounted for 15 of the 19 hijackers. The Bush family and the House of Saud are close—yet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls for greater democracy in the region. To understand the relationship, a few misconceptions must be debunked:
The U.S.-Saudi relationship is a bargain of oil for security.
There’s more to it than that. Oil is, of course, critical to U.S.-Saudi ties—it can hardly be otherwise for the world’s largest consumer and largest producer. But Washington’s relationship with Riyadh more closely resembles its friendly ties to oil-poor Middle Eastern states such as Jordan, Egypt and Israel than its traditionally hostile relations with oil-rich states such as Libya and Iran. Deep oil reserves have never translated into easy relations with the United States.
A major reason for the close ties between the two nations was their common Cold War fight against communism. Both countries worried about the Soviet Union, and that solidified their oil and defense interests, and minimized differences. In hindsight, by supporting religious zealots in the battle against communism, the two countries contributed to the rise of radical Islamic movements.
The 9/11 hijackers undermined otherwise strong U.S.-Saudi ties.
Actually, things were never that smooth. Historians refer to the “special relationship” established when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdel Aziz and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met in 1945. But since then the relationship has endured oil embargoes, U.S. restrictions on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and tensions around Israel and Palestine. Dissension permeates the entire history of U.S.-Saudi relations.
Since the end of the Cold War, relations have become particularly fraught, with the 9/11 attacks being the most recent issue. Oil, defense and some regional interests keep the countries together, but both sides have made clear that the relationship is less special today. In 2005, Rice stated that “for 60 years…the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East—and we achieved neither.”
Meanwhile, members of the Saudi royal family are debating the utility of close ties with the Americans.
The Bush family and the House of Saud are too close for comfort.
An overstatement. Filmmaker Michael Moore and others are fond of pointing to the personal and business ties between the Bush family and the reigning Saud family. Unquestionably, the two families are close, in no small part because Saudi Arabia contributed to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, one of the highlights of President George H.W. Bush’s tenure. The late King Fahd provided extensive financial and political assistance to the operation, and allowed U.S. troops on Saudi soil.
But there is little evidence to suggest that such support has led the Bush family to make decisions at odds with U.S. interests. All previous presidents have sought close relations with the kingdom, recognizing its value to the United States. Even presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, who were initially skeptical of the Saudis, found themselves drawn to this relationship for strategic reasons.
Washington can call the shots with the Saudis because the United States is all-important to them.
It’s more complex than that. Growing oil demand from China, India and the developing world means that others are pursuing closer ties with the kingdom. Chinese President Hu Jintao flew from Washington to Riyadh in April, despite Bush administration protests that China was “locking up long-term oil deals” with oil-rich countries.
Last year, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, stated that Saudi Arabia and China now have a “strategic relationship,” because Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of crude to China. Of course, Beijing will not replace Washington as the Saudis’ key global partner. But growing oil demand elsewhere radically alters the options at Saudi Arabia’s disposal.
The House of Saud is about to collapse.
Not likely. Since the Saudi monarchy’s earliest days, observers have anticipated its demise. However, it has shown a remarkable ability to overcome such challenges as palace infighting, assassination and incapacitated leaders. There are still many sons of kingdom founder Abdel Aziz waiting in an orderly queue for their chance to reign.
This hardly means the Saudi rulers will have an easy time of it. Osama bin Laden has made toppling the House of Saud one of his key goals, and there have been a series of al-Qaeda attacks since May 2003. Also, Saudi Arabia faces demographic challenges: Sixty percent of the population is younger than 25, and jobs for them are scarce.
Meanwhile, insurgent fighters eventually will return from Iraq, trained and determined, and the Sunni-Shiite battles of Iraq can easily spill into Saudi Arabia, where Shiites make up 10 to 15 percent of the population.
But the cleavages common before a revolution are not visible in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is now aggressively pursuing terrorists on its soil, and reform-minded Saudis view King Abdullah as an ally.
Washington would be better off planning on the royal family enduring. It’s also the best chance Washington has to realize its oil and counterterrorism goals—and avoid alternatives that could be worse.