F. Gregory Gause III, a leading expert on Saudi politics and society, says U.S.-Saudi relations, which were extremely close during the Reagan years and remained good until 9/11, are cooling significantly. He says that while the Bush administration is taking political heat at home for not being more critical of Saudi Arabia, the two nations now find little common ground beyond the issues of oil and cooperation in the war on terror.
“Since neither public is particularly supportive of the relationship, I think inevitably it is going to be much less close, have much more tension, and be much more distant,” says Gause, an associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont.
He was interviewed on June 17, 2004, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.
Last year, when I last interviewed you, it was soon after the May 12, 2003, bombings of housing compounds in Riyadh. You made the point that the Saudi establishment had some fundamental decisions to make on where they wanted to go on combating terrorism. How do you think they have done in the past year?
I think in terms of the security side, there is one positive trend and one negative trend. On the positive side, they have gotten serious. They are putting more resources into this issue. It’s getting more of their attention. The negative side is that they haven’t done this well. They published a list of some 26 names on a most wanted list of Salafi jihadists [radical Islamic fighters]. And they haven’t been able to capture more than half of those on the list. In the [May 29-30, 2004] incident at Khobar, when the four terrorists took over a housing complex and a hotel, three of them walked away from the siege.
Now, whether that was incompetence [by Saudi security forces], or the result of secret negotiations to free hostages, or because they had sympathizers on the inside, it was a disturbing result. If they are going to succeed in this security crackdown, they are going to have to pay more attention to both the competence and the political orientation of their security forces.
The security force is still under the command of Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef?
There are a couple of forces, of course. The police forces are under Prince Nayef. Now, if you are going to call in regular troops, that would probably be the National Guard, which is directly under Crown Prince Abdullah’s command.
Princeton professor Michael Scott Doran has made the point in a Foreign Affairs article and in an interview with me that there are significant differences between Nayef and Abdullah. I think you have dissented on that in a letter to Foreign Affairs. What do you think now?
I’m not sure that a) the differences are as big as Mike thought they were. And b) I think now that given the clear direction of the jihadists to bring down this regime, I don’t think there is anyone in the Saudi royal family who sees a middle ground with the violent people. I think that Nayef will go after them. An interesting question that we don’t know the answer to yet is how they are going to deal more generally with religious politics. My guess is that they are not going to liberalize the whole system. This is not going to be, “Okay, you’re against us, so we’re going to roll over Wahhabi [a fundamentalist form of] Islam.” My guess is that the ruling family is going to say, “We need the religious establishment to justify this crackdown, to legitimize it, and we’re going to accommodate them on issues that are sensitive to them as long as they back off from criticizing the security crackdown.” And I don’t think there will be a big dispute within the top levels of the family on this.
I’ve seen press reports suggesting that the traditionalist clerics are now speaking out strongly against the terrorists.
Yes. These guys are not hard to mobilize in defense of the regime. That is their natural place. The question is, what do they get in return? We see that the Saudi National Dialogue [Saudi government-organized forum to discuss national reform] had its third meeting this week, on the issue of women. While I haven’t seen the documents from it yet, the indications are that the more socially conservative crowd dominated the meeting and dominated the agenda. That’s the kind of trade-off we can expect to see more of.
A couple weeks ago, much was made of the fact that women now had the right to own businesses on their own.
They always had the right to own businesses, but in the past there had to be a male in the background. They are going to try to facilitate some areas where women can work in women’s-only places. We’ll see how that goes. But of course, if you are going to have women work, how are they going to get there? They are going to have to drive. Or they are going to have to find someone to drive them.
And so, it does raise these other social questions, which really are red lines for a lot of socially conservative but pro-regime people.
It is interesting how the question of women not being allowed to drive is such a sensitive issue in Saudi Arabia. Is this the only Arab country where this is an issue?
It is the only country, in fact, in the Muslim world, as far as I know.
Do the jihadists have much popular support, as far as you can tell?
If the question is, “Do the jihadists have enough popular support to take over the government?” I’d have to say no. I don’t see them as able to mobilize large crowds into the street against the regime. But if the question is, “Do some of the things that the jihadists say have support?” I’d have to say yes. I’m not sure everyone would go for the idea of kicking out all the Westerners, or even the non-Muslims. There are many in that category who do menial labor and things like that. I think that wouldn’t get much support. But the idea of kicking out the Americans has support. The idea of standing up for what people in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Arab world see as an American policy that is anti-Muslim and anti-Arab does get a fair amount of support.
But on taking power, there are too many people in Saudi Arabia who have it good or good enough that I don’t think they would support the people who would overthrow the whole economic system in Saudi Arabia.
Talk about the American connection. The American military forces have left, haven’t they?
We do have some trainers, and there are civilian technical advisers and things like that. That dates back to the 1970s. It is interesting that one of the people who was killed recently worked for the Vinnell Corporation, which is the company that for some 30 years has had the contract to do training and maintenance and things like that for the National Guard, which is Crown Prince Abdullah’s force. To some extent, an attack on Vinnell is an attack on him.
Is it perceived in Saudi Arabia that the United States has too much influence in that country?
I think that is the popular perception.
And in the United States, of course, the critics of Saudi Arabia say the Saudis have too much influence.
Yes, it is said that the Saudis have too much influence here and we don’t exercise our influence enough on them.
What’s your view of the U.S.-Saudi relationship now?
I think it has gone from intensely close and cooperative in the period between the first Gulf War  and 9/11  to a relationship that is now based on just a couple of issues— important nonetheless— and that’s oil and the war on terrorism. I think the biggest change in the relationship is that previously it was conducted outside of the public view. Certainly, we know from the 1980s that the Saudis and the Reagan Administration did all sorts of things together, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua to Africa.
I think the U.S. public was largely unaware of the Saudi finanical help we've received. One of the Council's senior fellows, Rachel Bronson, has done research which shows that the Saudis were helping bankroll many of the insurgencies that Reagan cared about most: not only in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, but also Angola and the Horn of Africa.
Now, given 9/11 and American public and even elite opinion, I don’t think you can have a relationship with Saudi Arabia that is conducted outside the public view any more. And I think that is true on the other side, too. They can’t conduct a relationship as much outside the public view as they used to, and since neither public is particularly supportive of the relationship, I think inevitably it is going to be much less close, have much more tension, and be much more distant.
I also don’t think it will turn 180 degrees. The Bush administration has been very, very careful not to push Saudi Arabia into “the axis of evil.” The administration has actually taken a fair amount of domestic political heat for not being as publicly tough on the Saudis as many would have called for. The administration realized that on those two issues, oil and the war on terrorism, they want to have a decent relationship with the Saudis.
Of course, on oil, the Saudis did take the lead in getting a public statement from OPEC to increase production so that the oil price has come down recently.
That was after, of course, the Saudis took the lead earlier in the year in cutting the quotas, which helped push the prices up. The Saudis made a serious miscalculation at the end of the first quarter when they said prices would soften and a floor should be put under them. The prices were pretty high then, in the high $30s a barrel. Instead of prices softening, demand in China and India and elsewhere kept going and this led to the price of more than $40 a barrel.
How has the Iraq war affected U.S. standing in the region? It is at an all-time low, I would presume.
Yes. I think that is probably true. But if something good comes out of Iraq, that all-time low does not have to be permanent. I’m not sure where Iraq is going. I’m not incredibly optimistic that what we will leave behind is going to be a fabulous example that the rest of the region is going to see as a model, [about which] people in autocratic Arab states will say, “Hey, we can do that too!”
It looks like it will be a lot messier. And so, basically, we are going to get the negatives from it, and maybe very few of the positives in terms of regional public opinion.
Is there any indication that the Saudis will do much to help the new Iraqi government?
No. But I don’t think they are going to go out of their way to hurt it. They will try to play within Iraqi domestic politics to find people they can support and feel comfortable with and try to help them out, in the same way that Iran and Turkey will.
Do you think the Saudi leadership, which is all Sunni, is particularly concerned about the rise of Shiites to more prominence in Iraqi politics?
I think they are concerned about the rise of Iranian influence. I think they are resigned to the idea that there is going to be a larger Shiite voice in politics in Iraq. My guess is that the Saudis have resigned themselves also to changes in Iraq and they are probably going to support Sunni politicians and even Shiite politicians they see as more favorably disposed to them than to Iran.
Let’s hypothesize a moment. A new administration will take over in Washington after the elections in November, either a new Bush team or a Kerry team. If you were asked to make some suggestions on relations with Saudi Arabia, is there a way to open a new chapter in relations?
I think the way to open a new chapter is to publicly redefine the relationship along the lines of these common interests on oil and the war on terrorism, and acknowledge that we are not going to have the same close strategic relationship on other questions. Oil has been the basis of the relationship from the beginning and it remains the key element. The Saudis are the largest exporters, one of the largest producers, and the dominant voice in OPEC, and they have lots of oil in reserve. Until there are technological changes that reduce our dependence, oil will remain paramount.
On the war on terrorism, the Saudis play a huge role in this on the financial side, and on the ideological side. Getting them on board and keeping them on board is crucial.
By financial involvement, you mean Saudi contributions to terrorist front groups?
Exactly. I don’t think the Saudi leadership wittingly supported al Qaeda. I think they allowed institutions that they funded, however, to become conduits for support to al Qaeda. I think now that the Saudis are confronting these issues at home, we have to make sure they continue the trend of the last year of doing better on managing these institutions and overseeing them, rather than allowing them to be used in support of terrorists. And also on the ideological side, they are still the hosts for the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. At a minimum, they should use the opportunity to encourage the message of non-violence. I think that is really important. It is a role they can play, and many people in Saudi Arabia want to play that role. We see signals that some of the clergy are making those kinds of statements.
We have to keep their feet to the fire on that. One thing I would not do is push for national elections. I don’t think the results of such elections would produce people right now who would be favorably disposed to the United States or to a good Saudi-U.S. relationship.
But aren’t there supposed to be local elections?
I assume they will happen, but I am not so sure they will come on schedule in October. That’s only a few months away and there has been very little preparation. But since the commitment was made, it will probably occur. And that’s fine. I am more concerned about a possible national election to choose a parliament, which has been called for in some petitions by more liberal Saudis.
Should the United States continue to agitate for political reform?
If we are going to talk “reform” in Saudi Arabia, we should talk about leveling the playing field, allowing more liberal voices to be heard. The Saudis have a proclivity for putting people in jail who circulate petitions calling, for instance, for a constitutional monarchy. Yet they allow people who operate violent websites to operate. And we should push issues that would appeal to middle- and upper-class Saudis, things like greater transparency in the budget, so that people know where the money is going. Let the appointed Consultative Council [an advisory council to the Saudi royal family] question the budget and investigate it. I think it is those kinds of governance issues that could actually draw support from upper- and middle-class Saudis for the regime.