- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
National Public Radio: All Things Considered
ROBERT SIEGEL, host: One aspect of the Saudi-US relationship is financial. The Saudis bank much of their considerable national wealth in the United States in dollars. According to Youssef Ibrahim of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Saudis are so distressed by US Middle East policy right now that some bankers are making noises about taking Saudi deposits elsewhere.
Mr. YOUSSEF IBRAHIM (Council on Foreign Relations): When you think about Saudi Arabia, here is a statistic to ponder. There are 200 families in Saudi Arabia who control more than $200 million each. And if you do the calculation and the math, generally speaking, we estimate that there is between $550 billion to $650 billion of private Saudi money invested largely in the United States or United States-related instruments. In addition to this, of course, the Saudi government has invested in Treasury bonds something along the lines of $70 billion. And there is, of course, oil. Saudi Arabia does sit on one-third of the world’s oil reserves. The other third, Iran and Iraq sit on it, and we are not speaking to either of them.
SIEGEL: And if, in fact, the Saudis were so upset with the US that they said, “We’re going to first of all take our money elsewhere,” where would they take it?
Mr. IBRAHIM: That’s a good question, and there aren’t really too many alternatives, but I must say that the euro is evolving as a mighty alternative. Already—I was in Saudi Arabia for two weeks; I just came back from there and stopped in London just before the weekend, and spoke with some of the bankers there. There is movement of some Saudi funds—and one should not exaggerate this—towards Europe. But, of course, the vastness of the American economy and the comfort that the Saudis felt here cannot yet be matched by the Europeans. On the other hand, the investigation we have launched into how much money Saudis and other Arabs are giving to Muslim charitable or non-charitable organizations has scared a lot of the Saudi money.
SIEGEL: When you were just in Saudi Arabia, how did you find attitudes toward the United States compared with your previous visits there?
Mr. IBRAHIM: In 25 years of covering Saudi Arabia, I would tell you categorically I have never seen anger of that dimension, and I would describe it as verging on rage. I think there has been a satellite revolution which has completely changed the perspective. Back in the Gulf War in 1990, CNN held the Arab world in its palm. Everybody was CNN, including the Arab stations. Today, you ask for something, you wish for it, and you get it. We wished for a free Arab satellite station, we got Al-Jazeera. You like it, you don’t like it, it is holding the imagination of the Arab world, and it’s now imitated by all the other Arab satellite stations. And you are sitting there looking at people who are watching the footage coming out of Israel and the occupied territories and Palestinian areas 18 hours a day, and it is very enraging footage if you are looking at it from an Arab perspective, and that’s what they see.
SIEGEL: Are you talking about the attitudes of the Saudi elites, the royal family, the people who run the country, about the people in the streets, or about everyone?
Mr. IBRAHIM: That is the astonishing part. I think now it covers the whole range. I am talking from the proverbial Arab street all the way to the ruling elite, and I think Abdullah is no exception. And the message we heard, the angry messages that are coming out of Saudi Arabia, leaked to the press, accurately reflects the attitude of the leadership. What the Saudi leadership is saying—“Look, you’ve been angry at us and insulting us since September 11 because 15 Saudis were on that plane. There are 20 million Saudis who were not on those planes. We have been a loyal ally for 60 years, and if you’re threatening to divorce us, well, it works both ways. We are also ready for the worst.”
SIEGEL: Thank you, Youssef.
Mr. IBRAHIM: You’re welcome.
SIEGEL: Youssef Ibrahim of the Council on Foreign Relations spoke to us from New York City.