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December 2001

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U.S.-Saudi Relations After the September 11 Debacle

The author, a distinguished former career American ambassador in the Middle East and professor emeritus at Boston University, brings to the question he addresses unique qualifications of study and experience. He prepared this analysis before the Israeli-Palestinian crisis that unfolded at the beginning of December 2001. —Ed.

Among the diverse repercussions of the traumatic September 11 incident has been a sharp deterioration of U.S.-Saudi relations. Saudi Arabia has long been one of our closest Arab friends. It was only a decade ago that the United States deployed half a million troops to defend the kingdom’s territorial integrity against putative Iraqi predation. Although Saudi leaders publicly condemned the September 11th hijacking, American public anti-Saudi sentiment has rampantly erupted. The Saudi press is equally rabid in denouncing alleged U.S. "aggression" against Muslim Afghanistan. "Ambivalent allies," the often-contentious relationship has been aptly dubbed.

The reasons for this are self-evident. We represent two culturally and politically disparate societies. Sustained largely by political and economic elites, the bilateral tie enjoys little popular support in either country. The Riyadh and Khobar Towers bombings of 1995 and 1996, and inadequate Saudi cooperation with FBI investigators, have not been forgotten. Fifteen of the September 11th hijackers were Saudis. Moreover, the mastermind of the terrorist Qa’eda organization, Usama bin Ladin, is a Saudi, although his Saudi citizenship was revoked by the Saudi government. Numerous Saudis were in the coterie of "Afghan Arabs," nationals of various Arab countries who decamped to Afghanistan a decade ago and, with tangible U.S. aid funneled through Pakistan, successfully helped expel the Soviets from that benighted land. Many have returned to fight alongside the Taliban. In an age of resurgent Islamism, and imbued with the concept of jihad, or holy war, they have been emboldened by their earlier success. They now aspire to rid their own countries of what they regard as foreign, non-Muslim interlopers and of Arab governments allegedly supported by such outside forces.

The Saudi monarchy, whose political legitimacy is rooted in espousal of the tenets of ultra conservative Unitarian (Wahhabi) Islam, is cast by Bin Laden supporters as a U.S. lackey, especially since some 5,000 American military personnel remain in the Kingdom conducting monitoring overflights of Iraq. Such dissidents deliberately exaggerate the extent of U.S. influence in the Kingdom, but the Saudi authorities are hypersensitive to this charge. For years, the Saudi authorities have arrested, imprisoned or exiled various suspected Islamists even as they try to mollify Islamist sentiment in the Kingdom by demanding strict observance of Unitarian mores. In the process, they often find themselves criticized abroad, including by the United States, for human rights abuses. Were broader participation in decision-making circles permitted, Americans often simplistically contend, there might be less popular discontent. No one would argue against greater public participation, though much of the prevailing Saudi public restiveness is spawned by other factors, including budgetary deficits, high unemployment, reduced oil income, depleted national financial reserves resulting from the costs of the Gulf war ($51 billion), etc.

Ibn Saud, photo taken in Europe, October 1926.
In times of oil shortages and high prices, we regularly exhort the Saudis to increase production or press fellow OPEC members to limit production cuts. They have usually responded positively. Conversely, when oil is plentiful, resulting in decreased Saudi revenues, we indifferently shrug this off as the vagaries of the market. Unsurprisingly, some Saudis charge the sole American interest in their country is greedily devouring their oil resources at cheap prices.

Although Secretary of State Colin Powell has repeatedly stated the Saudi government has done everything requested of it, the American media and members of Congress have had a heyday in vilifying the Kingdom. Some of these criticisms precede September 11 but have intensified in the months that followed. Hypocrisy and ingratitude have been charged. Saudi Arabia has been unwilling to permit the Prince Sultan airbase, south of Riyadh, where most of the U.S. airmen are currently stationed, to be used for USAF sorties against the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is contrasted with the forthcoming attitudes of neighboring Bahrain, the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and Oman, whence some American (and British) commandos were deployed to Afghanistan.

Worse still, it was belatedly "discovered" that Saudi Islamic charitable organizations have sponsored large numbers of Islamic religious schools (madrasas) in Pakistan, where fundamentalist Islam is taught and which became breeding grounds for Taliban fighters. The Saudis have also been characteristically slow to respond to U.S. requests that funds for organizations suspected of sponsoring terrorism be frozen, although the Kingdom has severed its diplomatic ties with the Taliban regime. Saudi school textbooks still castigate non-Muslims as "infidels." Further, some have suggested, the Saudi authorities are chary of sharing intelligence with the United States on Arab terrorist movements. This may indeed be so since they are hardly anxious to apprise Washington of domestic dissident organizations which might threaten the stability of their regime.

The prevailing low cost of oil has made the Saudis even more vulnerable to excoriation. Some Americans believe that we no longer need Saudi help in international petroleum matters. One American newspaper has suggested that the United States simply occupy militarily the Saudi oil fields. Shades of Henry Kissinger in 1974! If anything is needed to make the continued presence of the American military in Saudi Arabia even less palatable in Saudi eyes, it is such threatening American hubris. Fortunately, the Bush Administration has ignored such self-defeating media commentary. Whether we like it or not, we will still need Saudi Arabia in the future, as we have in the past. And they will need us.

Despite the current strains in relations, U.S. overall interests in the Middle East require some cultural sensitivity on our part, however disappointed we may sometimes be with the hesitant and sluggish pace of Saudi actions. We might usefully recall that Saudi Arabia is a major factor not only in international petroleum matters, but in the Muslim world as a whole. As the site of the two principal Muslim holy places, Mecca and Medina, its stability is of concern to the entire Islamic world. The United States cannot credibly assert respect for Islam and then act against Saudi Arabia as if it were an enemy. There is a long history of bumpy U.S.-Saudi relations, for which both we and the Saudis share blame, and they have endured. In the context of mutual respect for each other’s sovereignties, the leaderships of both countries wish essential dialogue and cooperation to continue.

Massive FBI detentions of Saudi nationals in this country, suspected of possible complicity in the September 11th incident, aggravate the current problem. The Saudis, like other Arabs affected, have protested to the State Department that quick consular access to detainees has often been denied. The U.S. government strongly insists on such consular access when its citizens are arrested abroad.

A major source of Saudi unhappiness with Washington in recent years has been the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli situation. Resolution of that issue, including its Jerusalem dimension, is critical to Saudi official and public attitudes. King Faisal once told this writer that Saudi Arabia could accept whatever arrangements the "confrontation" states, e.g., Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon worked out with Israel, but Jerusalem, as the third holiest city of Islam, had to have some kind of Muslim authority. By that he meant the Islamic Haram al-Sharif area. Global Islamic leaders embrace that goal. The present Saudi leaders endorse that idea, which now translates into an equitable settlement of the Palestinian problem.

The Saudi leadership has supported the Palestinian al-Aqsa intifada. Reflecting its disappointment in the Bush Administration’s earlier seeming disengagement from the peace process, Crown Prince Abdallah, the effective head of the government at present, declined an invitation to visit the United States. The Saudis have always viewed America as pro-Israeli and suspect U.S. avowals of even-handedness, a situation that has cause frequent tensions between the two governments. Until mutually acceptable Arab-Israeli settlements are achieved, such disagreements will persist. But they are manageable.

Hopefully, President Bush’s twice reiterated public statements endorsing a Palestinian state at peace with Israel and Secretary Powell’s Louisville address of November 19, indicating the Administration’s intention to send former CENTCOM commander General Anthony Zinni and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns to the area to act as intermediaries, will demonstrate to the Saudis as well as to other Arab states the earnestness of the Bush Administration in striving for a fair resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli problem. Zinni is well known to Saudi leaders; Burns is a respected Middle East expert. As Powell stated, Israel should withdraw from "occupied" Palestinian areas and Chairman Arafat must more effectively end Palestinian terrorist actions in Israel. In accordance with the Mitchell plan, expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas should be stopped. It will also be essential to persuade the Saudis, as well as other Arabs (including Palestinians), that what they dub as legitimate "national liberation" actions, others consider as terrorism and should be stopped if meaningful negotiations are to have any chance of success. The Saudi ambassador in Washington has called the Powell proposal positive and balanced. One hopes that his government will work with Zinni and Burns in trying to revivify Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts. Sadly, Zinni's difficult mission has been further complicated by the recent horrific Hamas bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa and the robust Israeli response. In the mutual recriminations as to who started the conflict, the Saudis will certainly side with the Palestinians.

A potential source of future friction needs be flagged. The Saudi leadership has no use for Saddam Hussein, but blames sustained U.S.-supported UNSC economic sanctions for the sad plight of the Iraqi people. Any U.S. effort to attack Iraq, after the defeat of the Taliban, as some U.S. leaders have urged, may be expected to draw Saudi and other Arab and non-Arab ire. The fragile anti-terrorist coalition that currently exists will most certainly be fractured.

Mending the frayed bilateral relationship will depend in large part on what Washington does after victory. Inevitably, the greater the "collateral damage" our bombings inflict on Afghan civilians, the greater will be Saudi criticism. A more effective U.S. public relations effort is clearly needed. The two countries have nevertheless joined with twenty others to plan for the economic rehabilitation of Afghanistan, once an acceptable multi-ethnic government can be installed there. Saudi and other Arab funds will be essential for any such effort to succeed.

The Saudis are never easy to work with. Neither are we, especially in the post Cold War era when the United States, as the sole remaining hegemon, has sometimes acted with sanctimonious self-assumed omniscience. In contrast to the American mode of conducting all activities in the glare of public media scrutiny, the Saudi Government’s style has traditionally been quiet, unpublicized cooperation with the U.S., consistent with Riyadh’s judgment of domestic and global (including fellow Muslim) requirements. We may not like their operational mode, but it needs to be respected if the two countries long history of mutual cooperation is to persist. Past evidence is plentiful that we can mediate our differences through patient dialogue. Secretary Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have handled Saudi leadership sensitivities admirably. Their diplomatic skills will be needed to refurbish the previous strong bonds existing between the two countries.

11/22/01


Herman F. Eilts enjoyed a distinguished 32-year career in the Foreign Service. He served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1965-70) and Egypt (1973-79) and retired as Professor Emeritus at Boston University.

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