By Rachel Bronson
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:
1. 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 like 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.
2. 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 US-Saudi relations.
Since the end of the Cold War, the relationship has 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 Secretary of State Condoleezza 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.
3. 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 al-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 large 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 Eisenhower and Kennedy, who were initially skeptical of the Saudis, found themselves drawn to this relationship for strategic reasons.
4. The U.S. can call the shots with Saudi Arabia because we’re 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’s protestations that China was “locking up long-term oil deals” with oil-rich countries.
Last year Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud stated that Saudi Arabia and China now have a “strategic relationship,” since Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of crude to China. Of course, Beijing will not replace Washington as the Saudi’s key global partner. But growing oil demand elsewhere radically alters the options at Saudi Arabia’s disposal.
5. 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 challenges from palace infighting and assassination to incapacitated leaders. There are still many sons of the Kingdom’s 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 under age 25, and jobs for them are scarce. Meanwhile, insurgent fighters eventually will return from Iraq, trained and determined, and the Sunni-Shia battles of Iraq can easily spill into Saudi Arabia, where the Shia 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. 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.
6. Iran is more threatening to the U.S. than Saudi Arabia.
Not true. The Saudis and Iranians are bitter religious, ethnic and political rivals. Make no mistake about it, Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Iran to get anywhere near being able to build a bomb. Saudi Arabia’s traditional response to threats in the neighborhood has been to fall back on U.S. security guarantees. But after 9/11, and the tension in the relationship, Riyadh has grave doubts about America’s commitment. With the ongoing Iraq war, the Saudi leadership is further doubtful of America’s abilities in the region. Meanwhile, the Dubai Ports World scandal showed how skeptical Americans are about Persian Gulf allies. All of this has Saudi Arabia nervous about U.S. reliability when it evaluates Iran’s ambitions.
In the mid-1980s, in response to the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia secretly concluded a deal with China to import CSS-2 missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads. This effort to independently improve the Kingdom’s security failed miserably. The U.S. reacted angrily to the secret deal, and other countries also reacted with alarm. Given their current worries and warming relations with the Chinese, the Saudis could go down this road again, but would risk sanctions and severe global condemnation at the very moment they are trying to recover from the negative fall out around 9/11.
Pakistan could provide Saudi Arabia a way out. The two countries have deep and long-standing military ties. After Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, Saudi Defense Minister (and current crown prince) Sultan bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud was one of the first dignitaries to visit the test site. The extent of Saudi-Pakistani support remains highly classified, but given Saudi Arabia’s options, investing in Pakistan’s program and cutting deals that ensure Saudi access to it if needed seems a plausible option.
Rachel Bronson is author of Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia and director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Originally published as “5 Myths about U.S.-Saudi Relations” on Sunday in The Washington Post.