Long-simmering tensions between Riyadh and Washington about money flowing from Saudi charities to people and groups classified as “terrorist” by the US have once again erupted. The tensions came into the open as a result of news reports that about $2,000 in donations from Princess Haifa al-Faisal, the wife of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to the US, may have reached two of the men who allegedly carried out the September 11 attacks. The reports said that Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawwaf al-Hazmi had received money from Saudi students in the US, who were receiving funds from an account in Princess Haifa’s name. The ambassador and his wife have denied these reports.
US government officials privately demanded that Saudi Arabia do more to cut off funding for “terrorist organizations”; publicly they heaped praise on Saudi efforts in the “war on terrorism,” while urging Riyadh to take further steps. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters: “Saudi Arabia is a good partner in the war against terrorism but can do more.”
By publicly defending the Saudis, US officials were trying to score several points. The government was trying to weather congressional criticism for not being tougher on the Saudis over the suspected Saudi money trail. The US is also trying hard to get permission to use Saudi air-bases in its attack on Iraq, and to ensure that the Saudis compensate for any oil shortage that results from the war.
Since the September 11 attacks, US officials have been pressing the Saudis to tighten regulations on about 300 charities that disburse some US$4 billion a year. A chorus of American members of congress, media experts and thinktanks has since made scathing criticisms of Saudi Arabia for financing “international terrorism” and breeding “religious fanaticism.” A deluge of articles and congressional statements has spared virtually no aspect of Saudi society, from the corruption pervading the House of Saud to the status of women and the country’s abysmal human rights record.
In May, the House Committee on International Relations held hearings on the future of US-Saudi relations. In his testimony, journalist Bill Kristol said: “Wahhabi teachings, religious schools and oil money have encouraged young Muslims... to a jihad-like incitement against non-Muslims.” He also urged the US government to demand an end to the “financing and encouraging [of] radical and extreme Wahhabism, beginning with mosques and charities in the United States but extending also throughout the Islamic world, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and other trouble spots.” A recent report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations identified the Saudi kingdom as the largest source of funding for al-Qa’ida. In a briefing to a Pentagon advisory panel, Rand corporation analyst Laurent Murawiec accused the Saudis of being “active at every level of the terror chain”.
Defending themselves, the Saudis have emphasized their commitment to stopping the flow of Saudi money to terrorism, pointing out that they have already blocked $70 million, and that Saudi banking regulations are capable of auditing the Islamic charities that operate abroad. Shortly after the recent furore, Saudi Arabia unveiled a series of measures intended to ensure that Saudi money does not reach the “terrorists,” including tighter controls on charities and attempts to prevent money-laundering through Saudi banks.
These measures were announced in Washington, not Riyadh. Saudi foreign affairs adviser ‘Adel al-Jubeir presented the nine-page report on the new measures at the Saudi embassy in Washington. He asserted that the new measures enable the authorities to trace every dollar leaving Saudi Arabia, and to audit all charities. Jubeir further stressed that Saudi authorities “have not found a direct link between charity groups and terrorism.” The report also provided a list of measures taken against al-Qa’ida. It said that the authorities have broken up three al-Qa’ida cells and frozen 33 bank accounts worth more than $5.5 million in them. The authorities have interrogated more than 2,000 suspected terrorists, and more than 100 of them are being detained.
This row is the tip of an iceberg of troubles confronting Saudi-US relations. Relations between the two countries have reached their lowest ebb in more than half a century. The two have had a “special partnership” since US president Franklin D Roosevelt declared in 1943: “The defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the United States.”
At the heart of the special relationship is a simple bargain: oil in exchange for military protection. The Saudis’ efforts to maintain steady oil exports at low prices have had a vital role in maintaining a global economy in which the US enjoys supremacy. At the same time, American military equipment, advisors and technical support have been indispensable for the modernization of the Saudi armed forces. Saudi Arabia has been active in the US Foreign Military Sales programme since the 1950s. Members of the Saudi armed forces have been trained at military academies and facilities throughout the US.
The other side of the coin is that Saudi military orders have been an essential lubricant of the American military-industrial complex. For several years some 50,000 workers in the American aerospace industry are expected to depend for their livelihood on Saudi commercial and military orders. In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia went on an arms shopping-spree that cost some $65 billion. Yet, despite decades of massive military expenditure, Saudi combat-readiness is laughable, as shown by the kingdom’s request for US military protection after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (August 1990).
Despite this partnership, the seeming preponderance of Saudi citizens among the September 11 hijackers (fifteen out of nineteen) caused a wave of anti-Saudi feeling in the US. The lingering “cowboy mentality” in America has put all Saudi society on trial for the deeds of a small number. Detentions of Saudi nationals in the US have aggravated tensions. Although the US has yet to give official details of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, it is believed that more than one third of the first 300 detainees were Saudis.
A deep mutual bitterness lies at the heart of the row. The Americans feel that the Saudis have not rewarded them for saving them from Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This feeling was expressed in a recent congressional hearing, when congressman Tom Lantos rebuked the Saudis for ingratitude, claiming that, but for the Americans, the House of Saud would have been reduced to a villa on the French Riviera.
The Saudis resent America’s lack of gratitude to them. Saudi Arabia possesses at least a quarter of the world’s proven petroleum reserves, and has always been willing to dance to America’s tune, working to preserve the stability of oil prices on the international market. In times of crisis, the Saudis have generally responded to America’s exhortations to use their vast oil-producing capacity to make up shortfalls, or to bring pressure to bear on fellow OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) members to limit production cuts.
Saudi frustration over Bush’s inaction to prevent Israeli brutality against the intifada had already reached boiling point in August 2001. At the time, Saudi crown prince ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abd al-Aziz wrote a strongly-worded 25-page letter to Bush. He warned the American president that unless he actively intervened to force Israel to negotiate with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia would review its ties with the US. The crown prince also postponed a visit to the US. Despite its indebtedness to Washington for survival, the House of Saud has since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada (September 2000) been coming under increasing pressure to defy the Americans. This pressure is shown by unprecedented demonstrations in Saudi cities.
Popular pressure on the Saudi rulers because of the intifada has compounded the erosion of the House of Saud’s political and religious legitimacy that began with American troops entering the Arabian Peninsula in 1990. Military cooperation with the US has always had the potential of bringing about cracks in the edifice of popular legitimacy of Saudi rule. The legitimacy of the Saudi regime is rooted in Wahhabism, which postulates a political system based on power being divided between the ulama and the ruling family. Seeking support from non-Muslims against fellow Muslims is one of a host of acts that nullify one’s Islam (‘nawaqid al-Islam’), according to Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), the founder of Wahhabism.
So the Saudi rulers’ sensitivity to criticism of military cooperation with the US explains the lengths to which the regime went to formulate an operational command structure during the Gulf war that gave the impression that ultimate military command was in Saudi hands. This sensitivity also explains the kingdom’s refusal to allow offensive operations against Iraq from Saudi bases, for instance during “Operation Desert Fox”, the aerial blitz against Iraq in December 1998. It also refused to permit US combat flights against Afghanistan during the US-led war against the Taliban.
Close cooperation with the US has always undermined the Saudi regime’s Islamic credentials (such as they are). Before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Saudi-US defence relationship was described as “over the horizon,” that is maintaining no military presence in the kingdom, despite forces being stationed in other parts of the Gulf. The decision of king Fahd to allow American troops into the kingdom in August 1990 transformed this relationship. But Fahd’s decision increased popular pressure on the Saudi royal family as never before. Critics point to the irony that the Saudi rulers claim to defend the sanctuaries in Makkah and Medina, while in reality they were helpless against Saddam without the unbelievers’ aid. Usama bin Ladin, the leader of al-Qa’ida, has called repeatedly for the expulsion of “infidel” forces from the land of Islam’s holiest sites.
Popular discontent has grown as what was initially presented as a temporary deployment of US forces became a permanent presence of some 6,000 American soldiers in the kingdom. This US force was designated as “provisional” until 1998.
Does the widening rift between Riyadh and Washington mean that the Saudi-American relation is crumbling? Not necessarily. Ultimately, much of the bad blood will prove to be a storm in a teacup. Washington and Riyadh have no choice but to work together. The relationship has survived because of mutual need: the Americans need oil and the Saudis need security. Saudi surplus production-capacity is expected to play an ever more critical role in keeping oil prices in check. The US department of energy estimates that Gulf oil exports will rise by 125 percent from 2000 to 2020. It predicts that the Gulf’s share of total oil exports will rise gradually to almost 60 percent by 2020. Saudi Arabia’s oil production capacity, estimated in 2000 at 14.5 percent of world capacity, and expected to rise to 19.2 percent of the world’s total capacity by 2020, will ensure that it continues to play a central part in America’s global energy strategy. With the progressive erosion of its credibility in Muslims’ eyes, the House of Saud will find itself increasingly reliant on America for its survival.