Saudi crown prince Abdullah bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz had more than the Israeli-Arab conflict on his mind when he staged his latest subterfuge. This was to disclose that he might propose that the Arab world offer Israel “normalization of relations” in exchange for withdrawal from the territories that Israel occupied in 1967. The overture made by Abdullah, the de facto ruler since a stroke incapacitated king Fahd, his half-brother, seems largely intended to easethe serious strains that have crept into US-Saudi relations since September 11, despite assertions by Washington and Riyadh to the contrary, never have relations between the two been worse.
Saudi-US relations, which date back to a meeting between US president Franklin D Roosevelt and ‘Abd al-‘Aziz in the Suez Canal during the second world war, have lately been beset by rising tensions, resulting in increasingly harsh criticism of Saudi Arabia. The American media campaign has castigated Riyadh for breeding “religious fanaticism,” financing “terrorist organizations” and tolerating “widespread corruption”.
The US media has also been uneasy about the position taken by Riyadh over the detention of Saudis in the US since September 11. While other governments have mostly contented themselves with protests to the US state department against the detention of their citizens, the Saudis have asked for quick consular access to their detained citizens. Crown prince Abdullah reportedly instructed Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, to retain lawyers for each of the hundreds of Saudis detained in America.
Official American criticism of Riyadh focused on the Saudis’ supposed reluctance to cooperate fully in the US-led “war on terrorism.” This criticism was compounded by the grumbling of American officials about what they view as a Saudi lack of cooperation in investigating the attacks on the US military housing complexes at Riyadh and al-Khobar (1995 and 1996 respectively). The Saudis, according to Washington, are ungrateful: their reluctance to join fully the US-led “war on terrorism” indicates their unwillingness to return the favour the Americans did them in 1990, when they saved them from the ‘threat’ of Saddam Hussein.
Among the key concerns of a US team that visited Riyadh in December was that the Saudis move more forcefully to seize the financial assets of charities, companies and individuals whom Washington suspects of helping groups on the ever-growing lists of “terrorist organisations.”
Apparently one factor in the Saudi ‘royal’ family’s reluctance to share intelligence with Washington is their unwillingness to reveal to the West their own increasing vulnerability. But more important is Saudi awareness of the rise popular resentment.
For Saudi officials, domestic concerns seem to have taken priority over full participation in Washington’s ‘anti-terror’ campaign. They want to avoid reinforcing the widespread opinion that they are American puppets. In fact, September 11 has shown the instability of the Saudi regime. Fifteen of the nineteen suspects of September 11 were Saudi citizens. This suggests growing alienation and anti-American sentiment, especially among young Saudis. Resentment of American troops on the Saudi peninsula has been compounded by a decline in living standards caused by falling oil revenues and by corruption and heavy spending on defence and other white elephants. Popular anger over Israeli ruthlessness against the Palestinians has also been increasing, and may become the match that ignites the tinderbox of the ‘Arab street’.
In fact the rift in US-Saudi relations has widened with the escalation of Israeli repression of the Palestinian intifada. Beholden to Washington as it is, Riyadh has since the beginning of the intifada (September 2000) had to walk a tightrope. The Saudi regime, along with other Arab governments with close ties to the US, has been coming under increasing pressure from various quarters, both domestic and regional, to stand up to Washington on a host of issues. Foremost among these is the US’s support for Israel and lack of action to protect Palestinians from Israeli brutality; another is the consequences for Iraqi civilians of the UN embargo against Iraq.
Unease over Israel’s repression of the Palestinians prompted Abdullah to decline an invitation to Washington last summer. In August Abdullah ordered General Salih Ali bin Muhayya, the Saudi chief of staff, to cancel a visit to Washington, only one day after having arrived for a high-level review of US-Saudi military collaboration. He also cancelled a trip to Washington by a 40-member senior military delegation. More significant was the unusually strong-worded 25-page letter that Abdullah sent to Bush, in which he threatened to review the ties of the oil-rich kingdom with the US, and called on Washington to exert pressure on Israel to resume talks with the Palestinian Authority. Saudi Arabia also tried to arrange a meeting between Bush and Arafat at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in November. But Bush ignored the Saudis’ pleas, even refusing to shake hands with Arafat.
Bush subsequently endorsed the establishment of a Palestinian state. That and secretary of state Colin Powell announcement on November 19 that the government was sending General Anthony Zinni to the Middle East as an intermediary, were an attempt to contain the deterioration in US-Saudi relations.
Talk of a rift in US-Saudi relations should not be overstated however. The Saudis remain key US allies with an impressive record of cooperation with the US’s political and economic interests in the region. They continue to permit a contingent of several thousand American troops on Saudi soil to patrol the southern ‘no-fly’ zone in Iraq. Although they did not allow the US to launch air operations against Afghanistan from Saudi soil, the Saudis have allowed the use of the sophisticated command-and-control facilities at Prince Sultan Airbase, southeast of Riyadh, to direct the air strikes.
US president Roosevelt declared in 1943 that “the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the United States.” For the past six decades this strategic relationship has been based on a commonality of interests: the Saudis guarantee the US access to a steady supply of cheap oil in exchange for guaranteed security from external military threat.
The Americans have benefited tremendously from Saudi oil largesse. For years Saudi Arabia helped to finance the US budget deficit by buying American treasury bills and bonds. Members of the Saudi royal family have donated generously to American causes and charities: in 1985 Fahd donated US$1 million to ‘first lady’ Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drugs campaign; in 1989 he gave $1 million to a literacy campaign launched by first lady Barbara Bush.
Saudi Arabia has also been the American armament-industry’s best customer. It has been active in the US Foreign Military Sales programme since the 1950s, acquiring combat vehicles, naval vessels, small arms, jet-fighters, AWACS reconnaissance aircraft, advanced electronics and other equipment. Saudi Arabia pays higher fees than other countries for its soldiers, sailors and airmen to be trained at military facilities throughout the US. During the 1990s the Saudis spent an estimated $170 billion on military equipment, and last summer they awarded contracts worth some $50 billion to develop the country’s gas production facilities. American companies were the beneficiaries of almost all these sales and contracts. Riyadh has recently made public its decision to spend $2.6 billion to upgrade its fleet of ageing F-15 S “Eagle” fighter aircraft.
Members of the House of Saud have also benefited personally from these sales and contracts. Foreign contractors usually pay a 5 percent “commission” to Saudi officials, often members of the royal family. Saudis who have become rich from the country’s oil wealth have mostly invested their fortunes in the West. According to Chas W Freeman, former US ambassador to Riyadh, some 100,000 Saudis own houses or flats in the US (Washington Post, February 11, 2002).
Saudi money has supported US policy goals and covert operations in many places, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. In the 1980s the Saudis contributed more than $30 million to the Contras in Nicaragua. They contributed $10 million to an electoral campaign of the Christian Democratic Party (Italy) to enable it to defeat the Communist Party. The Saudis also financed a CIA plot to assassinate Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah by a car-bomb in Beirut. The car exploded on March 8, 1985, killing 80 people and wounding two hundred; Ayatullah Fadlallah escaped unharmed.
At various times of oil shortage and rising prices, the Saudis have generally agreed to increase production and press fellow-members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to limit production cuts. When oil prices rose sharply after the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979), Saudi Arabia and the UAE, arrested this rise by maintaining marker prices $2 per barrel below those of Iran and other ‘radical’ OPEC producers.
It is unlikely that recent criticisms from US officials and the American media indicate a real desire on Washington’s part to abandon or weaken the House of Saud. If the House of Saud collapses, there is no guarantee that the regime that takes over is going to be as acquiescent to Washington’s demands as the Saudis still are.
The Arabian peninsula has about 25 percent of the world’s oil reserves, a fact that will not change in the foreseeable future. It also influences the other five Gulf Cooperation Council producers (Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the UAE). Its large reserves, large production capacity and highly-developed oil-infrastructure will enable it to maintain its role in the oil market, and to guarantee the stability of both industrial and developing economies.
The bargain at the heart of the US-Saudi relationship, namely oil in exchange for military protection, still stands. The world economy runs on oil and is vulnerable even to short-term disruptions of supply. America and the West still want access to Saudi oil resources at low prices, and the Saudi ‘royal’ family continue to need American protection to prevent their precarious regime from collapsing like a house of cards.