How the US Could "Lose" Saudi Arabia


“There are people out there calling for democracy. Now isn’t that the silliest thing you ever heard.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, 1922

“Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong.”

Thomas Jefferson

It is March 2008; U.S. forces in Iraq have been maintained at “surge” levels. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been replaced twice in the in last nine months. The current cabinet, a coalition dominated by technocrats and secularists, includes military officers who hold the Defense and Internal Security portfolios as well as former Baathists. Even so, its hold on power is shaky as the sectarian militias of the religious parties still pose a possible security threat–a threat that that continues to roil the politics of the Gulf and the larger Middle East.

There is some good economic news: oil production finally is above pre-March 2003 levels–and has shown a small but steady increase in each of the last four months.

Next door in Iran, the Supreme Ruler and his inner circle have grown weary of what it sees as U.S. stalling tactics on ending sanctions against Tehran (the quid pro quo for Tehran’s full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency). Moreover, even though the coalition troops are half-way through their final six month UN-endorsed “stability operation” in Iraq, the U.S. still has not announced whether it will ask the Iraq government for permanent basing rights.

Sensing an opportunity to affect the future balance of power in the Gulf as the coalition military forces leave Iraq, the Iranians secretly approachSaudi Arabia with a proposal to stabilize political-economic conditions in the Persian Gulf–Caspian Sea oil fields. The core of the proposal calls for Riyadh and Tehran to pressure Baghdad diplomatically (with the sectarian militias always in the background) to reject any form of a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq. In return, both Iran and Saudi Arabia would assist the re-development of Iraq’s oil sector, enabling the three countries to form a powerful sub-OPEC triumvirate.

Such a scenario might seem far-fetched given the history of ethnic and religious sectarianism that Westerners associate with Islam in general and with the Gulf and the Greater Middle East in particular. However, to totally ascribe the widespread violence to the historical Shi’a–Sunni sectarianism completely ignores the gross mishandling by the U.S. and its coalition partners of the post-October 2001 and post-March 2003 political, military, and economic realities in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. That the initial occupation “model” was post-World War II Germany rather than an insurgency merely accentuates the error.

What is disheartening is that many in the Bush administration and in Congress, regardless of the number of “fact-finding” excursions they make, cannot get beyond the original limitations of the Bush policy toward Afghanistan, Iraq, and the other countries bordering the Persian Gulf. Under such circumstances, one is hard-pressed to distinguish between willful ignorance and persistent error, both of which–Jefferson notwithstanding–can be devastating when Congress legislates in the foreign policy and national defense arenas.

Few would deny that first-hand information is especially crucial when the nation is at war. Probably far fewer would subscribe to the premise that such information is at least as critical in times of peace as a barrier to war. But first-hand knowledge may be most important when a country attempts to chart a path from uncivil civil war to peace–especially should outside parties seek to sabotage progress toward peace for whatever reason.

The physical processes of moving from civil war to peace–disengagement, disarmament, re-integration, and sustainable development on an equitable basis for all–are not at issue because the basic structures and methods need only be adapted, not created from scratch, in each instance. The challenge is to identify and understand the underlying belief systems as these are reflected in the values, ethics, and morés of a society and its culture as well as their influence on the traditions, laws, and institutions of governance developed by a society. The key element, the sine qua non on which everything depends, is the ability to find a common basis for mutual trust among cultural groups and subgroups, whether tribal, clan, ethnic, racial, sectarian, political, economic, or any other divide. In that the fundamental datum in question is the individual, the basis for developing trust must also begin with the individual–the acceptance of the inherent dignity and equality of every person–after which it can (and must) become politically “universal” as the foundation for whatever form of governance is chosen.


Among the many efforts in the last century to express these principles, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s January 6, 1941 address to Congress captured both the universality of these principles and the real possibility that they were within reach despite the wars raging in Europe and Asia. This speech contained Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”–of speech and religion, from want and fear–with a brief elaboration of each ” in world terms” that clearly reflected the president’s extensive international experience. If freedom was “the supremacy of human rights everywhere,” as Roosevelt claimed, then freedom from fear “translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere .”

For Americans, the collapse of the Soviet empire and then the implosion of the Soviet Union itself in December 1991 seemed to be the achievement of Roosevelt’s freedom from fear “in world terms.” Yet 10 months before the implosion, another event occurred whose repercussions were to last for a dozen years and, once again, frustrate Roosevelt’s vision of a world free from fear of aggression.

The January-February 1991 U.S. led, UN approved Operation Desert Storm that evicted Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait is a case study in the restrained use of military power by the community of nations to uphold international law. It arguably reflected the extensive international experience and first-hand-knowledge of President George H. W. Bush and his advisors.

Twelve years later, another Bush–George W.–is in the White House and is at war. Judging from the résumés of his advisors and those he selected to implement the administration’s policies and programs, first hand knowledge of international affairs is as plentiful as in 1991. Yet without question, after 6_ years of the presidency of George W. Bush, the international standing of the United States is at rock-bottom. Determining exactly how this nadir was reached lies in the future, but two possibilities have already emerged: a distinct absence of that first hand knowledge of international relations and other cultures possessed by the first President Bush; and, perhaps more debilitating to the decision-making process, a studied narrowness in understanding, interpreting, and integrating all available information in the bureaucracy–especially information that contradicts his personal views.

From the very beginning of his presidency, George W. Bush has harbored a most singular, almost-messianic purpose: to instigate a world of ever-expanding democracies led by the United States and by George Bush. For this president, spreading democracy is not an option but a duty, one arising from and rooted in the nation’s divinely-ordained “manifest destiny.” Ironically, considering that Bush “sat out” the Vietnam war, his “new” Middle East seems to be little more than an inversion of the Vietnam-era domino theory. All the U.S. has to do is plant one vibrant democracy in the Middle East and eventually all other countries will “fall” into the ranks of democratic nations. And as democracy spreads, so too will peace.

Unfortunately, Bush’s idea of what is best for the region’s countries might not be what the region’s peoples and current rulers envision. As it is, nearly six years after invading Afghanistan and 4_ years after invading Iraq, there is little prospect for an end to the fighting in or for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from these countries. These struggles have deflected efforts to find compromises that would end the long-running (and recently rekindled) violence among Palestinian factions and between Palestinians and Israelis. And at what might be referred to as eleventh-hour discussions, Iran and the U.S. are finally exploring their overlapping or diverging views of events in and the future role of each nation in the Gulf-Caspian Sea arenas.

Seemingly left out of the post-September 11, 2001 Gulf picture, strangely, is Saudi Arabia, for the past seven decades a close U.S. ally. Can it be that this once highly-favored U.S. partner–ranked by some analysts as third in importance to the U.S. behind Britain and Israel–has lost its privileged position with the Bush White House and the U.S. Congress? Or is there a post-9/11 calculated, mutually beneficial, unofficial and unwritten “understanding” in operation? That is, the U.S. government won’t highlight those “un-democratic” aspects of the desert kingdom that, when founding other countries, in other countries are frequently and extensively condemned by the U.S. and serve to “inspire” regime change legislation–in return for which the Saudi oil spigot will be kept open indefinitely.

After nearly six years of continuous war involving the United States in what is Saudi Arabia’s back yard, this “arrangement” may be crumbling. Under the current plan, there is still no realistic time horizon within which a viable central government of any type, let alone a western style democracy, can emerge in Baghdad. Across the Gulf, the anti-American theocratic regime in Tehran has re-emerged as a regional player that other Gulf and Middle East countries cannot ignore.

Of all the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia may well be experiencing the most significant changes. Although the subject rarely is broached, many in the U.S. Congress and the U.S. public have had the uneasy sense that Riyadh’s vast oil resources and the ever-increasing U.S. dependence on petroleum imports has provided the Saudi’s a veritable Sword of Damocles that hints at the use (as in 1973) of oil as a weapon by which the kingdom might try to restrain or otherwise influence U.S. policy and presence in the Persian Gulf-Caspian Sea areas. (Of course, the counter argument is that the Saudis have to sell their oil because they have no other income source–thus producing a deadlock that neither side would want nor could sustain.

That said, the shifting sands of scientific discoveries and international relations seem poised to unhinge the current Saudi-U.S. combine than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. Scientifically, the need for countries everywhere to become involved in counteracting the effects of global warming will require changes in a carbon-based life style and quality of life that will have to be balanced by some still-to-be-determined mechanism to preclude massive disruption of social order within countries and to mediate international disputes more effectively than in the past. And there still is the possibility, however remote, of a major breakthrough in non-carbon energy sources that would revolutionize economies around the world–and revenue flows as well.

Diplomatically, Washington’s unwavering support of (or blanket neutrality toward) Israel in every dispute with its neighbors (support that arguably has encouraged a certain reckless disregard by Israeli authorities of the rights of non-combatants in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank) seemed–until June of this year–to be driving Riyadh to adopt a more prominent role in the Israeli-Palestine dispute. As for the Persian Gulf itself, simply to maintain their national sovereignty in a neighborhood with two other oil-rich but more populous countries, the Saudis–essentially tribal, autocratic, and sitting on the largest proven oil reserves in the world–had to align themselves with a “protective” power or create (and effectively dominate) a regional defensive consortium — in this case the Gulf Cooperation Council that includes the other states, sheikdoms, and emirates on the Arabian Peninsula.

This dependence on foreign oil to power the economy and to maintain and deploy military forces when and where needed, drove successive administrations to cultivate Saudi leaders. When strains in the relationship developed and threatened to become public, both sides worked to conceal the extent of the disagreement beneath diplospeak. Transient disputes left bi-lateral relations “warm, robust, and close.” More contentious meetings that failed to resolve issues were “frank, friendly, and fraternal.”

September 11, 2001 swept all “issues” off the table. Within hours, fifteen of the nineteen hijackers had been identified as Saudi citizens. Not knowing but fearing a backlash once the American public knew the countries of origin of the hijackers, the Saudi embassy advised business representatives, students, and other Saudis living in or visiting the U.S. to leave as rapidly as possible. An October 2003 FBI memo that was made public at the end of June 2007 acknowledges that Saudi diplomats, other Middle East nationals, and even members of bin Laden’s family residing in the U.S. were whisked out of the U.S. on six chartered planes on September 19, 2001. Moreover, even on the day of the attack itself, a Saudi-chartered jet was airborne in U.S. airspace although all aircraft other than Air Force One were supposed to be grounded.

Clearly, the Saudis panicked–possibly because George Bush had been in office only seven months and was untested on the world stage. And while the Bush family were no strangers to the Saudi royals, it is not difficult to picture the profound uncertainty about how the “cowboy” president would react to the unprecedented assault–the location of the targets, the origin and means used to carry out the plot, the number killed and injured, and the physical destruction. Apparently, even the long-serving (22 years) Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who knew the American psyche better than any other member of the top-tier of Saudi royalty–could not predict whether the U.S. would blame Saudi Arabia for the tragedy. (This failure may well account for the apparent lessening of Bandar’s influence in the Saudi government under King Abdullah,)

That so many Saudis fled the United States after September 11 should have been a red flag for Washington as to the depth of uncertainty and even fear in many Islamic countries about how and against whom the U.S. might use its military power. In their world, the U.S. has intervened with bombs and bullets in Lebanon and Libya in the 1980s, in Iraq and Sudan in the 1990s, and in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia in the first decade of the 21st century. On the “Arab street,” the U.S. is seen as a weapons- and war-obsessed country whose uncontrolled “gunfighter” mentality bespeaks a culture with seemingly little regard for life–one liable to strike out in any direction and at any time.

The obvious question is which way will U.S.-Saudi relations develop? In that few top U.S. officials really understand the country–just as few Saudis really understand the U.S.–to even hazard a tentative conclusion borders on insanity. Yet by identifying trends that are reasonably expected to affect the course of events, it becomes easier to see the problem holistically and to formulate a meaningful reply that incorporates both perspectives to the degree that these are publicly evident.

In the early Cold War, after the Chinese Communists drove the remnants of the Nationalist Chinese armies off the Mainland, Washington politicians–many knowing little if anything about China–began a frenzied hunt for those who “lost China.” The same question, after substituting Iraq for China, is being asked more and more often today as people wonder what condition Iraq will be in when the U.S. military units finally leave.

For their part, the Saudis seem to have decided not to give unguided fate a free hand in determining their future. The House of Saud cannot afford to be seen as a military “lap dog” of the United States, especially since their chief claim to legitimacy in the Islamic world is their position as the Protector of the Two Holy Cities in Arabia from which Islam spread. They have to oppose the continuing occupation of Iraq and the parallel occupation of Palestine if they are to retain credibility in the Islamic world. And whereas the U.S. is geographically remote, the Saudis must live with a resurgent Iran as a neighbor, regardless of what else happens in the rest of the world.

The one arena of international relations where non-believers and Saudis can mingle without incurring condemnation is commerce. Even the ayatollahs in Iran understand business.


How a country and a people develop and internalize as a “second nature” the social, political, philosophical, and even economic structures within which day-to-day life unfolds depends on prevailing geographical, environmental, and historical conditions–and how these intersect and integrate at crucial times in the formation of or in a radical change to a culture. This process, even when more evolutionary than revolutionary, is never uniform or straightforward, largely because the ascendancy (or decline) of a culture occurs coincident with the development and use (or the waning) of military power relative to other societies and their cultures. Moreover, how the dominant power of the day acts toward both its allies and its enemies can alter the development of its own culture. The “best” case arguably has the ruling class in the dominant country fully cognizant of and preparing for the eventual inflexion of military supremacy by having the foresight to share power and responsibility–a more reliable formula than war for prolonging dominance–as a member of consortia of countries with similar cultures.

Perhaps this explains in part the Saudi reaction to September 11, 2001. As complicated as relationships can be between neighboring countries that share essentially the same philosophical and cultural foundations, the complexity of relationships is magnified when countries whose social and cultural evolution flow from distinctly different, even contradictory, bases attempt to form meaningful alliances and forge complex compacts with each other. I suggest, for example, that the Pentagon and State Department regarded the Saudi relationship to be, firstly, economic and secondarily (albeit a close second) national defense. The Saudi’s priorities would be the reverse. Moreover, in light of the strong residual influence of the tribal structure on which rests the kingdom’s sense of being one nation, when 9/11 struck, the collective Saudi subconscious reverted to the primordial “flight” instinct through which safety in numbers could be achieved. At base, this “choice” was triggered by the recognition that “they” (Americans) are not “us” (Saudis), and therefore, in extremis, “we” cannot be sure just what “their” reaction will be to disaster.

For most of the 20th century, the Saudi-U.S. compact skirted the more sensitive subjects: individual rights versus traditional societal norms; rights of women and professions women could pursue; strict enforcement of societal expectations and mores rather than tolerance of diverse standards introduced by contact with outsiders. The fissures that did appear did not go to core values, so the ruling elite could quickly and quietly deal with them.

Less than a year into the 1990s found western armies in Saudi Arabia and two or more aircraft carrier battle groups sailing in or just outside the Persian Gulf every day of the year. Core issues, in particular the components that make up a society’s self-identity–mythology, religion, philosophy, and political structures–suddenly came under intense pressure, and the longer the foreign troops, especially the non-Islamic foreign troops, remained in the kingdom, the greater the strain. Again, economics dominated the U.S. viewpoint with international law an important added consideration. For the Saudis, on the surface this was a matter of national defense–immediate national defense after U.S. intelligence had briefed the king on the disposition of the Iraqi forces in Kuwait and Saddam Hussein’s possible intent. (Ironically, it was on September 11, 1990, that President George H.W. Bush told the U.S. public and the world that satellite photography confirmed other reports that large numbers of Iraqi troops and tanks were in Kuwait and poised on the Saudi border. When commercial satellite photography of Kuwait on September 11 and September 13, 1990 became available in 1992, there was little indication of an Iraqi presence in Kuwait while on the same photos the dispositions of the lead elements of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division in northern Saudi Arabia are quite discernable.)

What few Americans understood then (and too many still do not understand) was that Gulf politics had a very prominent historical and religious dimension that the Saudi elite had to factor into their response. Like most Arab countries, Saudi Arabia has a significant Shi’a minority. If it is an accident of history that the largest liquid petroleum reserves lie in an arc around the Persian Gulf, it is an accident of demographics that the most significant Saudi oil fields are beneath areas inhabited by Shi’a. (Similar demographics and the fortunes of war created the geographical distribution of the minority Shi’a that gave them control of Iran and a population majority in Iraq but not control of the government–at least not while Saddam Hussein’s Baath party ruled.) In the end, realpolitik carried the day, but at a price no one imagined.

Modern Saudi Arabia emerged from an early 19th century political-religious alliance between Muhammed Ibn Saud and Muhammed al-Wahhab that led to the first conquest of the Arabian peninsula by the “House of Saud.” Al-Wahhab, a Bedouin like Ibn Saud, considered himself heir to the teachings and traditions of Ibn Taymiya, a 13th century iconoclastic Islamic scholar and jurist of the strict Hambali school of Sunni Islam. Taymiya interpreted the disastrous fall of Baghdad and the Abbysid caliphate to Mongol invaders in 1258 CE as God’s judgment on the faithful who had strayed from the strictures and practice of Islam as found in the Quran and Ibn Taymiya’s Book of Unity. By extension, any Muslim who did not belong to al-Wahhab’s “Call to Unity” cult or disagreed with his analysis was anathema and Islam’s enemy.

The very aggressive religious stance of the Wahab-Saud alliance drove other Sunnis and all Shi’a communities to oppose the desert upstarts. In 1818, the powerful Egyptian caliph militarily crushed the political aspirations of the Saudis, nearly obliterating the tribe. Surviving Saudi tribesmen regrouped in the desert and began re-building their numbers, eventually again conquering a great amount of the Arabian peninsula, including the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. By the 1930s, most of the peninsula was reclaimed–and with it the vast petroleum reserves that would become the fuel of the world’s engine of commerce.

Uniting most of the Arabian Peninsula did not solve all of the Saudi’s challenges. The kingdom’s relatively small population drove the royal family to seek reliable allies to help ensure its continued sovereignty and prosperity. This need for dependable allies was one of the first lessons the Saudis drew from World War II as that war unfolded. What may have saved the Saudis in the end was not anything they did but what the Soviet 62nd Army did: it held at Stalingrad, thereby blocking the Nazi advance on the oil-rich Caucasus and the northern Gulf oil fields.

When the war ended, it looked as though nothing had really changed except that the pre-war British presence in Iran was now a post-war Soviet and British presence. This change originated in 1941 when Churchill and Stalin forced Iran’s ruler, Reza Shah, to abdicate to prevent him from siding with the Axis and interfering with the “Persian Corridor” supply line to the Red Army.

Although Britain removed its troops after the war ended, the Soviets did not withdraw completely until May 1946. But the Saudis soon were confronted by a unified, nationalistic Iran, strongly supported by (some would say “under the thumb of”) the U.S. And while the Saudis had more oil than Iran, they didn’t have the most important asset to be Washington’s favorite: geography. Iran was doubly “blessed” in this regard. On its north and northwest, it was the country blocking Soviet access to a warm water port (assuring reliable maritime-based trade), while its southwest flank bordered the Strait of Hormuz, the crucial chokepoint on the all-maritime route to the vast oil fields of the interior Gulf. Iran’s high-water mark–and arguably Saudi Arabia’s low point–came during the presidency of Richard Nixon. Under the so-called Nixon Doctrine, a number of “regional military hegemons” armed, trained, and beholden to the Pentagon, were to help the U.S. maintain world order. Iran was the country-of-choice in the Gulf, and Tehran under the Shah was Washington’s favorite.

With the overthrow of the Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, the take-over by students of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the ensuing captivity of 52 embassy staff for 444 days, and the ascendancy to political power of Islamic clerics, U.S – Iranian cooperation evaporated. The diplomatic shake-up was only intensified–and perhaps prolonged–by the outbreak of a mutually devastating eight-year war (1980-1988) between Iran and Iraq.

With Shi’a Iran in disarray and badly bloodied, and with Iraq’s Shi’a majority still dominated by the nominally Sunni Saddam Hussein, the Saudi’s could claim a special role in the custodianship of Islam’s holiest shrines.

In sum, Saudi Arabia was the last one standing, the number one power in the Gulf. Arms purchases from the West that used to flow to Tehran now flooded Riyadh. The dangerous and aggressive superpower to the east and north had been forced out of Afghanistan after ten years of fighting by a largely Saudi-funded indigenous guerrilla resistance.

As for the great superpower to the west, its ever-increasing addiction to oil gave Riyadh influence (some would say enormous clout) on evolving U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. But this influence was muted and relegated to the shadows of day-to-day events so that few would notice–or care. As for the Persian Gulf, Riyadh had no objections to the nearly constant presence of at least one U.S. aircraft carrier battle group, which effectively made the Gulf an American lake.

Yes, looking out on the world as 1989 drew to a close, the Saudis could claim to be at the top of their form. But events were soon to change drastically.



The placid surface of Gulf economic, military, and diplomatic relations concealed roiling depths that soon placed tremendous stresses on the Saudi-U.S. alliance. One of the more recent but no longer unique pressures is economic: the high cost of fuel for automobiles. This strain, of course, can be ameliorated (at least until oil production peaks) to the extent that refining capacity increases. But a potentially more divisive issue, divisive because it involves realpolitik consequences that flow from and are inherent in personal and national self-identity, is the relationship between religion, politics, and economics in societies whose fundamental concept of the individual’s place and role in society is rooted on differing premises.

In the first 300 years since the end of the religious wars in Europe in 1648, religion in the West, especially in Northern Europe and the colonies in North America, has been either formally separated from and subordinated to or only nominally headed by the ruling political structure. In turn, in the aftermath of World War II, political divisions have become increasingly irrelevant to the economic power wielded by transnational corporations. In contrast, the evolution of Islam, particularly the highly conservative tradition practiced in Saudi Arabia and absorbed by Osama bin Laden and his supporters and followers, melds the religious and the secular into daily life and duty, with religion superior to and informing the political and economic spheres.

(At a less conceptual level, some social commentators believe that a culture’s dominant architecture reveals what it values most. That is, for what purposes does a society spend time and money constructing “important” buildings? In the West, dominant structures initially were churches, then palaces and “capitals,” but since the last century, transnational corporate headquarters and financial institutions. This progression from church to state to corporation did not happen in Islam. There, the minaret still dominates.)

This philosophical divide was irrelevant until Islam and Christianity, both heirs to Judaism, collided in Palestine. Both accepted–and among the converts to each were those who embraced–the use of force against armed opponents.

Initially, Christianity followed a less militant path, but after the end of the persecutions in the 4th century CE, it took up the sword under the “just war” theory of Augustine of Hippo. It was still a “tool” of the church hierarchy in the 11th century when the Orthodox churches separated from Rome and the Latin churches and again in the 16th and the 17th centuries with the rise of Protestantism.

Under the Prophet, Islam burst from the Arabian peninsula absorbing by conversion or the sword as it gained dominance in most of the Near and Middle East, Africa north of the Sahara Desert, and eventually large swatches of the Byzantine Empire. For 200 years, starting in 1095 CE, Western Christianity directly opposed Islam in the on-and-off Crusades. In 1453 CE, Constantinople fell to the Turks who, a mere 76 years later, were knocking at the Gates of Vienna (1529 CE). No one answered; the spread westward into Europe was checked as it had been eight centuries earlier (732 CE) at Tours, France.

Where Islam held sway, religion was the dominant organizing principle for the society. This was both its strength–a consistency in values and community focus–and its weakness ­an absence of an alternate explanation or a “fall back” source of power other than Allah to hold accountable when life is overcome by obstacles.

As with most new faiths, the fervor of the “reborn” can fuel a determination to “share” the newly discovered spirituality. The more militant the faith, the more ferocious the treatment meted out to those who oppose the new faith or–even worse–who deviate from the true path. The resulting schisms and “reformations,” once laid bare, can divide so deeply that they become a dominant part of the forces that shape traditions, laws, cultural norms, and commerce–and frustrate initiatives that would help resolve ancient disputes.

Despite a number of irritants in the U.S. – Saudi relationship over the years, available diplomatic histories suggest that none rose to a level that threatened a vital national interest of either the U.S. or the Saudi kingdom prior to 1990-1991. The irritants that did exist–the rush to recognize diplomatically the new Jewish state of Israel in 1948; the virtually one-sided, unwavering U.S. support for Israel against Muslim countries in general and Palestinians in particular; the “oil shocks” of 1973 and 1979 which saw oil prices “skyrocket” in comparison with the existing “steady-state” costs, spotlighting just how dependent the Western world was on a steady flow of cheap petroleum to keep economies afloat–were not “make-or-break” disputes for the U.S., although maintaining a reliable and inexpensive flow of petroleum was an important priority for every U.S. administration.

The kingdom, however, did have something to hide, and for the better part of the 20th century it succeeded by projecting a façade of economic development and modernity beneath which lay a rigid social conservatism that was enforced by the equally rigid Wahab school of Sunni Islam. Few Westerners, even those who lived and worked in the U.S. foreign military training program known as SANG–Saudi Arabian National Guard–grasped the depth of commitment to religious purity represented by this combination of mosque and monarch. (The SANG, the best equipped and best trained Saudi troops, are under the direct command of a senior member of the royal family. They are a modern Praetorian Guard whose mission is to protect the Saudi royal family from the country’s regular army.)

This idyllic relationship lasted less than a year, and one suspects that the Saudis quietly fault the U.S. for its foreshortened existence. On August 2, 1990, a few days after the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad told Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein that the U.S. had no position on a border dispute between Iraq and Kuwait, Saddam sent his army into what he termed Iraq’s nineteenth province, quickly overrunning the emirate while being careful not to cross into Saudi Arabia–at least not until he had a tight grip on Kuwait and saw the world’s reaction to this violation of international law.

Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait set in motion a chain of events that lasted a dozen years:

-the 1991 Operation Desert Storm that restored Kuwait’s ruling family to their throne also saw the introduction of foreign troops and construction of “permanent” military facilities built for these non-believers in the land of the two most sacred cities of Islam. The rejection by the Saudi royal family of Saudi businessman-turned-mujahideen Osama bin Laden’s offer to lead a jihad against Saddam Hussein in lieu of the foreign troops is seen as the point at which bin Laden turned against his family and his country.

-the intrusive UN searches for weapons of mass destruction, interrupted at least twice by U.S. bombing campaigns that grew out of Operations Northern and Southern Watch;

-the imposition of devastating sanctions on Iraq, albeit eventually with exceptions on humanitarian grounds for food and medicine and gradually becoming more focused against Iraq’s ruling cabal;

– the intentional mis-management of the UN “Oil for Food” program which helped maintain Saddam Hussein in power;

– “abandonment” by the U.S. of the Marsh Arabs and the Kurds when they rebelled against Saddam’s oppression, expecting the U.S. would come to their aid; and

– the continuing presence of U.S. military men and women in Saudi Arabia which bin Laden considered an abomination.

Forced from Sudan in 1996, bin Laden settled finally in Afghanistan. During the ensuing half-decade, al-Qaeda operatives struck U.S. embassies in Africa and a U.S. destroyer in Aden Harbor. In the background, planning went forward for the most spectacular and successful terror attack in modern times: the destruction of the twin World Trade Towers in New York City and part of one wing of the Pentagon by crashing hijacked passenger jets into the buildings. Nearly 3,000 people were killed that September 11.

Refusing to surrender bin Laden to either the U.S. or to an international court, Afghanistan’s ultra-conservative ruling Taliban faction quickly learned the meaning of President Bush’s ultimatum to the world: “you are either with us or against us.” Within a month, the U.S. was bombing Afghanistan; in less than three months, with reportedly no more than 50 or 60 Special Forces personnel coordinating B-52 bomber runs and other fighter – bomber support for indigenous rebel groups, the Taliban government crumbled.

What the U.S. public didn’t know at the time–and it is unclear when the Saudis were informed–was that the Taliban and Afghanistan were only a momentary diversion from the Bush administration’s real target, one left over from the 1991 Kuwait fiasco: Saddam Hussein. According to former Central Intelligence Agency head, George Tenet–on September 12, 2001 CE, with the wreckage from the previous day’s suicide strikes still smoldering, top White House staff were pushing for regime change not in Kabul but in Baghdad.

One of bin Laden’s stated early goals–forcing the removal of all non-Islamic and, indeed, all foreign military forces, from the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, was substantially completed before the end of 2002 CE when a new forward headquarters for USCENTCOM opened in Qatar. This was both an operational change and–perhaps more significantly–a psychological change. With the foreigners gone, the royal family could restore its claim to be the sole protector of Islam’s most holy sites and mend the traditional mosque-state relationship that had prevailed before the first Gulf War brought the non-believers. But in turning inward, Riyadh drifted into a torpid mentality that seemed to mirror the mental and physical condition of the aging senior royals.

On May 1, 2003 CE George Bush told the world, in effect, “mission accomplished: Saddam’s regime had fallen (although Saddam was still free) and major combat had ended. That was the operational high point, for almost immediately significant parts of the population went from welcoming the American and British liberators to welcoming the opportunity to liberate anything and everything that came to hand. The U.S. decision to disband Iraq’s security forces, the inability or unwillingness of the coalition to control, let alone eliminate, anti-occupation nationalists, former Baathists, and “enemy combatants” (lawful or unlawful), or to force the disbandment of Shi’a militias and death squads, is now perceived as a catastrophic strategic error that has prolonged the civil unrest and trapped coalition forces and governments in a very public and very divisive morass.

The inability of the United States to make any significant inroad into the insurgencies in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq seems to have re-awakened the Saudis to the potential for disaster that always exists when petroleum and power clash. Although they prefer to work and influence events far from the scrutiny of the world’s press, they have been forced to assume a more public persona in the last few years. Probably the most significant recent instance of “going public” came at the March 29-30, 2007 CE Arab League summit in Riyadh. Among the opening commentaries, the most trenchant was that of the summit’s host, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. The king pulled no punches, at one point going so far as to decry the Bush administration’s Iraq presence as an “illegal foreign occupation.”

Media accounts portrayed Washington as surprised by the king’s characterization, with administration spokespersons noting that the multinational force in Iraq has a mandate from the UN and is in Iraq at the “request” of the Iraqi government. While technically true, these circumstances are “after the fact” of the original invasion and occupation of Iraq which were done without UN authorization and for reasons that many countries believe the Bush administration knew or should have known were not true–as post-invasion events proved.

That the Bush administration expressed surprise is itself a surprise, given that the White House has been encouraging the Saudis to become more transparent in their diplomacy. Apparently, Bush and his advisors thought the king would dutifully press Washington’s viewpoint, forgetting Lord Palmerston’s caution that nations have no permanent allies, only permanent interests.

In fact, the king’s remarks were but one in a series of cautionary signals the White House failed to note. Riyadh is also unhappy with the treatment–rather mistreatment–of Saudi nationals who were picked off the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq and interrogated by CIA operatives employing “enhanced” techniques. To counter the understandable resentment if not hatred created by the ill treatment (which the prisoners might assume Riyadh approved), the Saudis reportedly have set aside billions of dollars (one estimate is $65 billion) to conduct psychological evaluations of returned detainees, providing free occupational training or education and a job at the end of the rehabilitation period. An estimated 2,000 Saudi’s have participated in the program.

Other substantive divisions have also become public. Washington has avoided contacts with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while King Abdullah invited the Iranian to visit Saudi Arabia. The king also has been open to discussions with another “terror” organization, Hezbollah, about the future role of the organization in Lebanese politics and Lebanon’s relations with Israel. When the U.S. refused to release the “Irbil Five” (Iranian diplomats “arrested” by the U.S. military while searching for ranking Baathists), the Saudis were active in persuading Tehran not to boycott the early May foreign ministerial conference on security in Iraq convened by Egypt at Sharm el-Sheik. Riyadh reportedly is incensed that Washington continues to hold the five Iranians despite representations by both Iraqi and Saudi government officials who fear Tehran may use the continued detention of their people as an excuse to boycott future meetings with the U.S.

The May conference did agree to some measure of economic relief for Baghdad, although less than the United States had hoped would materialize going into the meeting. In particular, the U.S. had been working to get Iraq’s creditors to write off the country’s entire foreign debt of $56 billion in return for which the Iraqi government would agree to meet “benchmarks” described in a five-year “International Compact on Iraq.” In the end, only $32 billion was forgiven, with Kuwait ($15 billion) and Saudi Arabia ($3.6 billion) holding 76 percent of the remaining $24 billion. Kuwaitis still remember the seven-month occupation by Iraqi forces in 1990-1991, and neither Kuwait nor Saudi Arabia, both Sunni majority countries, fully trust Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’a.

These developments were overshadowed by the much anticipated meeting between Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice–the first in two years at this level–and a meeting of U.S. and Iranian “experts.” Riyadh had to be pleased but wary about the side-meetings at Sharm el-Sheik and the subsequent announcement that the Baghdad-based ambassadors from Tehran and Washington would meet at the end of May to discuss security measures for Iraq.


While the continuing violence in Iraq was one of the more significant topics at the March Arab League and the May Sharm el-Sheik summits, the Saudis regard resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute as crucial to peace in the region–a peace that Riyadh increasingly seems to believe is beyond Washington’s ability to deliver. Although the Saudis do not want to “fly solo” on this issue, they decided to revive a five-year old formula for settling the outstanding issues and pushed the Arab League at their March summit to reaffirm the organization’s united backing of the proposal. That plan offered Israel unconditional recognition by all 22 members of the Arab League in exchange for Israel returning to its pre-1967 war borders, accepting the designation of East Jerusalem as the capitol of the Palestinian state, and recognizing the “right of return” of Palestinians to homes inside Israel proper. Tel Aviv has taken note of the renewed offer, but wants the League to make changes to the offer, particularly on the right of return and the total return of captured territory. The League has countered with a call for Israel to accept the plan and then negotiate the changes it wants.

Riyadh also stepped in to mediate the intra-Palestinian rifts that the U.S. is unwilling or unable to dampen. Early this year, with factional fighting on the rise in the Gaza strip between supporters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas Prime Minister Isma’il Haniyeh, the Saudis not only brokered a general (if fragile) cessation in the fighting, they also succeeded in pushing the two factions into an uneasy “unity government.”

Riyadh certainly didn’t expect to be praised by Tel Aviv and Washington for ending the violence and re-laying the groundwork for a functioning government in the Palestinian territory. But neither was it prepared for the harsh reaction from the two democracies for salvaging the elected presidency and the elected parliament. Washington (and Tel Aviv) toughened already punitive sanctions against Palestinians in Gaza in an effort to force the resignation or dismissal of the Hamas-dominated government because Hamas refuses to explicitly recognize Israel’s right to exist and to abjure violence. In imposing more sanctions on the Palestinians, the U.S. spurned Saudi King Abdullah’s call for the U.S. and Israel to reduce if not remove all sanctions against Palestinians residing in the Occupied Territories and Gaza.

Clearly, factions in both Fatah and Hamas–as well as in Israel and the U.S.–were bent on unraveling the Mecca accord. After three months, the unity government went down in a hail of gunfire that killed hundreds in Gaza. President Abbas declared the Palestinian parliament and cabinet dissolved and, from the West Bank, named a Fatah-dominated cabinet. The Bush administration quickly recognized the new cabinet as the sole legitimate government for both the West Bank and Gaza. Israel, for its part, released some of the tax revenues it had impounded to the “Fatah” cabinet to pay salaries to government workers on the West Bank with the stipulation that money was to go to Gaza.

While the Saudis were displeased by the tightened sanctions and other U.S. punitive actions against the unity government, they continued to work quietly until the collapse of the agreement could no longer be denied. At an emergency Arab League meeting June 15, the Saudis signaled support for Abbas and the new government he selected. Their reasoning, as explained by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal in a CNN International interview on June 19, is that Mahmoud Abbas has the power under the Palestinian Charter to dissolve parliament and set the date for new elections. What he does not have the power to do is to select the cabinet.

(Because the Saudis tend to avoid public disputes, gauging the true depth of their commitment to a policy or reaction to policies of other countries may show only in peripheral ways. But it was in the very important Arab traditions governing hospitality extended to and received from visitors, and not international politics, that the depth of Saudi displeasure could be surmised. Reportedly, the Bush administration’s blatant effort to overturn Hamas’ election victory was a major factor in King Abdullah’s refusal to attend a formal White House state dinner in his honor planned for mid-April. Administration spokespersons denied such an event was scheduled–probably true technically as the king apparently was thoughtful enough to decline before the date was entered into the president’s calendar of events.)

Another long-running grievance is Israel’s de facto veto of the sale of U.S. high technology military weapons to the kingdom. In particular, the Israelis have been able to preclude the sale of long-range air-to-air missiles for U.S. F-15 fighter aircraft sold to the kingdom as well as fuel and radar pods whose capabilities would put Saudi aircraft almost on par with equipment the U.S. sold to Israel. On its own terms, such “second class treatment” could be overlooked, but when other disagreements between the Saudis and Israelis are factored in (e.g., funding to support whatever governing authority comes to power in Gaza and in the West Bank), Riyadh has little incentive to formally recognize Israel or even turn to Tel Aviv despite their mutual goal of curbing the expansion of Tehran’s sphere of influence.

In fact, despite Abdullah’s pledge that Saudi Arabia will intervene in Iraq if the U.S. precipitously withdraws and the Sunni population comes under sustained attack by Iraqi Shi’as, he may well strike an understanding–a trans-sectarian “grand bargain”–with his neighbors. Essentially, the Saudi’s would accede to Shi’a rule in Iraq with guarantees for political and economic security for Sunnis who choose to remain in Iraq. In return, Iran and Iraq would not fund, supply, or otherwise seek to undermine Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling minority Alawite sect (Syria’s population is 84 percent Sunni) or interfere in Lebanon–which would mean the end of Tehran’s support for Hezbollah.

On a practical level, should the Saudis strike the bargain and should it work–two large “ifs,” to be sure–the political landscape in the Middle East would be altered.

– Conceivably, an Israel-Palestine peace plan could be brokered within the region and without U.S. “help”–although this seems implausible in the near term given the breakdown of the unity government and the virtual civil war between Fatah and Hamas.

– The UN “mandate” for the occupation of Iraq would not be needed and would not be renewed–nor would U.S. troops be allowed to own, lease, have on loan, or occupy in any way military bases in Iraq.

– Tehran would be allowed to produce nuclear power under IAEA supervision and even be permitted to enrich uranium for energy production.

– Tehran would contribute to the “Peaceful Arab Center for Using Nuclear Energy” proposed by Jordan as a means to help modernize Arab countries.


But this is the Middle East, and in this region lie three faith traditions whose emotive power to move adherents to act or not act can complicate if not countermand the logic of realpolitik. But these two processes need not be opposed to one another. A hint as to how they can re-enforce each other–and become part of the landscape of the Middle East–is to be found in the criticism leveled by King Abdullah at the collective failure of the leaders of Arab League countries to unite the “Arab nation” and their refusal “to walk the path of unity,” thereby opening the way for intervention by outside powers in the affairs of the region.

That phrase–the “path of unity”–is, I suggest, the Saudi vision of the future of the Gulf, the wider Middle East, and even the entire Islamic world–and, if so, defines the nature and extent of Islam’s interactions with the West.

The Saudi vision would embrace a “re-unified” Islam in the sense that sectarian divisions would be submerged in favor of the development of a “singular” spiritual/material path that derives its values and ethics from the Qu’ran and its institutions, laws, civil system, and administrative functions of the “state” from a series of “experiments” in the art of governance that best provides for the welfare of the people.

The U.S. role in such an endeavor would be limited to the practicalities of building the institutions that emerge from the internal Islamic colloquies. Bush’s appointment of a special envoy to the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference is an appropriate move in this context. So too would be a renewed and more even-handed push to move Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and actions back to the two-state solution and to initiate the process of withdrawing U.S. and other foreign military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In all three conflicts, the U.S. can assist in the search for ways to resolve remaining disagreements, but the solutions in the end must rise from the people involved. They cannot be mandated by outside non-Islamic powers. Those who try, more often than not, succeed only in unifying the warring Islamic factions against the interloper.

And that brings us back to King Faisal’s 1922 observation about democracy in the Middle East and President Bush’s obsession with spreading democracy around the world.

Traditional societies are by definition those that have existed for eons. Their oral and written histories reflect the triumphs and tragedies of war and of other momentous events that shape their laws, religion, and personal and collective psychology. The forms of governance–e.g. selection/election of those empowered to rule–are less important than the evolution of societal organizations that guarantee meaningful participation in the processes of governance because all humanity is “equal in creation.”

American history and experience are far too short and underdeveloped to qualify as “traditional.” Nonetheless, the Islamic concept of being “equal in creation” is easily recognized in the “inalienable rights” which the U.S. Founders averred were bestowed on every person. Yet even as the Saudis call for the path of unity, the Bush administration seems intent on curtailing the sense of “equality in creation” that has been a characteristic of the American system of government from the very start.

This is not a question of a new vision. It is a question of having the wisdom to recognize that the application of this principle can and indeed ought to take different forms across various cultures and traditions as humanity evolves through time. For as Henry David Thoreau once observed: “A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only, and ignorant with its ignorance.”

Col. DAN SMITH is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus , a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at


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