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The Inconvenient Alliance

Looking at the complex U.S.-Saudi relationship in a time of terrorism, rising oil prices and climate change.

With gas prices climbing past $4 a gallon, the media, Congress and the public are blaming oil companies and questioning U.S. energy policy, particularly vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading oil exporter. And, indeed, the story of the complex relationship between the United States and the kingdom has in recent years often been viewed through the dark prism of petroleum. When you scan the rather jaded titles of recent books on the subject — from Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, by former Central Intelligence Agency case officer Robert Baer, to America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Robert Vitalis — the conclusion is plain: Oil is the binding force in the unique, uncomfortable U.S.-Saudi alliance, which has been so polluted by profit and political quid pro quos that it’s unclear where the true power lies.

In these times of $125-a-barrel oil, though, the more accurate lens for looking at the Saudi-American relationship may be inside Rachel Bronson’s book, Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership With Saudi Arabia, issued in 2006 to short but generally positive reviews and now out in paperback. Bronson, formerly the director of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and now vice president for programs and studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, presents a comprehensive history of the United States’ far-from-consistent policy toward Saudi Arabia and argues against the conventional wisdom that oil forms the basis of relations. Instead, Bronson suggests, it was primarily the shared (and expensive) commitment to resisting communism, whenever and wherever Moscow-backed beliefs seemed to spread, that aligned America and Saudi Arabia. In Bronson’s analysis, the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of common communist enemies created a void between the two countries, which has been increasingly filled and exploited by the forces of religious extremism and terrorism.

Bronson’s argument is buoyed by her readable, dispassionate approach to the subject: This is neither an anti-Saudi screed nor a dour slog through memoranda. Combining copious material from State Department archives and interviews with both Saudi and American officials, Bronson’s account is equal parts historical narrative and policy analysis. Liberally spiced with ambassadorial anecdote, Thicker Than Oil manages to humanize policymakers while illuminating the larger political issues from a Beltway perspective.

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For instance, the inside knowledge of Robert W. Jordan, U.S. ambassador to the kingdom between 2001 and 2003 and an obviously valuable source for Bronson, enlivens the book. During the Yom Kippur War between Arab states and Israel in 1973, U.S.-Saudi relations were severely strained. The war had isolated Israel, which depended on America’s support, and the U.S. began airlifting equipment and supplies to Israel at a rate of 1,000 tons a day, with flights landing almost every hour. The Saudi minister of the interior at the time, Prince Fahd, who would be king during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, showed his security officers clips of the airlift operation. “This is why we need to maintain close relations with the U.S.,” Fahd explained, according to the account Jordan gives Bronson. “They are the only ones capable of saving us in this manner should we ever be at risk.”

The episode points to two enduring themes in the delicate U.S.-Saudi bond: the security afforded by American military might and the inescapable fact that America’s two closest Middle East allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are sworn enemies. More than 60 years later, oil, American arms and the Jewish-Arab conflict still loom as crucial elements of the relationship.
But it was in the decades after World War II, Bronson contends, as the United States was developing its containment policy toward emerging communist states, that the close working relationship with a suddenly wealthy Saudi Arabia flourished into full-blown interdependence. Since the time of King Aziz, Saudi Arabia had embraced the role of leading Muslim state, battling “godless communism” by exporting fundamentalist Islam; the U.S. was eager to encourage this stance. In 1950, Aramco — a company controlled by American companies that had Saudi Arabia’s concession to drill and explore for oil — used a loophole in the American tax code to agree on a 50-50 profit-sharing plan with the kingdom, essentially diverting tax flow from the U.S. treasury directly into Saudi coffers. (The Saudis gained control of the company in 1980, eventually changing its name to Saudi Aramco.) In 1951, the two nations signed a mutual defense agreement, with the U.S. building military bases in the kingdom and establishing a long-term agreement to train the Saudi armed forces. During a meeting at the White House in 1966, President Johnson promised King Faisal of Saudi Arabia that “as long as I am in office, I will not permit your country to be gobbled up by the Communists.”

Despite the strain that Arab-Jewish wars and the attendant oil embargoes placed on the U.S.-Saudi relationship, arms sales to the kingdom skyrocketed from $305 million in 1972 to $5 billion in 1975. The shipment of weapons increased when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, as Saudi Arabia and the United States combined to finance and arm the Afghan mujahideen fighters who eventually forced the Soviets back. Under the Reagan administration, officials in American intelligence agencies relied heavily on Saudis to finance covert anti-communist operations around the world, especially in Central America. But as Bronson writes, “The means by which both the United States and Saudi Arabia promoted their shared interests in the 1980s would destabilize their relationship in the years ahead. It also set the stage for a violent jihadi movement that today targets both countries and their global partners.”

Despite the well-documented friendship between the Presidents Bush and the Saudi royal family — Prince Bandar, former ambassador to the United States, was rumored to have a White House pass during President George H.W. Bush’s administration — Bronson argues that “the end of the Cold War would bring a slow but steady deterioration in U.S.-Saudi relations. Oil remained a pressing concern, but the shared anti-communism that had traditionally bound the partnership became a relic of the past.” Interestingly, and in direct opposition to the most popular conspiracy theories, Bronson suggests that the U.S.-Saudi relationship was at its lowest ebb when President George W. Bush came into office. Angered by the American non-intervention in the escalating Palestinian-Jewish violence, on Aug. 27, 2001, Bandar delivered a message to Bush from Crown Prince Abdullah that said Saudi Arabia could not continue dealing with the United States. Bandar and the Bush team agreed to meet again on Sept. 13, 2001, to try and repair the relationship; of course, the meeting would be held in a vastly different context than anyone expected.

If there’s a criticism of Bronson’s book, it’s the small space she affords to the effects of the 9/11 terror attacks on the Saudi-U.S. relationship and the book’s rather shallow examination of the causes of those attacks. Given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, American interest in — and distrust of — Saudi Arabia skyrocketed in the wake of the attacks, but Bronson glosses over the most difficult and penetrating questions, content to run down a list of anti-terror reforms enacted by Saudi Arabia since 2005. Still, Bronson’s book occupies an important niche in the literature on Saudi-U.S. relations. She closes Thicker Than Oil with hope for the future, writing that high-level officials in both American and Saudi government realize they must uproot the seeds of religious fundamentalism that their decades of rabid anti-communist efforts helped plant. But as the fading of their old common ideological enemy merely led to the creation of a new kind of threat, now Saudi Arabia and the United States must find a new rallying point — beyond exporting oil or Islam — for their relationship. And at a time when climate change, escalating gasoline prices and an unstable Middle East are testing the relationship in new, challenging ways, the incoming administration — whether Democrat or Republican — would do well to consider Bronson’s viewpoint.

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