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Rethinking the Saudi-U.S. Alliance
By: Doug Bandow
Thursday, December 12, 2002


If America's most important foreign policy objective is defeating terrorism, then what should be done about Saudi princes' convivial visits to the ranch?


The status of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, has again been engulfed in controversy over allegations that a Saudi princess, and wife of the ambassador to the U.S., gave money to two of the September 11 hijackers.  The Bush administration has responded cautiously and no prominent Saudi royal is likely to intentionally and publicly aid terrorists.
 
But it is widely acknowledged that substantial Saudi money has flowed into the coffers of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.  And it is widely known that for years Riyadh essentially looked the other way.  Explained Carl Ford, Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research, to Congress, "The Saudi banking system is not totally transparent, and Riyadh has not maintained strict oversight" of nongovernmental organizations overseas.  Washington must demand a change.

Saudi Arabia would be unimportant but for the massive oil deposits sitting beneath its seemingly endless deserts.  For American administrations that loudly promote democracy in nations as diverse as China, Iraq, and Zimbabwe, the alliance with Saudi Arabia has been a deep embarrassment.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, an almost medieval theocracy, with power concentrated in the hands of senior royalty and wealth spread amongst some 7000 Al Saud princes (some analysts number the royals up to 30,000).  Americans are now paying for their association with the corrupt Saudi kleptocracy, which has made the U.S. a target of terrorists.  A desire to end America's support for Riyadh and expel U.S. forces from the Gulf appears to be one of Osama bin Laden's main goals.

Yet Riyadh has proved wary of aiding the U.S. despite direct attacks on Americans.  Even after the 1996 bomb attack on the Khobar Towers barracks in Dharan bin Laden's 1998 manifesto calling for a holy war to drive the U.S. from Islamic lands, U.S. officials were unable "to get anything at all from King Fahd" to challenge bin Laden's financial network, charged John O'Neill, a former FBI official involved with counter-terrorism who died in the attack on the World Trade Center, where he was security chief.

Riyadh's reluctance to risk popular displeasure by identifying with Washington continues even after the deaths of three thousand Americans on September 11.  Despite public protestations that all is well between the two governments, Bush administration officials privately acknowledge that Saudi officials were not as cooperative as had been hoped.

Even worse is Riyadh's support for the very Islamic fundamentalism that threatens to consume the regime in Riyadh as well as to murder more Americans in future terrorist attacks.  Saudi Arabia's strategy has always been to buy off everyone.

Some Saudis, like bin Laden, have supported terrorists out of conviction.  It is widely believed that Saudi businessmen have made contributions to bin Laden in an attempt to purchase protection.  There are serious charges of financial support from some of the Saudi royal family for bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

Indeed, a recent Council on Foreign Relations task force concluded:  "For years, individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for al-Qaeda.  And for years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem."  In the view of some, this may be why al-Qaeda has never struck at the Saudi government.

The problem runs even deeper.  The Saudi state, run by royals who often flaunt their libertinism, enforces the extreme Wahhabi form of Islam at home and subsidizes its practice abroad.  Alex Alexiev, formerly of the RAND Corporation, calls this "the largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted."  Within this sect, hostile to modernity and the West, political extremism and support for terrorism have flourished in Saudi Arabia itself.  Moreover, the threat now reaches beyond the Middle East to Indonesia--witness the bombing in Bali--Malaysia, and even the Philippines.

Even the U.S. is not immune.  Saudi-funded Wahhabi groups are promoting a series of anti-American initiatives in America.  Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy points to "A prison recruitment program aimed at transforming American felons into radical Islamists"; "An effort to recruit, train and place Wahhabist chaplains in the U.S. military"; and "the pursuit of a virulently anti-American, Wahhabist agenda in U.S. mosques."

Growing popular resentment in the U.S. has finally shaken the Saudis, who heretofore relied on a close relationship cemented by personal ties and well-funded friends, many of whom previously served as U.S. ambassadors and policymakers involved with Saudi issues.  Adel al-Jubeir, an aide to the crown prince, is leading a PR offensive, citing all of the steps that the kingdom has taken to fight terrorism.
    
And, indeed, the regime has tightened controls over banks and charities, which is all to the good.  But everything depends on continued, rigorous enforcement.  Such rules mean nothing unless effectively applied.  Yet Prince Nayef, Saudi Interior Minister, recently told a Kuwaiti newspaper that he thought the Zionists "were behind these events" of September 11.  Right, the Jews did it.  Prince Nayef certainly isn't likely to be leading any funding crackdown.

Even Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer have said that Riyadh could do more.  One American intelligence official told Time magazine that some prominent Saudis "continue to provide funding and resources to al-Qaeda," and that the Saudi authorities are "more helpful than they were before but not as helpful as we'd like them to be."

Real and continued cooperation almost certainly requires continued pressure.  Pressure that Washington hesitates to apply, apparently for two reasons.  The first is U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia.

But Riyadh should be defending itself, given that it spends ten times as much on its military as does Iraq.  It's real problem is that the regime has not generated much loyalty among its own population.  But whatever the resolution of the Iraq crisis, U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Saudi Arabia.  If Saddam is disarmed, Riyadh more easily can defend itself; if Saddam is overthrown, there will be no Iraqi threat against which to defend.

The second issue is oil.  Yet contrary to popular wisdom, the Saudis hold few trump cards.  Although Saudi Arabia possesses a quarter of the world's known recoverable reserves, it accounts for just ten percent of production.  Targeted boycotts don't work in an international market with fungible goods, and the Saudi royals need every dollar they can earn to preserve their lavish lifestyles, hold their fancy weddings, and more.

Only if Riyadh shut down its wells would the economic pain be severe, and such a policy would defeat the very purpose of conquest by an outside regime or overthrow by even fundamentalist opponents.  Saudi Arabia might pump less oil in order to raise prices.  But such a strategy would require international cooperation, something always in short supply.  In any case, the economic impact would fall over time, as other producers pumped more oil.

A resolution of the Iraq issue would bring that nation's supplies back into production, while higher prices would bring forth new energy supplies elsewhere.  Substantial reserves remain to be discovered in America's outer continental shelf and areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.  Oil firms are busy exploring the Caspian Basin, Russia, South China Sea, and West Africa.  In short, an unfriendly Saudi Arabia might hurt America's pocketbook.

Washington should reassess the current Washington-Riyadh axis is the U.S.  The American commitment to the Saudi royal family is a moral blemish and a practical danger.

Washington should bring home its troops.  Moreover, it needs to push, day in and day out, for Riyadh to cut funding of terrorists.

That doesn't mean for the U.S. to treat Saudi Arabia as an enemy.  (Nor does harassing Saudi lobbyists and PR agents, as Congress has been doing, achieve much.)  Rather, the U.S. should reorder its priorities, putting terror financing at the top.  And if the result of U.S. pressure is a cooling of the relationship, so be it.

America's most important foreign policy objective is defeating terrorism, and the most important contribution that Saudi Arabia can make is to cut off funding for al-Qaeda and related networks.  Moreover, the U.S. should drop the excessive chumminess however Riyadh responds.  Saudi princes have done nothing to deserve bear-hugs in the White House and convivial visits to the ranch.


Doug Bandow is Vice President of Policy for Citizen Outreach and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.