Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia


Unlike many writers on this subject, Dr. Bronson disagrees with the notion that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is based primarily on a simplistic bargain of access to Saudi oil at reasonable prices in return for U.S. defense of the kingdom against external threats. Instead, she emphasizes that “a critical, if often overlooked aspect” of the relationship was a joint interest in combating the Soviet Union. The thrust of her book is to show how the two states have shared important geostrategic interests that led their respective leaders to work together to frustrate the global expansion of Soviet influence, not just in the Middle East, but in Asia, Africa and even Latin America. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and disappearance of the international Communist threat, the rationale for this cooperation ceased to exist. “With the end of the Cold War, economic, political and geographical circumstances have changed so dramatically that neither the U.S. nor the Saudi leadership should expect the continuation of the same kind of relationship that existed for more than half a century” (p. 7).
The author comments that many Saudis as well as Americans now question whether the two countries any longer have enough in common to maintain an effective working relationship. Saudi Arabia’s religious credentials, once seen as a strategic asset in the joint effort to defeat “godless Communism,” are viewed by a great many Americans as having contributed to the dangerous growth of radical Islamic movements and to the events of 9/11. The Saudi monarchy, formerly considered a force for stability in the Gulf region, is now regarded by many U.S. politicians and commentators as under serious threat from radical Islamic dissidents and as an obstacle to U.S. hopes to spread democratic values and institutions in the Middle East. In Dr. Bronson’s view, this new emphasis on Saudi religious policies ignores the role that American foreign policy played in creating the problems that confront the post-9/11 world. “In many ways September 11 was the price we paid for winning the Cold War and the strategies we chose. And so are our complicated ties with Saudi Arabia” (p. 9).
After a prologue that sets forth her basic premise, successive chapters trace the decisions made by leaders on both sides and the political factors that led to close cooperation but also, at times, to serious disagreements. Dr. Bronson describes briefly the origins of the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the oil concession awarded in 1933 to what became the Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco). She agrees that access to Saudi oil has certainly been a significant factor in the bilateral relationship but argues persuasively that the Saudi leadership’s claim to the Islamic holy places and a common anticommunist agenda are more powerful explanations for the exceptionally close cooperation that soon developed between the two states. The kingdom’s willingness until 1962 to host a U.S. Air Force base at Dhahran served important U.S. geostrategic interests in the early years of the Cold War. The United States later welcomed King Faisal’s efforts to promote Islamic solidarity as a counter to the spreading influence of Soviet-backed Arab nationalist and socialist regimes in the region. As Saudi oil income grew rapidly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the royal family’s willingness to expend billions of petrodollars on anticommunist activity around the globe met with U.S. approval and support. After 1979, the United States came to regard the kingdom as a bulwark against revolutionary Iran and the Soviet penetration of Afghanistan. In short, “Washington’s interests in Saudi Arabia boiled down to oil, God, and real estate” (p. 27).
For the Saudis, the United States was initially a welcome counterweight to the British imperial presence in the Gulf shaikhdoms and to London’s Hashemite protégés in Iraq and Jordan. In the beginning, "[p]art of America’s attractiveness throughout the Middle East was that it was not bent on occupation" (p. 33). Nevertheless, the path of cooperation was not easy. President Kennedy’s brief attempt to better relations with Nasser’s Egypt was regarded apprehensively by a Saudi royal family feeling seriously threatened by Nasser-inspired Arab nationalism. Above all, the prompt U.S. recognition of the State of Israel and subsequent U.S. political, military and economic support for the Jewish state has bedeviled relations since 1948, most especially during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when King Faisal imposed an oil-production cut and embargoed oil shipments to the United States (nevertheless, even then, Faisal made an exception for oil exports to American forces battling Communism in Vietnam).
Later, Saudi opposition to President Carter’s efforts to broker the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement and Riyadh’s subsequent decision to cut diplomatic and aid relations with Egypt were a major disappointment to the U.S. administration. Moreover, growing Saudi use of its foreign-aid programs to support the Palestine liberation movement and to discourage Third Word contacts with Israel ran counter to U.S. policies. Frequent congressional opposition to certain arms sales and other assistance to Saudi Arabia because of its anti-Israel posture and lack of representative political institutions was another irritant, as it raised questions about the value of U.S. presidential commitments to Saudi security.
In 1974, with the end of the Saudi oil embargo, relations entered a new phase of cooperation. Leaders on both sides worked to restore and deepen the bilateral relationship. The Nixon administration concluded major agreements with Saudi Arabia for cooperation in defense and economic, technical and industrial projects. Dr. Bronson states that U.S. motives were clearly to help reduce the growing U.S. balance-of-payments deficit by recovering as many Saudi petrodollars as possible. For the Saudis, U.S. advice and assistance in spending effectively its rapidly growing oil wealth were welcome, as was the evidence of U.S. interest in the kingdom’s external and internal security: new programs for construction of state-of-the-art Saudi military bases, modernization of the tribally based National Guard, and new equipment for the Saudi regular army, navy and air force. Saudi international aid programs grew rapidly, some of which involved support for anti-Soviet forces in Africa (e.g., Angola) which the U.S. administration was unable to do or legislatively barred from doing. A particularly interesting episode described in this book (pp. 132-36) was the Saudis’ participation in the little-known “Safari Club,” an indirectly U.S.-supported creation of French intelligence that helped supply African anticommunists with weapons and financial assistance to oppose Soviet- and Cuban-backed regimes.
In late 1979, several traumatic events occurred with profound implications for the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The Iranian revolution and the November 4 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran put U.S. interests in jeopardy in the Gulf. The revolutionary regime was also hostile to Saudi Arabia and sought to turn the kingdom’s Shia minority against their Sunni rulers. Also in November, radical Islamic students seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and held hundreds of worshipers hostage, seriously challenging the Saudi leadership’s claim to guardianship of the Islamic Holy Places. The shaken Saudi leaders responded by turning to the previously marginalized conservative Wahhabi religious leadership for support and religious justification of their use of force to quell the uprising. According to Dr. Bronson, “So threatened was the House of Saud by Iran’s religious radicals’ agenda and the domestic [Wahhabi] critique that it was not religious enough that the Saudi leadership sought to outbid domestic and neighboring extremists. It began pouring money into religious institutions at home and abroad” (p. 148).
These events were followed in December 1979 by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In January 1980, President Carter announced that any “attempt by outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States … and will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” With U.S. encouragement, Saudi Arabia provided financial support for anti-Soviet efforts in Afghanistan — an aid program that would grow into a multibillion-dollar covert operation and lead many religiously motivated young Saudis, among them Osama bin Laden, to join the Afghani resistance. According to Dr. Bronson, the United States welcomed these Saudi efforts and even helped to recruit foreign fighters for Afghanistan.
The decade of the 1980s saw the United States and Saudi Arabia take further steps to build up the kingdom as a bulwark to both Soviet expansionism and Iranian revolutionary activity. Following the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in September 1980, Saudi Arabia and Washington shared an interest in preventing an Iranian victory. When Saudi and Kuwaiti financial and logistical support to Iraq brought Iranian retaliation in the form of attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, the United States increased its naval presence there and obtained access to Saudi air bases and port facilities to protect international shipping. Stating that he did not want Saudi Arabia to become another Iran, President Reagan pressed a very reluctant Congress to approve the sale of AWACS aircraft and F-15 fighters to the kingdom and broadened clandestine cooperation with Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Under the first President Bush, the U.S.-Saudi partnership contributed to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and, in Desert Storm, to the reversal of Iraq’s 1990-91 occupation of Kuwait and the elimination of a potential threat to Saudi Arabia, confirming the longstanding U.S. commitment to the kingdom’s security and territorial integrity.
If the Reagan-Bush period was a high-water mark in U.S.-Saudi relations, the author argues that 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. Support for a religiously based campaign against the Soviet Union “set the stage for a violent jihadist movement that today targets both countries and their global partners” (p. 177). Within Saudi Arabia, criticism of the government became more outspoken. The presence in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm of large numbers of American troops, some of whom remained in the kingdom throughout the 1990s to enforce UN sanctions on Iraq, angered many Saudis (among them Osama bin Laden), who blasted the monarchy for relying on non-Muslim soldiers to defend the homeland. Both Saudi religious conservatives and liberals were emboldened to petition King Fahd for political reforms. Meanwhile, falling oil revenues seriously strained the kingdom’s ability to repay the U.S. costs of Desert Storm, meet the bills for massive new arms purchases from the United States, and respond affirmatively to requests for Saudi subsidies to various U.S. projects elsewhere.Bilateral friction arose over delayed Saudi payment of outstanding accounts, while internally Saudis chafed at this heavy drain on the public exchequer.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end to the global Communist threat, other divisive issues emerged. The author writes: “Over the course of the 1990s, Saudi leaders lost confidence in America’s regional policies, and close U.S.-Saudi relations became increasingly unpopular inside the kingdom” (p. 231). There was a lack of consensus on how to deal with civil strife in Afghanistan, the deleterious affects on the Iraqi population of UN sanctions and escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence. While King Fahd sought to maintain the strategic relationship, Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah was more concerned about its adverse domestic political repercussions. As he assumed day-to-day control of the government from the ailing Fahd, Abdullah began “an imperceptible but significant shift” away from the formerly close relationship. U.S. law enforcement was frustrated by limited Saudi cooperation in investigating suspected Iranian involvement in terrorist attacks on U.S. military installations in Riyadh and Khobar. The Saudis, in turn, were unwilling to share this information without a clear commitment on how the Clinton administration would respond. Saudi-Iranian discussions about how to counter falling oil prices were unwelcome to a U.S. administration that favored continued low oil prices and the diplomatic isolation of Iran.
The involvement of Saudis in the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred when relations were already at a low point. Growing anti-Saudi sentiment in the United States was met by initial Saudi denials of responsibility and resentment of U.S. security restrictions intended to thwart terrorist travel and financial dealings. The George W. Bush administration’s decision to press for political, economic and social reforms in Middle Eastern countries was received with cynicism by many Saudis, who questioned both U.S. motives and U.S. resolve. Still, as Dr. Bronson points out, the 9/11 attacks “energized an ongoing debate within the Saudi royal family and among the wider population about the kingdom’s future direction… September 11 set off a renewed struggle for Saudi Arabia’s collective soul, one with far-reaching consequences for its ability and willingness to address issues ranging from terrorist financing to domestic reform” (p. 241). Under Abdullah’s guidance, the Saudis have taken significant steps toward fighting terrorism, especially following the terrorist attacks on domestic Saudi targets that began in May 2003. Some limited political reform measures have been enacted, and Saudi Arabia liberalized economic regulations to enable it to join the World Trade Organization. Efforts are underway to curtail the political role of the Saudi religious establishment and to revise educational and religious programs that extol religious radicalism and promote hatred of non-Muslims. Since 9/11 Abdullah has paid two visits to the United States and appears to have developed a good personal relationship with President Bush.
In her final chapter, Dr. Bronson assesses the prospects for reconfiguring the U.S.-Saudi strategic relationship in the post-9/11 era. She argues that there is still insufficient appreciation in Washington of the challenges that have affected a traditional relationship based on “oil, God, and real estate.” In her view, Saudi Arabia now has more economic and security options than it did in the past. With the growing market for its oil in China and India and its openness to non-American investments in its natural-gas sector, the kingdom’s future economic and domestic well-being is no longer as dependent on U.S. trade and investment as in the past. While the Saudi oil minister recently announced that Saudi Aramco plans to increase its production capacity, growing demographic pressures will force the government to explore ways to maximize oil revenues. This is likely to increase friction with a U.S. administration already under attack domestically for its failure to bring down high energy costs and reduce U.S. vulnerability to unstable or untrustworthy Middle Eastern oil suppliers. Differences over policies regarding Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and the Palestine-Israeli peace process are unresolved. A nuclear-armed Iran might induce the Saudis to seek nuclear weaponry from China or Pakistan. China is already an arms supplier to Saudi Arabia and has fewer restraints than the United States on meeting Saudi requests for sophisticated weaponry.
While differences have arisen over oil and regional-security issues, Dr. Bronson asserts that the most critical question in the U.S.-Saudi relationship is now an ideological one. “How Saudi Arabia’s leaders manage their internal religious debates and external proselytizing will largely determine the future direction of Islam worldwide and in turn the U.S.-Saudi relationship. This is true whether or not the kingdom grants the United States lucrative oil deals or defense contracts” (p. 249). In the author’s opinion, the House of Saud is likely to remain firmly in power for at least another decade and should be able to manage successfully a transition to the next generation of rulers. But can the monarchy reverse decades of encouraging religious zealotry by neutralizing the most extreme interpretations of Islam at home and curtailing ideological and material support for jihadism abroad? How can the United States use its influence to support King Abdullah and other pragmatists within the royal family and in Saudi society generally?
Here the author argues that political engagement, not gratuitous Saudi-bashing, is the appropriate response. Washington must hold serious consultations with Riyadh about U.S. strategy in Iraq and how to deal with growing Iranian influence there and elsewhere in the region. The United States must also work more actively to reduce violence in the West Bank and Gaza and more aggressively to promote a negotiated settlement of the Palestine-Israel dispute. Dr. Bronson considers that the U.S. efforts to press for democratic political reforms in Saudi Arabia, while relevant, are of secondary importance. Even Saudi pragmatists are cautious about liberal political innovations, e.g., parliamentary elections that might only benefit hard-core religious elements intent on tightening, not loosening, the legal and social strictures of Wahhabism. In the meantime, the United States should work with the Saudis to expand student and military training exchanges and promote regional training programs for newly elected Saudi municipal officials. She is cautiously optimistic that, given time, the United States and Saudi Arabia can undo the damage created domestically and internationally by their former promotion of religious radicalism. The current leaderships in both countries agree. “Unfortunately,” she concludes, “it will take longer to convince their respective publics that it is worth the effort. But without such effort, both sides should prepare for a grim and dangerous future” (p. 262).
This is a critical point on which one wishes Dr. Bronson had elaborated further. She is frank in stating that her focus is on the decisions of presidents and kings and those of their chief ministers, diplomats and intelligence officers. The role of private business and non-official exchanges between Americans and Saudis in affecting the relationship is given lesser attention in her narrative. Her proposals for government-to-government actions to revive the historical relationship are sound and in many cases are already on track. She has less to say, however, about how the United States can work effectively to overcome the strongly anti-American feelings that today exist among the Saudi public, even those with fond memories of schooling or vacations in the United States. Disgust with U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, widely viewed among Arab publics as unacceptable American occupations of Muslim lands; with the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; our support for Israel’s bombing campaign in Lebanon; and with allegedly anti-Muslim and anti-Arab U.S. homeland-security policies certainly makes the task of creating a new basis for harmonious ties a difficult one for both governments. Educational and cultural exchanges will help, but until U.S. foreign policies can evolve to the point that we are no longer widely perceived as anti-Muslim or as seeking to dominate the Mideast militarily, even a friendly Saudi government will face difficulties in persuading its people that close cooperation with the United States is politically necessary or beneficial.
Likewise, U.S. administrations have an uphill task in persuading Congress and the American public that collaboration with Saudi Arabia remains a desirable, even a viable, foreign-policy objective. Americans knowledgeable about Saudi Arabia and supportive of efforts to improve mutual understanding are often dismissed as “bought” by Saudi money and “Big Oil” or as willfully blind to the kingdom’s obvious defects. Despite the public-relations offensive undertaken in the United States by Saudi diplomats, cabinet ministers, journalists and businessmen, opinion polls indicate that a great many Americans remain resentful of Saudis’ perceived role in fostering and supporting anti-U.S. terrorism around the world. They are also skeptical that the Al Saud leadership can deal effectively with the destabilizing effects of corruption, unemployment and regional and sectarian divisions that have contributed to rising tensions within Saudi society. Recent anti-Saudi books by Robert Baer, Craig Unger, Dore Gold and John Bradley have contributed to this sense that Saudi Arabia is not a suitable partner for the United States in its attempts to stabilize and democratize the Middle East. Dr. Bronson’s history of the U.S.-Saudi relationship suggests that, despite ups and downs in the friendship over the past six decades, both governments have found ways to overcome or minimize their differences in the interest of pursuing mutually important interests. Her book plausibly implies that this pattern could continue, with counterterrorism now replacing the former struggle against Communism as a basis for cooperation.
The range and documentation of her research is certainly impressive. There are 47 pages of notes, while her “select bibliography” of English-language sources totals 20 pages. Beyond books and articles, she has consulted material in the Presidential Library system and other special archival collections, Congressional reports, oral histories of U.S. diplomats collected by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training project, and even recently released transcripts of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s telephone calls. These documentary sources have been augmented by personal interviews with knowledgeable Americans and Saudis, the latter conducted during three visits to the kingdom. Other scholars of the U.S.-Saudi relationship will certainly find this a valuable guide in conducting their own research.
A much abbreviated version of this book appeared as a chapter in Paul Aarts & Gerd Nonneman, Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs, reviewed in the summer 2006 issue of Middle East Policy. Since her book’s publication, Dr. Bronson and her publishers have made a significant effort to bring it to the attention of the general public. This has included at least two book signings in Washington, D.C., an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, and an April 17 appearance on CSPAN’s “Q&A” with Brian Lamb. Thicker Than Oil is not a dry academic text but a very readable book. It deserves a wide readership, not just among Middle East specialists but by foreign-policy makers and other Americans who wish to understand better how this uneasy, though important, relationship came about and why it is in the U.S. interest for it to continue.

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