How Washington stopped worrying and learned to love Saudi Arabia, again.
Over the past decade, the American public has been presented with the case against Saudi Arabia, and it’s a damning indictment: oil (dirty), terrorism (evil), fundamentalist Islam (dangerous), human rights (shockingly bad). President Barack Obama has spoken of the need to "get off Middle East oil" so that America is no longer beholden to the "whims of oil-rich dictators" — rhetoric that will inevitably increase as oil prices approach $100 a barrel for the first time since 2008. Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and others argue that petroleum profits fuel terrorism and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. Human rights groups point to the reality that women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, that beheading is a common form of punishment there, and that the country still has no constitution — only an austere, seventh-century interpretation of the Quran.
The verdict: Guilty. But so what? You can’t throw a country in jail. In fact, a decade after the 9/11 attacks were mounted by a team of mostly Saudi terrorists, America needs Saudi Arabia more than ever.
Let’s start with the dream that one day soon Americans won’t need Saudi oil. In the first eight months of 2010, the United States got about 11 percent of its oil imports from the kingdom, making it the country’s third-largest supplier. Imports have fallen in recent years, but U.S. dependence on Saudi oil is not going to dry up anytime soon. Wind and solar? Over the coming quarter-century, they will satisfy a few percentage points of domestic energy supply, but U.S. oil demand will fall only slightly, according to U.S. government statistics. There is no way of foreseeing precisely how much of that future oil will be Saudi, but suffice it to say that it will still be a lot. Saudi Arabia’s 260 billion barrels of oil, by far the planet’s largest single-country reserve, will be a bulwark of the global economy for decades to come. George Kirkland, vice chairman of original Saudi pioneer Chevron, says the country has tens of billions of barrels still to be counted. And even if the United States acquires its oil elsewhere, it won’t bankrupt the kingdom; the Saudis already sell more oil to China than to the United States, and India is not far behind. What if the United States drills more at home? As Anthony Cordesman, a former top Pentagon intelligence official at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, puts it, "What is the benefit for the U.S. of ‘deplete America first’?"
Besides, Saudi Arabia isn’t just a giant gas station with a flag. Saudi help is now essential for numerous top-shelf U.S. priorities, from containing Iran to countering terrorism to extricating U.S. troops from Afghanistan and keeping Pakistan stable. Only Saudi Arabia, with its carefully cultivated, behind-the-scenes links to countries and leaders who do not trust Washington, can play this role.
In some ways, what we’re seeing is just a revival of old ties. For nearly five decades after President Franklin D. Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz aboard a U.S. destroyer in the Suez Canal in 1945, the relationship pivoted on oil, but also on a mutual distrust of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet empire broke up in 1991, that logic fell apart too, and the alliance struggled for a new rationale, fitfully working together to contain Iraq and Iran, the region’s chief troublemakers, but finding few other shared interests.
Cooperation against terrorism languished. Saudi royals funneled money to militants in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and the former Yugoslavia. Across the Muslim world and in mosques in Europe and the United States, Saudi-backed Wahhabi madrasas preached anti-American vitriol. U.S. officials investigating the 1996 Khobar Towers attack, in which 19 Americans were killed, complained of being stonewalled by their Saudi counterparts. And we all know where Osama bin Laden grew up.
September 11 marked a breaking point. U.S. public opinion turned sharply against the kingdom because of the large number of Saudi terrorists involved in the attack, and members of President George W. Bush’s administration bristled at the lack of investigative cooperation from Riyadh. Meanwhile, the Saudis tired of Washington taking them for granted as allies. The final straw for Riyadh was fury at Bush’s perceived coddling of Israel and inaction in the face of Palestinian deaths. By the summer of 2002, a distinct chill had set in.
Then, in 2003 and 2004, the two countries were brought together again after al Qaeda’s Saudi branch launched a series of attacks on oil installations, government facilities, and foreign compounds in Riyadh and other cities — an audacious attempt to deepen the split between the royal family and the United States. After a bruising crackdown that included gun battles in the streets, Saudi security forces eventually triumphed, and the remnants of the militants fled south to Yemen.
The Saudis poured money and security help into Yemen, with which the kingdom shares a 930-mile border. So did the United States. But Yemen struggled to deal with an influx of battle-hardened radicals from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere. The wake-up call came in August 2009, when an al Qaeda suicide bomber tried to kill the Saudi counterterrorism chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Prince Nayef then had his agents infiltrate Yemeni tribes that protect the militants, a turning point that helped uncover the details of an October 2010 bomb plot, when al Qaeda’s Yemen branch attempted to send explosive packages through FedEx and UPS to the United States. Without Saudi Arabia’s insistent calls to the CIA, U.S. officials concede, there is almost certainly no chance the bombs would have been detected.
Beyond al Qaeda, the United States and Saudi Arabia share a host of common enemies, most notably the Saudis’ Persian Gulf rival Iran. When the United States invaded Iraq and ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, it also removed a Sunni shield against Iranian radicalism. U.S. troops now fill that role, but ineffectively. Tehran has won much influence within Iraq, and its sway over Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza is increasing. Now, with U.S. forces gradually drawing down in Iraq, Washington wants Saudi Arabia to carry a larger portion of the burden.
Riyadh appears more than happy to help America "cut off the head of the snake," as the Saudi king was quoted saying in a WikiLeaked cable. In October, the State Department authorized the largest arms sale in U.S. history, a $60 billion Saudi purchase of 154 new and upgraded F-15 fighter jets, 190 helicopters, advanced radar equipment, and satellite-guided bombs. Saudi diplomats are also playing an invaluable role in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine, and Syria, working to mediate between the various warring factions and carrying private messages from Washington to U.S. adversaries like Hamas and the Taliban.
Don’t expect to see Obama holding hands with King Abdullah anytime soon, though; domestic politics in both countries won’t allow for that. But the idea that the United States can end its dependence on Saudi oil is an illusion, just as the notion that Washington should abandon one of its closest security partners is profoundly unwise. These two countries were frenemies long before anyone coined the term — and for better or for worse, they will be ambivalent allies for a long time to come.