In her new book, “Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership With Saudi Arabia,” scholar Rachel Bronson fires an opening shot by asserting that “recent books seem more intent on feeding public outrage than on seriously probing the relationship” between the two countries. With this, she engages in the opposite: a significant effort to analyze the relationship from its beginnings.
Bronson, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, details the history based on extensive research and interviews, with the kind of prolific footnotes that befit an academic historian. For those prepared for something more than a “Washington read” (i.e., looking up one’s own name in the index), a review of the footnotes as well as the author’s credentials will quickly demonstrate that this is a serious work based on multiple and diverse sources.
It is instructive that when the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz, granted early oil concessions, he based his trust in America — because the Americans were not British. The king was deeply suspicious of British intentions, and he feared their colonial past. As Bronson points out, the Americans stayed out of local politics through successive administrations, “rather than re-create Britain and France’s colonial experience.” This attitude appealed to Abdul Aziz and it has appealed to his successors, at least until the recent American diplomatic thrust for democracy in the region (in fact, Bronson might have related that lesson more directly to the current administration’s relationship with King Abdullah).
Bronson cites three fundamental issues that bound the United States and Saudi Arabia: oil, territory and religion. Of these three, she correctly gives limited attention to the obvious American interest in oil; except for three blips — when Saudi Arabia supported oil embargoes in 1956, 1967 and 1973 as a result of the three wars with Israel — oil was an important but not major irritant in the relationship. Nor was it a driver of the relationship. It is only now, with the prospect of continued growth in worldwide demand and uncertainty in supply, that oil has emerged into a prominent issue.
From the beginning, as Bronson makes clear, Saudi Arabia occupied a strategic position in the Gulf as a military transit point and, for many years thereafter, was considered a barrier to Soviet aspirations and a base for American military operations. But it was the extraordinary religiously inspired hostility of Saudi leaders toward communism and toward the Soviet Union that provided the principle glue for our relations for most of the past century. Bronson catalogs an impressive list of joint American-Saudi covert and overt operations, as well as independent Saudi efforts to thwart communism in the Arab world, Africa and even Central America. While she doesn’t draw this conclusion explicitly, the Soviet collapse was in no small measure the result of Saudi persistence and deep pockets allied with American efforts and budgetary support. In short, together we bled the Soviet Union of resources and blunted its successes.
But the principal and final resting place of the Soviet empire was Afghanistan. The Saudis and the Americans filled the coffers and provided the weapons for those who would fight the Soviets there. It was in this regard that the Saudis reached back into their history, the history of the founder Abdul Aziz: When he needed shock troops in the 1920s to take over the peninsula from his enemies, the king reached out to ascetic Islamic fundamentalist allies of his family, the Ikhwan, whose fervor, beliefs and religious commitment made for fierce and uncompromising fighters. And so, in the same vein, the Saudis supported the radical fundamentalists in Afghanistan who were aligned against the godless communists. The alliance, with full American involvement and support, was effective. But the Saudis did not take the subsequent lesson that the king taught: After he was successful in consolidating his power, and the Ikhwan went on to follow their own agenda, Abdul Aziz defeated them in 1929 at the battle of Sibila.
Bronson makes clear that the domestic history of Saudi Arabia has witnessed constant tension between the ruling family and the fundamentalist religious authorities; there is mutual dependence marked by mutual mistrust. At times, as in the period of King Faisal, the balance was tipped toward reform and the civil authorities. King Fahd moved the balance in the opposite direction, which was the source of many of Saudi Arabia’s problems today.
As it comes across in Bronson’s account, Fahd was extremely responsive to the Americans, to the point that many Arabs thought of Fahd as tool of American foreign policy. Bronson suggests that during his reign, the “Reagan/Bush period was a high-water mark in American-Saudi relations.” She cites the American-Saudi cooperation in Afghanistan, the Soviet losses in Africa and the joint American-Saudi effort to dislodge Saddam Hussein from Iraq as evidence.
No doubt America profited greatly from the relationship, but I have to wonder if the short-term benefits were worth the long-term price. Fahd was not immune from the balancing act that his predecessors had to strike between anti-American religious zealots in the Saudi society and modernization and friendship with America. His answer, as Bronson makes clear, was to give the Islamists and nationalists their head on domestic issues. In the few years between 1984 and 1988, when I served as the deputy chief of mission in Riyadh, we went from requiring American embassy women to wear Western dress and foreswear the black cloak of the Abayya, an all-encompassing black overgarment for women, to a requirement that all women conform to the Saudi practice.
Fahd, whose religious credentials were tenuous at best, bent with the religious wind to preserve the kingdom’s stability. He eschewed the title of king for the title “custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (it sounds more impressive in Arabic). He opened the doors for the religious authorities to place a stranglehold on the education system. And he allowed radical preachers their head in the mosques. I think a strong case can be made that because Fahd answered to every American whim, he was forced to abdicate his control over domestic policy in the kingdom.
Abdullah reversed that trend. And although he has been accused by some as being anti-American, he is arguably a stronger and better ally than Fahd ever was, because Abdullah does not seem willing to cater to the changing winds of American diplomacy. This may not seem essential, but it is: Throughout Bronson’s history, one thread remained constant — the somewhat feckless nature of American relations with the Saudis. Every administration seems to bring in a new attitude and policy toward Saudi Arabia, and it must have been very difficult for the Saudi Arabians to keep up with our changing moods.
Indeed, one of the lessons I drew from the Bronson text was that an incestuous relationship, like the one we had during most of the period of Fahd’s active reign, is not a healthy basis for American-Saudi relations. Saudi leaders must be seen as being independent and willing to stand up to the Americans if they are to be respected at home and to maintain stability in the kingdom. We need to be big enough to understand that. It is also clear that Saudi Arabia is a society that encompasses religious fundamentalism, traditional tribal culture, and the will to modernize and engage in the new global society. It is not an easy course to chart, and it is one where we would do well to pay close attention to true experts on Saudi Arabia: the Saudis themselves.
I would have preferred Bronson to have focused her last chapter on the lessons learned from the history of our relations, rather than try to map out a policy for the future. While I support most of her prescriptions for a solid relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia based on understanding and patience, the advocacy aspect of these policy suggestions struck a false note. Still, this is a quibble, especially as it exists in the context of an outstanding, detailed and objective history of this important relationship.
*Edward S. Walker Jr. has served as a U.S. ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. He worked for the first administration of George W. Bush as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, a position he had also held during the second Clinton administration. Also the former president and chief executive officer of the Middle East Institute, Walker will join the faculty of Hamilton College this fall. *