“When it comes to the Saudi-American relationship, the White House should be called the ‘White Tent.'”
– Mohammed Al-Khilewi, a Saudi diplomat who defected to the United States
Dismayed at President Barack Obama’s policies on Iran and Syria, the House of Saud are threatening a fissure with the United States that could take the alliance between Washington and the kingdom to its lowest point. Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief is vowing that the kingdom will make a “major shift” in relations with the United States to protest perceived American inaction over Syria’s civil war as well as recent U.S. overtures to Iran. Meanwhile, Prince Bandar bin Sultan has told European diplomats that the United States had failed to act effectively against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was growing closer to Tehran, and had failed to back Saudi support for Bahrain when it crushed an anti-government revolt in 2011. In Washington, where another high-ranking Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal criticized Obama’s Middle East policies, accusing him of “dithering” on Syria and Israeli-Palestinian peace. Saudi Arabia gave a clear sign of its displeasure over Obama’s foreign policy last week when it rejected a coveted two-year term on the U.N. Security Council in a display of anger.
In London, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he discussed Riyadh’s concerns when he met Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in Paris on Monday. Kerry said he told the Saudi minister no deal with Iran was better than a bad deal. “I have great confidence that the United States and Saudi Arabia will continue to be the close and important friends and allies that we have been,” Kerry told reporters.
AMERICA’S ATTITUDE TOWARDS THE HOUSE OF SAUD
U.S. government’s acceptance of Saudi norms is particularly evident as the treatment of women, children, practicing Christians and Jews by the Kingdom attracts not a murmur from Washington. Other countries are castigated for much less than that. The same smarminess that exists on the level of the small-bore also holds on the bigger gauge of international politics. For instance:
1. Saudi energy policies in 1973-74 were met with appeasement and conciliation, without as much as a whisper of bolder action.
2. American officials docilely accepted in 1995 that the Kingdom executed the (dubious) suspects accused of killing five Americans in Riyadh before U.S. law enforcement officials could interrogate them. A year later, the response was similarly mild about the lack of Saudi cooperation in investigating the murder of American troops at Khobar Towers.
3. Turning a blind eye to Saudi financing of the extremist militants. As one observer puts it, “The Saudis’ cooperation with our efforts to track down the financing of Al-Qaeda appears to be somewhere between minimal and zero.”
4. “Saudi money-official or not-is behind much of the Islamic-extremist rhetoric and action in the world today”, notes Rep. Ben Gilman (R-NY), former chairman of the House International Relations Committee. The assault on September 11, 2001 was basically Saudi in ideology, personnel, organization and funding-but the U.S. government did not signal a reassessment of policy toward Riyadh.
5. Militant Islamic institutions in the United States. U.S. authorities have been lax about the funding of these organizations. This problem is widespread, as a newspaper editorial from Canada suggests: “Many terrorists and terror recruits get their first taste of death-to-the-West Islamic extremism from a Wahhabi imam or centre director in Virginia or London or, presumably, Hamilton or Markham, whose paycheque is drawn in the Saudi Kingdom. It may not be necessary to add Saudi Arabia to the Axis of Evil, or to invade it. But it will be necessary to engage the Saudi spread of extremism if the war on terrorism is to be won.”
6. Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead of frolicking with Riyadh, the US administration should emphasize that the hateful rhetoric and subsidies for suicide bombers must come to an immediate end.
7. Human rights and democracy. The usual U.S. commitment to these goals seems to wither when Saudi Arabia is involved. Such questions as the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, the right to travel, women’s rights and religious liberties are virtually ignored.
8. Ignoring insults and threats. Like the current threats. A famous case, dating from the 1970s, is when Henry Kissinger attended a state dinner in his honour hosted by King Faisal, and the King overtly insulted his Jewish ancestry. Many other aggressive statements from the Kingdom have been met not with censure but with pacification.
WHY DOES AMERICA BOW TO THE HOUSE OF SAUDS?
American sycophancy to the Saudis is neither new nor without reason. What lies behind this pattern of sycophancy? It is one thing when private companies bend over backwards to please the Saudis, but why does the U.S. government defer to the Kingdom in so many and unique ways? More importantly, shall the US government continue to do so?
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, ploughs much of its earnings back into U.S. assets. Most of the Saudi central bank’s net foreign assets of over $700 billion are thought to be denominated in dollars, much of them in U.S. Treasury bonds. Many U.S. economic interests in Saudi Arabia involve government contracts in defence, other security sectors, health care, education, information technology and construction. Then there is no small matter of personal gains. The former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once helpfully hinted at an answer in a statement boasting of his success cultivating powerful Americans. “If the reputation then builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office”, Bandar once observed, “you’d be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office.” This effective admission of bribery goes far to explain why the usual laws, regulations, and rights do not apply when Saudi Arabia is involved. Hume Horan, himself a former U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom, was one of the great and noble exceptions to this pattern. He said this of his former colleagues:
“There have been some people who really do go on the Saudi payroll, and they work as advisers and consultants. Prince Bandar is very good about massaging and promoting relationships like that. Money works wonders, and if you’ve got an awful lot of it, and a royal title-well, it’s amusing to see how some Americans liquefy in front of a foreign potentate, just because he’s called a prince.”
Extravagant support of Saudi interests by former ambassador James E. Akins (who criticized Arab governments for not being tougher with Washington and despaired that Arabs did not withdraw their money from U.S. banks) caused him to be described as occasionally appearing “more pro-Arab than the Arab officials.” Several surveys of the post-government careers of ex-U.S. ambassadors to Riyadh raise concerns. Steven Emerson characterizes their behaviour as “visceral, overt, self-interested sycophancy.” National Review finds that the number of them “who now push a pro-Saudi line is startling” and concludes that “no other posting pays such rich dividends once one has left it, provided one is willing to become a public and private advocate of Saudi interests.” A National Post analysis looked at five former ambassadors and found that “they have carved out a fine living insulting their own countrymen while shilling for one of the most corrupt regimes on Earth.” If you closed your eyes while listening to their apologies, “you would think the person talking held a Saudi passport.”
A Washington Post account gave some idea of the nature of the “rich dividends” reaped by former officials: “Americans who have worked with the Saudis in official capacities often remain connected to them when they leave public office, from former presidents George H.W. Bush [and Bill Clinton], who has given speeches for cash in Saudi Arabia since leaving office, to many previous ambassadors and military officers stationed in the Kingdom. In some cases, these connections have been lucrative. Walter Cutler, who served two tours as the U.S. ambassador in Saudi Arabia, now runs Meridian International Center in Washington, an organization that promotes international understanding through education and exchanges. Saudi donors have been “very supportive” of the center, Cutler said. [Edward] Walker, the former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, which promotes understanding with the Arab world. Its board chairman is former senator Wyche Fowler, ambassador to Riyadh in the second Clinton administration. Saudi contributions covered $200,000 of the institute’s $1.5 million budget last year, Walker said.” Many ex-Washington hands having been paid off by the Kingdom include not only a bevy of former ambassadors but also such figures as Spiro T. Agnew, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Clark Clifford, John B. Connally and William E. Simon.
Hence we can see that it is not only about the national interests. Instead, Americans in positions of authority bend the rules and break with standard policy out of personal greed. In this light, Hunter’s report on the three main U.S. government goals in Saudi Arabia begins to make sense: strengthen the Saudi regime, cater to the Saud royal family, and facilitate U.S. exports. All of these fit the rubric of enhancing one’s own appeal to the Saudis. So, too, does Hunter’s comment that “the U.S. mission is so preoccupied with extraneous duties-entertainment packages for high-level visitors, liquor sales, and handling baggage for VIP visitors” that it has scant time to devote to the proper concerns of an embassy. Likewise, his long list of high-profile ex-officials who visited Saudi Arabia during his sojourn (Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Colin Powell, Mack McLarty, Richard Murphy) and “who were feted and presented with medals and gifts at closed ceremonies with the Saudi monarch” also fits the pattern.
Representative Chris Van Hollen, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Democratic leadership, told Reuters‘ Washington Summit last week: “We know their game. They’re trying to send a signal that we should all get involved militarily in Syria, and I think that would be a big mistake to get in the middle of the Syrian civil war. And the Saudis should start by stopping their funding of the al Qaeda-related groups in Syria. In addition to the fact that it’s a country that doesn’t allow women to drive.”
The Saudi jitters are primarily caused by the fears of a thaw in America’s relations with Iran now that a more sensible head has assumed the presidency of the Shia theocracy across the waters of the Gulf. When it comes to Iran, King Abdullah summed up Saudi attitude when he advised America to “cut off the head of the snake”, according to a leaked diplomatic cable. Hence, King Abdullah’s bad-tempered meeting with an Iranian foreign minister, revealed in another US diplomatic cable, when he ordered the hapless envoy to “spare us your evil”.
So when the presidents of Iran and the US start to talk – and when their diplomats hold, by all accounts, not only fruitful but cheerful deliberations in Geneva – Saudi Arabia starts to get truly very anxious. King Abdullah’s dominant worry is that America and Iran will find an accommodation at the expense of his own country’s security interests.
It’s about time the U.S adopts a more principled stance towards Saudi Arabia. Especially, as the U.S.-Saudi relationship may be past its peak utility for both countries. The ground beneath King Abdullah’s feet is starting to move. This very public Saudi jab at the U.S. is the latest in a series of increasingly frequent disputes marring the world’s most improbable partnership. Many of the joint benefits that have brought the two countries together appear to be on their last legs. On Egypt, the US and Saudi Arabia are at odds. On Iran, they may drift apart. On Iraq, there is no further commonality of interests between the two. On Syria, the common interests are on the wane. On Afghanistan, the cooperation is diminishing. On Oil, the US dependence on Saudi Oil is declining. So it is merely on combating Al-Qaeda and the insurgency in Yemen that both countries are still fully aligned to cooperate with each other. Therefore, the two countries may soon need each other much less than they used to.
However, the culture of corruption in the Executive Branch, as described above, may undermine its hand in dealing with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the farsighted and disinterested manner that U.S. foreign policy requires. That leaves Congress with the responsibility to fix things. It needs to devise the policy on Saudi Arabia. It also needs to enact laws and exercise vigilance that after having extensive contacts with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an official may not receive funds from that source. This maybe an ideal opportunity for congress to demonstrate bi-partisan action and show the American people that our system does indeed work.