More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic Monthly.

The War on Terrorism
A collection of features from The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.


From the archives:

"Mideast Oil Forever?" (April 1996)
Congressional budget-cutters threaten to end America's leadership in new energy technologies that could generate hundreds of thousands of high-wage jobs, reduce damage to the environment, and limit our costly, dangerous dependency on oil from the unstable Persian Gulf region. By Joseph J. Romm and Charles B. Curtis

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Real Islam" (March 20, 2003)
"Much of Islam is based on a rich, pluralistic, multi-ethnic, moderate tradition. But at the same time, people must recognize the dangers of Wahhabism, and of supporting the Saudi regime."

Politics & Prose: "The Real Roots of Terror" (December 5, 2001)
The autocratic regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt distract their citizens from repression at home by directing their anger toward the U.S. By Jack Beatty

Flashbacks: "Oil and Turmoil" (July 11, 1996)
Three Atlantic authors tackle the issues of politics, oil, and the Persian Gulf.





Flashbacks
 
Dubious Ally

April 30, 2003
 
aving achieved its objective of ousting Saddam from power in Iraq, the Bush Administration has begun to shift its attention to other areas in the Middle East. Recently, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld have focused on neighboring Syria, accusing the country of developing chemical weapons and providing safe haven for members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle. But as former Middle East CIA operative Robert Baer argues in the May issue of The Atlantic, it may in fact be our longstanding ally in the Middle East—Saudi Arabia—that now deserves a critical look.

Baer points to the facts that fifteen out of the nineteen September 11 hijackers were Saudis, that four out of every five hits on a secret al Qaeda Web site have been shown to come from within Saudi borders, and that, according to a recent U.N. Security Council report, Saudi Arabia has transferred $500 million to al Qaeda over the past decade. Furthermore, Baer notes, popular Saudi preachers call openly for jihad against the West and "[t]he kindom's mosque schools," he writes, "have become a breeding ground for militant Islam."

In spite of such evidence of Saudi complicity in anti-American terrorism, however, the U.S. has not chosen to treat Saudi Arabia any differently than it did before 9/11—namely, as an important ally and business partner. Baer suggests that this is at least in part because "almost every Washington figure worth mentioning has been involved with companies doing major deals with Saudi Arabia.… Spending a lot of money was a tacit part of the U.S.-Saudi relationship practically from the very beginning."

Three Atlantic articles on Saudi Arabia written during the late seventies and early eighties offer further perspective on the complex and problematic relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

In 1977 George Jerome Goodman (a writer on economic issues who used the pen name "Adam Smith") accompanied the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury on a diplomatic tour of the Middle East. In "The Arabs, Their Money … and Ours" (February 1978) he described his impressions of Saudi Arabia. It was a country, Goodman observed, that until recently had been "a desert kingdom living off goats, dates, and pilgrims on the way to Mecca." But after oil was discovered in 1930s, Saudi Arabia had developed into the world's largest oil exporter. With oil money now flowing in so quickly, instant cities, it seemed, were "being stamped out of metal and concrete, helicoptered in, and bolted down onto a desert kingdom."

From its inception, Saudi Arabia has been a land dominated by Islam. The country was founded by Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a radical Muslim cleric who preached an extremely puritanical and anti-modern form of Islam to which most Saudis still adhere. Yet Saudi elites were now being trained by U.S. oil companies and sent to U.S. colleges (mostly in the Southwest where many of the U.S. oil executives had come from) and returning home Westernized. Goodman discovered in these elites an affinity toward America that was intense, personal, and sometimes sports-obsessed.
Colloquial Americanisms pour from be-thaubed Arabs. I could not believe the passion for football; video cassettes of the previous Saturday's game are traded from hand to hand. The true enthusiasts prefer not to know the outcome ahead of time.
Goodman heard many Saudis express loyalty toward the country in which they had studied and lived for several years. He noted the sophistication of the American-trained technocrats, some of whom even brought home American wives after their university studies. But such comfort with America and the West was foreign to many other Saudis, even among the American-educated elites. Goodman remarked,
I was so impressed with the articulateness of the technocrats, and their seeming moderation, that it took a Berkeley-educated Saudi businessman to bring me back to earth, and remind me of how little I knew. "We want to be friends with the Americans," he said, "but there are impediments. Why do you permit yourself to be governed by the actions of the Zionist conspirators?" And he went on for quite literally two hours about the Zionist conspirators, barely pausing for breath. He sounded like a cartoon Arab we so mistakenly expect, the one against whom the young technocrats were so refreshing. But which is the real Araby?
Ten months later, in "Maybe I Am Easily Scared" (December 1978), an article on how to improve the shaky state of America's economy, Goodman devoted significant attention to what he called "The Saudi Connection."
It would be hard to find another time in American history when we were so dependent on a specific part of the world or on a single country, let alone one that is sparsely populated and is still tribal. And it is ironic to contemplate that the country should supply us a commodity we need for a currency that it does not need, though it does need our banks and our friendship. Economics veers quickly into politics.
The dominant political cleavage of the time was not—as it is now—the gulf dividing the Islamic world from the West, but rather the walls separating communism and capitalism. With the world split along this fault line, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. were allies. Goodman explained, however, that the U.S. had reason to be concerned about the durability of this ally because it had so many internal conflicts and was undergoing such revolutionary transformation.
Few places on earth have changed as rapidly as Saudi Arabia.… Young Saudi technocrats, on the first meeting, do not seem like their Wahhabi grandfathers. They wear business suits; they have come back from USC and UCLA easygoing and likeable with their American colloquialisms and their passion for college football. But in Riyadh, religious police still patrol, enforcing the five-times-a-day call to prayer, rapping on the shutters of shopkeepers who are tardy in closing for prayer.

As we think we come to know the Saudis, we may find we do not know them at all, but see only the side they present to us…. A well-designed car may start to shake at a hundred miles an hour, and shake apart at some speed above that. Saudi Arabia is already traveling at a hundred miles an hour.
Of course, the strong tie that continues to bind the U.S. to this dubious ally is oil. In "The Cartel that Never Was" (March 1983), Edward Jay Epstein argued that the supposedly formidable Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was in fact a sham—that it was really Saudi Arabia behind the façade of OPEC that exercises control over the world oil market.
[I]t was Saudi Arabia, not OPEC, that shut off oil during the Yom Kippur War. It was also Saudi Arabia that, without even consulting OPEC, arbitrarily reduced production in the midst of the Iranian revolt. And it was Saudi Arabia that later flooded the market for the stated purpose of forcing other OPEC members to conform to its pricing policies. Yet, even though Saudi Arabia was the real manager of the world oil supply, statesmen around the world preferred to blame an almost nonexistent organization—OPEC.
The OPEC mask, Epstein explained, proved convenient for Saudi Arabia's rulers because it allowed them to take action unfavorable to the U.S. without damaging its public image as a friend the U.S. could count on. The U.S. benefited from this ruse as well. Reluctant to publicly criticize such an important trade partner and supplier of oil, the U.S. directed any criticisms it might have had of Saudi Arabia to OPEC.
OPEC made an especially convenient "clear enemy" precisely because it hardly existed. If a real country were chosen for this role, there would be real consequences…. Oil companies could put the blame for gas lines and soaring prices on OPEC, with which they had no commercial relations without offending the countries on which they depended for supplies.
Saudi Arabia was able control world prices because it was one of the few countries that could cut back on its oil production and remain financially solvent. But even with respect to its considerable financial surpluses, Epstein suggested, Saudi Arabia was perhaps less stable than it seemed:
How long can even Saudi Arabia afford to keep up oil prices? To be sure, Saudi Arabia's revenues from oil have been immense. But so have its expenditures.… Last fall, Saudi Arabia was having increasing difficulty meeting its bills on time.
And now, twenty years later, in his own assessment of the status of Saudi Arabia, Robert Baer echoes such financial concerns:
In 1981 … oil was selling at nearly $40 a barrel, and the annual per capita income was $28,600. A decade later, just before Iraq invaded Kuwait, refiners were able to buy oil for about $15 a barrel. The Gulf War sent prices back up to about $36 a barrel before they quickly fell. Today a barrel of oil once again fetches around $40, but twenty years' worth of inflation, combined with a population explosion, has brought per capita income down to below $7,000…. In the early 1980s the kingdom boasted cash reserves on the order of $120 billion; today the figure is estimated to be $21 billion.
Thus, from a variety of perspectives—financial, social, and political—the Saudi regime may be in peril. In short, Baer argues, "sometime soon, one way or another, the House of Saud is coming down."

—Mike Lee


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Mike Lee is a new media intern for The Atlantic.
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