Chase: The Disease of the Modern Era (May 20, 2003)
Alston Chase, the author of Harvard and the Unabomber, argues that we have much to fear from the forces that made Ted Kaczynski what he is.
The Calculus of Terror (May 15, 2003)
Bruce Hoffman talks about the strategy behind the suicide bombings in Israel—and what we must learn from Israel's response.
The Fiction of Life (May 7, 2003)
Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, on the dangers of using religion as an ideology, and the freedoms that literature can bring.
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc:
Bronx Story (April 24, 2003)
A conversation with Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, whose new book, Random Family, chronicles the struggles of an impoverished extended family in New York.
The Nature of Inheritance (April 11, 2003)
A conversation with Cristina García, whose new novel, Monkey Hunting, explores Cuban identity, immigrant life, and the way family history evolves.
Caught Between Places (April 2, 2003)
A conversation with John Murray, a doctor-turned-writer whose characters are often searching to reconcile their new lives with the ones they've left behind.
More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Dubious Ally (April 30, 2003)
Articles from the 1970s and 1980s shed light on the complex and problematic relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
Substance Abuse (November 27, 2002)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel.
Atlantic Unbound | May 29, 2003
Addicted to Oil
Robert Baer, a former CIA agent and the author of "The Fall of the House of Saud" (May Atlantic), discusses the perils of our dependence on Saudi Arabia and its precious supply of fuel
so strong it's almost like a narcotic. You don't question the
pusher." It may sound like the language of drug addiction, but in fact
Robert Baer, a former CIA agent in the Middle East, is describing American
dependence on Saudi Arabia and its oil. In "The Fall of the House of
Saud" (May Atlantic),
Baer details the United States's absolute reliance on oil from a country
that is deeply, dangerously unstable.
The history of U.S. involvement in
Saudi Arabia goes back nearly to that nation's birth. In 1933, a year
after the kingdom was declared, the first American oil concession was granted.
Over time, U.S. interest in Saudi oil evolved into a company called Aramco,
which controlled all of the oil in Saudi Arabia—25 percent of the world's
total. Aramco was a private company held by four large U.S. oil companies,
with immense influence on the U.S. government. (It is now wholly owned by the
Saudi government.) Moreover, the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia
extends beyond this private interest—as early as 1943, President Franklin
Roosevelt asserted that protecting the kingdom, and its oil, was of vital economic
importance to the United States as a whole. The precedent of maintaining a friendly
relationship with Saudi Arabia, for both public and private reasons, has
remained unchanged in the intervening years.
The United States' policies
on Saudi Arabia, Baer argues, are built upon the delusion that Saudi Arabia is stable—that
both the country and the flow of its most precious commodity can continue on indefinitely. Sustaining that delusion is the immense amount of
money (estimated at $19.3 billion in 2000) exchanged between the two partners:
the U.S. buys oil and sells weapons, Saudi Arabia buys weapons and sells oil.
Oil and the defense contracts underpinning its protection bind these two countries
together in such a way that when Saudi Arabia falls—a fate Baer feels is
absolutely certain—the U.S. falls too. Perhaps not all the way down, but,
if we don't curtail our dependence, he argues, a failure in Saudi Arabia
could have catastrophic consequences for the United States.
Our relationship, however,
continues unabated—even as the corrupt royal family bleeds the Saudi treasury,
Wahhabist extremism heats up, and Saudi Arabian citizens kill American citizens
in acts of terror. Baer maintains that we must look at Saudi Arabia with a
more objective lens and examine the foundations of that country, since
they are, in some sense, the foundations of our own.
Robert Baer was part of the Central
Intelligence Agency for twenty-one years; for most of that time, he worked for
the Directorate of Operations in the Middle East as a field officer. He is the
author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War
on Terrorism. His article for The
Atlantic is adapted from his
new book, Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Its Soul for Saudi
Crude, to be released in July.
We spoke by telephone on May 20.
How did you
come to be involved in the CIA?
It's a bit
of a mundane process applying and getting hired. I actually just called the
federal center in San Francisco. I was curious, and it was a bit of a prank in
a way. I was living there, I'd finished college, and I was working
part-time. They set up an interview for me, gave me a couple tests, and about
six months later I was in, to my surprise.
So you just
called as a prank and this ended up being something that you did for twenty-one
Well, you know,
it was in the news a lot back in '75 and '76. I definitely never
considered it seriously. I didn't even know what a spy was; I
didn't like spy movies. But it was curiosity more than anything, I
suppose. And I never thought I'd get in, and I never thought I'd
stay in. Twenty-one years later, I was still in.
How did you
decide to write a book about Saudi Arabia? How much time did you spend there?
You mention that you know the Saud family—do you know any of them
personally? Where does your knowledge about them come from?
visited Saudi Arabia, but I've never served there on a tour. I've
always looked at Saudi Arabia and the phenomenon of Sunni fundamentalism from
the periphery, where it is easier to see these people, to meet them. Because in
Saudi Arabia, and this is one of the problems, you just can't walk into a
mosque and sit down and start talking to the clerics. And you can't just
drive around the country, going to Medina and Mecca—they're off-limits
to Americans, unless you're Muslim. I'm like someone who followed
the Soviet Union from the outside. But I've spent twenty-five years in
the Middle East—I've met members of the royal family, I've
talked to Saudis.
of the reasons I started thinking about the book. In the summer of 2001,
I'd picked up some information that there was going to be a big attack.
The person I was dealing with was in touch with the terrorists and wanted to go
to Riyadh to pass on the information. He wanted me and another former CIA officer
to go with him to Riyadh as intermediaries. But when we met with the Saudi
Ministry of Defense in Geneva to see if we could go, they said,
"Absolutely not. We don't want you there. What do you know about
Saudi Arabia? What do you know about terrorism? We don't want to
listen." It's that combination of arrogance, xenophobia, and denial
that I was struck by. Then I started investigating it more and started talking
to people. I went around the United States and asked people exactly what we
knew about Saudi Arabia. It was amazing that for a country like Saudi Arabia,
that is so important to us, we know so little about it. Why is this? Why
haven't we looked into the kingdom that owns 25 percent of the
world's oil resources? Why don't we look inside and examine the
And what is
the answer to "Why don't we look inside?"
Dependence on cheap oil. It's a dependence that's so strong that
it's almost like a narcotic. You don't question the pusher. So many
of my colleagues who worked in Saudi Arabia left the CIA and went to work for
the Saudis. How can they spend thirty years in the CIA, walk out the door, and
have the same remarks I do if they are working for the place? This is an uneasy
relationship, because even the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin
Sultan, has admitted that he holds out jobs in front of bureaucrats, knowing
that one day they can work for the Saudis or work for defense companies that
work inside Saudi Arabia. These companies don't want to question Saudi
Arabia. You're not going to get Boeing or any of these other companies,
like the Carlyle Group, to do independent studies saying, "Oh, by the
way, our source of cheap oil is wobbly."
article you describe how vulnerable the Saudi oil infrastructure is to attack.
How worried should we be about the kind of attack that you mention? And can you
describe what kind of shape an attack might take?
here's my theory. Of course, I'm not an expert, I'm not an
engineer. I've read stuff on the vulnerabilities of Saudi oil, tightly
held studies. And what the engineers worry about is, What could be done if
there was a strong support system behind the planners, or if people inside the oil industry were
co-opted; what sort of damage could they do?
Externally, a truck bomb at the gate would do minimal damage. But, if an
employee who knew the system could place explosives, could hit a couple key
places, including the redundant systems, then you could take 25 percent of
Saudi oil off the market for a long period of time. That's the worst-case
With respect to the
attacks last Monday on the compounds in Riyadh, there is more and more evidence
that I am hearing (and it's not confirmed yet) that this was done with
internal support from the National Guard. So, if they can do this to the
compounds—a military operation with all these suicide bombers and multiple car
bombs—why couldn't these same groups hit the oil industry and really do
serious damage? I'm quite sure at this point that the Saudis have got
security all over that system at the sensitive points. If it were just bin
Laden on the outside, the risk isn't that much. But when you have
internal support and operatives, then it worries me.
You mention the possibility that a
terrorist could procure a submarine from the global arms bazaar and use it in an attack on Saudi oil. Could
you talk a bit about the global arms bazaar?
A lot of
countries that make these advanced arms are impoverished and they're
willing to sell the arms. They are more and more available. My understanding is
that the two most recent suicide bombings in Israel used explosives
that weren't locally made. Plastique has almost become a commodity like
heroin or cocaine. You can pick it up anywhere on the black market for a
certain price. Guns are easily available and heavier weapons are easily
available. And that's not to speak of a person like bin Laden, who bought
a lot of weapons in the mid-nineties that came from this market. In Yemen you
can buy weapons—surface-to-surface rockets, surface-to-air missiles, the
shoulder-fired ones, which closed down British Airways going into Kenya. In
fact, availability of arms, the spreading of hate and demographic problems, all
mean it's going to be a long time before we can get over this. It's
going to take a lot of hard work. A country that it could really affect is
Saudi Arabia. If you fired at one civilian airliner leaving Riyadh and shot it
down, there would just be an exodus of foreigners. The people who run Saudi
Arabia's oil industry are just going to get up and leave. So it's
What disturbs me
is how little we know about all this. Ten days ago, before the Riyadh bombing,
the head of counterterrorism at the State Department, someone I know, said,
"We've beaten bin Laden, he's on the run." He's
not trying to mislead us, it's just that we don't know how deep
this goes. If bin Laden's alive, he's holed up in some cave in
Pakistan or Afghanistan. He's not running this. It's much too
complicated. It's done locally. And with local access to arms, we can
expect a lot more attacks.
What is the
Saudi royal family's attitude toward the threat to their oil?
Well, even the
King, back in the early seventies, when there was the Kissinger plan of seizing
the oil fields, the King said "Fine, seize our oil fields and we'll
go to war with you and we'll go back to the desert and live off
camel's milk and eat dates." There's this mentality in Saudi
Arabia that oil has been a curse. And maybe Saudi Arabia would be an ideal
utopia if you got rid of the oil and all this money that it's generated
that has caused more problems than it's solved for the majority of the
Saudi people. So it's this convergence of terrorism and this attitude that
we really need to watch in the future; not even in the future, right now.
One of the
things you mention in your article is that in the past you accepted on faith the
U.S.'s assumption that the Saud family could keep their position and
their oil safe. What caused you to change your mind?
September 11. I
figured that we'd be attacked eventually in the United States, but I
never suspected that they would be able to put nineteen suicide
bombers on those airplanes and hit us as hard as they did. It was an
extraordinary attack, and the amount of damage it did to the United States is
But you have to
think like the opposition. Why wouldn't they attack the oil, or the
Saudi monarchy? No one knows what the repercussions of that would be.
Since the article came out, I've talked to a lot of oil analysts
and they've said, "You know, you cite the figure of $150 per barrel
if the Saudis' contribution to the world oil supply were cut off, but
there are no econometrics for this." It's the unthinkable if you
took this oil out.
You have to
remember that Saudi Arabia plays a dominant role in the rest of the Gulf/Arab
sheikdoms—Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates. A cataclysmic failure of
some sort in Saudi Arabia is bound to spread to these other countries. So we
could, without having any econometrics on this, go way beyond $150.
What's going to happen then? We truly are in uncharted waters if Saudi
activity or U.S. policy as a whole helped to shape or create the present
situation in Saudi Arabia?
We, as a country,
not just the CIA, didn't think that Sunni fundamentalism was all that
bad. It helped us defeat Egypt in a large sense, and it helped us in the Yemen
civil war in the sixties, and then in Afghanistan. So we were supportive of
Sunni fundamentalism, never thinking that once the Russians were run out of
Afghanistan the Sunnis would turn on us. It was a failure to see forward
to this possibility. It wasn't just the CIA. It was the CIA, the State
Department, the White House, and the American press as well. They all said,
"Saudi Arabia is a medieval country, we don't really need to worry
about it, it's very conservative, it doesn't change very fast,
it's a mutually beneficial relationship. They pump the oil, they bank our
oil, they buy our weapons, it's all to our advantage."
American and global dependency on Saudi oil be changed? If so, how do we do it?
It's got to be changed. Just look at the
environmental motivations to change it. And the increase in our dependence on
oil can only make matters worse, because oil unfortunately sits in the most
unstable parts of the world: Venezuela, Nigeria, Chad, the Middle East, the
Caucasus, and Central Asia. Even Russia's not particularly stable. When
our future is in the hands of parts of the world that are spinning out of
control, it worries me.
What would be
your first thoughts in terms of how we go about making the change?
I would start
with, for one, taxing carbon-based energy sources. We have a huge gas problem
in the United States; I'd start taxing those sources in order to force
down consumption. Then I'd use incentives and start investigating
practical alternatives—fuel cells, wind energy. Pumping more oil is
just not going to do it. Alaska's going to last us for, what, sixty days
of oil consumption? I think that's wishful thinking. Once we back away
from this dependence on foreign oil or oil at all, we can have a more independent
One of the
things that you mention in your article is the surplus oil that the Saudis sent
to the U.S. after September 11. Was that part of an agreement with the U.S.?
Did the Saudis do this of their own volition? How did that decision come about?
There's an extremely close relationship between the
White House and the king of Saudi Arabia, along with the oil minister and the
ambassador. You can call the ambassador up and say, "Look, we're
forecasting a shortage in the world oil market because of speculation. Can you
pump more?" In every crisis, the Saudis have come through. Let's be
frank about it—they were our best allies in the Middle East. They banked
this oil—2-3 million barrels—at a very high cost, they never got
reimbursed for it, and they were always there. The Iran-Iraq war, they were
there. When the Iraqis overran Kuwait, they were there. Strikes in Venezuela,
they came through and pumped more oil. They had their own interests, but they
also protected our markets as well.
being financially compensated for pumping more oil?
We pay market
prices. But the point is that it's all based on supply and demand, and by
increasing the supply, they keep down the price. It's something the
Saudis have paid out of their pockets. We've never reimbursed them for
this surplus capacity. We built it in the sixties and seventies; but when they
nationalized Aramco they paid for it, they bought it back. We
can't simply just sit down and say, "These guys have always been against us and
the Wahhabi fundamentalists have been sent by the royal family to destroy the
West"—that's when it veers off into right-wing theory.
intrigued by what the Saudi reasoning behind surplus oil is. Is it just to keep
in the good graces of the U.S.? What do they get from it?
Well, we provide
their defense. We've got troops based in the area; we protected them from
the Iranian terrorist threat in the eighties. They also maintain market
dominance and they are looked at as a reliable partner, which helps them
strategically. And that's worked fine until we've had this series
of terrorist attacks, the intifada in Palestine, and this movement in the
streets of Saudi Arabia. No one foresaw this, but now it's time to catch
You said before
that many Saudis feel that oil has been a curse for them. With that
in mind, could you talk about the amount of money used to sustain the
lifestyles of the Saudi family? Where does it come from and how is it being
hidden in defense and construction contracts. What has happened is that the
price of Saudi oil is really transparent when it's sold. Aramco has
contracts, they sell oil at world prices, and they get reimbursed. It's
part of their budget. Some of their oil is called "political oil"
which they give to their allies for free, whether it's Yemen or Jordan, or
at times, Bahrain and even Afghanistan and the
Taliban. Where the money is stolen—and I call it stolen; the Saudis might
not—is in construction and defense contracts. You pay commissions of 20-40
percent for arms deals. That's divided among senior princes in the royal
family and commission agents. The same thing happens in
construction. When they rebuilt Mecca and Medina, they were overpaying for
projects and the money went into the royal family, into the bin Laden family,
into the bin Mahfouz family. I mean, what's a commission? If you get 40
percent on a deal, it seems like bribery to me. And the royal family divides
these commissions up, which supplements money they get in their allowances.
You mention in
the article that
these allowances range anywhere from $19,000-270,000 per month.
Those are the
stipends, which are perfectly open and legal—and expected. But it's over
and above that that they are getting the commissions from construction and
For people who
are living on that amount of money, is oil really a curse? Could they really go
back to the desert?
think they could. I'd hate to live in Saudi Arabia without air
conditioning if I'd grown up with it. No, they couldn't. I
don't think most Saudis would survive without oil money, but the problem
is now they believe that they can. The question is, What percentage of Saudis
believe it? Once you start hitting the high numbers like sixty or seventy
percent, you're ripe for a revolution.
Could you talk
a little bit about the current relationship between the House of Saud and
Wahhabism—the fundamentalist Islamic movement gaining strength in Saudi
Arabia? In the article you mention that the connection dates back to the
eighteenth century, when Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of the movement,
and Muhammad ibn Saud, of the House of Saud, cemented their relationship with a
deal that "the Saud family would provide the generals, and the Wahhabis
would provide the foot soldiers."
Saudi Arabia is a
very conservative society and it has always been conservative. And the royal
family depends upon the Wahhabis and these conservative religious groups. What
the royal family did over the years was give them a lot of money, encourage
them, give them mosques, give them an educational system, with the primary
schools and the mosque schools, in return for not criticizing the royal family.
Eventually, in the sixties and seventies, they gave them money to expand
Wahhabi Islam, which spread into Central Asia, North Africa, and beyond. It
was a payoff for turning the other way when it came to the Saudi royal family.
starting to change now?
No. I don't
think they can
change it. These people are powerful. Somebody recruited those fifteen Saudis.
Not all of them were recruited in Afghanistan and they weren't
recruited in Europe. They were recruited in Saudi Arabia. They joined this bin
Laden movement there.
there some aspects of that movement that do call for the overthrow of the royal
Sure, sure they
do. Because they think it's corrupt. It's corrupt because
it's made an alliance with the United States, because of money,
things like that.
seen a lot in the news during the past few months about the idea that toppling
Saddam Hussein might lead to a domino effect in the Middle East. Could that
happen in Saudi Arabia? Would it ever be allowed to happen?
A domino effect?
Sure. We crossed a threshold when we invaded Iraq. All bets are off. The
obvious is no longer obvious. But again, it's all in the timing.
Everybody thought that the terrorism would start when the first bombs fell on
Iraq; it took two months. When are we going to see the unintended consequences
of this war? I don't know. The Saudi royal family is trying to make
reforms very quickly, but it's going to be too little, too late.
What kind of
reforms are they trying to push through right now?
created a pseudo-parliament, to give people some measure of representation. But
what are they going to do with the radicals, who say "Let's break
relations with the United States, let's stop pumping so much oil,
let's raise the price of oil, and let's support a jihad in Iraq
against American troops"? The Saudi royal family is never going to let
they are governing a country that is at a complete disconnect with the life
they are leading and the foreign policy they are pursuing.
Yes. These huge
contradictions—we're starting to see the fissures resulting from them
now. Again, I emphasize, we don't know how bad it is, but based on the
closing of the embassies today and based on the attack in Riyadh, I think the
scenario is speeding up.
In the article
you say that Crown Prince Abdullah has called for "democratic reforms,
the reining in of the conservative clergy, and military disengagement from the
United States." Where does he stand in the eyes of others in Saudi Arabia
as a result of those views?
popular, I believe. He's taken a strong position on reforms, on cutting
back the princes' stipend, on the corruption. He's aware of the
problems. He just hasn't been able to get a consensus inside the royal
Some of the
behaviors of the Saudi princes just seem purely criminal in nature. Would
there ever be any sort of popular uprising against the princes'
I'm afraid of. I'm hearing that the National Guard, which is a
tribal group, is fighting against Saudi Arabia's connection to the West.
Is that going to spread to the rest of the military? Are they going to turn
against the royal family? I don't know. But it's something we
shouldn't rule out.
About a third of the Saudi Arabian population is composed of foreign
nationals, and they seem to be the ones who keep that economy functioning. What
kind of effect does that have on the society? If Saudi Arabia were ever to find
itself in a situation where these workers didn't have jobs or decided to
leave en masse, what effect would that have in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the
If they got up
and left, the whole economy would collapse. They're the engineers, they
run things. A lot of Saudis are not equipped to run their water-purification
plants and things like that. But I think that what we are talking about
is the Americans leaving or the British leaving, rather than the Pakistanis, who
are Muslims, of course, or the Bangladeshis. If the Americans all left, it
would be a catastrophe, but not like if all 6 million foreign nationals
You talk about
the Washington establishment's proposed solutions: for the royal family to cede
part of its authority, support reform-minded princes, set up a model
parliament, and co-opt firebrands by giving them political office, etc. Do you think any of
these suggestions are enough?
democratic reforms? No. Because the problem is that the country would be like
Algeria and would vote in an Islamic government. Everything I've seen
suggests that. And it's something we couldn't live with right now,
because that would be entirely unpredictable.
the Washington establishment, are there any real plans to implement these kind
of suggestions, or is it enough to have the suggestions at all?
not enough to just have suggestions. And it's not enough to pull our
troops out. I don't know what you do to fix it now. I would say
you're going to have to start by doing something serious about
Israel and the Palestinians. The problem is that going into Iraq, the way the
Saudi in the street looks at it, was an invasion of an Islamic country. We
decided, for whatever reason, to ignore that. Can we turn back this wave by
military force? It depends on how bad things are in the Islamic world. But
it's a risky strategy.
How long do
you think we have before we start to see Saudi Arabia fall apart from all of
The smart people
tell me that in three or four years we're going to see some big change in
Saudi Arabia. Now, it may be a change in succession, an Islamic government, or
a complete distancing of the country from the United States.
Any of those
changes could radically alter the world.
Yes. We should
have contingency plans, if that occurs. If we see an Iranian-style revolution
occur there, what do we do about the oil? Can we afford to lose Saudi
Arabia's oil production? We can't rule it out that they might just
close it down. Or that a completely nutty group might get a hold of the oil
facilities and destroy them.
Do you think
the most recent events—the withdrawal of troops and the bombings—are
going to serve as a wake-up call to either the Saudi family or the Bush
I think they
have. The fact that we've closed the embassy down, it's clear to me
that they're saying, "Hey, things are bad there and we have to do
something about it."
What do you think? Join the conversation in the Foreign Affairs conference of Post & Riposte.
More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Elizabeth Shelburne is a staff editor at The Atlantic.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.