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Bush Visit, Arms Deal Put Focus on U.S.-Saudi Relations

January 14, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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President Bush made his first trip to Saudi Arabia on Monday in a bid to gain support for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, while the White House announced a $20 billion weapons deal with the powerful Saudi kingdom. Experts examine the state of U.S.-Saudi relations.
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RAY SUAREZ: It was the president’s first visit to the Saudi kingdom, a longtime U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Mr. Bush was greeted by King Abdullah, leader of the Arab world’s richest country. The kingdom produces nearly a third of the world’s oil, now nearing $100 a barrel.

President Bush raised concerns about the rising cost of oil during his meetings in the gulf.

The presidential trip to Riyadh came on the same day the Bush administration notified Congress of a $20 billion arms sale to the Saudis. It includes precision-guided bombs.

Arms deals with the Saudis and other gulf states are meant to bolster defenses against Iran, Saudi Arabia’s Shiite neighbor to the north.

Mr. Bush urged the Gulf states to mobilize against Iran yesterday on a stop in the United Arab Emirates.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere, so the United States is strengthening our longstanding security commitments with our friends in the gulf and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Bush also sought Saudi support for his Middle East peace plan after meeting with both Israelis and Palestinians last week. The president has predicted there will be a Middle East peace treaty before he leaves office.

Addressing the threat of Iran

Thomas Lippman
Middle East Institute
The Saudis have kind of a two-pronged policy, in which they are, indeed, apprehensive about Iranian ambitions in the region and about the nuclear program, but they don't want a confrontational relationship with Iran.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the president's visit and the state of U.S.-Saudi ties, we turn to two people with extensive knowledge of the kingdom.

Robert Baer spent 21 years as a caseworker for the CIA, much of that time focused on Saudi Arabia. He's now the intelligence columnist for Time.com.

And Thomas Lippman is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and the former Middle East bureau chief for the Washington Post. He was last in Saudi Arabia in May.

Robert Baer, here we have two heads of state meeting. What was the number-one agenda item for the two countries?

ROBERT BAER, Former CIA Officer: It was Iran. It was Iran, Iran, Iran.

Iran has got the largest military force in the gulf. It has a very friendly government in Baghdad. And the Saudis are worried, what's going to happen next? What happens if we give up in Iraq and it's faced with a couple dominos falling in the gulf?

RAY SUAREZ: Thomas Lippman, with all the two have to talk about, do you agree it was Iran, Iran, Iran, as Robert Baer suggested?

TOM LIPPMAN, Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute: Well, I agree that Iran was very much on the agenda. The problem is that Saudi Arabia and the United States don't see eye-to-eye on that topic.

The Saudis have kind of a two-pronged policy, in which they are, indeed, apprehensive about Iranian ambitions in the region and about the nuclear program, but they don't want a confrontational relationship with Iran. They want stability and cooperation in the region. And they are not buying into an American program of containment of Iran.

Differing policy stances

Robert Baer
Former CIA Official
You have a problem here, as the Saudis don't trust us anymore after the war in Iraq. It doesn't trust our analysis of the region, what we're going to do next.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Baer, do you agree? Does the Saudi kingdom have a very different approach to Iran than the United States?

ROBERT BAER: Absolutely, I agree with Dr. Lippman. You have a problem here, as the Saudis don't trust us anymore after the war in Iraq. It doesn't trust our analysis of the region, what we're going to do next.

And if we were to go in, for instance, and hit nuclear facilities, that wouldn't be enough, because the Iranians would retaliate against Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states. And what would we do next?

They have to live with Iran. It's a dangerous neighborhood. And they're by no means going to join an active, aggressive containment policy.

RAY SUAREZ: In fact, Robert Baer, haven't we seen the Saudis recently trying to reach out to the Ahmadinejad government?

ROBERT BAER: Absolutely. We've had visits back and forth. We have Naif, the interior minister, is going to Tehran often, telling the Iranians, "No, we are not going to aggressively, you know, do anything against you in Iraq or anywhere else. And we are worried about the Americans, as well."

I mean, but the Saudis are in a very bad position right now. And they're trying to play off both sides.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it such a bad position, Tom Lippman?

TOM LIPPMAN: Well, it's a difficult position politically. And it's also a difficult position strategically for Saudi Arabia, because they cannot match the manpower of the Iranians and, at the same time, they have serious business to do with Iran.

They're two of the leading members of OPEC. They want cooperation on oil matters.

The Saudis don't want an open breach with the United States. You saw how generous the welcome.

But they also were blindsided by that National Intelligence Estimate about the Iranian nuclear program. They're confused about what the Americans are really up to here. They are, indeed, in a difficult position.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it further complicated, Thomas Lippman, by the fact that there's a growing Shia minority in the region, in fact, in some of the Gulf states, even a majority?

TOM LIPPMAN: Well, the Shia issue is one that the Saudis have been very concerned about. Saudi Arabia's largest minority is a Shia Muslim community in its eastern province, where the oil is.

King Abdullah has reached out to the Shiites, who many of his countrymen regard as apostates and non-Muslims. And the rise of Iran, the world's preeminent Shiite power, is part of Saudi Arabia's concern here.

They don't want a pan-Arab or pan-regional Shia rising that would threaten their pre-eminence in Islam.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

Thomas Lippman
Middle East Institute
Saudi Arabia is a grown-up, mature country now, with its own interests and its own ways to pursue them. It's not the kind of relationship that it was in the past, nor, indeed, do I think it should be.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Baer, given what both of you are saying, is it fair to conclude that worries about Iran have pushed down what was often the number-one agenda in Saudi-U.S. talks, the Israel and Palestine question, further down the list?

ROBERT BAER: Oh, I think absolutely. But, you know, at the end of the day, what the Saudis are worried about is that we go to Tehran and cut a deal, and Saudi Arabia then falls to a second-rate position in its relations with the United States.

As crazy as Ahmadinejad sounds, Iran has been helping in Iraq. General Petraeus has said that the Iranians have helped and so has David Satterfield, the assistant secretary of state.

So the Iranians can be reasonable. And the question is, will there be an opening like there was an opening to China to Iran? And I don't exclude that possibility.

RAY SUAREZ: How would you assess, Thomas Lippman, the overall health of the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?

TOM LIPPMAN: The overall health of the relationship is one in which the two countries need each other, will continue to cooperate on matters of mutual interest, including terrorism.

It is not the kind of relationship that it was historically for 60 years, in which essentially we took care of security in the region and the Saudis made economic deals with the United States.

Saudi Arabia is a grown-up, mature country now, with its own interests and its own ways to pursue them. It's not the kind of relationship that it was in the past, nor, indeed, do I think it should be.

Assessing future relations

Robert Baer
Former CIA Official
The Saudis have definitely burned by their own terrorism, and they've changed course, and they're doing the best they can, but this cannot be done overnight.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned terrorism briefly. Did a terrorism attack on Saudi soil change the American view of how engaged the Saudis are? Do they believe at the State Department, in the White House that the Saudis are on the same side that we are?

TOM LIPPMAN: Well, the senior officials of the Bush administration have said publicly and have testified repeatedly before Congress that the Saudi government and the leaders of the country, the royal family, are, indeed, part of the solution and not part of the problem on this subject.

Whether they have done enough to control the flow of money, for example, from their own people into certain organizations, whether they've done enough to change public attitudes in Saudi Arabia, that's a separate matter, and I don't believe we're there yet.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you think, Robert Baer?

ROBERT BAER: We're not there yet. The Saudis have definitely burned by their own terrorism, and they've changed course, and they're doing the best they can, but this cannot be done overnight.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how do they proceed forward when there's always new regional threats sort of being thrown on top of the pile? How do you tend both parts of the relationship at the same time?

ROBERT BAER: Well, I think one of the major problems right now is Iraq. If the Shia start killing Sunni, the Saudis will have to react. They will have to fund Sunni radicals in Iraq.

And I think the closer we get to calming that situation down completely, we'll calm down this very radical, tuqtheria movement (ph) in Saudi Arabia, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Tom Lippman, they will have to start funding Sunni groups to defend themselves?

TOM LIPPMAN: Well, this is a very interesting matter. About 18 months ago, a well-known Saudi, who was a consultant to the Saudi Arabian embassy, wrote an op-ed in which he said in so many words that, if the Saudis have to, they will go into Iraq on behalf of their Sunni colleagues there.

He was repudiated, but a lot of people believed that that's true. But now the situation is complicated by the fact that, as Robert Baer said, the Saudis not only fear there could be a deal between the United States and Iran; they fear there has already been a deal in which the Iranians will make less trouble in Iraq and we will back off on the nuclear issue, as reflected in the NIE.

These waters get murkier all the time.

RAY SUAREZ: Thomas Lippman, Robert Baer, gentlemen, thank you both.

ROBERT BAER: Thank you.

TOM LIPPMAN: A pleasure.