Saudi Arabia: Friend Or Foe?
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RAY SUAREZ: For decades the United States has considered Saudi Arabia one of its most valuable allies in the oil-rich region of the Middle East.
But since the September 11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers turned out to be Saudi nationals, those ties has come under new strains. The U.S.-Saudi relationship received a new jolt last week.
The Washington Post reported details of a classified briefing made to a Pentagon advisory committee known as the Defense policy board. The briefing was delivered by Laurent Murawiec, an analyst for RAND, a research organization. It reportedly characterized Saudi Arabia as an enemy of the U.S.
The analysis said: “Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies. The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planner to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader.”
“The Saudis,” he went on to say, are “the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent” in the Middle East.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked about the analyst’s report at a meeting with Pentagon personnel.
DONALD RUMSFELD: He had an opinion, and of course everyone has a right to their opinion. It did not represent the views of the government, it didn’t represent the views of the Defense Policy Board. And, of course, Saudi Arabia is like any other country– it has a broad spectrum of activities and things, some of which, obviously, just like our country, that we agree with and some we may not. And it is, nonetheless, a country where we have a lot of forces located, and we have had a long relationship.
RAY SUAREZ: The Saudi government went on U.S. television to respond to the report as well, and insisted it was cracking down on terrorism. The most recent example of that, it said, was Iran’s recent expulsion and return of 16 alleged Saudi al-Qaida members to Saudi Arabia.
PRINCE SAUD AL-FAISAL: Is this something that is believable to the committee and suddenly Saudi Arabia, that was considered a staunch ally ten years ago and even four years ago, suddenly turned into the “kernel of evil” that spreads evil all over the place?
RAY SUAREZ: But some American politicians said they are concerned about what they see as a growing conflict for American interests.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R-Tenn.): It’s a complex relationship. They’re our friends, but it’s a marriage of convenience right now. They need us; we need them. We have to get off our dependence on foreign oil. Until that time, we’re going to need each other. But they are the hotbed and they are the center of the religious extremism that’s caused us so much trouble.
RAY SUAREZ: Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam.
It’s home to 22 million people and to the great mosques in Mecca and Medina. The government only allows one form of Islam, known as Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia controls 25 percent of the world’s known oil reserves, and even now accounts for 8 percent of American oil imports, far less than the 25 percent it comprised in the 1970s.
RAY SUAREZ: Now two views about U.S.-Saudi relations.
Retired Colonel Patrick Lang was a defense attaché in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s and was the Defense Intelligence Agency’s officer for the Middle East, South Asia, and terrorism from 1985 to 1992. He is now a consultant. Youssef Ibrahim is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before that, he was a vice president at the oil company B.P. Amoco. From 1976 to 1996 he was a New York Times correspondent covering the Middle East and then Europe.
In view of Senator Fred Thompson, a marriage of convenience and in view of the Pentagon briefer, the most dangerous opponent.. Patrick Lang, what is the state of U.S.-Saudi relations?
COL. PATRICK LANG (Ret.): Well, It’s been a longstanding marriage of convenience.
It started back in the 1940s, and it persisted al through the Cold War as a matter of great convenience to the United States. Because of the alliance with Saudi Arabians pretty much ensured the fact that Soviet influence would not spread over the Arabian Peninsula.
Trouble is the world has changed now and their internal behavior and their link with the cult of Wahhabism, which is perhaps the most extreme form of Islamic zealotry. It has caused them to become associated with people across the world who wish to attack the West, in particular the United States. They don’t seem to be doing much about that and that has irritated a great many Americans.
RAY SUAREZ: Youssef Ibrahim, same question. What is the state of U.S.-Saudi relations?
YOUSSEF IBRAHIM: I think it’s kind of heading towards a divorce.
It’s on a collision course driven by two things, from our side it’s the politics of anger because of September 11, and from the Saudi side it’s become the politics of fear. I think the Saudi government has become convinced that we are bent on overthrowing their regime, the vitriolic campaign that has been conducted against Saudi Arabia and is still going on by the Defense Department particularly has convinced them that we are on a collision course.
Now my issue is this, is very simple. Is it in our national interest, it may very well be so. But it should be a conclusion that we reach after a proper national debate instead of leaks by the Defense Department and unknown analysts and the group of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Perle and [inaudible].
I think our policy towards the Arab world in general is heading towards a collision course. But before we get there, and we may very well need to get there, I think the Congress, the Senate, our academic community, and our society should be involved. This is, after all, 250 million Arabs and beyond that 1.2 billion Muslims.
Before we engage in a fight with all of these people, we better make sure that it is in our national interest.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what’s behind that turning away from longstanding alliance? You mentioned the Defense Department, you mention leaks and vitriol. It didn’t come out of nowhere.
Where did it start?
YOUSSEF IBRAHIM: Well, of course it started with September 11. And of course it started with the fact that we were attacked. And we were attacked by a group of people headed by Osama bin Laden, and the majority of these people in those planes were Saudi citizens. There is no denial of this.
Now, does this mean that the Saudi nation is our enemy? I mean, we have in this country a lot of Christian fundamentalists, our attorney general is a Christian fundamentalist, Ashcroft. They are against abortion, some of them actually shoot and kill doctors in abortion clinics. Does this make all Christian fundamentalists criminals? Does it mean we have to wage war against all Christian fundamentalists?
I think we are losing the point here in this campaign that has gone, as they say in Britain, a bit over the top. We need to discuss this issue rationally. Is Saudi Arabia, who has been our ally with 60 years, who has supplied us with oil, has kept the price of oil under control, who has resisted the radicals in OPEC, who has purchased weapons with us, who has given us 3,000 permissions when we conducted the war against Afghanistan to fly over Saudi territories — isn’t really our enemy.
RAY SUAREZ: Patrick Lang, over the top?
COL. PATRICK LANG (Ret.): Well, the language may have been over the top, I haven’t seen the briefing.
But in fact, the alliance with Saudi Arabia — although it’s been extremely useful to the United States over the previous decades — may in fact have run its course. We may be in the early stages of seeing that, because I think even in the government of the United States generally where there is a tendency through inertia to continue in relationships that may have changed over a long period of time there’s a real questioning now as to what it is indeed that our relation amounts to.
You look at things like the use of government money in Saudi Arabia to run religiously oriented universities who train people in Wahhabi theology who go forth through the world to create organizations inimical the United States and the West. You look at the lack of cooperation with the Saudi government with the FBI or the Al Khobar barracks bombing in 1996 when we were never allowed access to the prisoners and suspects they had — you look at many of the people, and many of the government see is really a very grudging and minimal cooperation in the war in Afghanistan — these things all cause real questions to be asked about the value of this relationship.
Now we have Prince Saud al-Faisal himself, the foreign minister, saying that under no circumstances will they be a party to whatever it is we feel we must do against Iraq. People begin to ask themselves, is this in fact an alliance.
RAY SUAREZ: Youssef Ibrahim, is it, in fact, an ally, given the bill of particulars that Patrick Lang just read out?
YOUSSEF IBRAHIM: Yes, it is an alliance, because in an alliance the ally doesn’t have to agree with every one of your policies.
For example, nobody, and I mean nobody around the world agrees with our, the Defense Department, I should say — this cabal in the Defense Department run by Rumsfeld and Richard Perle — that wants to attack Iraq.
Our closest ally, and all the allies in this enterprise, Tony Blair, two out of three Britons are opposed to an attack on Iraq. Outside of this, all the Europeans are opposed to it; all the Arabs are opposed to it. Is it possible that they are right and we are wrong? I mean, shouldn’t we at least ask that question?
If the Saudis say we don’t feel Iraq is a threat to us, and if the Kuwaitis say we don’t feel Iraq is is a threat to us, why are we carrying on this campaign, at least without having a dialogue about it? Shouldn’t our American nation be involved in having a dialogue about this… instead of having the Defense Department simply go to war?
I mean we’re going to war, we’re going into a system of changing regimes. We had one experience in Afghanistan, by the way. I would like to argue that our experience in Afghanistan is not a brilliant success. We went to Afghanistan to look for bin Laden and we lost him. Then we looked for Mullah Omar and we lost him. Then we said we were looking for the Taliban and they disappeared in the population. And that left us with al-Qaida, we’ve rounded up 2,000 people from al-Qaida. Not a single one of them is important. And we have a president who is a puppet; we are paying bribes to the vultures who are the tribal chiefs to leave him alone, to leave him alive. I wouldn’t call this a success.
We’re proposing to take that experience and take it to Iraq, upset the whole region of stability of the region, perhaps upset the oil prices in a way that could harm the world economy, when our own economy is in a downward spiral. I would say, yeah, I mean maybe they have a point. Maybe they don’t want to be used as a launching pad and maybe we should debate this.
RAY SUAREZ: But you note that Saudi Arabia parts company like a lot of other countries with the United States over the Iraq policy.
But what about Patrick Lang’s point about exporting a particular brand of Islamic activism through a series of mosques, clerics who travel freely from Saudi Arabia to other parts of the Arab world and to the United States, support for the Taliban, a refusal to allow certain operations to be staged from Saudi soil? You didn’t answer the other points – just the one about Iraq.
YOUSSEF IBRAHIM: Yes. I think we should engage them on this, and we should ask them to stop, but we should also remember that bin Laden first and primary enemy was the Saudi royal family. And we should also remember that half of Saudi Arabia — middle class, the business community, and the royal family itself — hates fundamentalists, and this is the time in fact for us to engage with this half in defeating extremist Muslim fundamentalists.
I would actually argue that the bin Laden attack could mark the beginning of the end of extreme Muslim fundamental fundamentalism. But it’s not going to happen by us telling every government in the region that we’re coming to change them. I mean, we’ve pretty much told Iran we’re coming after them, after Iraq. And we told the Palestinians – Arafat, that we want to get rid of him. Instead of challenging everybody, why don’t we engage with the elements of secular civil society, in the Arab world, which have long opposed fundamentalism.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me just turn to Patrick Lang at that point and ask if that’s possible, that approach in Saudi Arabia.
COL. PATRICK LANG (Ret.): I read Youssef’s article in the paper the other day and I think the point he’s describing now was by far the most interesting and really intriguing thing about it in that I think that an awful lot of the hostility that’s being directed toward us and to the West in general is a result of the deep frustrations of the people in these countries against tyrannical, despotic regimes that limit their freedom of action, the scope of their lives in a big way.
I think what we’ve done and what President Bush did in particular by stating that the standard that the American government expects in Arabia for people to live under a democracy and freedom, is a very important thing — it means a revolutionary development. If it followed up by the creation of some sort of government for Afghanistan and Iraq in the post-war environment, which embodies something of those ideals, you will have truly created a revolutionary situation.
RAY SUAREZ: Patrick Lang, Youssef Ibrahim, thank you both.