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the u.s.-saudi relationship
The 9/11 terror attack (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis), the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Iraq war, the U.S's call for greater reform in the kingdom -- all have strained the sixty-year-old U.S.-Saudi alliance. Here, discussing the tensions and offering some larger thoughts on how the two countries can go forward, are former U.S. ambassador Robert Jordan, journalist Robert Lacey, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, and Saudi attorney and reform activist Bassim Alim.

Robert Jordan
U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 2001-2003.

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…There must have been some complaints that you heard from the royal family about the consequences of the [Iraq] war.

I'll never forget being told by some members of the royal family, "Mr. Ambassador, please don't win Iraq and lose Saudi Arabia." I think they meant that there was a great possibility that if they supported us in the way we needed and the way I think they were inclined to support us, that it could destabilize the regime. That it could lead to, frankly, some of the terrorist activity we've seen in Saudi Arabia. It would further alienate the arch conservatives and the Islamist extremists from the royal family and from the government.

And so we really have seen the Saudis take a major risk in order to support what we needed to have done there. And I think ultimately they will get the credit they deserve for having supported us at a very difficult time for us and for them.

Those concerns have come true?

To some degree. And that's why we need to not turn our backs on them right now, but to assist in fighting these terrorist threats both to their regime and to peace in the region. ...

…. There are many neoconservatives who advocated for the war in Iraq in order to put pressure on the Saudi royal family to modernize.

Well, the Saudis will feel pressure only when there is a viable Iraq that shows they can have an economically viable and a politically viable society that can be successful. I think at that point they will feel some pressure. They will also feel some encouragement and I would say relief, because it may further legitimize the efforts of the reformers. But if there's simply chaos in Iraq and a failed state, then that really gives aid and comfort to those who resist reform and to those who would prefer to have a very eighth- or ninth-century kind of culture in Saudi Arabia.

So it's correct to say that there is a battle inside Saudi Arabia over the war in Iraq?

Oh, absolutely -- not just the war in Iraq, but on a broader scale of relationships with the West. How do they deal with their religion? I think they're much more focused on how to deal with the intolerance and hatred that so many of their children have been taught over the last 20 or 30 years. And how do you accommodate that in a globalized world, where you have to have interaction with the rest of the world, including interaction with infidels? You have to have foreign investment. You have to have foreigners being able to travel in the country safely. And so there are enormous challenges for Saudi Arabia right now. ...

The conservative nature of the culture is something that I tried to respect. And in many ways there's a lot to respect. They value family; they value peace; they value a low-key kind of lifestyle. Yet at the same time, they have a completely different view of the role of women, a completely different view of the role of religion. And so it's both a fascinating and a frustrating kind of place to deal with.

… One of the challenges for America is we're so unpopular over there right now with the people, that the more we publicly praise or encourage what goes, the more that could be the kiss of death. So we've got to find ways to be very careful about how we provide support. But at least let it be known at the most senior levels that these kinds of fatwas and these kinds of statements [from the hardline Saudi Islamists] are absolutely poisonous to the relationship.

Robert Lacey
Author of The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud.

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…. Saudi Arabia doesn't fit very easily into a black and white world ... of clear distinction between good and evil. The very word Saudi itself can mean so many things to different people. You talk about the fifteen Saudis of 9/11, and that in some way discredits the Saudis who are running the country and who are as much victims and opponents of Al Qaeda as America itself.

Living with Saudi Arabia, for the West, is a matter of living with uncertainty and not getting automatically what you want. When you look at Saudi elections and you see no women are voting, and no women candidates are allowed to stand, and only 10 percent or 20 percent of the seats are open to election, there's no point in throwing up your hands at that. Look at it positively. It is the first election ever being held in this country. Once it wasn't possible to put "Saudi Arabia" and "elections" into the same sentence.

You've got to create an election culture in a country like this; you've got to get people used to voting, and given the way in which ... women have been seen for centuries, you can't achieve that overnight. It's certainly a better way of achieving an election culture in most people's opinion that sending an army of 150,000 in with guns and forcing people to the ballot box. It would be interesting to see which way is more rooted and actually develops out of the culture from which it from it's springing.

Prince Saud al Faisal
Saudi Foreign Minister.

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… Did you feel disappointment when you saw the United States going off [focusing on the Palestinian-Israeli] issue to become preoccupied with the invasion of Iraq? It was only a few months after [the Bush-Crown Prince Abduallah meeting] that they began to make the case publicly for the invasion of Iraq, in the fall of 2002. So I assume it was somewhere on the agenda there in Crawford, Texas?

I thought that had the Palestinian problem been worked out as a priority, things wouldn't have gone the way they have. ...

It is a political problem. For too long, the Arab world and the Islamic world have seen the bias of the West's promises. They have come to accept that the West and particularly the United States have a stake in the security and safety of Israel.

Having said that, what the Arab and Muslim countries cannot fathom is how this turns into backing the indiscriminate policy of Israel against the Palestinian people. …

What's the response that you get when you express this to your counterparts in Washington?

Not a response to me directly. ... Needless to say, the policy that they tell you is that the Palestinians have to stop terrorism, reform their system, and all the rest of the position that is taken against the Palestinian[s]. …

So where does this, at the end of the day, leave this Saudi-U.S. relationship that goes so many years back, to the 1945 U.S.S. Quincy meeting? Where does this relationship stand today?

The relationship is, I think, a strong relationship with the government. We have a very important and good working relationship in terms of public opinion in both countries. A great deal has to be done to explain and to return to the health of the relationship as it was before.

But this is the duty of both of our governments to do. I think we cannot return to a healthy relationship, even though we try, until the basic ill, the poison that festers in the region is solved. And that's the Palestinian question.

bassim alim

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…What is the reaction inside Saudi Arabia after 9/11?

... Let me put it this way: I might hate someone's guts, but I will not condone his murder. If by chance he was hit by a bus and passed away, I wouldn't cry for him, you see? And this is the kind of feeling that took place in a segment of the society [regarding the attacks of Sept. 11].

Another segment was extremely worried person[ally] because of their own interests in America and Europe. The government was, of course, dramatically worried because of the participation of the Saudis in that attack.

[Saudi] society is just like any other society. You have different people, from the very extreme to the very liberal. But after a while you find that everything sort of faded away, and everyone in society came together in a common anger against the United States. Whether it's right, whether it's wrong, the U.S. reaction made it easy for everyone to have a common view that the U.S. is just looking for an excuse. The U.S. is a country of a racist regime, and they are not fair with us.

I [knew] somebody who spent half the year living in the States, who has a summer home there and another home somewhere in a ski resort. He loved going there every two or three weeks. I was shocked when I heard him -- and he's one of my clients -- saying, "I'm not going there anymore." It's that dramatic.

So there are people that rejoice in this. I mean, rejoice [is] perhaps too strong, but [they] are not unhappy about what has happened. Why is there this anger [toward] America?

…America is king everywhere. [America] is giving us a hard time everywhere. So if this happened to America, we will not stand up and say [that] we are the defenders of America and this should not happen. We know it should not happen, but they're not going to cry over it. It's this kind of feeling that took place amongst a certain segment of society at the beginning.

[At] this stage, many segments of society are actually quite entrenched in being opposed to America as an idea. They are dismayed; they are disillusioned by America. We thought that you really meant what you said in your constitution, all these issues of freedom and rights and carrying the banner of human rights, and the Wilsonian doctrine -- it all went out the window because of 3,000 people?

It's a significant number, but there are hundreds of thousands who are dying all over …. Look how many died in Palestine, in Iraq, for all these years when Saddam Hussein was ruling Iraq -- [who], by the way, was supported by America -- and you didn't shed a tear. You only shed tears when it starts affecting your own policies, your own interests. In the Arab world, that's not right. You don't look at your interests alone. If you claim something, you have to be fair. It has to be an equal ruling for you and for me.

What are the consequences politically, socially, inside the kingdom of [the attacks of] 9/11? ...

I think there was a sense from the West and from America telling us, and telling everybody else in the area: "You've got to reform. This [happened] because [of] a lack of reformation. This is because [of] the austere philosophy that you have." And yes, the governments in the area started this so-called preparation for reformation, OK?

And then the States invaded Iraq, and people were extremely worried that after Iraq was finished and done with, the United States would turn its head and start targeting countries like Saudi Arabia, like Syria, like Egypt, Iran. But I think God blessed these governments with something called the Iraqi resistance, and it's the only thing that engulfed America and made it step away for a while from its previous intentions. It was then and only then that the government said: "All right, we can also roll back as long as the pressure is away from us right now. We can roll back and take things [back] to their old ways."

In other words, "We can roll back our efforts at reform"?

Yes.

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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