Until 9/11, most Americans paid little attention to how the Kingdom
of Saudi Arabia was run. But in the aftermath of the attacks, America
awoke to some difficult truths about its longtime ally: for decades,
Saudi wealth and charities supported individuals and organizations
dedicated to doing America harm, and its universities and religious
schools—known as madrassas—prepared countless young men for
jihad against the West.
Today, Saudi television broadcasts programs where children read poems
against Jews and in praise of Islamic martyrs. Recently twenty-six Saudi
clerics, among them, Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, issued a
fatwa, or edict, encouraging Muslims to fight the Americans in Iraq.
And in December 2004, gunmen attacked the American consulate in
"Investigating the history of U.S.-Saudi relations, it
quickly becomes clear that this is an alliance built on quicksand," says
co-producer Martin Smith, who has reported from the region for previous
FRONTLINE films including "Saudi Time Bomb?" and "In Search of
It was Franklin Roosevelt, seen in rare archival footage conducting a
top-secret World War II meeting with Saudi King Abd al-Aziz on board the
USS Quincy, who established the basic principles behind the
"America struck a pact with Saudi Arabia, and the deal was very
simple," says Youssef Ibrahim, former Middle East bureau chief
for The New York Times. "You give us oil at cheap prices, and we
will give you protection. This protection eventually evolved into an
American hegemony over the entire Gulf region, that this was an American
area of influence, and in return for this it shall be protected from all
As history shows, this agreement between Saudi
Arabia's royal family and the U.S government has been challenged time
and again by Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist Islamic population, who
distrust American influence and intention and oppose America's alliance
Resentment against the royal family also grew
following the oil embargo of 1973, when massive amounts of
wealth—and an influx of Western goods and services—
challenged Saudi Arabia's deeply religious and traditional society.
In 1979, the region erupted. In nearby Iran, Islamic fundamentalists
overthrew the Shah in a bitterly anti-American revolution. That same
year, a band of militants in Saudi Arabia attacked and occupied the
holiest of Islam's holy shrines, the Mosque of Mecca. After a bloody
twenty-one day siege, the militants were defeated and sixty-three were
beheaded. "It was a warning bell that the ship of state had drifted,"
says Islamic cleric Nasser al Omar.
Desperate to maintain leadership, the royal family reacted
"We killed the extremists of 1979," says liberal Saudi Arabian
columnist Sulaiman al-Hattlan. "But a few months later we adopted
their ideology. We gave them what they wanted. We started competing on
how to appear more conservative just to protect our reputation."
"House of Saud" also tells the story of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of
Kuwait and the arrival in the kingdom of American troops to fight the
war against Saddam.
"As the American forces started coming in, there were voices that
spoke of an invasion by these people," says Khaled Al Maeena,
editor-in-chief of Arab News. "[They said] they're defiling the
country…they will make us change our religion, or…make us
doubt our way of life."
When Iraq was driven from Kuwait, U.S. troops remained in Saudi
Arabia. The presence of U.S. troops became the chief rallying cry for
the most famous of all Saudis, Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden's anti-American and anti-royal fatwas struck a note with
many Saudis. And after 9/11, American attitudes changed as well.
"When it became clear that fifteen of the nineteen [terrorists] were
Saudis, that was a disaster," says Adel Al-Jubeir, foreign affairs
advisor to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. "Bin Laden, at that
moment, had made in the minds of Americans Saudi Arabia into an enemy."
Offering context and perspective for understanding the country of
Saudi Arabia in 2005, this report also illuminates the challenges this
nation faces in the future.