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youssef m. ibrahim

Youssef M. Ibrahim was the New York Times' regional Middle East correspondent and bureau chief from 1986 to 1996. In this interview, he discusses the impact of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on Saudi-U.S. relations over the decades -- from the '67 Six-Day War and the '73 War that triggered Saudi Arabia's oil boycott, to Crown Prince Abdullah's letter to George W. Bush in August 2001 protesting a U.S. double standard in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He also talks about the pivotal consequences of the Saudi '75-'79 oil boom which he says "began the whole trend of Islamic radical fundamentalism in the Arab world." This interview was conducted in New York City on June 26, 2003 by producer Jihan El-Tahri.

Let's talk about the lead-up to OPEC's 1973-74 oil boycott.

This was a period when OPEC was coming into its own and was becoming a mature organization. We had Qaddafi come to power in Libya in 1969 and he began to talk about why is it that the oil companies own the oil in our countries? Why is it that the oil companies set the price of the oil?

So there was already a lot of rumblings about who owns the oil and whether we should own it or not. And then of course Qaddafi nationalized the American and other oil companies working in Libya and shortly afterwards, everybody began to follow.

The Saudis followed too, except they didn't call it nationalization, they simply -- with Exxon, Mobil, Chevron and Texaco -- gave them the amount of money for their equipment but kept a partnership with them. And then in the early 70's we entered a completely new era in which the oil countries owned their oil and therefore began to set the price of oil and OPEC was becoming a power to be reckoned with.

So it was a natural lead-up. They were beginning to feel the force of oil as a weapon as opposed to oil as a simple commodity that you sell and buy and other companies set the price for it.

When the dispute with Israel reached the point where Anwar Sadat had secretly taken the decision to go to war [in 1973] in order to liberate the Sinai and had made an agreement with the Syrians to also go to war to liberate the Golan, I think at that point Anwar Sadat went to King Faisal and asked him -- can you help us? And how can you help us? You can help us with the money. I think that's when the oil weapon became the Saudi contribution to that war.

So the Egyptians used actual weapons across the Canal, the Syrians attacked the Golan Heights and the Saudis, when they saw that the United States came to the help of Israel and was absolutely determined not to see Israel defeated, then they kicked in with the oil embargo.

photo of ibrahim
The constant drilling of the notion that America has a double standard that is completely pro-Israeli, totally anti-Palestinian, has somehow caught the imagination of most Arabs now.

The linkage between oil and the Arab-Israeli conflict became more and more evident after the massive 1967 defeat of the Arab countries by Israel, the Six-Day War, and the occupation of the entire West Bank, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. That defeat was a complete shock to an Arab world that was under the impression it could stand up to Israel.

And suddenly a lot of Arabs began to look around -- what could we do? What weapons do we possess? And slowly, over the next five years, by the time we get to 1973, oil clearly loomed as the economic weapon with an edge that could intimidate the West.

It is a very serious development. I'm not surprised at all when the Americans were told by the Saudis that [the oil boycott] is a possibility, that they [the Americans] didn't believe it. Because when you do this, you really take the entire American-Saudi relationship in your hands and you put it at risk and that is exactly what King Faisal did when he announced an oil embargo.

Until then, you just didn't fool around with trade relations and mix them with politics. The whole notion of sanctions was not really well known yet. In many ways you can say that this is the first dramatic sanction that was after World War II.

And why would that have put the relations between Saudi Arabia and America at risk?

Because this country is the largest consumer of oil in the world. It is the biggest industrialized country. But more importantly, because this country had a pact with Saudi Arabia that started with King Saud the Great and President Roosevelt, sixty years ago, you remember…

And the deal was very simple. 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 enemies.

And then that pact began to fall apart, as you know. First in `73 because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and eventually in 1979 when the Shah of Iran fell and Iran became an enemy of the United States, therefore threatening this whole hegemony on oil.

But how did the 1973 Arab-Israeli war affect Saudi Arabia?

I thing it politicized Saudi Arabia. I think it's the first instance where Saudi Arabia emerged with another dimension except that of America's loyal friend and reliable supplier of oil

In other words it was the first time Saudi Arabia came out from behind the veil and said we have a political agenda and we have the will to apply enough pressure to advance this agenda and in fact we have enough will to cut off the supply of oil to the United States of America. So it was, if you like, the first time this very docile Saudi Arabia appeared like a lion showing its teeth.

And what was the agenda?

The agenda was that King Faisal felt very strongly that the United States had a double standard and that it supported the continued occupation by Israel of Arab territories and he felt that America needed to pay attention to this.

And indeed the message certainly was adopted by Henry Kissinger who began immediately talks between Egypt and Israel and became personally committed in that chapter of diplomacy.

But he was not doing this only because the United States liked Anwar Sadat and liked his new agenda of becoming pro-American, but because it was very important to recover the original alliance with Saudi Arabia and not to see Saudi Arabia drift away from that sixty-year marriage with the United States.

Do you recall at the time there was talk of a military option? What was that story?

Well, there was more than that. At some point when the Egyptian and Syrian troops appeared to be almost in the first four days of the '73 war overwhelming Israeli forces and crossing the Canal successfully, taking the entire Golan Heights, I think the United States started an actual bridge flying in tanks. The tanks were landing with American markings and being repainted on the spot as Israeli tanks.

And ammunition was being flown. And this of course sent the message very clearly to the Egyptians that we are not going to let you prevail. Also, the Israelis were seriously, for a moment, considering using the atomic option.

The airlift … how did that affect King Faisal?

The airlift did not shake Faisal. King Faisal was … a very stubborn man.

Sadat was a very pragmatic man and then in the end of it, it was Sadat who stood more to lose. Sadat reached the conclusion, I'm not going to win that war, but I made my point and it is perhaps time since I made my point to talk to Henry Kissinger and say, "Listen, Henry, let's make a deal."

And then Sadat went to Faisal who was quite prepared to continue with this oil boycott and to carry on with the confrontation with the United States, and persuaded him that we have achieved our main strategy, which is to say we do not accept occupation, we want the Americans to be engaged in ending this occupation and we have the Americans' word that they will do this. If they don't deliver, we always have that oil option again. And I think he persuaded Faisal to stop the boycott, not the other way around.

You were saying just earlier that the Americans have to show vis-à-vis the Saudis, "Don't mess around with us, we have to prove our power." Can you tell me the things that they tried to show?

Well, five months of an oil boycott is a long time. Every industrialized Western country was deeply affected by this and the world economy was deeply shaken. I think Kissinger was trying to suggest to the Saudis that you made the point, but continuing with this becomes really a declaration of war.

And that it is hitting at the most vital interests of our economy and we may have no choice but to fight back because oil is the kind of commodity that you cannot trifle with.

Whether the United States would have ever used force or not in this case is not clear. But clearly the signal was sent out. In the same time the Saudis and the Egyptians were satisfied that they were taken seriously and the peace disengagement talks were underway. So basically, the three axes came together and all three parties decided they had made their points and it was time to back down.

Do you recall how the Saudis reacted to the insinuation of the use of force -- actually occupying the oil fields?

I think when the insinuation was made by the Americans that they might actually go as far as to occupy oil fields, there was disbelief in Saudi Arabia and it was considered to be part of the general theater of the situation.

You have got to remember the personalities involved here, because the personalities are just as important as the event. You had three major charismatic personalities playing this game. You had Kissinger, you had Anwar Sadat who's a super melodramatic personality, and you had King Faisal, four personalities actually - and Muhammad Zaki Yamani who is a media master.

So you have to decide where the melodrama in acting stopped and the reality of those threats began. And there was a threat, but it was a fluid situation. Personally, I never believed the Americans would have gone to the extent of occupying any oil fields because it would have been suicide, the Arab world would have gone up in flames. And they knew that.

The Saudis also didn't want the Americans to arouse the American public opinion with talk of this kind which could catch fire; after all, if you have to wait four hours to fill your car with gasoline…. So everybody had pushed the acting to the limit and the events on the ground were actually bringing the situation where everybody wanted it to be, that there was the beginning of peace talks and it was time for everybody to go back to starting stations.

I want to ask you to describe briefly Kissinger, Faisal and Yamani and a bit about Sadat, who they are, what kind of a person they are.

Well, you have to look at the personalities and the threat. For example when somebody with the personality of Muhammad Zaki Yamani listened to an insinuation of occupying the oil fields, now Muhammad Zaki Yamani is a man who knows the American oil industry and all its captains and CEOs intimately. He understands the oil game very well and he is a master of it. He could gauge very carefully whether this was a real threat or not and what he decided is the real threat is to antagonize the American public against Saudi Arabia, not so much to actually see the American army occupy the oil fields, that's not a very practical solution, neither is it a very possible one.

The other melodramatic personality here is, of course, Anwar Sadat. Sadat is probably the most cunning Arab leader in the past fifty years. He is a fox, he plays the game in so many ways, he can play poker all the time, and he figured that he has manipulated the Americans enough to get them angry and engaged in the peace treaty. He also figured he manipulated King Faisal enough in the Arab streets to get them aroused and to stand behind an oil embargo. And he figured that he has made an impression on the Israelis that even a weak and defenseless Egypt can fight. So for him most of his goals had been accomplished.

And then there was Kissinger, who understood exactly what these two personalities understood and wanted and that his role was therefore to give them what they think they want, to give the Saudis what they think they wanted, to bring the Israelis along while reassuring them.

And there was King Faisal who was like the checkmate person, he was the final king in the chess game and everybody knew that if these three agreed, Yamani, Kissinger and Sadat, then Faisal would say okay, I, as the king of Saudi Arabia, decide we lift the embargo.

The oil boycott transformed oil and oil prices forever. I mean, just think about it this way -- before 1973, oil prices were in the neighborhood of two dollars a barrel and they were largely fixed by oil companies. After `73, in the mid- 80's for example, oil prices reached 45 dollars. And OPEC meetings, which nobody bothered to even attend let alone cover, suddenly attracted hundreds of journalists.

And within these OPEC meetings, there was one face, whose expressions even if he didn't utter a word lifted the price of oil by a dollar or dropped the price of oil by a dollar. It was enough for [Saudi Oil Minister] Muhammad Zaki Yamani to come out of a closed meeting of OPEC, and just smile without saying a word, for traders to go crazy and think these guys have agreed and for the price to go up.

Or to come out and shrug his shoulders and walk away and the price to come down. That much power in the hands or in the facial expression of one man is absolutely extraordinary.

And he was without any question, of course, the oil minister of the one country that imposed an oil embargo, that owns the largest oil reserves and is the closest ally of the United States. That's a lot of cards in the hand of one man.

I'm going to move on to 1975 to 1979. What did the oil boom do to Saudi Arabia?

The oil boom when it started brought massive amounts of money to the countries of the inner desert, the countries of the Gulf, countries which had lived a sheltered life. Only the elite of these countries used to travel and they sent their kids to the countries of the Levant, which is the secular part of the Arab world, they went to Egypt to study in Victoria College, they went to Lebanon to go to the American University in Beirut, and so forth.

The ruling elite of Saudi Arabia was going to the quote, unquote modernized Arab countries and returning with progressive thinking. Suddenly the whole formula was turned upside down. Billions and billions and billions of dollars started pouring into Saudi Arabia, into the United Arab Emirates, into Qatar, into Kuwait, which are countries where the majority of the population, not the ruling elite now, was profoundly conservative and where this extremely rigid version of Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, which we have conventionally agreed to call Wahhabism, now prevailed.

And along with the money came a movement in the other direction except the people who came to Saudi Arabia to build bridges, to build roads, to build factories -- you know the Saudis were reinventing Saudi Arabia into an American California-style country with new roads, highways, with factories, and so forth and the people who were doing the work were millions of Egyptian poor workers, millions of Yemenis -- there were two million Yemenis in Saudi Arabia,

And all of these people were coming in, and in turn, being influenced by Wahhabism. So instead of importing an elite with a modernized view, Saudi Arabia began exporting back to Egypt poor workers with a very narrow view of Islamic fundamentalism, in fact people who were radical Muslim fundamentalists by the millions. And that began the whole trend of Islamic radical fundamentalism in the Arab world and in the region.

August 1990. Iraq invades Kuwait. What was the Saudi response?

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, of course the first response was utter and complete shock -- the king himself having secured a personal promise only two days before from Saddam that such a thing would not happen. So there was the sense of insult and betrayal.

And then at the next level there was the Royal Family Council which was essential. What are we going to do about that? What can we do about that? And what should we do in terms of response? The first phase is for King Fahd himself to absorb it and to accept that he has been betrayed and stabbed in the back by Saddam. And I think there was an attempt by him to contact Saddam one more time and, of course, he talked to President Mubarak several times until he became convinced that Saddam really means it. And then there was a Royal Family Council in which they researched, discussed what is Saddam's next target.

And the Saudis never really liked the Kuwaitis, but there was no question of allowing the Kuwaiti invasion to stand because it would establish a precedent of Iraqi dominance of the whole region. So the royal family reached the consensus that they have to welcome all the Kuwaitis and give them refuge and this is a state of war that requires the mobilization of whatever money, whatever resources were necessary.

And finally they said, now we got to call those religious scholars who work for us and ask them to sanction the arrival to this country of outsiders because already they had heard from Bush, Cheney had come and spoken to them, Maggie Thatcher had spoken to them and the deal was very clear -- you needed American forces to come into Saudi Arabia. And you needed the religious leaders to say that this is perfectly okay, that it is for a limited period of time, it is for the defense of Saudi Arabia but also for the liberation of Kuwait. And indeed the religious ulama performed exactly as required.

When the Gulf War started, was there an understanding that the American troops would come and stay forever?

Well, first of all, the 500,000 American soldiers, the majority of those did leave, so it's not that the troops didn't leave. But there was a significant remnant and a permanent command that remained in Saudi Arabia. And most of the Saudi population was quite aware of this and especially since the Bin Laden people were talking about it. I don't think there was any popular reaction to the presence of the Americans. I think the only one who was making a fuss about it is Osama Bin Laden.

You have got to remember in the end of the day that Americans are not new to Saudi Arabia. I mean the Americans came to Saudi Arabia when oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia. Until this day, as much as sixty to seventy thousand Americans live in Saudi Arabia. Aramco was a village, a city all to itself … it has its post office, Americans lived within it, walking, dressed normally.

So the presence of Americans in Saudi Arabia has been by and large accepted by the Saudi people. The presence of American soldiers in the context of a political message such as the one that Osama bin Laden is propagating is the problem and has become a problem but not for the entire Saudi population. It's very important to make that demarcation line. It is a problem for Muslim fundamentalists and for that proportion of the population, which some people would say is it as much as seventy percent, that consider themselves profoundly religious. But also, it has become a bigger problem in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Because the constant drilling of the notion that America has a double standard that is completely pro-Israeli, that is totally anti-Palestinian has somehow caught the imagination of most Arabs now.

So in the context of this alienation and in the context of the return of Ariel Sharon and the re-occupation of the West Bank and after 9-11, that message of anti-Americanism has begun to resonate much louder. Until just two years ago, you didn't hear of Americans being shot in Kuwait or in Qatar or in Saudi Arabia. Now you do. So this is a recent phenomenon. It is not something that has always existed.

Talk about the Riyadh and the Khobar bombings of '95 and `96.

The Riyadh and Khobar bombing were a military act by Osama bin Laden aimed specifically at the American military, and they were not very successful, but they did enjoy some sympathy because people in Saudi Arabia said, "Well, it's the American military."

What part of it was directed against the Saudi royal family?

Osama bin Laden began his whole quest as directed against the Saudi Royal Family. His main goal was to overthrow this regime. And then he moved philosophically to the natural conclusion that the people that are supporting the regime are the American military, and I will get much more resonance for my message if I were to attack the American military, and therefore, Al Khobar happened. And in the incident of attacking the American military, I detected for the first time in Saudi Arabia a certain amount of sympathy with this act which contrasts very sharply with the previous attitude of that same Saudi population toward the presence of Americans amongst them which has been a fact for sixty years. Not to mention the presence of four million expatriates of all kinds and nationalities. So the presence of foreigners was not an issue.

But Osama bin Laden attacking the American in the context of the Americans becoming identified as the primary supporters of Israel -- and of course eventually as enemies of Islam which was bin Laden's main message began to resonate in the last two years or so. Now Osama bin Laden then moved on further to a decision that the real enemy is not only the American army in Saudi Arabia but it's America, itself.

And this is the evolution he went through in Afghanistan, and eventually it was the evolution that got us to 9-11.

In the Khobar bombings, did you sense any kind of division inside Saudi Arabia as to how to deal with it?

There was a lot of division within the royal family about Al Khobar bombing because even though I said it was the work of Osama bin Laden, there was an Iranian element behind it. And at the time, the Saudis, particularly Crown Prince Abdullah, had managed to completely stabilize Saudi Arabia's relationship with Iran.

And the Saudis and the Iranians were very happy with the modus vivendi they had reached. And had they allowed the Americans a free hand in investigating the Khobar incident, which [if] they did not, the Americans would have sooner or later concluded that Iran had something to do with Al Khobar and had it concluded this, it would have attacked Iran and the Saudis would have paid the price for it.

So the Saudi attitude was, look, we don't want any trouble with Iran, we went through a lot of trouble to have regional stability here and we're not about to let the Americans meddle in this. Therefore the limit of our investigation is what we have concluded: This is Osama bin Laden. We got the guys, we're going to execute them. End of story.

| Read more about the possibility of Iran's involvement in the Khobar Towers bombing on FRONTLINE's web site "Terror and Tehran" (2002). Scroll down to the bottom of the page.

Then President George W. Bush is elected president, and in a televised press conference says that the Israelis will not negotiate under terrorist threats. And that started a whole chain of events where Crown Prince Abdullah reacted to this--

Crown Prince Abdullah has a very different style then King Fahd. He's much more outspoken, he's much more emotional and he feels very strongly about this Palestinian issue in terms of the United States taking a far too pro-Israeli position. Now that situation came very much to the fore with administration of George Bush junior.

What provoked the crown prince is two things and you got to keep in mind that the situation in 1990 is very different from the situation in 2001. In between the two, there has been something called the Arab Satellite Revolution which means all these Arab satellites, like Al-Jazeera, which give all the news all the time in Arabic and which focus on issues like the Jenin camp situation. For example, while CNN would be showing the American audience an American reporter riding in an Israeli tank, Al-Jazeera would be showing an Arab audience, Palestinian kids being chased or beaten up by Israeli soldiers.

And this phenomenon cannot be divorced from the way the Saudi leadership is now reacting to the United States because the Arab street suddenly is all watching those Arab satellite stations and therefore there is no more control of the news. This is a new paradigm. And the crown prince himself is part of that. The crown prince spends his time watching Al-Jazeera. I have been to many palaces in Saudi Arabia. They don't watch CNN anymore.

All of these satellite stations focus completely on either the suffering of the Palestinian people or the suffering of the Iraqi people. And the crown prince just brought those pictures with him [when he went to meet President Bush at Crawford Texas in 2002].

And he keeps watching these pictures, and he just wrote a letter to the president saying, you know, "Do you see what I see?" Basically what he was telling Bush is how can you see what I'm looking at and say the things you are saying? And basically he said it seems that you have your way, and we have our way. And it was the first time there was such a clash in the open from Saudi Arabia expressed with such vehemence.

And what did that lead to?

Well, it led to two things. Among the newer conservatives who dominate the Bush administration it led to the beginning of a discussion that says, well, maybe we should revise our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Maybe that marriage that lasted sixty years merits some reconsideration.

And in Saudi Arabia they had had a completely different reaction. Never before has a Saudi leader said something so openly in such an outspoken way. They always prefer to be demure and to be subtle. And suddenly Abdullah emerges not only as a Saudi hero, but as an Arab hero. Because the whole Arab street was very impressed that an Arab leader would speak so bluntly to the President of the United States.

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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