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robert w. jordan

Robert W. Jordan was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003. In this interview, he talks about the difficulty the Saudi leadership is having in coming to grips with the competing interests in the society, the efforts to date to reform what is taught in the schools and preached in the mosques, and he tells a story of his own personal intervention with the government in a religious freedom issue. "I have been reminded of that incident by senior members of the royal family from time to time and they say: 'We really respect what you did in this case. You didn't have to do this. But we respect what you did.' And so I knew I had pushed about as hard as I could push in that case." Jordan also talks about why the outcome in Iraq will greatly affect how the Saudi government views political reform, and he assesses the uneasy U.S.-Saudi relationship."We're learning more about each other and in many cases, neither side likes what they see. And so we've got to find ways to work on the common interests and to help the Saudis through a period of coming into the 21st century. They're dealing with this in fits and starts. And it's not always going to be pretty. ... " This interview was conducted by producer Martin Smith on Nov. 23, 2004 in Dallas.

When you arrived in Saudi Arabia, how was your mission described to you?

My initial discussion with President Bush occurred before 9/11, and so the mission at that time was somewhat different. It was a troubled relationship that had to do primarily with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And so making progress on that, as well as maintaining the stability of the price of oil [and] maintaining the economic ties and the political support that we needed in the Muslim world, were really the initial thoughts.

9/11 changed all that. And so after 9/11, my mission initially was to secure Saudi support for removing the Taliban from Afghanistan, ... [for] using Saudi airspace and logistics to help support our effort in Afghanistan, and then [for] the broader war on terrorism, in countering the Al Qaeda terrorists, bin Laden and others, we saw so graphically mounting such a huge threat.

What did you find in Saudi Arabia when you arrived in terms of their reaction to 9/11?

At the official level, they were appalled; they were embarrassed. Some of them, frankly, were in denial. Some senior Saudi Arabian princes were claiming that this was a Zionist plot, or that 3,000 Jews stayed home from the World Trade Center that day because of some nefarious plot. After the period of denial wore off, they became more absorbed with "How could this have happened to us? What is it about our society that is causing this?" And so they went into a period of what I would call introspection, of self-examination, self-criticism. And this was healthy for them, and long overdue in my opinion. ...

I remember meeting with Prince Salman, who is the governor of Riyadh province and one of the very most senior royals, a very well-respected individual. But he clearly was in denial. He said: "This has to have been a Zionist plot. Saudis are not like this. And Saudis by themselves frankly are not capable of launching a plot this sophisticated, that requires this kind of training and this kind of technical capacity. This is just not like what Saudis do." He found it incredulous that there could be something Saudi about this plot.

photo of jordan
We've got to find ways to work on the common interests and to help the Saudis through a period of coming into the 21st century. They're dealing with this in fits and starts. And it's not always going to be pretty.

Was there denial that bin Laden was involved in the plot?

Not directly. There had been a great deal of unhappiness with bin Laden for a number of years. He had been kicked out of Saudi Arabia. His citizenship had been stripped. And so they were not fans of bin Laden by any means. But they, I think, failed to appreciate the level of sophistication of an organization that he had put together, and they were somewhat dismissive of him, but they were not claiming that he could not have been involved.

I think it's also important to recognize that there were, at the same time, a number of senior Saudi leaders who did fully accept bin Laden's involvement and Saudi involvement in the plot -- Prince Saud, the foreign minister, for example. Even Crown Prince Abdullah ultimately came around pretty quickly to understand what the true causes were. And of course we were pretty active in briefing the highest levels of the government about what we knew so that they would fully appreciate how big a threat this was, and the fact that it really was bin Laden and Saudis involved.

What does that denial, the level of denial at the highest reaches of the government, say about the society?

I think it says a lot about the society. It says that Saudis find it hard to believe that their sons, members of their tribes, could have done something like this, just as it would be hard for me to imagine one of my three sons committing such a horrific act. They were a little naive, I suppose, in this way. They find it hard to think ill of another Saudi, another member of one of the tribes, and so they tend to gloss over the faults and in many ways the social tensions that may have led to some of what we saw out of 9/11.

Can you say more about those social tensions that they sit astride?

Well, they have a very difficult time right now coping with modernization, coping with globalization in the world. This is a very, very conservative society. They have moved in about 50 years from, frankly, living in the desert in mud huts to now skyscrapers and superhighways and luxury cars. But the roots of this society go back centuries and centuries as a very insular, inward-looking, family-oriented and tribal-oriented society.

They are now moving forward and changing at what they would consider to be warp speed. Their world has turned upside down in the last 50 years. Their culture has been attacked and threatened, in their view, by outside influences, primarily Western influences. And so there is a great deal of fear and resentment at these outside influences. This, I think, has converged with a certain interpretation of the Muslim religion. So there's a very intolerant and unaccepting kind of religion. And if you're not part of this particular sect of Wahhabi Islam, you're really considered to be an infidel and not worth very much.

Frankly, what we've seen in the education system, when this is in the mosques, we've seen a number of teachers from Egypt and Syria who were kicked out in the '60s because they were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they came to Saudi Arabia. Many of them became teachers and have played a huge role in the way this religion has been interpreted and, frankly, hijacked in many ways to [promote] an intolerant view of the world.

What happened that caused this Muslim Brotherhood to come from Syria and Egypt to Saudi Arabia, and what effect did it have on Saudi Arabia?

The secular societies and governments in Egypt and Syria did not any longer want the radical Muslim Brotherhood activists in their countries, and so they were expelled. Many of them were teachers. And many of them were welcomed with open arms in Saudi Arabia, which had a growing population which did not have a homegrown educational system and which, frankly, needed educated people to help the new schools that were coming up. These people were radicalized and had a very radical view of Islam. This was then conveyed and indoctrinated into the school system in a way that now has left generations with a view of the world and a view of their religion that is at odds with the mainstream, normal, tolerant view of Islam.

You have said that what is taught in their schools and mosques affects our national security. What did you mean by that?

It's no longer an internal matter. I think for many, many years, the Saudis would have considered what they teach in their schools and what they preach in their mosques to be their business. But when they start preaching intolerance and hatred and anti-Semitism and marginalization of human beings who are not of the same religious persuasion, then it's a very fine line that you walk between mere intolerance and incitement to hatred and terrorism and support for the kind of almost religious war that is going on right now in the Muslim world.

Do you say that to Prince Abdullah? What kind of reaction do you get?

He agrees with me. And I think he would tell you that he has taken steps to reform what is taught in the schools and what is preached in the mosques. He would tell you that they have fired or retrained probably 2,000 imams. They have sat these imams down with what they would call moderate clerics with copies of the Quran. And they will sit there and show these radical clerics where they're wrong in the book. And they will then obtain commitments to them to go back out and do it right and preach a more tolerant version of Islam.

I can't testify today to how successful this reform effort has been. It certainly has a long way to go. What I do know is they had been conducting this kind of effort even during the time I was there as ambassador. But shortly before I left, in October of 2003, I received a translation of a sermon in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and this sermon clearly was an effort at greater tolerance. The imam talks about condemning violence and condemning hatred and condemning terrorism. But then what does he do right at the end? He says, "Oh, God, please destroy the Jews, the infidels and all of those who support them." ...

Why can't they move things quicker?

Well, they would say they are moving quicker. ... I think it's a little easier once you're there to understand how far they've come and how hard it is for them to move at the pace we would like them to. But they would say that they have to maintain traction with their people. There's a certain elasticity to this society that they would say cannot be broken. And so you push the envelope as far as you can push it, but you have to maintain that traction. And if you break that elasticity, if you break that rubber band, then you have lost contact with the people, and you lose the legitimacy of the royal family. I think they are very concerned about their legitimacy, very concerned about their ability to maintain the confidence of the people.

| Read an analysis of the Saudi Islamists

So your job becomes pushing them, pressuring them? When do you know if you have gone about as far as you can go?

Well, I had one situation involving a religious freedom issue. There are rules in Saudi Arabia against preaching Christianity and public assembly for worship other than Muslim worship. There are many Christians in Saudi Arabia who meet privately, and the Saudis' official policy is that the private worship of other religions is permissible.

The rub comes when you try to define what is private versus public. And so when a young man who is a Christian from Sudan hosted a group of 40 or 50 Christians in his living room for a weekly religious service, he was arrested. And he was not really formally charged with anything, but the inference was that he was conducting a public religious service, or perhaps there might have been a Muslim or two in the room, and proselytizing a Muslim is almost a death penalty kind of offense in Saudi Arabia. He was detained for about eight months. His wife couldn't find him for a couple of weeks. She finally located him, and through kind of the underground Christian movement in Saudi Arabia, I was made aware of this situation after he was released.

He was released for the purpose of deporting him back to Sudan. Well, we all know what's going on in Sudan right now. This young man's father had actually been killed in Sudan for being a Christian, and had he returned to Sudan, he would have been killed as well.

This is a very, very conservative society. They have moved in about 50 years from frankly living in the desert in mud huts to now skyscrapers, superhighways and luxury cars. But the roots of this society go back centuries as a very insular, inward-looking, family oriented and tribal oriented society.

And so I intervened with the Saudi government, and I asked them to give me 30 days to find a place to send this young man, hopefully in the United States, so we could rescue him. And the government said: "Mr. Ambassador, this is a personal request you're making of us, and we honor that. And we will give you the time to do what you need to do." Working with the State Department, we were able to get this young man placed in an Episcopal seminar near Pittsburgh, where I believe he still is to this day with his wife. And frankly, I think we were able to save his life.

I have been reminded of that incident by senior members of the royal family from time to time. And they point that out to me, and they say: "Mr. Ambassador, we really respect what you did in this case. You didn't have to do this. But we respect what you did." And so I knew I had pushed about as hard as I could push in that case. I knew that I didn't have a lot of personal favors left after this one.

I've also had a similar experience in child custody matters. One of the most agonizing parts of my job was having to deal with American mothers who had married Saudi men. And they would have children, and then they would go back to Saudi Arabia, and the marriage would fall apart. And the wife would leave the husband, but the husband would refuse permission for the wife to leave Saudi Arabia, because under Saudi law the husband or father has to give permission. Likewise, the mother was not able to take her children out of the country. And so I intervened with the foreign minister and with the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Justice, to try to establish some sort of mechanism for dealing with these cases.

Again, I was pushing about as hard as I could push. We were able to get, I don't know, 16 or so women out of the country during this time even though the husband or the father was not necessarily agreeing to it. And the crown prince met with me and made it clear that he would give permission personally on humanitarian grounds for a number of these women to leave. The tragedy, though, still is that the women have not been able by and large to take their children with them. And giving custody of a Muslim child to a non-Muslim mother to go back to the United States is just something that isn't going to happen in Saudi Arabia. ...

What about the question of charities and the support that's gone to terrorist organizations through the charities?

We learned early in my tenure, probably in the first quarter of 2002, that a number of Saudi charities were actually out of control. They had millions and millions of dollars and were using it in what we might call evangelical activities in other countries. Many of these countries were sort of failed states like Bosnia and Albania, which had kind of a vacuum. And so these Muslim charities which come into these states would proselytize, would increase the number of Muslims who signed up to read the Quran. And sadly, they would also allow radicals, in some cases actually cell members, to use their facilities and their abundant resources. As our intelligence learned more and more about this, I went to the crown prince, and he agreed that something needed to be done.

He wasn't surprised?

He was cautious, I suppose, in his reaction to me about this. But we worked with the Ministry of Interior to investigate, to give them more of the facts that we knew. And of course part of our problem is, particularly at that early stage, our intelligence officers were very reluctant to share very much with the Saudis. We wanted to protect sources and methods. We wanted to be sure that we didn't burn a source. We also wanted to be sure how much we could trust the Saudis.

As we got deeper and deeper into it, we [were] slowly coming to realize that this was a major problem. And the major charity we were dealing with, The Call, Al Haramain, was sort of like the United Way of Saudi Arabia, the charity of choice for many Muslims who have an obligation to give alms to the poor. And these alms are measured in billions, not in anything less than that. And so Al Haramain was encouraged to try to clean up their own shop. They closed a number of branches, in Bosnia, Albania, Chechnya. We also had some branches in Africa, in Tanzania and Kenya --

They were involved in the bombing?

Exactly. And the Sudan and Somalia. They told us they had closed these offices. It then became apparent that these offices were then springing back up somewhere down the street in another location, maybe under a fictitious name, within a few days of closing the first office. It was kind of like crabgrass sprouting back up again.

And so we went back to the Saudis and said, "This isn't working." And they made it clear that part of the problem was in those other countries as well. We needed those countries to help shut them down. You can't just push a button in Saudi Arabia and have a branch office in Chechnya disappear. And so, because the funds were so dispersed, and many of the funds had already been transferred into these other countries, they didn't need to be told by some bureaucrat in Saudi Arabia to knock it off. They could thumb their nose and go ahead in that other country. And so we worked through our embassies with those host countries as well.

There are presumably well-connected Saudi princes contributing to these charities?

There are well-connected Saudi princes contributing to the charities. We have not yet received any reliable intelligence information that they knowingly contributed to any kind of terrorist activity. And part of the problem is you have charities that are involved in orphanages and many important and good charitable activities. And yet, at the same time, some official or some office of that charity can go completely off the rails and do something horrific, like we saw with Al Haramain. You've seen this with Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Hamas has both a charitable arm and a military arm. And so we've had Saudis and other Arabs contributing, Muslims contributing, to Hamas in the same way.

With the Saudi charities there's a slight distinction, because a lot of the major contributors would say, "What we're trying to do is simply get the Muslim belief out into the world. We want to go into South Asia; we want to go into East Asia; we want to go into Africa," with these evangelical kinds of outreach programs called da'wa, or outreach. "This is what we're trying to do. We don't want Al Qaeda to succeed," is what most of them will say, "because we're a big target of Al Qaeda ourselves." And so it has been a very difficult task to identify any specific individual who contributed with knowledge that this money was specifically going to be used for terrorism. ...

On the question of charities, we requested from the [Saudi] Embassy in Washington to be able to see the organization that monitors charities. We were told, actually out of the ambassador's office in London, that such an office is not yet up and running. They haven't set up a monitoring outfit?

They are very good at taking positions and staking out programs, but the follow-through is still in many ways a Third World follow-through. I think it is not yet where it needs to be. There is a lot of work that needs to be done. And that was very frustrating to me during my time there.

And yet we saw some progress. Al Haramain has been taken down. The head of Al Haramain has been removed. All contributions that are destined for foreign operations of charities must now go through Saudi government scrutiny. And to my knowledge, we are not seeing the kind of wholesale shipping abroad of millions and millions of dollars unregulated anymore.

We're also seeing a robust banking system and banking scrutiny through their monetary authority. Of course that only goes so far, since so many of these transactions are in cash. Using the bank system is not something that is going to be very productive for these terrorists. And they know that. So there's only so much mileage you can get out of bank regulatory scrutiny.

But we have seen improvement. And the Saudis have joined with us in designating a number of charities to the United Nations for sanctions and for freezing the accounts. But they've got a long, long way to go. ...

You were involved in the Crawford meeting [at President Bush's Texas ranch]. Tell me about it.

Well, you have to set the scene, and the scene starts with the rise of the second intifada, the violence in the Palestinian territories that occurred in the spring of 2002. We actually had thought we were making some progress, that there could be grounds for peace discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We then had some horrific suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa. We had Hamas running amok.

And then we had a very harsh Israeli retaliation. We had Israeli Defense Force airplanes level an 11-story apartment building in the middle of the night for the purpose of taking out a Hamas leader, and they incidentally took out all of the residents of that complex. We had alleged massacres in Jenin and Nablus. And so the Arab world was outraged at what they considered to be a disproportionate response. They were also outraged at what our government referred to in the Israeli reaction as simply being heavy-handed.

So what happens? Do you get a phone call from the crown prince?

... I received a phone call from the foreign minister. I spoke with him. I spoke ultimately with the crown prince, urging them to keep Hamas as well under control as possible. They, of course, don't have direct control over Hamas, but they had communications with the Palestinian Authority and with [Yasser] Arafat's entourage. And so our efforts were really aimed at asking Arafat to take a leadership role and to take charge of reining in Hamas at this point.

Then the Jenin and Nablus incursions -- there was outrage. I wasn't summoned in to be lectured about it, but it came up in the course of my other meetings with both the foreign minister and the crown prince. And they were outraged. And so there was a lot of talk that the crown prince would cancel his trip to Crawford [in 2002] out of protest over America's failure to rein in the [Ariel] Sharon government. Many of the crown prince's advisers were telling him he should not make the trip. But he said: "No, I'm going to make this trip. This is important for me to meet the president face to face. It's important for me to express my views of what needs to be done, and so I'm going to make the trip."

I think he made that trip in a very courageous way and at some personal risk to his own personal safety. There was a great deal of anger within Saudi society at the mere fact that he would go to Crawford to make the trip.

I was told that the crown prince was initially not sure that it was a good idea to go to Crawford as opposed to meeting at the White House in Washington. And he was reported to have wondered whether this was a snub that he was not really meeting in the Oval Office with the president and was simply meeting with him in Crawford, Texas. The word was sent back to the crown prince that this was a rare invitation that only two or three world leaders had ever received, and that he was one of a handful who had ever been invited to the personal quarters of the president's in Crawford, Texas. And so that helped set a tone.

We then went down to Houston, actually, for dinner with the crown prince and the vice president the night before the trip to Crawford. The crown prince was visibly nervous, worried, I think, about what he was going to say. And so it was a fairly somber evening. It was a very small group of us -- the foreign minister, the vice president, two or three others. ...

The tension mounted that night and the next morning, because in The New York Times there had been an article quoting an unnamed Saudi source as saying the Saudis, because of their outrage at our Israeli policy, were ready to use oil as a weapon. This was hotly denied by the Saudis, but many people were surmising that Prince Bandar was actually the source of that article. And he denied it personally to me the next day.

We then flew from Houston to a Waco airstrip for the purpose of greeting the crown prince as he arrived there. Waco is about an hour's drive from the ranch in Crawford, and the crown prince doesn't like to fly in helicopters, and so he had purchased two or three very ornately decorated tour buses. And his tour buses pulled up as his plane arrived on the tarmac. ... We got on this tour bus, and it looked like something that Dolly Parton had found to be too ornate. It was gilded everywhere. ...

We arrived in Crawford. The crown prince had brought some photographs and videos. I broke off at that point while they met privately, and [I] was told that the crown prince had shown the president these photos and videos that were very graphic of the violence in Palestinian territories. And some of the violence I think may have been in Afghanistan as well, but it was really a plea for mercy for the Palestinians.

He was angry?

He was angry, and he was very, very concerned. And then something really magical happened. The president and the crown prince got in the president's pickup truck. And the president loves this ranch. It's about 1,600 acres. And he gave the crown prince a tour of the ranch, just the two of them plus the interpreter. And they were gone for about 45 minutes. And I've taken that trip with the president through the ranch. And he describes the various varieties of trees; you see the waterfalls; you see the pastureland. It's a beautiful ranch. And there was something peaceful that apparently occurred, that came over both of these men, that broke the tension. And when they came back they had bonded in a way that was I think very significant to the relationship between our two countries. ...

It was clear that the crown prince had arrived expecting what we would call deliverables. There had been apparently an eight-point request or policy position paper that Prince Bandar had delivered to the White House. Well, the president hadn't seen this and had not been properly briefed on it, apparently, and so he was surprised by some of the requests. And it took us a while to work through them there in the screened-in porch area. ... I think we were able to reach some accommodations and reach some common ground that wasn't so clear was going to happen earlier in the day.

In the final analysis, the president agreed, subject to contacting the Israelis, to try to achieve the release of Arafat from his confinement in Ramallah, and also try to end the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. And the Saudis agreed to work even more diligently to encourage Arafat to rein in the terrorists, to dismantle the terrorist apparatus, and to move toward a more productive dialogue with the Israelis.

| Read FRONTLINE's interview with Crown Prince Abdullah.

What was discussed in terms of the troops in Saudi Arabia?


It had not come up in any earlier discussions?

We did not ever feel from the Saudis that they were asking us to remove our troops. And I think this is a very important point in history that needs to be clarified. We had about 5,000 Air Force personnel at Prince Sultan Air Base. That number ramped up several times that amount during the Iraq invasion in the spring of 2003, and then it ramped back down again. But the first time we had any high-level discussions about the troop levels was when I went to the defense minister, Prince Sultan, and his son after we had been successful in removing Saddam from Baghdad.

So April of 2003.

Actually, Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld then came out at the end of April 2003 for a more formal discussion, but I had the discussion initially with the defense minister and simply said now that Saddam is gone, we no longer need to enforce the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, and so the mission of our Air Force here in Saudi Arabia has been accomplished. This has been an 11-year partnership with you, and we're thankful for this. But this removes the necessity for that kind of troop level and that kind of commitment here in Saudi Arabia. ...

The Middle East peace plan from the Crawford meeting -- what has come of all of that?

Well, it's still there, and it's still part of the road map. And the road map that ultimately came out later specifically incorporates and alludes to the crown prince's vision for peace that was adopted at the Arab League summit in Beirut. The crown prince, I think, felt very good that the president included that reference. And the crown prince's vision for peace and normalization of relations is very much in tune with the conceptual framework of the road map. The road map simply makes more specific, with some timetables and deadlines, the way you get to that kind of a normalization.

This brings us to the war in Iraq. You had the job of convincing the Saudis that this was a good thing to do.

Right. They were much more receptive to my suggestions and my requests for help than most of the public fully understood. We had some very positive conversations over a period of about a year at various levels of the Saudi government. And while there was not a specific commitment, there was a kind of dialogue and body language and nuance to the conversations that made me believe that when the time came, we would get what we needed. ...

Throughout the latter parts of 2002, it was no secret that we had great problems with Saddam and we needed to figure out what to do. And we were consulting with our allies, including the Saudis, about these concerns. And so obviously, as things became more specific in late 2002, it was necessary to engage the Saudis a little more directly in what they would allow us to do from their territory. ... We shared with them ultimately our battle plan, and that was a necessary thing for us to do because we were asking a great deal of them and in some ways jeopardizing the standing of the regime with its own people if they were going to support us in the way we needed.

There must have been some complaints that you heard from the royal family about the consequences of the 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. ... They have greatly enhanced their security forces. Their intelligence apparatus has improved. They have now published the faces and names of their 26 most wanted Al Qaeda terrorists, and about 16 or 17 of those have now been either captured or killed. And so they have had some measurable success in confronting this terrorist threat.

I think this is not lost on their people. They have shown their people that they are capable of dealing with a terrorist threat. We've also seen a great deal of popular resentment, I think, in Saudi Arabia of the tactics that have been used by some of these terrorists, both in Saudi Arabia and in Iraq. These kidnappers, these beheadings, these suicide bombings in Riyadh in May of 2003, which killed both a number of Muslims as well as Americans, have all, I think, led to the Saudi population being pretty disgusted with the level of violence they've seen in their society. They don't like it, and they're increasingly intolerant of it.

Would the Saudis have supported us if they did not believe that there were weapons of mass destruction and a grave and gathering danger to the security of the United States?

Well, we'll never know, but I think there's still a chance they might have. That was not the only argument out there, of course. The Saudis have had vivid experience personally with Saddam Hussein in a way that only Kuwait could match, and so they had no love lost for Saddam. They knew of his brutality. They knew of his threat to the region. ...

There was some reluctance to accept that Al Qaeda could be a domestic threat, and you yourself made some well-known criticisms of the Saudis for failing to provide security. Put me back into that timeframe.

In roughly April of 2003, we received intelligence reports that Al Qaeda terrorists were in the final phases of planning attacks against Western interests in Saudi Arabia, possibly including Western housing compounds. And so I went to the Saudis. In fact, I sent them three letters asking them to provide armed security at Western installations, U.S. government installations and Western housing compounds. And over a period of two or three weeks they were studying the issue, I guess is the best way to put it.

And then on the night of May the 12th, 2003, three housing compounds were attacked by suicide bombers. Several hundred people were injured. Nine Americans were killed. And I was livid. And so I did make the statements that I was disappointed that they had not provided the security that I'd asked for. And nine Americans paid with their lives.

How does this square with all the more optimistic statements that you've made about the progress that we're making and their realization of common cause on the war on terrorism?

The next day, May 13, 2003, [then-Secretary of State] Colin Powell and I visited the crown prince, and he was white as a ghost and absolutely shaken to his core by what had happened. And to the extent they had been in denial about the terrorist threat in the kingdom, that denial ended on the morning of May the 13th.

And after that time, we saw a complete sea change in the attitude of the Saudis towards security, towards terrorism and toward rooting out the Al Qaeda threat in the kingdom. And so they have now probably captured or killed more Al Qaeda than about any other country I can think of. And they've lost quite a number of their own officers in the line of duty.

We set up a joint intelligence task force in which we now have Saudis and Americans sitting shoulder to shoulder reading the same intelligence off of the same computer terminals in a secret location in Saudi Arabia. By use of that intelligence, we have penetrated cells. We have seen a lot of reports about shootouts with terrorists in Saudi Arabia. Most of those are initiated by the Saudi police to some degree on the intelligence that we have jointly gathered or analyzed. But it shows that they are being proactive, and they have these terrorists on the run to a great degree. There are fewer and fewer safe havens for them in Saudi Arabia. And we have not seen, thankfully, at least in the last year and a half, the kind of carefully orchestrated theatrical attack that we saw on May the 12th within the kingdom. So yes, progress is being made.

Is it enough? Of course not. It's not enough with any of our allies around the world. We all have to do more. But I do think the Saudis deserve a lot of credit for finally getting it, finally catching on after May the 12th. This was as big a threat to them as it was to us. ...

After your departure, 26 clerics came out encouraging Iraqis to resist the American occupation. This seems to be a step backward.

It looks like a step backward to me as well. These are clerics who had supposedly, in many cases, been retrained. And this shows you the limits, I suppose, of retraining.

I'm not sure anyone really knows what happened. These clerics issued this fatwa (Read the fatwa.) It doesn't specifically incite Saudis to go to Iraq, but you could sure read between the lines and conclude that's what they're after. To my knowledge, their statement has been condemned. And Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., made a very strong statement condemning this fatwa. In fact, Prince Bandar at about the same time in a speech stated that the Saudis really need to start waging a jihad on terrorism using the same kind of ruthlessness and brutality that the terrorists themselves are using. They need to root out these terrorists with the same kind of energy and zeal as would be expected in a real jihad against an adversary.

But nobody's been arrested.

No. And it's hard to explain, particularly at a time when there have been petitions for greater reform in Saudi Arabia and for a constitutional monarchy, and the authors of those petitions, in fact, were put in jail. And so there is a disconnect here, I think, that is very hard to understand and very hard to explain.

I think it tells you probably some of the give-and-take and some of the difficulty that the Saudi leadership is having in coming to grips with these competing interests. They have a reform movement that they certainly support but don't want to get too far encouraged to too great a degree. At the same time, you have an extremely intolerant, backward and conservative religious environment where at least certain sects and certain segments of this religious theocracy are allowed to do and publish and preach things that are absolutely unbelievable. And so I think you're finding it very difficult to read all of these tea leaves at the same time. We all are. ...

It doesn't sound like our ally.

Well, ally, you know, is a flexible term. And I think we have common interests that are served. But it doesn't mean that we agree with an ally on every point. We certainly don't with our European allies. We have enormous disagreements with them. But we have the fundamental basis and a fundamental common interest in going forward. I think that's the way we've got to look at Saudi Arabia as well. We have some fundamental common interests here, even though our cultures are diametrically opposed in many ways to each other. And we're learning more about each other, and in many cases, neither side likes what they see. And so we've got to find ways to work on the common interests and to help the Saudis through a period of coming into the 21st century.

They're dealing with this in fits and starts. And it's not always going to be pretty. We need to encourage the reformers. We need to encourage the members of the royal family who want to move forward. And there are plenty of those. And they have great younger leadership that I think is emerging. They have some very well-intentioned and sincere leadership right now in many aspects of their government. But they need more. And they need that side to be encouraged.

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 are absolutely poisonous to the relationship.

There are many neoconservatives who have 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.

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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