Saudi Time Bomb?
haroun fazul
photo of james baker
interview: james baker

Why is Saudi Arabia important?

Well, Saudi Arabia is important because the United States has a very substantial national security interest in ready access to the energy supplies of the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia controls most of those energy supplies. So it has been an ally and friend of the United States for as long as I can remember. ...

You say Saudi Arabia has been central through all of these administrations to our national security. It's my understanding that, in the 1980s, we, in a sense, made a strategic shift because of what happened in Iran. We encouraged the Saudis to create a military base complex, if you will, that would help us defend the region.

That's very possibly true. I don't remember specifically that happening. But we have, through the years, in connection with our close alliance with them, and our national interest in protecting the energy reserves of the Persian Gulf... We've encouraged them to provide funding for security measures, and to create, to the extent they could, their own security.

During the Gulf War, he was secretary of state in President George H. W. Bush's administration. He argues that access to Saudi energy reserves is vital to U.S. national security interests, and that the U.S. cannot allow the kingdom to become destabilized. This interview was conducted mid-October 2001.

In many ways, they've become a major island of stability for us in the region, outside of Israel, in terms of defending the region. Would that be correct?

I don't know that you'd refer to them as an island. All of the countries of the Persian Gulf, for instance, the UAE, now of course Kuwait, after what we did in the Gulf War, and other moderate Arab countries, have been aligned with the United States. Egypt and Jordan for the most part, although Jordan went the other way in the Gulf War. So I'm not so sure that island is the right characterization.

Well, [that's] the way it's characterized by Mr. bin Laden and his followers. But to a certain extent, the core that it seems to touch in the Islamic world is that all of these regimes, almost without exception, are not democratic or [are] thought to be corrupt and oppressive by many of the people in their countries.


And yet, they're our allies.

That's right. We have allies, particularly in this fight against terrorism, that don't embrace democracy, and that don't embrace free markets. We've had allies throughout our history that aren't necessarily of the same philosophy and persuasion that we are, regarding principles and values. Sometimes your realpolitik interests demand that.

What I'm thinking about are interviews that we've done with people from the Iraqi National Congress. There are people who are opposed to Saddam Hussein -- [from] people in the street to intellectuals in the Islamic community -- who say that, because of this policy, the U.S. has become identified with the Saudi royal family, for example, who has a reputation for corruption.

I won't acknowledge that, because I don't know that that's true, that they are corrupt. I certainly have never seen any of that corruption. But I would ask those Islamic academics or thinkers that you refer to: How many Islamic regimes do they know that are democratic and free market? I can't think of one. I bet you can't.

So our policy's based on the realities on the ground?

It's based on our national interest and our national security interests, you bet. And that's really what a nation's foreign policy ought to be primarily focused on, if I may say so. ...

Saudi Arabia, you say, is essential to our national security because of energy, because of oil. When you were secretary of treasury and secretary of state, Saudi Arabia became an integral part of our economy. We got the oil money back in many cases, right? ... We got their money back in military purchases of equipment and various construction contracts in Saudi Arabia, many of which you testified in favor of. What I'm getting at is that in that part of the world, people say, "Oh, yes. The Saudis are very nice to you. They give you low-priced oil, help subsidize your economy. Then you get the money back by making them buy all of these weapons, buy all of these things, and even invest in your Treasury bills and in your major corporations. And that's why you're so tight with [the regime.]"

You make a lot of statements that the Saudis sell us low-priced oil. There have been many times in our history where we've been really concerned about the activities of OPEC to increase the price of oil and adversely affect our economy. Now, oftentimes, we're able to work through the Saudis, who are the biggest producers, in order to alleviate that. That's not the equivalent of their selling us low-priced oil.

So you're saying it's not correct to say that we send them money for the oil -- billions and billions of dollars.

We buy oil on the open market. A lot of it comes from Saudi Arabia, but not all of it. It comes from other places, too. ...

Then we get them to buy -- with the urgings of people like yourself and our government -- our equipment, our construction projects, our technology.

I'm not sure that's really right. They buy our construction, they buy our technology, because it's the best. They buy our military equipment because it's the best. They buy from America because they want America presence there to the extent we can be in the kingdom, because we are their security.

Why are we their security? We're their security because we have a self-interest in making sure that those energy reserves in the Persian Gulf don't fall under the control of a country that is adverse to the United States.

As I told you, I worked for four administrations under three presidents. And in every one of those, our policy was that we would go to war to protect the energy reserves in the Persian Gulf. That is a major and very significant national security interest that we have.

But that's us going to war. The question I think that's been raised ... is that the effect of all these arms deals with Saudi Arabia, as well as some other aircraft deals involving the Saudi airlines, has to undermine the economy at Saudi Arabia. It has built up their debt, and as a result, given an area of discontent in the country for these fundamentalists.

Yes. But I disagree with that. I think that the debt has not been built up because America has required the Saudi government to buy American goods and products. ... They're in trouble financially, in my opinion, for other reasons.

Why are they in trouble?

First of all, the price of oil hasn't been as high over the course of this period of time when they got into some trouble, as it has in other time.

Secondly, some of them would tell you, that maybe we charged them too much for their contribution to the Gulf War. ... They said that America leaned on them too hard for this money. But here we were, we were going over there with 550,000 Americans. We were putting up treasure and blood to protect our interest in the energy reserves [in] the Persian Gulf, yes; but also, to protect a friendly country, Saudi Arabia. So I think it was very reasonable. ...

And today, the president of the United States says to the world in response to what happened on the Sept. 11, "You're either with us or against us."


Saudi Arabia appears to be unsure.

No. I don't agree with that. I think Saudi Arabia is with us to the extent that they can be. The president of the United States also made it very clear that some countries would be able to with us more than others.

You know and I know that one of the foremost targets of Osama bin Laden is the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, among other things, because of its friendship with the United States. One of the first things I think he would like to see happen would be to see a collapse of that monarchy. That means the Saudis have to walk a fairly fine line.


Because they could be very easily destabilized if they are seen by some of the people who support Osama bin Laden and walk around on the streets over there to be leaning too far forward to help us in the war in Afghanistan. So they help us where they can. Again, as a matter of realpolitik, that's what you're going to have when you build a coalition as big as a coalition we're building.

So what you're saying is that there is this royal family, this government, which has been supportive, helpful from an economic point of view and otherwise?


But they have a problem. They have a problem internally with people being sympathetic with Osama bin Laden.

I think there is some of that.

I mean, 15 of the 19 hijackers apparently are Saudis.

Well, that's what we now think.

That's pretty surprising. I would've thought, like in [the embassy bombing in Nairobi], some were Egyptians, some were Palestinians. You know this better than most people. How big a problem do they have internally?

I really am not the best judge of that. My experience as secretary of state dates back now eight or nine years. ... But let me just say one other thing. You say, "Well, Saudi Arabia's not really with us."

I don't say it. The New York Times is reporting that, according to senior U.S. officials, they are not living up to their being an ally.

Yes. I will acknowledge that there are some things that some regimes that are part of our coalition can do to help us. And in some areas, they can't. You take Pakistan. I think the president and Secretary Powell and others did a remarkable job in going in immediately and getting Pakistan to support us. Pakistan can support us in some ways. She can't in others, for the very same reason that Saudi Arabia can support us in some ways and cannot support us in others. ... When you have a coalition like this, some of your coalition partners will do some things to help you, and not do others. It happened to us in the Gulf War.

But I'm thinking in terms of someone sitting at home. They're saying, "Well, Secretary Baker says the Saudis have been our long-time strategic allies through four presidents." But when our FBI says, "Hey, these people haven't been very helpful when we try to track down terrorists," when our military says, "We can't really use these bases that we helped build or that we had pre-set with them to help us in this effort. They won't provide information about their financial institutions."

I understand what you're saying.

You go down a list of things. We hear from the region, from people that maybe they don't even want us in their country, that there are people there who are resentful.

Well, there are. That's part of Osama bin Laden's gripe, as a matter of fact -- that in 1991, King Fahd permitted American forces on the ground of the country that is the custodian of the two holy mosques, and that was a violation of Islam. He says that. So I think we ought to understand that those pressures are there.

What would happen if, let's say, the Saudis took a lot of actions that maybe members of the coalition would want to see taken, that would end up destabilizing the kingdom? Where would we be vis-a-vis our policy of being willing to wage war to protect the energy reserves of Persian Gulf? Would we be better off or worse off? Those are the kinds of things people have to think about. ...

You believe that the Saudis really do have a problem in all of this because of potential unrest in their own country?

Yes, I think that.

They have economic problems. They have unemployment problems, and religious problems.

Yes, I think they do.

In fact, I was told when you were secretary of state in the Reagan and Bush administrations, the U.S. supported the Saudis', if you will, propagation of Sunni fundamentalism, their version, their Wahhabi version. They set up schools, they sort of encircled Iran, to put under control Shi'a fundamentalism. What you were worried about in the 1980s was the Shi'a.

Yes, we were worried about Shi'a fundamentalism, because of Iran.

[You weren't worried about Sunni fundamentalism?]

Not about Sunni fundamentalism. And of course, we cooperated with the Saudis -- and Osama bin Laden, indeed -- in trying to get and effectively getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan. So I suppose that's true.

Apparently, the Saudi charities and the royal family have supported these schools -- they're called madrassas -- these fundamentalist schools, throughout Pakistan, throughout Afghanistan. In fact, that's the link to the Taliban.

Yes. That's right.

And that apparently is part of the reason there is this, if you will, schizophrenia in Saudi Arabia.

I don't question that. I don't know it of my own personal knowledge. But I don't question it. ...

I asked Prince Bandar on camera, what about all these allegations from the dissidents and whatnot in England, about corruption in Saudi Arabia? And he said, "Look. It's cost us $400 billion to rebuild our country, to make it what it is today. There's corruption in our country. There's corruption in your country." In fact, he said, "Who are you to tell me that there's corruption in our country?" Then he said, "If it cost us $350 billion of that $400 billion to build everything, and $50 billion was misspent or went to corruption, we accept that. That's a reality of life."

I don't know what you're asking me.

It's just a reflection on corruption in Saudi Arabia and all the allegations around it.

Look. There's a lot of corruption in that whole part of the world, without pointing fingers at any particular country. I think the United States ... my own view is that we're cleaner than most countries around the world, but there is corruption.

In formulating and implementing our foreign policy, we need to keep, I think, first and foremost, what is in the national security interest of the United States of America. ...

Understood. But right now, we're dealing with the question of terrorism and the people who are committing these acts, and the way in which they are trying to recruit more people to their point of view, to be anti-American, to overthrow their regimes.

And is it your view that if Saudi Arabia all of a sudden converted from monarchy to democracy, that that would end the Osama bin Laden threat to Saudi Arabia? The answer is no. ...

Why does Osama bin Laden want to destabilize the kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Why would he love to see that happen? Why would the people that he probably infiltrates in there want to see that happen? Power. Power. A lot of what's going on is to acquire power. Not all of it, but a lot of it.

You said it yourself. The Saudis have internal problems. They can only go so far as our ally without destabilizing their own regime.

That's true. ...

When people in Saudi Arabia look at change in Saudi Arabia, they see the U.S. troops there. Not just as possibly defiling the holy land, but as, if you will, the mercenaries who are defending the royal family.

Some people do see that. Some people do see that and for those, it's the crux of their objection. There's no doubt about that. ...

Just so I don't mischaracterize it... Our relationship with Saudi Arabia, with all of its faults that you've pointed out, is really a relationship we can't disentangle ourselves from.

In my view, if you accept as a premise that we must have access, easy access, to the energy reserves of the Persian Gulf, I don't see how it makes sense for the United States to say we're no longer going to support the government of Saudi Arabia, which enables us to do that.

But I think what people are saying is, we're so in bed with them in terms of getting them to invest money in the United States and so forth, and that we deal with the royal family. We don't deal with the realities of the country itself.

What do you mean by that? We deal with the royal family, but not with the realities of the country? What does that mean?

People point out that we say they're our ally, but then we don't object when their fundamentalist side of their country goes ahead and proselytizes anti-Americanism.

In foreign and security policy, when you deal with a country, you deal with the government of that country. What are we supposed to do? Deal with the man on the street? You deal with the government. That happens to be the government. If it's got warts on it, it has warts on it.

But we have a fundamental national security interest, as I have said to you about eight times on this program. Don't lose sight of it. It is important to the United States. It is important to our economy. It is important to a whole host of other things. So we deal with a government that's not perfect. But we do that all around the world. ...

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