Saudi Time Bomb?
haroun fazul
photo of scowcroft
interview: brent scowcroft

We are told the presence of U.S. troops to people in Saudi Arabia means that in order to, if you will, deal with the Saudi royal family it's assumed you have to deal with the United States. That our troops there are part of a guaranteeing the existence of the royal family as the monarchy in Saudi Arabia.

I'm sure some Saudis hold that view. I don't think that's a predominant view. But, I think, there is a view which is probably accurate, that we are supporters of the regime in Saudi Arabia, yes.


Because they are a friendly regime. They are cooperative. Why shouldn't we be?

I interviewed Jim Baker, and he basically said Saudi Arabia is essential to the national security of the United States. As he put it, ever since he worked for [U.S. presidents] 38, 40, 41 and 43. Is it just a bedrock part of the national security--

Well it's an important part of the national security, because the whole region of the Middle Eastern central Asia is in a state of turmoil. It's potentially a very rich region in hydrocarbons and others.

He was national security adviser to President George H. W. Bush from 1988 to 1992. He calls Saudia Arabia a "genuine" but "troubled" ally of the U.S. and discusses the threat the kingdom faces, the Saudis' perspective on America's Middle East policies, and how the U.S. should handle its relationship with this key ally. This interview was conducted October 2001.


Yes. It's a very important area for us. But, the Saudis are-- Is it a perfect regime? No, of course, it's not a perfect regime. But, if you believe we should go around the world overturning regimes to make little United States, I don't agree with that, because I don't think we're capable of doing that.

There's a letter from Crown Prince Abdullah to President George W. Bush, apparently in August of this year, which was revealed the other day in Saudi Arabia, in which the Crown Prince says, "A time comes when peoples and nations part. We are at a crossroads. And it's time for the United States and Saudi Arabia to look for their separate interests." It doesn't sound like a very solid ally.

Osama bin Laden is probably a deeper threat to Saudi Arabia, to Egypt, to Jordan, you name it, than to the U.S. Well, look, the Saudis are worried. They're very worried. Because Osama bin Laden is probably a deeper threat to Saudi Arabia, to Egypt, to Jordan, you name it, than to the United States.

Osama bin Laden is going after us to get us out of the region, so he can deal with the regimes that he sees in the region, or replace them with purists. The Saudis are concerned.

Are they corrupt?

Apparently. Are they supporting us? Yes, of course, because they're more deeply threatened than we are. But, they're concerned because there's a lot of support in Saudi Arabia. Mubarak's predecessor, Sadat, was assassinated reviewing his own troops. Is it a problem for them? You bet. So, do they have to be careful? Do they have to appear to separate themselves, especially when we do things which popularly are a problem, whether it is the peace process, Iraq, Iran to the so-called "Arab street"? Sure.

Is that why it seems that the Saudis' behavior in this coalition is different than their behavior in your Persian Gulf coalition?

I think there are a couple of things. First of all, I think the Saudis are deeply concerned about the collapse of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the resumption of conflict. And, I think, from their perspective they see us as standing aside and letting that happen. And, of course, they blame the Israelis for that.

So, I think, that is a new element that was not present.

Well, they blame the Israelis, but the Bush administration came in saying, "We're not going to get involved."...

Yes, I understand. Yes. And the Saudis disagree with that. I'm saying that is an element that was not present at the time of the Gulf War. Indeed at the time of the Gulf War, President Bush, in fact, refused to provide loan guarantees for building settlements in Israel. So, there was a different kind of a mix there.

And, in addition, in 1990 the Saudis felt physically threatened. At the time of the invasion of Kuwait, we didn't know, and I'm sure the Saudis didn't know, whether the Iraqi armies were going to stop at the Saudi border or not. And if they hadn't, they could have marched down to the oil fields quite easily. ...

There are those people who say our relationship with Saudi Arabia has become symbiotic. Not only that we are dependent on their oil, but we are also dependent on selling them-- the administration you worked for sold them all kinds of fighter jets, which helped us in many ways decrease our unit cost. And this last administration pushed them to buy Boeing airliners for their airline help, aircraft manufacturer. That basically we've tried to recycle the petrodollars and use these Saudi princes to do that. Is it true?

Well, the facts are true. I don't think the fact that this is somehow some great cabal or conspiracy is true.

I don't know if it's said as a cabal or a conspiracy. Secretary Baker, for instance, you can see people travel back-- You've been back to Saudi Arabia to do business, right?


Well, Secretary Baker's done business there, or former President Bush has done business there. They're a close ally, and there's a lot of U.S. trade. That's one of the reasons they go back and forth.

Well, of course, but there's nothing wrong with that.

No, but some people would say it makes us closer to the established regime.

Well, I see no reason we should try to distance ourselves from the established regime. Is it our kind of system? No. But, it's their kind of system. They are gradually changing. Are they changing the way we would like? I don't think that that ought to be our primary concern, especially not at this particular moment.

But, what about the fact that 15 of the hijackers were Saudis. That there's been ample evidence that Saudi money has gone into charities and other organizations which have fostered a form of fundamentalist Islam that's become a breeding ground for this kind of activity?

Sure, that goes on inside Saudi Arabia, yes.

And outside.

And outside.

They export money to promote this kind of world view.


Because they are strict Muslims in the sense of Wahhabism, close to the Taliban. It seems almost like it's a schizophrenic society.

We don't have any problem with Wahhabism, as long as it is not engaged in terrorism. We don't like their practices. We're not fighting Islam, or any particular form of Islam. We're fighting terrorism.

And, you know, you can say the regime is two-faced. They pay off the terrorists, they pay off the Wahhabis, they let the culture police free and so on to keep themselves in power. That may--

People tell us that.

Well, it may all be true. But, should we throw up our hands in horror and say, "No, this is not a regime that we should be comfortable with?" I don't think so.

But, Louie Freeh, head of the FBI, made it a point to say that they were not being really cooperative, for instance, in our criminal investigations related to Khobar Towers bombing ... and other things.

That's a separate problem. That is partly true, and I think it's partly of concern, maybe for what we would find. And also, has a lot to do with FBI methods, that they are not great diplomats. Our Ambassador in Yemen forbid them to come back to investigate the Cole because of ...

So, some of this problem is a cultural problem that infests a lot of our society, in general.

Yes, and we have great cultural differences with Saudi Arabia.

So, they're our ally because you believe that they support the same interests basically that we have. And it's an important ally as long as we're this dependent on their oil?

Yes. But, I think they are a genuine ally as well. It's a troubled ally. It's a state in transition between Middle Ages and modernism, grappling with its religion, and so on and so forth. You know, this is the way Turkey used to be before Ataturk came in and said "No, religion has its place but it's not part of the government." And ruthlessly established a democracy.

You know, different people are going to react different ways. And I don't think we should be intolerable because people do things a little differently.

A little differently? They don't have freedom of religion. They don't have freedom of expression.

A lot. Well, would you rather have the Taliban in there.

They are very close to the Taliban. They visited them. They regret it now, they said.

But, if you look at the Taliban in Afghanistan and the way they govern, and the Saudi regime and the way it governs, they're not very close.

Well, they're not very close as of 1998, they say. But, they do tell us on the record, that yes, they did support the Taliban.

So did the Pakistanis.

And they tell us they paid the Pakistanis to support them.


In fact, one senior Saudi official told me they were still paying the Pakistani ISI Intelligence Service up until Sept. 10 or 11.

Quite possibly.

The appearance is that they're playing both sides.

They're playing both sides because they're in a very difficult position. I'm convinced there's no doubt where their interests lie. And it's with us. But, they're afraid. They're afraid, first of all, can they rely on us in a pinch?

Well, we came to their aid with 500,000 troops.

Yes, we did. But, if you remember at the time the Shah of Iran fell, we offered to send a squadron of F15s over to Saudi Arabia as a gesture of the fact that we would defend them. Halfway over there we announced that those F15s were unarmed, we announced it publicly. And that was thrown back in my face when we started to build up for the Gulf conflict.

How did that happen? Who told you this?

That's a fact. That's a fact. In the Carter administration, absolutely.

But who in 1990 told you this?

Prince Bandar. I said, "We're prepared to help you." And he said, "Why should we want your help. Because if things get tough, you'll turn around. You won't defend us. We can't count on you. Now, we demonstrated in the Gulf War they could count on us. But, now I think those suspicions are coming back because of what's happened in the ten years in between. And there's a lot of unease about whether we will really come to their aid.

In other words, the rise of Crown Prince Abdullah as opposed to King Fahd whose been ill or incapacitated, is an indication of his policies, that they have less trust in the United States?

No. .... I think it is their perception of us. And, I think, that there are doubts. And the doubts extend to the point that they're not willing to stick their necks out and be in the front, because if we do back away, then they're exposed.

And is it surprising to you that there are these reports that in Saudi Arabia Osama bin Laden is somewhat of a folk hero among many people?

No, it's not a surprise.

Among our allies?

Well, look, allies are people, and it depends. For example, there's a deep sense of injustice when they look at what's going on in the West Bank. And they see American F16s and American helicopters bombing Palestinian villages. Okay?

Isn't Israel our ally?

Yes, Israel's our ally. But, are the Palestinians our enemy? No, they are not. I'm not talking to the merits of that. I'm talking about the perception in the Arab world of us wanting everybody to support us.

For example, support the U.N. resolutions on Iraq. But, when it comes to the U.N. resolutions, dealing with the Palestinian issue, we're silent. Thre are very good reasons for it; no question about it. But, the perception. You say why do some Saudis feel that way? The perception is that we are not even handed...

We did an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of your predecessors--

Successors-- both. I was before him and after him.

He talks about the concept of turning Saudi Arabia, basically, into an island of security for the United States once Iran fell. And that's why we had urged this build up of bases and compatible equipment and everything else in Saudi Arabia at that point.

I think that is partly true, but the notion that we forced this on a Saudi Arabia and thus drove them into economic straights, I think is what I'm quibbling. When we inherited from the British that region in about 1969 to '71, we first turned to Iran as an anchor of stability. And when the Shah fell, then we basically went to balancing off Iran and Iraq against each other to maintain stability.

Now, in the course of that, the eight year Iran/Iraq war when we didn't want either side to win, we did help Saudi Arabia defend itself, build up its infrastructure.

To me the way you describe it makes it sound like we pushed it on an unwilling Saudi Arabia. The Saudis saw a threat, here is Iran and Iraq fighting in their neighborhood and, depending on who won, they might be in serious jeopardy. There's a whole Shiite settlement in Eastern Saudi Arabia. It's a very complicated issue. And, I think, to make it as simple as some of your questions indicate is-- Well, it changes it significantly, because it's not simple ...

It's not as simple that we urged them to buy American or build up bases--

We did urge them to buy American as opposed to anybody else. We didn't say, look, you guys need defense forces; we want you to buy them, because we need the money. The implication of what you're saying, I'm saying that's wrong.

The Saudis wanted to improve their defense capability and they did. And at that time they had almost no air force. We didn't cooperate near as much on the armies as we did ...

But, we did urge them, for instance, to build up this infrastructure of bases--

They were going to build the infrastructure. They had to have the infrastructure to fly the airplanes. We said when you build the infrastructure, build it in a way that makes it compatible with U.S. forces so that if we have to come and defend you, we can do it immediately, rather than having to set up for sixty days.

And the Saudis you see as still our ally?

Yes. Worried, concerned a lot--as is Egypt.

home · introduction · interviews · analyses · haroun fazul · chronology
discussion · links & readings · reporting from the new york times
tapes & transcripts · press reaction · credits · privacy policy · FRONTLINE · pbs online · wgbh

photo copyright © afp/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation