Bob Kaiser '64 on US-Saudi relations
Bob Kaiser '64 is Associate Editor of the Washington Post. Here follows a three-part article which he co-authored with David Ottaway and published in the Post on February 10, 11, and 12, 2002.
- Saudi Leader's Anger Revealed Shaky Ties
- Oil for Security Fueled Close Ties
- After Sept. 11, Severe Tests Loom for Relationship
Bush's Response Eased a Deep Rift On Mideast Policy; Then Came Sept. 11
On Aug. 24, Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz, the leader of Saudi Arabia, was in his palace in Riyadh watching President Bush's televised news conference in Texas when Bush was asked about the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process," which had again been undermined by a new round of violence.
"The Israelis will not negotiate under terrorist threat, simple as that," Bush said. "And if the Palestinians are interested in a dialogue, then I strongly urge Mr. Arafat to put 100 percent effort into . . . stopping the terrorist activity. And I believe he can do a better job of doing that."
Abdullah interpreted the president's remarks as absolving Israel and blaming Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, for worsening conditions, according to a senior Saudi official. An impulsive, emotional man, Abdullah "just went bananas," the same official said. The crown prince picked up the telephone and called his ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was watching the same news conference at his palatial residence in Aspen, Colo.
Abdullah said he wanted Bandar to see Bush at once and deliver a harsh message, the culmination of months of tension between Saudi Arabia and the new Bush administration. The message delivered by Bandar to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was summarized by a senior Saudi official in these terms:
"We believe there has been a strategic decision by the United States that its national interest in the Middle East is 100-percent based on [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon." This was America's right, the message continued, but Saudi Arabia could not accept the decision. "Starting from today, you're from Uruguay, as they say. You [Americans] go your way, I [Saudi Arabia] go my way. From now on, we will protect our national interests, regardless of where America's interests lie in the region."
Bandar was instructed to cut off further discussion between the two countries. The time had come to "get busy rearranging our lives in the Middle East."
Bandar's message was a shock to the Bush administration. As had often happened in the past, these two countries ― intimate strangers in many respects ― had not really been hearing each other. But over the next two days, the United States went to extraordinary lengths to try to repair the relationship, its closest with any Arab country, finally satisfying the Saudis with a personal letter to Abdullah from the president himself.
Two Disparate Nations
Not really hearing each other has long helped both countries sustain the idea that they are close allies, and not an odd couple. In fact, they could hardly be more different. Saudi Arabia is an Islamic monarchy ruled secretively by one family, the huge Saud clan, in collaboration with Islamic fundamentalists; it has neither free media nor transparent legal institutions, nor any guarantees of human or civil rights.
By not acknowledging their fundamental differences, neither country has had to confront them. Their relations have been a diplomatic version of "don't ask, don't tell," a phrase Bandar said might have been inspired by a verse from the Koran: "Ask not about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble."
What has been plain to officials of both countries is their self-interest. Saudi Arabia wants, and has always received, American protection. The United States needs, and has nearly always received, Saudi oil. What can cause trouble is the realization that these two allies have very little in common beyond security and oil.
"Have we [the United States and Saudi Arabia] understood each other particularly well?" asked Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush. "Probably not. And I think, in a sense, we probably avoid talking about the things that are the real problems between us because it's a very polite relationship. We don't get all that much below the surface."
Oil and security did provide the basis for a fruitful relationship from the mid-1970s through the Persian Gulf War in 1991. With U.S. backing, Saudi Arabia transformed itself from a medieval desert kingdom to a modern and wealthy state. Saudi money greased the relationship and supported U.S. policy goals from Afghanistan to Nicaragua, while Saudi leaders often defended U.S. interests in the councils of Arab states.
Sept. 11 and its aftermath confronted Americans with the impolite fact that their principal Arab ally is a theocratic monarchy that has supported Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Muslim world. Even more upsetting, Osama bin Laden and 15 of the terrorists who crashed planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were Saudis. These discoveries prompted an angry American reaction that alarmed the Saudis and shook their confidence in their most important diplomatic relationship.
But as Abdullah's own anger in August demonstrated, the relationship was coming under serious strain even before Sept. 11. After the Cold War and the Gulf War, "a lot of common interest disappeared," said Chas. W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Sharp differences had already emerged about how to deal with Iraq and Iran ― two of the three countries in Bush's "axis of evil" and both neighbors of Saudi Arabia. Potentially more threatening have been starkly differing views over how to deal with Israel and Arafat, which caused the previously unreported incident in August. Saudis have begun to question the continued efficacy of the U.S. military presence in their country. Altogether, points of disagreement now threaten to overwhelm the two countries' shared interests.
These articles will explore the evolution of this "special relationship" and examine its uncertain future as Bush presses the U.S. war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan. They are based on official documents and more than 60 interviews with U.S. officials and senior Saudi analysts and officials, many of whom insisted on anonymity. Senior U.S. officials refused to discuss the August episode or the future of Saudi-U.S. relations, apparently because of the extreme sensitivity of the relationship. "We've decided we won't be participating in these articles," said Sean McCormack, spokesman for the National Security Council.
2001 began hopefully for the Saudis. The new U.S. president was the son of the most popular American in Saudi Arabia, George H.W. Bush, a national hero for his role in protecting the kingdom from Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 1990-91. Saudis, who know about dynasties, had high expectations for the son.
Those expectations turned into bitter disappointment as the year progressed and Israeli-Palestinian relations continued to deteriorate. Throughout the Arab world, frustration grew with the United States for standing silently on the sidelines as the violence intensified. Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler because of the prolonged incapacitation of King Fahd, his half-brother, became increasingly angry, according to Saudi sources.
The Americans realized that Abdullah was upset and tried repeatedly to calm him, U.S. officials said. Bush invited him to visit Washington, Camp David, his ranch in Crawford, even the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y. ― a venue proposed because Roosevelt and Abdullah's father, King Abdulaziz, known also as ibn Saud, established the modern Saudi-American relationship in a meeting onboard a ship on the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal in 1945. The president's father telephoned Abdullah to try to assure the crown prince that the new president's "heart was in the right place." But Abdullah rebuffed all of these advances.
Making Frustrations Clear
Palestine, and then Israel, had been a sensitive subject in Saudi-U.S. relations since Roosevelt's first contacts with ibn Saud. Israel's battlefield successes provoked a Saudi-led oil embargo against the United States in 1973. After Ariel Sharon was elected Israel's prime minister in February 2001, the Saudis pressed the United States repeatedly to restrain Sharon and bring him back to the negotiating table.
In a series of letters to Bush and in other messages to Washington, Abdullah made his frustrations clear. "Don't they see what is happening to Palestinian children, women and the elderly?" Abdullah asked in an interview with the Financial Times in June. He was seeing this himself, his associates said, on television almost every night. Official Saudi television showed extensive film clips of the fighting and of Israel's forceful military actions in nearly every news broadcast.
But the Bush administration did not respond, and did not take action to stop the violence. The new administration sought to distance itself from the policy of Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, who made the last serious effort to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in his final weeks in office. The Bush administration told the Israelis and the Palestinians that if they wanted to resume the peace talks, they should do so themselves.
In July, the Saudis issued a statement in the name of King Fahd, warning that Israel's "systematic actions" against the Palestinians risked plunging the Middle East "into a dangerous phase." Two weeks later, Vice President Cheney gave an interview that appeared to endorse Israel's preemptive attacks against Palestinians whom Israel suspected of terrorism, further upsetting the Saudis.
On Aug. 9, the Saudi ambassador to Britain, Ghazi Qussaibi, published an article in Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper, that ridiculed Bush as a know-nothing governed by "complexes" ― first of all, a desire to avoid looking like his father or his predecessor. "In a few months, this man created enemies for America to an extent making him worthy of a new prize, to be called the prize for transforming friends into adversaries, effortlessly," wrote Qussaibi. Saudi diplomats learned that Bush saw an account of this article and that he was not amused.
On the night of Aug. 23, Israeli tanks made their deepest incursion yet into the West Bank, into the town of Hebron, marking a new escalation of the fighting. On the same day, according to two Saudi officials, Abdullah saw news footage from the West Bank of an Israeli soldier holding a Palestinian woman to the ground by putting his boot on her head. "Abdullah saw that and he went berserk," one senior Saudi recounted. "A woman being beaten by a man ― he just felt this is the ultimate insult."
Abdullah responded by calling Bandar, his unusual ambassador in Washington. Bandar is the son of Prince Sultan, the Saudi defense minister and Abdullah's half-brother. Bandar's mother was a servant, and Sultan did not recognize him as a legitimate son until he was a teenager. After training as a pilot, Bandar became the Saudi Air Force's one-man acrobatic team ― its version of the Blue Angels. He was then assigned to Washington as a military attaché, lobbying Congress to approve the sale of F-5 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia and learning about U.S. politics. He was just 34 when King Fahd, his uncle and mentor, named him ambassador to the United States in 1983.
Over the years, Bandar came to personally embody the Saudi-American relationship. His gregarious charm and gift for the big gesture won him easy access to high-level officials, and he became a close personal friend of the first President Bush, invited to family events at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. The dean of the diplomatic corps by virtue of his long assignment in Washington, Bandar is the only ambassador who has his own State Department security detail ― granted to him because of "threats" and his status as a prince, according to a State Department spokesman. But in the 1990s, held at arm's length by the Clinton administration, he seemed to lose his fire for the job. "I was getting completely bored," Bandar acknowledged.
When Abdullah telephoned that day in August, Bandar was in Aspen at the vast compound he built there, appraised at $55 million by the local tax collector. The 70,000-square-foot main house has 15 bedrooms and 16 baths. Bandar also has a house overlooking the Potomac in McLean, a palace in Saudi Arabia and a country estate in the English countryside.
Bandar was out when the crown prince called, and by the time he got home, according to a Saudi official, it was the middle of the night in Riyadh, the Saudi capital ― too late to talk with Abdullah. The next morning, after the Bush news conference, Abdullah called again to dispatch him with his message.
The Saudi embassy thought there might be a U.S. answer within four or five days, but it came in only 36 hours. "We were told there was an answer ready to go back [to Abdullah] that answers every point," one senior official said. Bandar picked up the letter and took it personally to the crown prince in Riyadh.
Crucial Letter From Bush
For the Saudis, Bush's letter was "groundbreaking ... Things in it had never been put in writing," one Saudi official said. According to Saudi accounts, Bush outlined an even-handed approach to settling the Arab-Israeli dispute that differed considerably from Sharon's positions on the peace process. One Saudi official said this was a key element: a U.S. vision of a peace settlement that was acceptable to the Saudis, and that differed from any Israeli plan.
Bush's letter, according to Saudi officials, endorsed the idea of a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He expressed a willingness to begin participating more actively in the peace process. Altogether, said Adel Jubeir, a foreign policy adviser to Abdullah, "where he stood was not that much different from where Clinton stood when he left office."
A particularly important passage in Bush's businesslike, two-page letter, Saudi officials said, was his response to Abdullah's complaints about the ways Israelis were treating Palestinians in the occupied territories. In the message to Bush that was conveyed by Bandar, the crown prince said, according to a Saudi official's account: "I reject this extraordinary, un-American bias whereby the blood of an Israeli child is more expensive and holy than the blood of a Palestinian child. I reject people who say when you kill a Palestinian, it is defense; when a Palestinian kills an Israeli, it's a terrorist act." He also referred to the scene he saw on television of the Israeli soldier putting his boot on the head of a Palestinian woman.
In reply, a Saudi official recounted, Bush said he believes the blood of innocent people is the same ― Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, Christian or Muslim. He rejected the humiliation of individuals, which Abdullah took as a response to his comment about the Israeli soldier's boot. "Suddenly, what came through in that letter was the humane part of George W.," said a senior Saudi official.
It is impossible to say what might have happened if Bush had not so quickly mollified the crown prince at the end of August. According to well-placed sources, the Saudis had conveyed to the United States their intention to convene an emergency summit meeting of Arab leaders to offer full support to the Palestinians. They alluded to the possibility of ending all law enforcement and intelligence cooperation with the United States ― of which there had been a great deal. And they signaled their intention to reconsider the Saudi-U.S. military relationship.
Abdullah made this last threat virtually explicit. On Aug. 24, the Saudi chief of staff, Gen. Salih Ali bin Muhayya, arrived in Washington for a high-level review of Saudi-U.S. military collaboration. On the 25th, when he spoke to Bandar by telephone, Abdullah ordered that Salih return immediately to Riyadh, without meeting any Americans. He also ordered a delegation of about 40 senior Saudi officers who were about to leave for Washington to get off their plane. The annual review of military relations was canceled.
"You don't cancel visits like this on the day before," said a senior adviser to the crown prince. "It was a big, big event, and we downplayed it completely." In fact, the cancellation received no public attention at all. But it shocked the Pentagon, according to a senior Defense Department official who had expected to join the meetings with the Saudis.
Bush's letter transformed his reputation in the small circle of Saudis who run their country. Before the letter, these people had come to the conclusion that Bush was a lightweight ― "goofy," as one of them put it. After the letter, "he was strong, judicious, deliberate. . . . His reputation went from rock bottom to sky high."
Abdullah decided to share his correspondence with Bush ― his message delivered by Bandar, which filled 25 pages, and Bush's two-page reply ― with other Arab leaders, including the presidents of Egypt and Syria and the king of Jordan. He summoned Arafat, who was in South Africa, to Riyadh to read it.
According to Saudi officials, they extracted from Arafat a written pledge to satisfy Bush's demands for what Arafat had to do to revive the peace talks, and they sent it back to Washington with their own enthusiastic reply to Bush's letter. The crown prince sent Bandar back to Washington to try to convert the letter into policy and action, first by urging the president to say in public what he had told the Saudis in his letter.
Bandar was convinced that Bush could not have adopted the positions outlined in his letter in just 36 hours. "This must have been something . . . that the administration was thinking about, that they just didn't share with everybody [but] were waiting for the right time," he said. But before he could pursue the matter, he needed to patch things up with U.S. officials. A knowledgeable source quoted American officials as telling Bandar when he returned to Washington, "Hey, you guys scared us." And Bandar reportedly replied: "The hell with you ― we scared ourselves."
On Friday, Sept. 7, Bandar told U.S. officials that Saudi Arabia was "pleased and grateful," as one official put it, to discover that it had misread the Bush administration's attitude toward the Middle East. Saudi Arabia would continue to try to protect U.S. interests, he promised. The Americans indicated a willingness to pursue a new Mideast initiative immediately, Saudi officials said ― a sharp departure from the administration's policy for seven months.
Over the weekend of Sept. 8 and 9, officials of the two countries discussed what should happen next: a speech by Bush, or by Powell, or perhaps both? There was also discussion of a Bush-Arafat meeting at the United Nations later in September, an important point for the Saudis, who were pleased that Bush seemed willing to have the meeting. Powell left for a previously scheduled trip to Latin America on Monday, Sept. 10, with these decisions still pending.
Even without the final decisions, Bandar was euphoric. After months in what he called "a yellow mood" over the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, "suddenly I felt the same feeling I had as we were going to Madrid [to the peace conference that followed the Gulf War in 1991], that we really were going to have a major initiative here that could save all of us from ourselves ― mostly ― and from each other."
So "the happiest man in the world that night, on Monday night, was Bandar bin Sultan. I was in the [indoor] swimming pool [of the McLean residence], smoking a cigar. I gave myself a day off because I worked the whole weekend. I had been to Saudi Arabia . . . out with the [Bush] response, back with our response. I worked on the weekend up to 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock in the morning. . . . I worked all Monday. And I said to my office, Tuesday I'm taking the day off."
Tuesday was Sept. 11. Instead of a day off, Bandar got the worst crisis of his career. Dreams of a new Mideast peace initiative evaporated. The realization that most of the hijackers were Saudis "fell on me ... like the whole house collapsed over my head," Bandar said later. He couldn't imagine a way to "do more damage or worse damage to Islam or to Saudi Arabia."
But Major Differences Led to Tensions
The worst day in Saudi-American relations was Oct. 20, 1973, when Saudi King Faisal joined an Arab oil embargo against the United States. In a matter of days, the global oil market was thrown into chaos. Americans waited in long lines to buy gasoline. Within weeks, the price of oil more than tripled.
Not for the first or last time, the United States had misread the situation inside Saudi Arabia. When Egypt and Syria launched the Yom Kippur war against Israel that October, American officials said, publicly and privately, that the Saudis would never join an oil embargo to support their Egyptian and Syrian allies. But when it became clear that Israel was about to humiliate the Arabs once again and the Nixon administration asked Congress for an emergency appropriation of $2.2 billion to pay for arms shipments to Israel, Faisal yielded to the wishes of the Saudi Ulema, the country's Muslim elders, and wielded his oil weapon to punish the United States.
The oil embargo, accompanied by production cuts, was short-lived, but it changed the world. Faisal was pleased to find a way, in March 1974, to lift it, but by then the price of oil had risen from less than $3 a barrel to more than $11. It was a change destined to transfer hundreds of billions of dollars from oil-consuming nations to oil producers, making Saudi Arabia enormously rich. On the foundation of that wealth and the oil that produced it, the modern Saudi-American relationship was constructed.
It was constructed urgently by the United States, which was chastened and scared by the embargo. William E. Simon, one of its architects as the secretary of Treasury at the time, neatly summarized the United States' suddenly intense interest in Saudi Arabia on the eve of a visit to the kingdom in August 1974.
"My visit to Saudi Arabia," Simon wrote in a memorandum, "is an important next step in the continuing process of establishing the closest possible partnership with the Saudis. For the U.S. the primary interest is our continued access to Saudi Arabian oil in adequate quantities ... at an acceptable political as well as economic price. We wish to assure that the Saudis continue to exercise their growing power in oil and monetary matters with moderation and in ways consistent with our own objectives."
Simon's memo, preserved in his papers at Lafayette College, makes the policy objective sound quite simple, but the reality was much more complicated, as the embargo had demonstrated. The sharing of power between the secular and religious authorities of Saudi Arabia is one of the many factors that have made the Saudi-American alliance "one of the most complicated relationships that we have," in the words of former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright.
The history of the modern relationship ― much of it never publicized and little understood by Americans ― makes clear that it isn't just complicated; it is also intensely intimate in many respects but always colored by profound cultural differences.
Saudi Arabia's new horde of "petrodollars" was on Simon's mind as he prepared for his visit to the kingdom. The Americans hoped the Saudis would use much of their windfall to help finance the U.S. budget deficit by buying American Treasury bills and bonds. Simon wanted to be sure the Saudis had easy access to these securities. A list of talking points prepared for Simon shows the arguments Americans made to the Saudis, some of which sound like a commercial for Salomon Smith Barney or Merrill Lynch: "Investment directly with the U.S. Treasury can provide great convenience and protection against the adverse movements otherwise likely to face an investor when placing or liquidating large investments."
To keep the petrodollars flowing, Simon and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger proposed a Saudi-U.S. Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation. Its innocuous name disguised its role in pursuing what Simon called "a new concept of foreign relations ... to develop a link of relationships" between the two countries "that will permeate many levels of economic life."
The idea, according to Charles Schotta, a senior Treasury Department official at the time, was to create a mechanism that would allow Americans to provide technical advice and assistance to Saudis on a broad range of issues, from how to create a modern customs service and how to collect statistics on a fast-growing economy to how to desalinate and distribute drinking water. The arrangement had one unique aspect: The recipient of the assistance, Saudi Arabia, paid for all of it.
The Saudis ultimately deposited well over $1 billion in an account at the Treasury Department in Washington to pay the costs of everything done under the auspices of the Joint Commission, including the salaries and living expenses of the Americans who worked for it. Americans administered that fund and, after consultations with Saudis, decided how it would be spent.
Its impact is visible today in many ways. Americans taught Saudis how to create the infrastructure of a modern state ― something they had to build from scratch beginning in the mid-1970s. Not surprisingly, the Americans taught them to do what Americans do. Schotta put it this way:
"If you were a U.S. businessperson doing business in Saudi Arabia, the apparatus there would be entirely familiar to you because it looks and operates very much like its counterpart agencies in the U.S." This begins on arrival, Schotta said. "Arriving in Saudi Arabia, going through customs and immigration, is just like arriving in the U.S." The Saudi banking system, financial markets and many other governmental practices and institutions, all were shaped or influenced by advisers hired under the Joint Commission.
An Arranged Marriage
Like the work of the Joint Commission, the Saudi-American relationship went unnoticed, or barely noticed, in the United States.
"What the public knew [about the relationship] was not very much," said Don DeMarino, who lived in Saudi Arabia from 1985 to 1987 and was the local director of the Joint Commission. "When I lived there, no Americans were interested."
The Saudis liked it that way, according to an American with experience in Saudi Arabia. They "have always preferred to operate this relationship on a small and high pedestal" ― between the most senior officials.
Given the differences between them, the Saudi-American relationship was always more like an arranged marriage than a romantic union. On one side, a theocratic monarchy sitting atop one-fourth of the earth's oil, a strict Islamic regime allowing neither freedom of speech nor any political rights to its citizens; on the other, the modern world's oldest, most open democracy and by far its largest consumer of oil. The values, customs and beliefs of either society would horrify the other if they were imposed upon it, yet since the time of Simon's visit to Saudi Arabia, the two governments have played the parts of the closest of friends. And they really have been close, relying on each other for national security, oil, political support, money, intelligence and more.
The alliance has been convenient for both parties, giving Saudi Arabia the security it craved in a dangerous neighborhood while assuring the United States a reliable supply of oil at ― nearly always ― an affordable price. But there were inherent sources of tension.
The Saudis have made an ongoing effort to prevent Americans from understanding them, particularly their politics. What goes on inside the councils of the ruling House of Saud, the royal family, has remained hidden. For their part, Americans have given the Saudis ample opportunity to be cynical about U.S. attitudes and intentions.
From the moment the Saudis became rich, Americans materialized who were eager to share their wealth ― from reputable giants such as Boeing and Bechtel to fly-by-night crooks looking for a fast buck, or riyal. The Saudis have reciprocated with demands that foreign contractors pay "commissions" of at least 5 percent to well-connected locals, often one of the kingdom's 8,000 princes. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, said recently that of the $400 billion or so Saudi Arabia has spent over three decades to construct a modern nation, perhaps $50 billion was lost to corruption or mismanagement. "So what? We did not invent corruption," he told a PBS interviewer.
The U.S. government, eager to help in countless ways, was always alert for an economic advantage. U.S. government agencies have always charged the Saudis top dollar while accepting Saudi generosity whenever it was offered. For example, U.S. aircraft have used Saudi jet fuel since the first American AWACs flew to the kingdom in 1979. When the Saudis send a military officer to a U.S. training facility, they pay a higher tuition than other countries, including America's NATO allies.
The U.S. Corps of Engineers supervised billions of dollars worth of construction projects in Saudi Arabia, beginning soon after World War II, and intensely from 1974 onward. The corps moved its Mediterranean Division from Italy to Riyadh, renaming it the Middle East Division, and ultimately divided the country into three districts. Over the years, the corps supervised construction of three huge bases, including the $6 billion King Khalid Military City, a Saudi military academy, two deep-water ports for the Saudi navy, airfields, barracks and housing estates, and much more. When signed, the contracts for this work were worth more than $14 billion ― several times that much in 2002 dollars.
The Saudis spent well over $100 billion on American weapons, construction, spare parts and support, and for years have ranked first in the world as a customer for American arms makers. They bought F-5 and F-16 fighter jets, AWACs observation aircraft, Abrams M-1 tanks, Bradley armored vehicles, naval vessels and much more.
"Let's face it," said Edward S. Walker Jr., former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, "we got a lot of money out of Saudi Arabia."
Over time, the Saudis became almost as efficient at exporting money to the United States as they were at exporting oil. There was simply no way the kingdom ― population 10 million in 1980 ― could absorb the hundreds of billions of dollars it was earning from oil, even with its aggressive program of domestic development. The government, through the Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority, or SAMA, bought securities from the U.S. Treasury while individual Saudis who benefited from the new oil wealth made investments with Western financial institutions.
Saudis came to America to learn new skills. In the 1950s and 1960s, the American-owned Arabian-American Oil Co. (Aramco) sent hundreds of Saudis to American universities. In the 1970s and '80s, the Saudi government financed college educations in the United States for tens of thousands of Saudi students. For Saudi men who were born between the 1940s and 1960s, American degrees are a badge of membership in the national elite. Today, 21 of the 30 ministers of the Saudi government have American degrees, 16 of them PhDs.
Saudis who studied here often fell in love with America and have chosen to live parts of their lives here. Chas W. Freeman, who was the U.S. ambassador to Riyadh in the early '90s, estimates that 100,000 Saudis own houses or apartments in this country. Saudis can pursue lives here they couldn't dream of in the kingdom ― the men exploiting creature comforts not permitted at home and the women enjoying freedoms denied them in Saudi Arabia.
These are "bicultural" Saudis, a term Bandar uses to describe himself, and they are far from typical of their countrymen. "We are the ones who have to fight the temptation" to assume they are typical of the majority of Saudi Arabians, Bandar said.
Saudis have used their money to make new American friends or reward old ones. In 1991, the governor of Arkansas asked Saudi Arabia to contribute to a new center of Middle East studies at his state university. There was no reply for more than a year. Then, in November 1992, the governor got a call from King Fahd, who was calling to congratulate Bill Clinton on being elected president of the United States. Fahd told Clinton the Saudi government had decided to give $20 million to fund the Middle East studies program.
In 1985, Fahd gave $1 million to first lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug program. In 1989, the king gave another million to first lady Barbara Bush's campaign against illiteracy. The Saudis have contributed to every modern president's presidential library, according to a Saudi source.
Bandar has made a number of charitable donations, including a multimillion-dollar gift to Children's Hospital in Washington. In 1991, he put up $250,000 to pay for the Disabled American Veterans winter sports clinic. He has also used money to do favors for American officials.
In a more substantive gesture of friendship, the Saudi envoy made a secret trip to Rome to deposit $10 million into a bank account in Vatican City at the request of William J. Casey, President Ronald Reagan's entrepreneurial ― and secretive ― director of central intelligence. The money was intended for the coffers of Italy's Christian Democratic Party to be used against the Italian communists in an Italian election.
Not long afterward, in June 1984, Robert C. "Bud" McFarlane, Reagan's national security adviser, told Bandar that the contra rebels in Nicaragua were running out of money. Congress would not let the administration give them more, a blow to Reagan's policies, McFarlane explained. The contras were anti-communists fighting a civil war against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista regime ― not a matter of great concern to the Saudis, but Bandar got the message.
Several days later, he came back to McFarlane with the news that the Saudis would secretly put up $1 million a month for the contras. Later, the stipend was doubled. Ultimately, Saudi contributions to the contras totaled more than $30 million. They were supposed to be a secret but became known when the Iran-contra scandal erupted.
Americans who have worked with the Saudis in official capacities often remain connected to them when they leave public office, from former president George H.W. Bush, who has given speeches for cash in Saudi Arabia since leaving office, to many previous ambassadors and military officers stationed in the kingdom. In some cases, these connections have been lucrative.
Walter Cutler, who served two tours as the U.S. ambassador in Saudi Arabia, now runs Meridian International Center in Washington, an organization that promotes international understanding through education and exchanges. Saudi donors have been "very supportive" of the center, Cutler said. Walker, the former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, which promotes understanding with the Arab world. Its board chairman is former senator Wyche Fowler, ambassador to Riyadh in the second Clinton administration. Saudi contributions covered $200,000 of the institute's $1.5 million budget last year, Walker said.
Bandar has told associates that he makes a point of staying close to officials who have worked with Saudi Arabia after they leave government service. "If the reputation then builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office," Bandar once observed, according to a knowledgeable source, "you'd be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office."
A Secret Deal
Secrecy is a regular feature of Saudi-American interactions. It was an important part of the worst moment in the relationship between the 1973 oil embargo and Sept. 11. Once again, Bandar was the central actor.
Though the Saudis were easily America's biggest customer for armaments, they resented the process they had to go through to acquire the most advanced U.S. systems. Twice they survived showdown votes in Congress when friends of Israel opposed the sale of advanced aircraft to them. And on other occasions administrations had to evade congressional opposition to sell weapons to Riyadh. The United States refused to sell some kinds of advanced weapons to the Saudis, including missiles. So the Saudis bought from other countries, too, including Britain, France and ― in one deal that caught the United States by surprise ― China.
In secret talks that began in China in 1985, Bandar negotiated a billion-dollar purchase of Chinese CSS2-class missiles with a range of about 1,500 miles, or enough to reach Turkey and Israel from Saudi territory. The United States ― and Israel ― failed to discover what was going on for two years. When intelligence agencies in both countries realized what had happened, they were livid. The State Department instructed Hume Horan, the recently arrived U.S. ambassador in Riyadh, to see King Fahd in March 1988 to deliver a stern message expressing "surprise and disapproval of this action," as Horan recalled in an interview.
Horan had served as the No. 2 man in the embassy from 1972 to 1977. He had wide-ranging contacts in Saudi society. He was known in the foreign service as America's best Arabic linguist and as a scholarly student of the Arab world. He was the son of an Iranian aristocrat who had been Iran's foreign minister and an American mother, a fact known to the Saudis, who have never liked the Iranians.
Horan said he knew the king would be offended by the verbal spanking he had been ordered to deliver, so he called Washington to confirm that officials there understood the import of their instructions. Yes, he was told ― deliver the message. He did so. When he returned to the embassy, he found a new telegram from Washington revoking his previous instructions ― which he had just carried out. "My goose was cooked," he recalled.
Bandar had persuaded senior officials of the Reagan administration not to deliver an official protest to Fahd. Bandar reassured the Americans that the missiles would be deployed in a way that made clear they were no threat to Israel. They had a conventional warhead and were intended to deter Iraq and Iran, Saudi's traditionally hostile neighbor, and would be used only in retaliation, the Saudis said.
The administration sent Philip Habib, a retired undersecretary of state then serving as a special Mideast peace envoy, to Riyadh to try to mend fences with Fahd. Habib brought Horan to his meeting with the king, a diplomatic mission that has never previously been described.
Fahd was clearly furious with the ambassador, Horan recounted, and asked Habib, in front of him, to have Horan replaced. When Habib raised the issue of the missiles, the king said angrily that he had told Horan "to keep his nose out of it." He complained to Habib about Horan's Iranian ancestry.
The Reagan administration decided to quickly replace Horan by bringing back his predecessor, Cutler, also a foreign service professional, but not an Arabic speaker and scholar like Horan. The decision was so quick that even before Horan could leave the country, the State Department asked him to seek Saudi approval for Cutler's reappointment as ambassador. This was a mission that humiliated Horan, as he makes clear nearly 14 years later.
"They made us kowtow," he said. Successfully forcing the Americans to replace their ambassador gave the Saudis a palpable psychological edge in their dealings with the United States. "The American ambassador's influence ended in Riyadh," Horan said. Henceforth, Bandar dominated the relationship in Washington.
When Iraqi troops marched into Kuwait in August 1990, the oil-for-security bargain at the center of the Saudi-American relationship was fulfilled. Saddam Hussein threatened the world's greatest oil basin in and around the Persian Gulf, with Saudi Arabia at its center. Within months, half a million American soldiers had arrived in Saudi Arabia preparing for Desert Storm, a massive military campaign to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait.
This huge deployment was made without any formal agreements. The Americans promised to withdraw from Saudi Arabia when the job was done, or when asked to leave, but they never completely left. About 5,000 U.S. troops remain today, and their presence has become a source of controversy.
Saudi leaders have been criticized by Islamic extremists abroad and religious leaders inside the kingdom for allowing the American military to become a seemingly permanent presence in the land of Islam's two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina. The ruling House of Saud is particularly sensitive to the views of its Ulema because it depends on their support for its legitimacy.
Muslim clerics have been partners in power in Saudi Arabia since the 18th century, when the king's ancestor, Mohammed Ibn Saud, made a deal with Mohammed ibn-Abd al-Wahhab, a charismatic Muslim who led a fundamentalist religious revival in Arabia. From that moment to the present day, the House of Saud has ruled Arabia (as it has for most of the past 250 years) in concert with the leaders of the Wahhabi religious establishment.
Fahd pleaded and prodded to win a reluctant endorsement from his Islamic elders. The 1990 fatwa, or religious edict, issued by the most influential elder, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Bin Baz, suggested this reluctance: "Even though the Americans are, in the conservative religious view, equivalent to nonbelievers, as they are not Muslims, they deserve support because they are here to defend Islam."
Many other members of the Ulema accepted this conclusion only reluctantly, or not at all, according to Saudi sources. But first the Bush and then the Clinton administrations decided that as long as Hussein remained in power and posed a threat to his neighbors, the United States would need the facilities provided by Saudi Arabia, particularly the Prince Sultan Air Base. There, the Pentagon has built a state-of-the-art command center that it used to coordinate the air war against Afghanistan.
In the first flush of victorious enthusiasm after the Gulf War, the Saudis were happy to pick up much of the tab for the allies who helped defend them ― a tab of perhaps $60 billion. And the Saudis began an aggressive arms acquisition program ― $33 billion more for America's arms makers. But by the mid-1990s, the Saudis could no longer afford these purchases. They fell $6 billion to $7 billion into arrears and had to stretch out some payments and slow down the delivery of F-16s to avoid canceling contracts. Plans to buy more aircraft were shelved.
With help from European and American allies, the Saudis could defeat Hussein, but they could not prop up oil prices. From a peak of $227 billion in 1981, Saudi oil income fell below $60 billion a year in the '90s to as low as $35 billion in 1998 (all these are expressed in constant, 2000 dollars). This led to big deficits in the Saudi budget and severe cuts in military spending. Even the $80 million to $100 million the Saudis paid annually to cover local costs of the U.S. military presence was becoming a burden.
New political problems arose as well. With the inauguration of Clinton in 1993, Bandar and the Saudis lost their best friends, the comrades-in-arms from the Gulf War of the first Bush administration. Clinton wasn't as interested in the Gulf as Bush had been, and Bandar never had the access to the new administration that he had to the old.
Bandar ― by his own admission ― got bored with his job and began to spend more time at his English country estate or in his Aspen, Colo., retreat. "The Saudi-American relationship went into auto-pilot basically," said Bandar, himself a former Saudi warplane pilot. "There was nothing dangerous that could derail it or require constant watch."
Then in 1995 and 1996, terrorists attacked American targets in Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh and then at Khobar Towers. Twenty-four Americans were killed in the two incidents. The perpetrators of both had ties to Saudi fundamentalists. Four men who confessed to the Riyadh bombing were quickly beheaded ― so quickly that American investigators were given no chance to interview them. The four said they were inspired by Osama bin Laden. American investigators also complained about limited access to the Khobar Towers investigation.
The United States reacted to Khobar Towers by moving its personnel to a remote desert location and sending all dependents home. Americans serving in Saudi Arabia were put on short tours of duty, from 60 days to a year.
Meanwhile, Saudi religious leaders were pursuing their own agenda throughout the Muslim world, funding mosques and schools from Turkey to the Far East and actively supporting the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. They could do these things with the generous donations of Saudi citizens, led by members of the royal family, who consider charity a fundamental part of life and give primarily to religious institutions. Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi clerics made no secret of their proselytizing ambitions.
According to a Saudi analyst, Nawaf E. Obaid, the United States, and particularly U.S. intelligence agencies, never grasped the influence of the Wahhabi elders on Saudi policies, from the time of the 1973 oil embargo through the period of Saudi support for the Taliban. In a Harvard master's thesis, the Saudi-born Obaid concluded that "U.S. analysts have underestimated, overlooked or misunderstood the nature, strength and goals of the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia, as well as the extent to which the secular leaders are beholden to this group."
Obaid ended his prescient paper with a warning that Saudi Arabia was entering a period of "rapid and enormous change" featuring dramatic population growth, decreasing oil revenue and an uncertain royal succession.
"In this situation," he predicted, "it is likely that the religious establishment will gain a relatively larger share of power and, therefore, represent a greater challenge to the U.S."
The day after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz, the Saudi leader, summoned Oil Minister Ali Nuaimi. Saudi Arabia, they quickly decided, would renege on a recent promise to other OPEC nations to cut oil production. Instead, it would rush an extra 9 million barrels of oil to the United States to ensure ample supplies and show Saudi support for a wounded ally.
For the next two weeks, using its own tankers, Saudi Arabia shipped 500,000 barrels or more a day to the United States. This extra Saudi oil helped reduce the price of crude from $28 a barrel in late August to less than $20 a few weeks later. Ever since, American consumers have enjoyed cheap gasoline.
Though it was known in the oil industry, the Saudis never advertised or explained their decision. Abdullah's instant gesture of support for the United States went unnoticed and unappreciated. Instead, Saudi Arabia became the target of angry American criticism.
Politicians and the news media blamed Saudis for financing Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, supporting the Taliban movement that harbored bin Laden in Afghanistan and creating conditions that made it easy for him to recruit the terrorists who had attacked the United States, 15 of whom were Saudi citizens.
For the Saudis, the timing of these attacks on them was painfully ironic. Just days before Sept. 11, they thought they had made an important breakthrough by persuading the Bush administration to change course and seriously engage in the Middle East "peace process." Now, unexpectedly, the Saudi-American relationship was under more strain than at any time since 1973, when the Saudis imposed an oil embargo on the United States because of its support for Israel.
Since Sept. 11, "the veil has been lifted and the American people see a double game that they're not terribly pleased with," said Samuel "Sandy" R. Berger, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, who considers the relationship with Saudi Arabia an "extremely important" one. "They see a [Saudi] regime that is repressive with respect to the extremists that threaten them, but more than tolerant ― indeed, the more we find out, beneficent ― to the general movement of extreme Islamists in the region."
The Saudi government has become so alarmed about expressions of American hostility toward the kingdom that it has launched a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to try to restore confidence in the Saudi-American "special relationship," and to guide it through what Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador here since 1983, describes as "a massive storm called 11th September."
But the strains in the relationship may be beyond the reach of public relations. For a variety of reasons, said policymakers and American specialists on Saudi Arabia, U.S. relations with the kingdom will be tested in new ways in the years ahead.
These experts see serious disagreements emerging between the Bush administration and the Saudi ruling family over how to deal with Iraq and Iran. Already, the two sides are at odds over Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hard-line policy toward the Palestinians and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, an issue that almost ruptured their relations last August.
The future of the U.S. military presence in the kingdom is also in question. At stake for the United States is its continued use of the Prince Sultan Air Base southeast of Riyadh, where the Pentagon has built a state-of-the-art command center that has been used to help direct U.S. war operations in Afghanistan and to orchestrate military activities throughout the Persian Gulf. The air base hosts 5,000 U.S. servicemen, mostly Air Force personnel, and American aircraft used to monitor southern Iraq.
The Washington Post last month quoted a senior Saudi official as saying his government might ask the United States to stop using the air base on a regular basis once the war in Afghanistan is over. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. confirmed in an interview with CNN that the Saudis want a reduction of U.S. forces, and said the United States is interested in "reducing the [American] footprint" in Saudi Arabia. Card predicted that "it will happen over time."
U.S. policymakers and analysts also express concern about the ability of the Saud family to handle what may be a rapid turnover of kings in the next few years and its political resolve to undertake pressing domestic reforms judged critical to Saudi Arabia's future stability.
"The mass murder of September 11th ... has raised many questions in the minds of Americans and others about Saudi Arabia and our relationship to it," said Chas. W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh who is now president of the Middle East Policy Council. "Is there something rotten in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Is it still stable enough to be a reliable partner of the United States in the future?"
"If one takes the president's question seriously, 'Are you with us or against us?' " Freeman continued, referring to President Bush's rhetorical challenge to the nations of the world after Sept. 11, "where does Saudi Arabia really stand?"
A Ruler Of Two Minds
One of the principal uncertainties is Abdullah, who has progressively taken over day-to-day rule of the kingdom since his half-brother, King Fahd, 79, suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995. Fahd is now attended by 26 physicians, according to an American adviser to the Saudi government; while he remains alive, Abdullah, 78, lacks full royal authority to make decisions on his own.
Abdullah appears to be of two minds about the kingdom's relationship to the United States. On the one hand, he firmly defends his country's alliance with America. "Our relationship has been very strong for over six decades, and I don't see any reason why there should be a change," he told visiting editors of The Post in Riyadh last month. But he has also provoked a debate within the ruling Saud family over whether the American military presence has become more of a political liability than a security benefit for the kingdom, according to Saudi sources. And he has stood by Saudi religious authorities who propagate the Islamic fundamentalism that alarms Americans.
In the interview last month, Abdullah discussed the strictures that govern Saudi society, where the Koran is described as the national constitution. The rules banning alcohol, denying women the right to drive or reveal their faces in public and banning non-Islamic religious practice "emanate from the fact that we are home to the House of God [Mecca] and the Prophet's Mosque [Medina]. The presence of the two holy mosques guide what we can do. . . . Our faith and our culture is what drives this country."
Abdullah has been described as less devoted to the United States than Fahd ― more of a Saudi nationalist, and more sensitive to Saudi public opinion that may be skeptical of the royal family's dependence on foreign support. Saudi analysts say Abdullah is much more popular than Fahd, in part because of his populist reputation as a pious man who listens to Saudi citizens.
But if Abdullah is an independent figure in the royal family, he has also demonstrated continued respect for the fundamental, oil-for-security bargain at the heart of Saudi-U.S. relations. Even when he toyed with a rupture in political relations with the United States last August, Abdullah ruled out any use of the oil weapon, according to a senior Saudi official. And it was Abdullah who decided to pump more oil for the Americans on Sept. 12.
It was also Abdullah who, in 1998, pushed through a historic reversal in Saudi oil policy and invited U.S. oil companies, whose Saudi interests were nationalized in 1975, back into the kingdom. The decision gave ExxonMobil and four other American companies a favored position in multibillion-dollar deals to develop Saudi Arabia's vast natural gas reserves.
That decision illustrated Saudi anxiety long before Sept. 11 that ties with the United States were deteriorating. Abdullah wanted to reverse the deterioration, according to senior Saudi officials, and decided to use the kingdom's vast natural resources to try to reinvigorate the American connection.
"Is any Saudi king going to take a chance on its relations with the United States? Absolutely not. It would be suicidal," said a Saudi official, one of several Saudis who said Abdullah's desire to make the U.S. connection somewhat less visible is actually intended to strengthen the alliance.
"The Saudis have this strange kind of attitude of not wanting to be seen in their own circles as having a relationship with the United States, yet wanting a relationship with the United States," said former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright.
Perhaps the most important fact about Abdullah is his age. What happens after he is gone is uncertain. Several U.S. analysts have compared the Saudi challenge to that facing the aging Politburo leadership in the final years of the Soviet Union ― short tenures at the top and many successions.
Next in line is Abdullah's half-brother Prince Sultan, the defense minister (and Bandar's father). But Sultan is Abdullah's age, and is said to be in worse health than the crown prince. There is no obvious candidate in line behind Sultan, raising the possibility of a power struggle in the relatively near future.
A Demographic Dilemma
Whoever is king, Saudi Arabia faces daunting new challenges in the years ahead that grow out of an immutable fact of Saudi life: The country's population is growing much faster than its wealth or its ability to create job opportunities. U.S. analysts say these conditions are creating a social caldron that can breed Islamic extremism.
Abdullah is a social conservative who has shown little interest in confronting his country's demographic dilemma. Saudi Arabia has been probably the fastest-growing nation on Earth. Its population, now about 18 million (plus 5 million or 6 million foreign workers) grew about 4.4 percent a year from 1980 to 1998. The average Saudi family now has six or seven children. A population of 33.7 million is projected for 2015.
Per-capita income has dropped from a peak of $19,000 in 1981 to $7,300 in 1997, measured in constant 1997 dollars ― a stunning reversal. Forty-three percent of the kingdom's 22 million people are 14 years of age or younger, and unemployment is rampant, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Saudi schools and universities are graduating students ― 343,000 in 1999 ― far faster than the economy is creating jobs. However, Saudi young people have shown little interest in taking over the lower-paying jobs held by foreigners working in the kingdom.
The government can no longer support the generous social welfare system it created at the height of the oil boom. Nor can it spend to revive its stagnant economy. From a peak of $227 billion in 1981, its oil revenue dropped to only $31 billion five years later, and remained at less than $60 billion annually throughout the 1990s (in constant 2000 dollars), according to the U.S. Department of Energy. This year, oil revenue is projected to reach only about $48 billion.
Despite their vast reserves, the Saudis have little influence on oil revenue, which is determined more by global supply and demand than by anything they can do unilaterally.
Falling state revenue has contributed to a sharp decline in the number of Saudi students coming to the United States for higher education, a fact that worries some Saudis. "Our children won't be as close to Americans as we have been," said one successful Saudi businessman.
Saudi Arabia's rulers do not believe they have a population problem. "Abdullah won't listen. It's one issue he won't discuss," said a foreigner who tried to discuss the issue with the crown prince. "The attitude is: The bigger the population, the better. When we have 45 million people, then you can talk to us about family planning."
"They look around and see Iran and Iraq with much bigger populations," he added.
Anthony H. Cordesman, author of the CSIS study, said it was not only Abdullah who is indifferent to the burgeoning population. "The technocrats don't listen, either ... Only a handful understand the population problem, and the Saudi clergy doesn't want to hear about it."
A Saudi official said Abdullah was aware of the population problem and had begun to discuss it. The official said it was an issue that had to be dealt with gingerly "because of cultural and religious sensitivities."
Abdullah does care about economic reforms, but Cordesman expressed doubt that the government has found ways to create the jobs it needs. For example, the Saudis had hoped each $1 billion of investment by foreign oil companies in the new gas projects would produce 15,000 jobs. But the companies told the Saudi government the project under discussion could never meet that goal.
"Gas and oil are capital-intensive, not labor-intensive, and so cannot solve the unemployment problem," said Cordesman.
Another concern among American Saudi specialists is Saudi Arabia's five Islamic universities, currently churning out thousands of clerics ― many more than will ever be hired to work in the mosques and religious institutions of Saudi Arabia. Many end up spreading and promoting the kingdom's strict brand of Wahhabi Islam at home and abroad, according to U.S. and Saudi analysts.
"Abdullah doesn't seem to care," said the foreigner who also tried to discuss the birthrate with the crown prince. One reason for that indifference, other specialists said, is Abdullah's close ties to the Wahhabi religious establishment, the Ulema.
Clerics dominate the Saudi education system, which places heavy emphasis on religious instruction and comparatively little on science and math necessary for a "real-world job," according to Cordesman. The religious leaders also control the metaween, the Taliban-like religious police who enforce Saudi customs.
Abdullah is probably the best-placed of any senior Saud family member to control the kingdom's Wahhabi clerics because of his own reputation for piety, according to U.S. and Saudi analysts. He has used that stature to call on them to condemn more forcefully Islamic extremism and terrorism after Sept. 11, but Abdullah has yet to take any steps to curb their control of the education system or of the religious police.
Appealing to 'Joe Sixpack'
Last fall, when U.S. politicians and editorial pages lit into Saudi Arabia for perceived failures to help prevent or fight terrorism, the Saudi officials who have worked hardest on the Saudi-American relationship were appalled.
"Everyone in America was dumping on Saudi Arabia," said Adel Jubeir, a Saudi diplomat who served for years in Washington and is now foreign policy adviser to Abdullah.
Jubeir rushed to Washington to plead the Saudi cause on television and before editorial boards. The hostility they encountered was painful for Jubeir, Bandar and other Saudis who were accustomed to generally warm relations with the United States.
Saudi newspapers featured stories about the harassment of Saudis and other Arabs by American authorities and ordinary citizens angry about the terrorist attacks. According to numerous Americans and Saudis, many of the Saudis who usually travel often to the United States stopped coming. Freeman, the former ambassador to Riyadh who still travels regularly to the Gulf countries, said after a trip in October, "I did not find a single businessman or woman in the Gulf who was willing to come to the U.S. for any purpose."
Taking a cue from Abdullah, many Saudis repeated the idea that for inexplicable reasons, the American news media had launched a campaign against Saudi Arabia.
In an interview, Bandar said saving the relationship would depend on large measure on "Joe Sixpack" ― the average American. "I believe the Saudi relationship with America will fall or continue based on how successful we are to reach the masses of Americans in their homes and villages," he said.
"If we fail there, everything we do with the [American] body politic, with the elites, government to government, will be irrelevant," he added, because "the first wind that shakes this relationship it will collapse because it will have no roots, no basis."
To help regain the mind and heart of Joe Sixpack, the Saudis have turned to a Washington-based public relations firm, Qorvis Communications Inc., to design and run a year-long campaign aimed at selling Saudi Arabia to the American public.
Qorvis is still designing a campaign strategy that will target "the average American" and begin by trying to answer the question, "Is Saudi Arabia a friend or foe? A lot of people don't know," said one company official.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll confirms that conclusion. A survey taken last month found that 10 percent of Americans considered Saudi Arabia an ally, and 14 percent said it was an enemy of the United States. Fifty-four percent said Saudi Arabia was a friendly country, but not an ally.
Qorvis has already run advertisements in major newspapers and magazines portraying a dove of peace in flight with the words "two nations, one goal" and the two countries' flags beneath them. The second phase of the campaign, according to Qorvis planners, will focus on "the values we share."
But what are those values? Jubeir, the crown prince's foreign policy adviser, compared the Saudi-American alliance to the Anglo-American relationship: "You will not find any country [besides Saudi Arabia] with which you have closer ties or a closer congruence of interests, except maybe Great Britain."
The Saudis have promoted that view for many years, but Americans who have been deeply involved in the relationship generally don't accept it. Exposure to the Saudis convinces many Americans that "they" and "we" could hardly be more different.
"These are two countries for which values are immensely important, but the values they hold are about as different as values can be," said Joseph McMillan, a Defense Department official who for years was the Saudi desk officer in the Pentagon's Bureau of International Security Affairs.
Walter B. Slocombe, undersecretary of defense in the Clinton administration, said Saudi Arabia and the United States are "two political cultures talking to each other in totally different languages."
And there's another potential problem: The two countries no longer share the same evaluation of the strategic situation in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has achieved a new detente with its traditionally hostile neighbor, Iran, which the United States still considers a hostile power. The Saudis do not believe a weakened Saddam Hussein can threaten them, while Americans debate whether to invade Iraq (a move Saudis say would cause a crisis in relations with the United States). And the Saudis are staunch defenders of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and his cause.
President Bush appeared to be addressing Saudi concerns last Thursday during a visit with the Israeli prime minister, when he rejected Sharon's request to marginalize Arafat and went out of his way to say he was "deeply concerned about the plight of the average Palestinian." However, these gestures fall short of the new U.S.-sponsored peace initiative that the Saudis thought they had persuaded the Bush administration to undertake just before Sept. 11.
In the face of persistent differences, said a number of American specialists, U.S. administrations and Saudi governments have created a veneer of comity that tends to hide small and large disagreements alike. "When there are disagreements, they go unresolved because resolving them would require contention and debate and argument," said McMillan, the Pentagon official who used to help manage the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
In McMillan's words, "What we have is a relationship that is based not on shared values, but on shared interests" ― security, and oil.
U.S. consumers are actually depending less on Saudi oil; the Saudi share of U.S. imports fell from 24 percent to 14 percent during the 1990s. The Saudis now provide about 8 percent of the oil consumed in the United States. But Saudi Arabia remains the world's dominant producer, because it alone has the capacity to turn on the spigot in a matter of days and transform the global oil market, just as Abdullah did on Sept. 12.
Saudi Arabia is the only oil producer capable of increasing production by 2 million barrels a day. This means, according to Fareed Mohamedi, chief economist at the Petroleum Finance Co., that Saudi Arabia is likely to remain "the dominant oil player and manager of global oil prices" for the foreseeable future.
The Saudi ability to parlay its oil power into political access in Washington seems assured for years to come, Mohamedi suggested, "especially if the American consumer wants to consume oil at the rate that they're become accustomed to, and U.S. politicians will pander to that taste."
Richard Holbrooke, ambassador to the United Nations in the second Clinton administration, agreed: "Our greatest single failure over the last 25 years was our failure to reduce our dependence on foreign oil . . . which would have reduced the leverage of Saudi Arabia."