Thicker than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia
by Rachel Bronson
Oxford. 368 pp. $28.00
When President Bush declared in his recent State of the Union address that the U.S. is dangerously “addicted to oil” from unstable countries, Saudi Arabian officials were indignant. Saudi ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal met the next day with national security adviser Stephen Hadley, who assured him that the President had not really meant what he said. It was yet another sign that, despite 9/11 and the stream of Saudi militants who even now are entering Iraq’s Sunni triangle, the Bush administration is largely adhering to the decades-old American policy of coddling the sheikhs who sit atop the world’s largest oil reserves.
In Thicker than Oil, Rachel Bronson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, offers a probing examination of the tangled history of U.S.-Saudi relations. An assiduous researcher, she expertly chronicles the actions of both sides from the 1940’s down to the present. Oil naturally plays a prominent role in Bronson’s story, but, more surprisingly, so too do anti-Communism and a shared religiosity, which she sees as key factors in solidifying U.S.-Saudi ties. The result is an informative and wide-ranging account, if not a fully persuasive one.
As Bronson shows, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has never been quite as smooth as diplomats on both sides like to pretend. The legend of the great friendship between the two nations began with the famous 1945 meeting between King Abdul Aziz and Franklin D. Roosevelt on board the USS Quincy, anchored in the Great Bitter Lake north of the Suez Canal. (To this day, she notes, the U.S. embassy in Riyadh occasionally trots out for display a glass-enclosed replica of the ship.) Returning home from Yalta, Roosevelt pursued two aims with the Saudi monarch. With the war still being waged in the Pacific, he was eager to ensure uninterrupted oil supplies to American troops. In addition, he hoped to persuade Aziz to avert conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. It was the first of a long line of presidential entreaties that would go nowhere: Aziz told Roosevelt that the U.S. should try to resettle the Jews in Europe.
If Roosevelt initiated the relationship, Harry S. Truman brought it to fruition. To the horror of most of his advisers, who warned that he might destroy our relations with the Arab states, Truman insisted on recognizing Israeli independence in 1948. The Saudis were indeed upset, but they swallowed their anger—in large part, Bronson argues, because of Aziz’s fierce opposition to the Soviet Union. Not only did he invite the Americans to train Saudi forces, but he also granted them access to a military airstrip on the country’s eastern shore, providing the U.S. with a base of operations in the region while also furnishing his nearby oil fields with a defensive shield.
With the rise of Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser, cold-war politics again intervened. At first, President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles thought they might cozy up to the Egyptian leader, especially after siding with him against France and Britain during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. Soon enough, however, Nasser was denouncing the West and hailing the Soviet Union as a great liberating force for the third world. For help in the region, the U.S. had little choice but to turn to Aziz’s successor, the feckless and corrupt King Saud. As Bronson writes, Eisenhower left his successor, John F. Kennedy, with “a Middle East mess.”
American delusions about the region persisted. Kennedy initially thought that, given enough good will and blandishments, he, too, could woo Nasser. The new President hoped that the modernization of states like India, Indonesia, and Egypt would be the hallmark of his administration. But Nasser’s aggressive military moves, including an attack on Yemen that was meant to weaken Saudi influence, quickly exploded any such notion.
Nor was Saudi Arabia a reliable ally. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, approved large arms sales to the country in the mid-1960’s, only to be repaid with Saudi support for an international oil embargo to punish the U.S. for backing Israel during the 1967 Six-Day war. Oil prices were sent soaring again in 1973 when OPEC followed the same course, a move engineered by a Saudi sheikh.
After the end of the embargo in 1974, Bronson observes, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia began to work more closely together, especially in trying to keep other countries out of the Soviet orbit. With the U.S. in full-scale retreat after Vietnam, the Saudis provided billions in foreign and military aid to Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Pakistan. By the 1980’s, the Saudis were funding the Nicaraguan contras in the face of a congressional ban on U.S. support. “In Afghanistan, Angola, the horn of Africa, and elsewhere,” Bronson writes, “Saudi Arabia’s contributions helped the Reagan administration aid and abet anti-Communist activities on a worldwide scale.”
Like many American cold warriors, the Saudis hated Communism, according to Bronson, at least partly because of its militant atheism. Indeed, she suggests, it is important to recall this commonality when looking at present-day U.S.-Saudi tensions. Though the kingdom’s eagerness to disseminate its strict Wahhabi creed certainly contributed to the later rise of al Qaeda—a group whose core consisted of mujahideen from the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan—the religious enthusiasm of the Saudis is also what made them so stalwart an ally of the United States against the Soviet Union. The two countries were connected, in short, not only by mutual interests based on oil but by a principled opposition to godless Communism.
Bronson supplies many fascinating details about the Saudi anti-Communist crusade, and in this regard convincingly shows that the interests of Riyadh and Washington coincided across a range of issues. Moreover, her book is mercifully free of the conspiracy-minded nonsense that permeates so many other recent accounts of America’s historical relationship to its Middle East allies, including most notoriously Craig Unger’s House of Saud, House of Bush (2004), which portrays the Bushes and their circle as servants of Big Oil in cahoots with the Saudis. Still, in her quest for evenhandedness and her eagerness to show other dimensions of the Saudi-U.S. bond, Bronson overreaches.
This is especially true on the question of religion, which she sees as a key affinity between the two countries right from the outset. As she writes, for instance, of the Eisenhower administration: “Oil by itself does not explain why, in the late 1950’s, the United States sought to transform the Saudi king into a globally recognized Muslim leader. The Saudi leadership’s claim to Mecca and Medina and the importance this had for America’s anti-Communist agenda is a more powerful explanation.” But is it? Bronson simply asserts what she has failed to demonstrate. A more plausible reading is that Saudi stewardship of Mecca and Medina was important to Eisenhower only insofar as it was a symbol of Saudi prestige and influence, and thus stability.
Despite Bronson’s emphasis on religiosity, the Saudi ruling family, it must also be said, has been distinguished less for its piety than for its flamboyantly self-indulgent and ruinously expensive lifestyle. What is missing from her somewhat anti-septic volume is any real flavor of this ruling elite, which resembles less a government than an exotic and especially well-financed mafia.
Worse, in trying to show “how the cold war affected the rise of religion more globally,” Bronson draws unfortunate parallels between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. In her view, the American counterpart to the Saudis’ aggressive promotion of Wahhabism and jihadist militancy is the rise in the U.S. of Christian conservatives. As she writes: “Ronald Reagan’s close ties with the American religious Right dovetailed nicely with his anti-Communist agenda.” Yes, perhaps. But surely she does not mean to imply that, say, Bob Jones University can be usefully compared with the virulently anti-Western Saudi clerical establishment.
Nor do Bronson’s attempts to find new common ground after September 11 between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. go much beyond the platitudinous. She seems to think it is just a matter of working out a few kinks in the relationship. “Today, Saudi leaders must work to address issues surrounding the financing of extremist thought,” she says. “In return, Washington must find ways to help the pragmatists [in Riyadh] prevail in their domestic battle.”
If only it were that simple. The U.S. has always been beguiled by the notion that Saudi Arabia is an island of moderation in a sea of radical Arab states, but that is an illusion. Saudi Arabia shows no signs of fundamental change, and even the Bush administration remains reluctant to demand it. For now, there is little reason to think that future chapters in the relationship will be any less uneasy than the ones recounted here by Rachel Bronson.