In This Review
Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership With Saudi Arabia

Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership With Saudi Arabia

By Rachel Bronson

Oxford University Press, 2006, 368 pp.
Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis

Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis

By John R. Bradley

Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 224 pp.

Four and a half years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Saudi Arabia is still under intense scrutiny in the United States. And with good reason. Even as Saudi leaders have struggled to shut off homegrown support for jihad, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Saudi citizens have made the trek to fight in the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq. The government's responses -- such as broadcasting the miniseries Deceit in the Name of Jihad -- have smacked of desperation. Saudi Arabia's rulers, it appears, are more frustrated than confident and less in control than they would like to be.

Some observers even question how earnest these efforts have been. Last June, Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and several other senators introduced the Saudi Arabia Accountability Act of 2005, which claims that the kingdom continues to abet international terrorism. Such suspicion runs deep in the United States, not least because the current mujahideen problem in Iraq is partly the result of the Saudi regime's support for jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer and home to a quarter of the world's proven oil reserves, has also failed to convince the rest of the world that it is doing all it can to rein in record petroleum prices. High gas prices and burgeoning winter heating bills in the United States have increased the American public's frustration with U.S. reliance on foreign sources of energy. Anti-Saudi opprobrium is now so prevalent among Americans that it supports a cottage industry of television commercials, sensationalist cinema, and best-selling books smearing the kingdom.

Still, it is unthinkable that Washington will seek anything other than smooth relations with Riyadh, because Saudi Arabia will continue to be the world's most important source of oil for at least the next half century. After an April 2005 summit between then Crown Prince Abdullah and President George W. Bush, U.S. officials signaled that they would continue to tolerate the political status quo in Saudi Arabia, at least publicly, even though the achingly slow pace of reform there has frustrated the Bush administration's hopes for democratization in the Middle East. (The Saudi regime has clung to its authoritarian ways even since Abdullah, ostensibly a reformer, acceded to the Saudi throne last August.) The problem for Washington will be to balance its security concerns, energy needs, and aspirations for political reform abroad. Two new books, Thicker Than Oil and Saudi Arabia Exposed, consider the scope of the challenge by examining what U.S.-Saudi relations have been, where they stand now, and how changes within Saudi Arabia could shape them in the future.


Rachel Bronson's Thicker Than Oil is a thoughtful history of U.S.-Saudi relations. It challenges the common characterization of the relationship as a bargain in which the Saudis provide easy access to oil in exchange for U.S. security guarantees. Bronson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that this simple generalization "ignores overlapping strategic interests that drove together successive Saudi kings and American administrations." Oil has been the principal reason for the United States' interest in Saudi Arabia since World War II, but it has not been the only one.

The fight against communism is among the interests Washington and Riyadh have shared, and it figures prominently in Bronson's book. Saudi Arabia became an important strategic partner for the United States during the Cold War, not only in the Middle East but also globally, partly, according to Bronson, because anticommunism often advanced Saudi security goals. During the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, Saudi leaders challenged Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who openly sought weapons and aid from the Soviet Union in pursuit of regional hegemony. "Saudi Arabia's anti-Communist activity was particularly helpful during the 1970s when the United States was licking its wounds from the fighting in Vietnam," Bronson notes. "Confronted by an inward-focused America, Saudi Arabia, France, and others built a coalition to challenge Soviet adventurism, independent of American efforts." Often acting on their own initiative, Saudi leaders funded anticommunist efforts in faraway places, including Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua.

Geography, Bronson argues, has also been a critical factor in the relationship. Saudi Arabia was a key staging area for the U.S. military throughout the twentieth century. The United States maintained an airfield in the eastern Saudi town of Dhahran from 1952 to 1996. Located within a thousand miles of the Soviet Union, the airfield played a strategic role during the Cold War; in the 1980s, Bronson writes, it served "as a transit hub for American-procured weapons headed for Afghanistan." During the Persian Gulf War, the United States stationed over 500,000 troops in Saudi Arabia. It maintained a scaled-down but significant military presence in the kingdom as late as 2003, and it has been quietly using a handful of northern Saudi airfields for air support in the current war in Iraq.

Bronson's most novel argument is that religion has also been a key factor in U.S.-Saudi relations. "In addition to oil and geography," she argues, "America has since the dawn of the Cold War valued Saudi Arabia's religiosity." According to Bronson, "Oil by itself does not explain why, in the late 1950s, 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."

Thicker Than Oil offers compelling evidence that U.S. policymakers sought to capitalize on Saudi Arabia's religious conservatism as early as the 1950s. Members of the Eisenhower administration championed King Saud, the kingdom's second monarch, as an "Islamic pope" and a potential rival to the Arab nationalist Nasser. Bronson rightly claims that subsequent U.S. administrations considered Saudi Arabia, "a deeply religious state," to be "the perfect prophylactic against the spread of Communism and a natural American partner." This belief intensified in the 1980s. The importance of Saudi religiosity to the U.S.-led struggle against the Soviet Union played out most obviously in Afghanistan, where the two governments supported the efforts of thousands of mujahideen. Saudi Arabia promoted the anti-Soviet jihad by mobilizing its mosques in the fight and encouraging thousands of its citizens to participate.

Although Bronson's effort to write religion into the U.S.-Saudi relationship is of considerable interest, she stretches the point too far. She does not really support her claim that "in a neat division of labor, Saudis attacked godlessness while Americans fought Communism." Likewise, she overreaches when she argues that "because Soviet-inspired Communism was based on a hostility toward religious belief, the more religious a country, the more likely it would be to rail against Communism and look toward the United States." The internal motivations that turn the wheels of policy inside the kingdom are too complicated to justify Bronson's simplification.

It is plausible that religion helps explain Saudi Arabia's foreign policy and its anticommunism, but the point is hardly obvious. In fact, throughout the twentieth century, Saudi monarchs were far from consistently pious, let alone openly concerned about the religiosity of those around them. King Saud barely concealed his disinterest in matters of faith during his reign, from 1953 to 1964. King Faisal, Saud's successor, was a deeply religious leader, but anticommunism probably did not inform his efforts to promote Muslim unity and spread Saudi religious influence abroad by founding international Islamic institutions. King Fahd, who ruled from 1982 until his death last summer, did emphasize religion, but like Saud, he was better known for his worldly excesses.

It was not until the 1980s, as Bronson notes, that the Saudi government married religion and foreign policy, and the move was more an effort to address pressing domestic threats than an expression of long-standing ideological convictions. The Saudi decision to embrace the jihad in Afghanistan was a response to the 1979 occupation of the mosque in Mecca by Sunni radicals, which threatened the regime's religious credentials. Fearful that radicalism might find popular support among the kingdom's disgruntled citizens, the royal family realized the expediency of co-opting the radicals' message. It was only then that the complete integration of religion and foreign policy took shape.


Although U.S.-Saudi relations were strong during the Cold War, it would be a mistake to conclude that the two countries' shared interests led to consistently smooth ties. As Bronson notes, despite an auspicious beginning, U.S.-Saudi ties have not always been harmonious. President Franklin Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia's founding monarch, established close official ties during their only meeting, in February 1945. But their special relationship died with Roosevelt six weeks later, and U.S.-Saudi ties quickly succumbed to competing political interests. Successive U.S. presidents and Saudi monarchs proved much less enamored of one another, particularly in the period between Ibn Saud's death, in 1953, and Fahd's accession to the throne, in 1982.

Even when Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan made clear that Saudi Arabia was the United States' most important strategic and security asset in the volatile Persian Gulf region, the relationship was hardly smooth. Tensions were partly the legacy of the oil embargo and the subsequent skyrocketing oil prices of the mid-1970s. But they were also the result of competing strategic visions on the part of various U.S. officials. The U.S. Congress often played the most adversarial role, going so far as attempting to block arms sales to the kingdom in the 1980s.

The end of the Cold War was a transformative moment for U.S.-Saudi relations. Even though the two countries cooperated closely in expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, the shared strategic interests that had shaped the relationship for five decades faded with the fragmentation of the Soviet Union. Official relations drifted during the 1990s, as did the American public's interest in the kingdom.

Then came 9/11. The revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens in the service of the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden raised deeply troubling questions about the goings-on inside the kingdom and the threat they posed to the United States. In many ways, the attacks established that Saudi Arabia had become more of a liability than an asset to U.S. security.

John Bradley's Saudi Arabia Exposed, based on the author's two and a half years of extensive travel as a journalist inside the country, shows how insecurity in Saudi Arabia challenges U.S.-Saudi relations today. Regional and ethnic tensions are potentially destabilizing for the ruling family. But more ominous in the long term for both Saudi and U.S. security interests are the pressures that result from the kingdom's high unemployment rates and large population of alienated and restless youth who, although attracted to U.S. technology and elements of U.S. culture, are also enamored of al Qaeda's anti-American ideology.

Bradley is at his best when he profiles common Saudis, juxtaposing their humanity with the brutality and profligacy of the Saudi regime. He humanizes liberal-minded men and women, particularly in the western region of Hejaz, where he spent most of his time. He also examines the plight of expatriates laboring under difficult conditions, courageous Shiites who challenge the religious orthodoxy, and even progressive members of the royal family.

Saudi Arabia Exposed brings to life the tensions between rulers and ruled, offering poignant evidence of widespread disillusionment with the royal family. Saudi rulers are responsible for much of this bitterness. They have long undermined a sense of belonging among their subjects. Rather than embracing diversity, which the kingdom has in great supply, the regime has relied on an austere religious ideology to enforce a narrow range of permissible behavior. Although Saudis are pious to varying degrees, most of them bristle at the often-suffocating hold of religious scholars and of those empowered to police and maintain the moral order. Many people even dislike being called Saudi, preferring to identify with their own communities and expressing cautious criticism against the government in the privacy of their homes. Without a coherent sense of nationhood, some have found solace in extremist political networks such as al Qaeda -- occasionally with catastrophic results for the United States and Saudi Arabia alike. Even those Saudis who do not embrace violent militancy are sensitive to al Qaeda's political message, particularly its dual attack on Saudi rulers and their U.S. allies.

In its attempt to make sense of why some Saudis take up jihad, however, Saudi Arabia Exposed is disappointing -- and startlingly shallow given its other strengths. Not only does it fail to ask why some Saudis are now choosing violence, but it also claims that 9/11 and other acts of anti-Western terrorism were inevitable events. Except for during the kingdom's founding, in the first decades of the twentieth century, when the Saud family groomed religious warriors to help it conquer the Arabian Peninsula, Saudis have not been particularly violent and have not used religion to justify attacks on either the West or their own government. Bradley's suggestion that all along the royal family was "quietly cultivating a Wahhabi religious establishment that placed at the center of its ideology the goal of completely destroying the West" is inaccurate and sensationalistic. And he oversteps when he claims that "the foundations of the Saudi state [were] built on active fault lines," and that "sooner or later, a seismic shift was sure to shake that state to the ground. Pulling in one direction is the internal demands of the Wahhabis; pulling in the other is the fundamentally absurd and self-contradictory 'special relationship' between the United States and Saudi Arabia that has stood since February 1945." Elements of the relationship do now appear self-contradictory, if not absurd. But this was not always the case.

Equally confounding is Bradley's occasional descent into pop psychology. Struck by the contradictory impulses of young Saudi men -- "ticking time bombs," he calls them -- Bradley argues, dubiously, that their ability to maintain their religious conviction while straying from it (for example, by browsing the Internet for pornography) is an essential feature of the Arab mind. "They dwell psychologically in a series of logic-tight compartments that touch each other but never overlap," he writes of young Saudi men, adding that "their behavior does not reach the self-conscious level of hypocrisy, of believing one thing and doing another, for it is a set of dissonant beliefs that they do not even recognize coexist at the same time." Bradley overlooks the fact that people in most societies display the same kind of cognitive dissonance. He sees the exceptional in Saudi Arabia where none exists.


Access to Saudi Arabia's vast oil reserves will remain part of the strategic calculus that determines U.S. policy toward the kingdom. Bronson suggests that the United States will likely tolerate higher oil prices, which the Saudi government is almost certain to seek since they enable it to stave off dissent at home. "Saudi Arabia and the United States are bound in a less political and more transactional relationship," she argues. "Both states will attempt to maximize their own profits without damaging the overarching, economically beneficial relationship." She also suggests that although Saudi and U.S. interests no longer converge as they did during the Cold War, the two states, driven together by mutual concerns over Iranian power in the Persian Gulf and instability in Iraq, "will likely seek ways to establish a strategic accommodation."

Bronson and Bradley have contrasting visions of how to manage that accommodation. They agree that the Saudi government's inability to deal convincingly with domestic support for militant violence is particularly troubling and dangerous. Bronson points out that "Saudi Arabia's religiosity, once defined by Washington as an asset, is today a political liability." Washington is also part of the problem. It, too, opportunistically cultivated Islamic militancy in the closing decade of the Cold War, and both the conflict in Iraq and Washington's broader war against terrorism have arguably made the problem considerably worse. But precisely because of that past and because Washington lacks the credibility to win a war of ideas against Islamist radicals, the burden of tamping down radicalism falls to the Saudis.

So what can and should Washington do? Not much, says Bradley, because "the ability of an outsider to influence [the Saudis] is highly limited." At best, he argues, one can encourage cultural understanding: "Those in power in the West would be wise, it seems to me, to listen to those who advocate change in the Middle East not by war but by the expenditure of similar amounts of money on language schools, cultural projects, and exchange programs that would give young Arabs access to the best that Western culture has to offer." The advice is unhelpful. It underestimates the role that Washington can play, mischaracterizes the problem as inherently cultural (it is political), and overlooks the fundamental point that the main proponents of change in the Middle East are not westernizers enamored of American culture. Those local leaders who most directly challenge radicals must continue to do so in a language that makes sense in the region. The best antidote to extremism is not greater exposure to Western values, as Bradley suggests, but greater involvement by moderate Islamists.

Bronson, who has a better grasp of the political challenge facing Washington, argues that the United States must now decide whether to distance itself from the Saudi royal family or encourage it to adopt more moderate politics. She encourages the latter, noting that the task "will be hard, complicated and might fail," but that "even if it does fail, Washington would be no worse off" than if it chose to distance itself from the kingdom. In particular, Bronson argues that U.S. engagement with Saudi Arabia should include promoting stability in the Persian Gulf, enlisting the Saudi government in the effort to stabilize Iraq, and remaining actively involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

For Bronson, calling for greater reform in Saudi domestic policies is "of secondary importance." She acknowledges that such reform, "if pursued deftly," could reassure the United States' natural allies in the Middle East and help defuse "the virulent anti-Americanism that permeates the region." But she is skeptical that political reform, in particular, could help curb extremism: "Violent religious fighters have not emerged simply as a response to authoritarian rule. ... Quickly opening up political space will not quell their violence. It will only allow them a space in the political process."

Although Bronson's caution is understandable -- in theory, radicals could benefit from political liberalization and come to dominate the Saudi political system -- it seems excessive. In the 2005 Saudi municipal council elections, for example, voters in Riyadh and Jidda did not choose the most radical candidates on the ballot; they opted for more moderate Islamists, who at least claimed to be interested in serving the community. Islamist candidates lost even in the town of Buraydah, the spiritual heartland of Wahhabism. Almost all Saudis, liberal or not, are critical of the United States, and it is possible that the most outspoken among them would pursue a more decidedly anti-American agenda if they rose to power. But it is just as plausible that their anger would subside if Washington seriously pressured the royal family to include them in the Saudi political process. Moreover, as Bradley shows, Saudi Arabia is hardly homogenous. Opening up its political system would likely create a culturally, religiously, and ideologically complex nation -- and a far worthier partner for the United States.

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  • Toby Jones was the Persian Gulf analyst for the International Crisis Group from 2004 to 2006.
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