The reluctant ally

Caught between the U.S. and domestic Islamic militants, Saudi Arabia won't silence its critics with belated promises to crack down on bin Laden's cash flow.

Published November 7, 2001 10:39PM (EST)

On Tuesday, amid reports of growing tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia rulers, the country's cabinet finally decided to sign a 1999 U.N. anti-terrorism convention aimed at blocking cash flowing to terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. But U.S. officials privately wonder if such pledges will be followed by action.

Since Sept. 11, few U.S. allies have come in for as much criticism as Saudi Arabia. U.S.-Saudi relations have been strained by revelations that 15 of 19 hijackers were disaffected Saudis, that some of the kingdom's wealthiest citizens fund bin Laden's al-Qaida and that the country's rulers have refused to cooperate in shutting down the vast network of banks and businesses that fund bin Laden's worldwide terror crusade.

Republican Sen. John McCain, for instance, blasted the Saudis on CNN's "Late Edition" on Oct. 28, charging that the monarchy isn't doing "what the president asked all countries to do, and that is to take sides" in the war on terrorism.

But earlier that same week, President Bush called Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz "to thank the kingdom for its support in the international war against terrorism," spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters Oct. 25. Bush reassured the Saudi leader that "press articles citing differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia are simply incorrect," Fleischer said.

On Monday the top foreign policy advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah came to Washington for meetings with State Department officials, and spoke with rare candor about the desert kingdom's delicate balancing act.

Adel al-Jubeir said that even though the Saudis are finally cooperating in clamping down on terrorist finances, and even if the U.S. high-tech military command center in Saudi Arabia is involved in the bombing of Afghanistan, it's best not to talk much about it.

Such talk might make the Saudis "heroes in Washington ... but we may suffer consequences in the Muslim world," al-Jubeir said.

"Our challenge has always been: How do you balance between the two? Given a choice, we'd rather look good in downtown Riyadh than downtown Washington. The senior levels of your government appreciate this, they understand this and they cut us some slack on it."

Likewise, State Department officials have a balancing act of their own, publicly insisting U.S.-Saudi ties are strong, while privately sketching out worst-case-scenarios in the event of worsening relations. After al-Jubeir met with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, State Department officials insisted that the Saudis indeed remained good friends of the United States, no matter how reluctant they were to show it publicly.

"We're getting a lot of cooperation in the Arab world," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher Monday. "We're getting a lot of cooperation from the Muslim world. We've seen countries that are carrying out arrests. We're seeing countries that are imposing financial restrictions and seizing assets. And there are a variety of countries that are offering us various kinds of support for the military operation as well -- overflight clearances or whatnot."

Still, others within the State Department say privately that Washington is unhappy with the Saudis' reluctance to back the U.S. with sufficient and public vigor. Most geopolitical and economic analyses insist that Saudi Arabia's role as the West's No. 1 supplier of oil prevents any real unraveling of its close relationship with the U.S. But some diplomats have begun suggesting that the alliance needs serious overhaul -- and that there are alternatives to the Saudi stranglehold on the West's oil supplies. Already U.S. officials, such as Undersecretary of State John Bolton, have said publicly there are proposals under consideration that would shift U.S. oil reliance from Saudi Arabia to Russia -- a huge shift in the U.S. foreign policy of the last half-century.

When pressed, State Department spokesman Boucher would only say that the United States favors having diverse sources of oil imports and favors diverse pipeline solutions to getting supplies out of Central Asia. No U.S. officials publicly suggest they are preparing for a worst-case scenario: a fundamentalist-controlled Saudi Arabia. But privately, officials and former U.S. officials point to a tectonic shift since Sept. 11 in U.S. -Russian relations. Russia dropped opposition to U.S. involvement in its former Central Asian republics and approved the stationing of U.S. troops in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The United States has softened its human rights complaints about Russian methods of dealing with Chechen rebels and is tending to view them as Islamic extremists linked to Osama bin Laden. The reluctance to allow Central Asian oil and gas to pass through Russian territory en route to world markets has also eased, say former U.S. officials.

The new look at Russia as an energy supplier follows vast new discoveries of oil and gas in Central Asia, especially in the Caspian Sea region in Kazakhstan. The proven supplies remain smaller than those of Saudi Arabia, and they cost more to extract. But they have the benefit of offering an alternative to total dependence on the Saudis.

Until Sept. 11, U.S. policy had been to try to avoid Russian as well as Iranian control over the West's oil spigots. U.S. governments waged a costly and tedious diplomatic battle to force the Central Asian oil producers to export across Turkey instead. The Sept. 11 attacks -- and the realization that Saudi Arabia was implicated in them, thanks to its financing and its embrace of anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Western ideology, changed all that.

Under consideration is a gigantic shift in policy -- dropping opposition to Central Asian oil exports through Russia, eventually making Moscow one of the main foreign suppliers of Western oil. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly discussed this when they met in Shanghai recently and are expected to discuss it further when Putin comes to Washington and Crawford, Texas, for a summit meeting Nov. 14 and 15. "We would have tried to minimize further [Caspian] oil across Russia before Sept. 11," according to Robert Ebel, a former U.S. official currently heading energy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But it looks like the U.S. relationship to Russia has changed. It's to our interest that the oil potential of Russia is realized to the extent possible. With minimal exceptions, Russia has been a very reliable supplier."

Russia is the No. 2 oil producer and exporter in the world, second only to the Saudi's 8 million barrel per day output. The world consumes 76 to 80 million barrels a day. Saudi oil reserves -- at 260 to 290 billion barrels -- remain critical to world oil supplies and still dwarf the Caspian oil reserves discovered to date of about 35 billion barrels.

But there are many reasons for the U.S. to be dissatisfied with its partnership with the Saudis. The country's rulers have refused to cooperate on investigating the Sept. 11 hijackers who are believed to be Saudi citizens. They still have not closed a single bank account, charity or business that the United States says supplies funds to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist group.

In fact, the analysis put forward by Seymour Hersh in the Oct. 22 New Yorker -- that the 30,000 members of the Saudi royal family are so frightened by the possibility of popular unrest fanned by Islamic hard liners, they've allowed hundreds of millions of dollars to be funneled to bin Laden and similar groups as protection money, so they will leave Saudi Arabia alone -- has become fairly widely accepted.

For years the Saudi government has allowed the extreme Wahabbi sect of Islam to control the mosques and education system, which is permeated with strongly anti-Western, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish messages. When I covered the Afghan war in 1988, Afghan mujahedin fighters told me they were furious at missionary Arabs, mostly Saudis, who controlled the funds and the weapons flows and then told them the Afghan style of prayer and belief was inferior to the Wahabbi system. The Taliban eventually agreed to accept the Wahabbi teachings.

Worry about Saudi Arabia increased as its more than $56 billion a year in oil revenues fell below expenditures for much of the last decade. This has cut back the entitlements to millions of young men now unwilling or unable to earn enough to support a lifestyle the country had become addicted to. These young, underemployed and religious-minded youths went to Afghanistan at Saudi government urging to spread Wahabbism and fight the Russians. But they returned with a taste for blood and fanaticism and contempt for the cushy and often intemperate lifestyles of the royal family.

Saudi funds also paid for tens of thousands of other Arabs from Yemen, Algeria and other countries to join the Afghan war against the Soviets. Many of them have returned to their homelands and tried to launch Islamic revolutions -- some of them while continuing to receive funding from ultraconservative Saudis hoping to oust secular governments. Former Arab veterans of the Afghan war turned Algeria into a blood bath, leaving perhaps 100,000 dead in an effort to create another Islamic state, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika told me recently. The "Afghan Arabs" have also been fighting in Chechnya, Kashmir, Bosnia, Yemen and against the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

While the Saudis turned a blind eye to funding of extremist Islamic groups abroad, at home, the Saudis have been frightened of these fighters, especially Osama bin Laden. The millionaire black sheep of a wealthy Saudi family, bin Laden has been excoriating the royal family for allowing foreign infidel troops to pollute the soil of the holy Saudi land. Some analysts go so far as to say bin Laden's real enemy is not the West but the pro-American, secular and tolerant regimes in control of Islamic countries such as: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Saudi officials, who refuse to even acknowledge publicly that U.S. troops are in their country, refused to cooperate with U.S. investigators after the Saudis caught and executed several suspects in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers military apartments, which killed 19 American soldiers. Some believe the Saudis are afraid to unravel the extensive web of Islamic extremists within their own country -- so long as it only targets foreigners.

Saudi diplomats don't seem terribly worried about a possible shift in U.S. policy. They insist their prior efforts to track bin Laden's funds ran aground when they reached the United States where privacy laws halted the search. Saudi ambassador Jaffar Allagany, chief of the information office at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, pointed out that Saudi Arabia had removed bin Laden's citizenship after he returned from the Afghan war and began to criticize the Saudi royal family for allowing American soldiers to remain as a protection force following the Gulf War.

And Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan seemed unflappable in a PBS Frontline show broadcast Oct. 9. He acknowledged that the royal family spent nearly $400 billion to develop Saudi Arabia and added, "Yes, we misused or got corrupted with $50 billion -- so what?" Since then he has gone abroad and is absent in Washington during this volatile time.

In public, U.S. officials downplay U.S. concerns about the stability of the Saudi monarchy and its support for the U.S. "The royal family and system of government has more stability than it's given credit for; every few years there is a wave of stories about U.S. concern for the future of Saudi Arabia," said one official who has been posted there. He called Saudi Arabia a "pivotal country with a long relationship to the United States." It is important for its oil exports -- to Western allies such as Japan and Europe as much as to the United States -- and for keeping oil prices in check through its ability to increase production at will. Saudi Arabia also imports many American products, including high-tech jet aircraft and other weapons, and recently signed a major contract with U.S. energy companies to develop its gas fields.

And it is a comparatively moderate influence in Middle East politics. While the Saudis consistently back the Palestinians in their struggle with Israel, for instance, they have not opposed the peace process the way Iran and Iraq have. Ambassador Allagany told me that if the Palestinians decide to make peace with Israel, the Saudis will support them.

Ultimately, U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia is not based on news reports or oil companies' investments or worries about the country's religious tolerance, but on the U.S. national interest at a given moment in time. A dozen U.S. administrations from Franklin Roosevelt onward have kept cozy ties with the Saudi royal family because it has remained pivotal for the United States. President Bush's phone call of reassurance to the crown prince two weeks ago is simply the latest such example. The fact that both countries are the targets of bin Laden makes it even more important to cling together.

Although the Saudis have not publicly endorsed the bombing of Afghanistan, and they have publicly said U.S. forces cannot use Saudi soil to launch such attacks, the U.S. administration has said it is content with the fact that the Saudis have not publicly condemned the U.S. war on bin Laden in Afghanistan.

It appears that whatever help the United States gets from Saudi Arabia in fighting terrorism, shutting off finances and damping the tide of anti-Western Islamic extremism sweeping much of the Muslim world, it will have to be done behind the scenes -- in secret. U.S. officials say that is the best that can be hoped for right now. Unspoken is the fear that anything more could widen domestic Saudi discontent over corruption and the shrinking economy and fuel the main outlet for such frustration -- the desire to spread orthodox Islam throughout the world.

So U.S. policy proceeds on two levels. Publicly, Bush praises the Saudis, and pretends the United States doesn't care if they deny U.S. forces the use of American bases there. No one complains about the way the nation's leaders allow anti-American groups to rail against America and to raise funds for mosques and spreading Islam around the world -- some of it a cover for extremist groups such as bin Laden.

In private, U.S. officials are both preparing for a possible rupture of Saudi oil supplies and searching for a replacement for that oil. The warming of U.S.-Russian ties points to the Caspian basin as the likely stash of oil for a rainy day.

By Ben Barber

Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book, "Groundtruth: The Third World at Work at Play and at War," is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

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