What Michael Moore (and the neocons) don't know about Saudi Arabia

The left and the right have both crudely demonized the desert kingdom. But the ascension of King Abdullah gives the U.S. a chance to solidify relations with this flawed but key ally.

Published August 5, 2005 7:35PM (EDT)

The late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who died on Aug. 1, should have been nicknamed "King Blowback." Along with his ideological soul mate, Ronald Reagan, who shared his long twilight, Fahd played a key, if inadvertent, role in nurturing Islamist extremism. Together, Reagan and Fahd -- one using proxy armies and arms, the other petrodollars -- launched a worldwide crusade against what they saw as the radical specters of communism and Khomeinism. To fight this battle, they gave massive support to Sunni Muslim fundamentalists as well as Saddam Hussein's Stalinist Baath Party. The rash decisions taken by the two leaders are in large part responsible for the crisis the world faces today.

The good news is that Fahd's successor, King Abdullah, is a far more cautious man, not given to his half-brother's dangerous adventurism. His ascension -- in fact, he has held power for a long time -- gives the United States an opportunity to improve relations with Saudi Arabia. As America faces the long, daunting task of recovering from George W. Bush's catastrophic foreign-policy blunders, solidifying relations with this key, if problematic, ally is high on the list of priorities.

The devout Abdullah ("the servant of God"), who has the smile and goatee of a genial beatnik, has been in de facto control of the kingdom since 1995, when Fahd ("the panther") had a debilitating stroke. He has now formally become king. Abdullah has reigned during difficult times and has responded with a mixture of caution and flexibility. This past spring, he held popular elections for municipal councils, among the first Saudi steps toward representative institutions. The elections were carefully circumscribed, with only half the seats on the councils filled through the polls, the other half being appointed by the central government. But neither were the elections meaningless. Muslim political activists, dubbing themselves the "Golden List," used grass-roots campaign techniques and networking to do very well in the elections. Optimists hope the victory will allow the religious faction to blow off some steam.

With regard to the problem of al-Qaida and terrorism within the kingdom, Abdullah has deployed both the stick and the carrot. While high-level support for al-Qaida was never as widespread as Westerners sometimes imagined, such support does exist and needs to be confronted. As Peter Bergen has pointed out, Abdullah's military and intelligence forces have aggressively moved against militants, killing 90 of them in pitched battles, and arresting 800 more, over the past two years. But he has also launched an active program to win over the Saudi public. Saudi television shows explicit images of the grisly results of terrorist attacks. Senior clerics of the Wahhabi branch of Islam, the de facto state religion known for its strict Puritanism, have been persuaded to condemn in no uncertain terms all acts of terrorism against innocents, including the Sept. 11 attacks. Some 2,000 Saudi clerics, out of 100,000, were temporarily removed from their positions for being too militant and only allowed to return after schooling to retrain them. Saudi religious officials, Bergen says, have gone on Internet chat sites to argue with the militants on Islamic grounds, a technique that has been shown to have some success.

Abdullah has been bolder on foreign policy than on domestic. In spring 2002 he sent an envoy to President George W. Bush with some tough words. Something would have to be done about the Sharon government's treatment of the Palestinians if the region were to avoid a big blow-up that would endanger the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

The then-crown prince put forward a comprehensive peace plan with Israel that offered it full recognition and relations, a plan adopted by the entire Arab League. The plan, which called for Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state, was never taken seriously by the expansionist government of Ariel Sharon in Israel, nor by the stridently pro-Israeli politicians in Washington. Within the context of Arab politics, it was an audacious step, and no one who knows that world can doubt its entire sincerity.

Abdullah also had his envoy tell Bush that he believed Iraq was an "arms control," not a "war on terrorism" issue, and should be resolved legally. Unlike Fahd, who was persuaded to welcome 500,000 foreign troops into his kingdom for the Gulf War of 1990-91, and who later allowed an unpopular long-term U.S. military presence, Abdullah was signaling that he would not join the younger Bush's crusade. The hawks in Washington responded by smearing the cautious and moderate Abdullah as a coddler of terrorism. (In July, the campaign against Abdullah and Saudi Arabia hit an apex -- or nadir -- when a Rand Corp. analyst, at neocon strategist Richard Perle's invitation, gave a presentation to the influential Defense Policy Board in which he called on the United States to invade Saudi Arabia and seize its oil fields. After a diplomatic flap ensued, U.S. officials distanced themselves from the presentation.)

That Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, with a poor human rights record and an inexplicable determination to stop women from driving or voting, is indisputable -- and a fair basis for criticism. But many myths persist about the kingdom. Often Saudis are hated for being rich (ironically suffering this fate with Americans). While the top tier of princes is made up of billionaires, few of them can compete with the leading American CEOs. As for the Saudis in general, the kingdom's estimated per capita income in 2004 was only $12,000 a year. That of Spain is about $23,000. Moreover, such a figure is artificial in an oil economy, since the petroleum income fluctuates a good deal (in 2000 the per person income was $8,000 a year). And, of course, it is not divided up equally, as the figure implies. In fact, if the government attempted simply to distribute so much money to individuals, it would cause enormous inflation and eat up the value of the money. There is plenty of poverty in Saudi Arabia.

With regard to foreign policy, though, you might think that an Arab leader who courageously sought a comprehensive peace in the Middle East for both Israelis and Palestinians, who opposed the disastrous Iraq war, and who helps keep the U.S. economy afloat by recycling vast petrodollars into investments in this country would inspire at least mixed feelings among the American left.

Instead, Saudi Arabia has been pilloried by figures such as Michael Moore, whose film "Fahrenheit 9/11" crudely demonizes the kingdom as part of its simple-minded effort to paint George W. Bush as a pawn of Big Oil. In the film, Moore ominously points out that dozens of Saudis, including members of the bin Laden family, departed the United States on Sept. 13 and 14, 2001, after the terror attacks. But there was nothing shady about the Saudis leaving when they did. Plane flights were allowed again on Sept. 13, and many people flew then. The Saudis certainly had reason to be afraid. Some 30 Saudis were interviewed by the FBI before they left, and all the flights were approved by the bureau, according to the 9/11 Commission report.

The idea that members of the Saudi elite knew about 9/11 beforehand, which the film at least hints at, is ridiculous. They would not have been in America if they had had any inkling of the plot, since anyone could foresee that they would be in danger from an enraged U.S. public. Moore admits that the Saudi government is heavily invested in the United States and, in fact, criticizes the extent of the investments, which most sources vastly overestimate. (No one who knows anything serious about economics would, in any case, consider it a bad thing that the Saudis put money into the U.S. economy.) So why, even if one discounted the genuine liking for America and Americans among educated Saudis, would they want to destroy the value of their own portfolios?

Bin Laden announced his goal of overthrowing the Saudi royal family and had his Saudi citizenship revoked in the early 1990s. The Saudi establishment plays hardball with such challengers. Although one often hears that 13 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 were Saudis, the statistic is meaningless. Nineteen persons is not a big enough number on which to base any generalization. The brains of the operation were an Egyptian, a Lebanese and a Baluchi from Pakistan brought up in Kuwait. Bin Laden clearly chose the Saudis he sent on the mission, for the most part just muscle to control the passengers, precisely in the hope of disrupting American-Saudi friendship. The al-Qaida members chosen, in exile in Qandahar, would have been shot on sight if they had shown up in Riyadh.

Moore and others also charge that the Saudi royal family has a special relationship with the Bush family. As Max Rodenbeck argued in the New York Review of Books, this charge is mainly based on circumstantial evidence that does not hold up well to scrutiny. Most of the Saudi investments or contracts cited have to do with defense corporations, one of which has been training royal bodyguards for decades. Some of these firms were owned for a time by the Carlyle Group, on the board of which George H.W. Bush served. But the Saudi relationship with the firms preexisted the Carlyle purchase of them and survived its sale of them. It is certainly true that the Saudis cultivate American leaders, but like all good lobbyists, they do so on a bipartisan basis.

The real question is how Abdullah, who has set policy for some time, differs from his now-deceased predecessor. Any comparison between the two would favor Abdullah.

In contrast to the new king's fair-minded caution, the hawk-faced Fahd never met an adventure he did not love. Saudi Arabia reaped a windfall when the price of petroleum quadrupled in the 1970s. Fahd, the power behind the throne from 1975 and formally king from 1982, energetically set about modernizing his society, even to the point of educating women. The amassing of petroleum billions made the kingdom, however, both a threat and a prize. Fahd responded to the revolutions and invasions of 1979 not with the cautious diplomacy of his predecessors, but an audacious set of covert actions aimed at reshaping the world to make it safe for Saudi oil billionaires.

In 1979 Muslim fundamentalists and millenarians rose up in the holy city of Mecca, and the rebellion was put down only with some difficulty. In the same year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up a shaky communist military dictatorship that had come to power in a 1978 coup. Also in 1979, the radical theocratic republican, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, came to power in Iran. Khomeini, a Shiite, taught that monarchy is incompatible with Islam. If Khomeini's ideas spread across the sectarian divide to Sunni Islam, they could pose as dire a threat to the Saudi monarchy as did communism.

Fahd was a ruler of a small, defenseless country, and the only weapon he had was money. The Saudi population in 1980 was probably only 5 million, not counting guest workers. But between 1973 and 1980, annual government oil revenues jumped from $4.3 billion to $101.8 billion, in U.S. dollars. Fahd made the fateful decision to seek the security umbrella of the United States.

In exchange for sophisticated U.S. weaponry such as AWACS spy planes, F-15 accessories and Stinger shoulderheld missiles, he signed on to President Ronald Reagan's creation of anti-communist militias -- in effect private terrorist armies -- giving them Saudi money in Nicaragua, Angola and Ethiopia, and vastly increasing aid to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Although Saudi officials deny a formal relationship to Osama bin Laden, who was a fundraiser for the mujahedeen fighting the Soviets, it seems that he did have a relationship to Saudi intelligence in Pakistan. Some say that bin Laden was recruited as a fundraiser by Fahd's nephew, Turki al-Faisal, the then-minister of intelligence. (Abdullah recently appointed al-Faisal as the Saudi ambassador to Washington.)

Fahd mirrored Reagan administration policy in backing Saddam Hussein ("my brother," "my sword") against Khomeinist Iran. He gave Saddam around $25 billion to help prosecute the Iran-Iraq war. Then, when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, Fahd allowed himself to be convinced that Saddam posed a threat to Riyadh, and cooperated against Iraq in the Gulf War. In the aftermath, he gave the United States use of Prince Sultan Air Base on a long-term basis, incurring the wrath of pious Muslims who felt that the holy land was thus defiled and that the Saudi royal family had reduced itself to puppets. Among the outraged was bin Laden, who declared war on the Saudi dynasty years before he declared war on the United States and Israel. Fahd stripped bin Laden of his citizenship and banned him from the kingdom.

Fahd's adventurism, combined with Reagan's, helped create the al-Qaida network and reinforced the Iraqi Baath Party, with the results that we see today. His stroke in 1995 left him without the judgment to gauge the tragic aftermath of those decisions.

King Abdullah must labor to deal with the legacy of his predecessor. He faces significant internal unrest, though its extent is probably exaggerated by outsiders. He must deal with the threat of the Saudi al-Qaida organization, which has conducted several terror strikes in Riyadh and elsewhere. He is menaced by the instability in Iraq, which could easily spill over into the kingdom. He must find a way to open up Saudi politics to wider participation at a time when the restive educated middle classes are growing rapidly. (The kings of Egypt and Iran, Farouk and the Shah, faced the same imperative much earlier, and both failed.)

His relationship with the United States needs repair. Unfortunately, it is not clear that Turki al-Faisal, the former chief of intelligence who repeatedly met with bin Laden in the 1980s and as late as 1997, is the right man for that job. Many in Washington may see al-Faisal as tainted by his past associations.

However, the conjuncture of increased Indian and Chinese demand for oil, along with the uncertainties introduced by the ongoing Iraq war, have helped push petroleum prices to historic highs. This development gives Abdullah a windfall of unexpected resources to expend on the problems if he can muster the vision to resolve them.

What approach to the Saudis should the United States take? The American right often attempts to imply that the only two choices in foreign policy are either to coddle dictators or to send in the army for regime change. There is no reason, however, that the United States cannot exercise steadfast, firm pressure behind the scenes for increased human rights, more open politics, and more effective steps against terrorism in Saudi Arabia. In the Gulf, where frankness is appropriate only in private, humiliating criticisms of the kingdom by U.S. officials, or the brandishing of implicit threats, will wreak more harm than good.

The Americans, however, would be wise to see their relationship with the kingdom as a two-way street. When the Saudi king warns the White House that an explosion will come if progress is not made toward a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, the warning should be taken seriously. When a Saudi ruler puts his enormous prestige on the line to advance a comprehensive peace plan, it should not be lightly tossed in the trash bin. When the Saudi establishment warns that American wars waged against regional powers might plunge the area into chaos, it should be listened to carefully.

With two-thirds of the world's proven petroleum reserves, the gulf is the cockpit of the global economy, and the Saudis are its pilots. King Abdullah is understandably worried about the Bush administration tossing grenades around in it.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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Afghanistan Al-qaida Middle East Osama Bin Laden Ronald Reagan