Commentary

Quit Turning the Other Cheek with Saudi Arabia

Almost every day we read another galling story in the press about our “allies” in Saudi Arabia. It’s time for the United States to take the diplomatic gloves off.

The Saudi government has resisted our requests to use their bases for military operations against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. They’ve dragged their heels when it came to freezing the assets of those Saudis bankrolling Al Qaeda. They’ve lectured New Yorkers through Crown Prince Abdullah about how it’s our fault that the attacks have come in the first place. And they refuse to fully share information about terrorist suspects. Then it comes out that the Saudi monarchy has been the principal financial backer of the Taliban since at least 1996 and that Saudi sources have channeled funds to Hamas and other groups that blow away Israeli civilians day after day in acts of terrorism that are as chilling and morally repellent as those that killed Americans last September. That’s all on top of the Saudi monarchy’s long-standing policy of funding radical Islamic schools and “charities” throughout the world, fronts for incubators of Islamic revolution and anti-Western fanaticism.

The common wisdom is that we must turn the other cheek and stay on friendly terms with the Saudi autocrats because we need their oil. Nonsense. They need our money more than we need their oil. Repeat after us: “There is no ‘oil weapon.’”

First, let’s dispel the notion that we need to worry about an oil embargo directed at the United States. Once oil is in a tanker or refinery, there is no controlling its destination. During the 1973 embargo on the United States and the Netherlands, for instance, oil that was exported to Europe was simply resold to the United States or ended up displacing non-OPEC oil that was diverted to the U.S. market. Saudi oil minister Sheik Yamani conceded afterwards that the 1973 embargo “did not imply that we could reduce imports to the United States … the world is really just one market. So the embargo was more symbolic than anything else.”

Second, the Saudis are hardly in a position to “punish” the industrialized nations with a major production cutback. That’s because one of the main causes of instability in the region is declining oil revenues. Saudis who’ ve gotten used to living on the state’s generous oil dole are now finding that the dole is running out and that jobs are scarce. If the Saudis stopped selling oil, they’d bankrupt their economy and almost certainly trigger a revolution.

Third, if the last 30 years have taught us anything, it’s that oil producers make decisions based on economic—not political—criteria. Never once in OPEC ‘s history has the cartel or any member in it left money on the table to pursue some political objective. When the Ayatollah Khomeini displaced the Shah in 1979, the oil kept flowing. When U.S. bombs rained down on Libya’s Moamar Quaddafi in 1986, the oil kept flowing. We had to impose an embargo on Iraq’s Sadaam Hussein to get him to stop selling oil to the world market. In fact, there is not and has never been any correlation between OPEC “price hawks” and “price doves” and how those OPEC members felt about America or the industrialized West in general.

Of course, all that could change if bin Laden’s political agents seize control of the OPEC oil kingdoms. After all, their brand of Islam leaves no room for corrupting agents such as money or economic prosperity. So if there’s a case for turning the other cheek when it comes to the Saudis, it’s that any regime replacing the House of Saud would probably be worse than the one we’re dealing with now.

But cozying up to dictators who don’t have the support of their own people is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Embracing shaky regimes doesn’t extend their political life spans—it only buys us hatred from those who will sooner or later come to power over the bodies of the dictators we’re cavorting with. Propping-up “friendly autocrats” is what has earned us the enmity of the Shiite revolutionaries in Iran and is why, in the eyes of the Arab street, the United States is associated with autocracy, hypocrisy, corruption, oppression and economic stagnation.

Saudi Arabia is an oppressive regime that mocks everything this nation stands for. They helped to create and sustain the terror network that now threatens our existence. Saudi Arabia is not a reliable member of the international coalition against terrorism. In fact, when it comes to terrorism, the Saudi regime is part of the problem, not part of the solution. American foreign policy should react accordingly and not spend a single minute worrying about the “oil weapon” that never was.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute. Ted Galen Carpenter is Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.