Commentary

Saudi Arabia: Friend, Foe, or Neither?

By Ivan Eland
August 13, 2002

The Bush administration has distanced itself from a briefing to a Pentagon advisory panel, which argued that Washington should demand that Saudi Arabia stop supporting terrorism or face the seizure of its oil fields and its financial assets in the United States. However, a growing number of neoconservatives inside and outside the Bush administration apparently subscribe to the views expressed in the presentation — and that is troubling.

Senior Pentagon civilians and members of Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff reportedly see Saudi Arabia as an enemy. In fact, some neoconservatives believe that a U.S. invasion of Iraq and the institution of a democratic, pro-U.S. Iraqi government, which would become a major oil exporter to the West, would allow the United States to solve an even greater problem: Saudi support for radical Islamic terrorists. The reduced U.S. dependence on Saudi oil, resulting from the conquest of Iraq, neocons say, would allow the United States to finally stand up to the Saudis on the issue of terrorism.

Yet the official position of the Bush administration is at the other end of the spectrum: that the Saudi regime is a friend. According to Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke, “Saudi Arabia is a long-standing friend and ally of the United States. The Saudis cooperate fully in the global war on terrorism.” But this position deviates from private statements by administration officials that Saudi government efforts against terrorism have been less ambitious than those of other countries.

Both the official and neocon positions are simplistic and flawed. The Saudi government looked the other way for too long while organizations in Saudi Arabia funded and supported al Qaeda. In addition, the Saudi government openly supported the Taliban regime, which harbored al Qaeda, and fundamentalist Islamic schools in Pakistan that churned out terrorists. The Bush administration, in a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the oil market works, is making a mistake to look the other way on such questionable Saudi activities and to coddle the regime to secure Saudi oil.

The administration, the U.S. national security community, the media, and much of the public are enamored with the myth that cheap oil is somehow vital to the U.S. economy. The market for oil is global and no one country—not even one with large oil reserves, such as Saudi Arabia — can influence the price much in the long-term. When more oil enters the market from any source, the price goes down; when oil is taken off the market—for example, by instability or war in oil producing countries—the price goes up.

Don Losman, an economist at the National Defense University, shows that increasing oil prices alone will not harm a modern economy. He notes that from late 1998 to late 2000, Germany experienced a 211 percent increase in oil prices, but economic growth—with falling inflation and unemployment — continued. Furthermore, since the “oil crisis” of the 1970s, the U.S. economy has reduced its spending on oil from nine percent to three percent of GDP and become much more flexible in shifting among types of fuel sources.

The neocon plan of taking down Iraq to pressure Saudi Arabia on terrorism has a major problem. Any invasion of Iraq would require the support of surrounding nations. Neocons naively believe that the Saudi government, reluctant to help the United States launch an unprovoked attack on Iraq even before neocon thinking became public, would now cheerfully provide bases and logistical support for U.S. forces to invade Iraq. And the neocons apparently believe that when even some members of the administration would like to turn the U.S. war on terrorism to a war on Saudi oil fields once the job in Iraq is done.

The United States should take a middle ground between the confrontational approach championed by neoconservatives and the Bush administration’s policy of appeasing the Saudi regime. The Saudi government is a medieval, despotic regime with an abysmal human rights record on a par with Iraq’s. The United States should withdraw political support from the regime and withdraw the U.S. military forces stationed on Saudi territory. The United States should not pull any diplomatic punches in pressuring the Saudi monarchy on its poor human rights record, its programs to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and its indirect support for terrorism.

Essentially, like the authoritarian “rogue states” (Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Cuba and North Korea), Saudi Arabia should be treated with suspicion, not friendship. At the same time, it should not be targeted for U.S. military attacks unless it is found directly culpable in sponsoring a terrorist attack against a U.S. target.

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.