Policy Analysis No. 428

Befriending Saudi Princes: A High Price for a Dubious Alliance

Executive Summary

Although the House of Saud, Saudi Arabia’s royal family, has long leaned toward the West, it is a corrupt totalitarian regime at sharp variance with America’s most cherished values. Despite the well-publicized ties between the two governments, Saudi Arabia has seldom aided, and often hamstrung, U.S. attempts to combat terrorism.

Even worse is Riyadh’s willingness to buy off even the most unsavory regimes and groups. Both at home and abroad it supports the extreme Wahhabi form of Islam, a movement hostile to modernity and the West. Saudi money has even gone to the fundamentalist Pakistani academies known as madrassahs, which have served as recruiting grounds for Osama bin Laden.

American support for Riyadh is one of the prime factors motivating bin Laden, who seeks to drive the United States from what he sees as holy Muslim lands. Even if the United States succeeds in eliminating bin Laden, the presence of American troops will continue to inflame Islamic extremists and encourage future terrorist attacks. Yet Washington hesitates to speak ill of its ally for one reason: oil.

The United States does not need to be deferential because of the oil issue. Although Riyadh possesses the globe’s most abundant reserves, it currently provides only about 10 percent of production. In the short term, any supply disruption would cause fairly significant harm; the impact would be ameliorated in the long term, however, as new sources were found and the U.S. economy adapted.

The United States should reassess its relationship with Riyadh. Most important, Washington should withdraw its military forces from Saudi Arabia. That connection has already drawn Washington into one conventional war, against Iraq, and helped to make Americans targets of terrorism. Although America should not retreat from the world, it should stop supporting illegitimate and unpopular regimes where its vital interests are not involved, as in Saudi Arabia.

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Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Reagan, he is the author of several books.