Paying a High Price for Befriending Saudi Princes

May 11, 2002 • Commentary

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah’s visit to President George W. Bush’s ranch will do little to ease the strain in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Riyadh has always been among Washington’s more dubious allies: the United States should take the initiative and put distance between the two nations, including pulling out its military forces.

Even though the relationship between Riyadh and Washington has been close, it has been rarely easy. For American administrations that loudly promote democracy, the alliance with totalitarian Saudi Arabia is a deep embarrassment.

Unfortunately, U.S. policies have identified Washington with the Saudi kleptocracy. Today the United States protects Saudi Arabia with units in Turkey and carrier forces in the Persian Gulf backed by roughly 5,000 air force personnel in Saudi Arabia and additional support for the Saudi National Guard. A desire to end America’s backing for the corrupt regime in Riyadh and expel U.S. forces from the Gulf is one of Osama bin Laden’s main goals.

The Saudi ruling elite is also paying for their dependence on the U.S. Dissatisfaction with the regime has merged with criticism of America: 15 of the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11 were from Saudi Arabia.

Yet the Saudi leadership has proved wary of aiding the United States even after attacks on Americans. Despite the White House’s public expression of satisfaction, Saudi Arabia refused to run background “traces” on its citizens who committed the atrocities of Sept. 11, supply passenger lists of those on flights to America, and block terrorist funds flowing through supposed charities.

Although the Saudis have allowed use of the operations center at Prince Sultan Air Base, near Riyadh, they ostentatiously announced that no foreign troops would use Saudi facilities to stage attacks. Unfortunately, the refusal to aggressively defend cooperation with the West encourages the growth of extremism.

Still, the lack of public endorsement pales in comparison to Riyadh’s support for the very Islamic fundamentalism that has spawned terrorism. Saudi money has flowed to bin Laden and the Saudi state, run by royals who often flaunt their libertinism, subsidizes the extreme Wahhabi form of Islam abroad.

By any normal assessment, Americans should care little about the future of the House of Saud. But Saudi Arabia has oil. Contrary to popular wisdom, however, the Saudis’ trump hand is surprisingly weak. True, Saudi Arabia has about one quarter of the world’s resources. However, this figure vastly overstates the importance of Saudi oil, which accounted for about 10 percent of world production last year. Were Saudi Arabia to fall, prices would rise substantially only if the conqueror, whether internal or external, held the oil off of the market.

Such a policy would, however, defeat the very purpose of conquest, even for a fundamentalist regime; in fact, bin Laden has called oil the source of Arab power. A targeted boycott against only the United States would be ineffective, since oil is a uniform product available around the world.

A new regime might decide to pump less oil to raise prices. Yet countries have long found it difficult to coordinate production and limit cheating.

In any case, the economic impact of such a step would decline over time. Sharply higher prices would bring forth new supplies, which have actually increased over the last two decades.

Countries, such as Kuwait, Iran, Nigeria, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, could pump significantly more oil. Energy companies today are looking for new oil deposits around the world, including the Caspian Basin, Russia and West Africa. There are also abundant alternative forms of supplies, such as shale oil.

In short, an unfriendly Saudi Arabia might hurt America’s pocketbook; it would not threaten America’s survival. And the risk to Persian Gulf oil must be balanced against the cost of maintaining forces used to protect Saudi oil, as well as the threat of more terrorism, inflamed by America’s Saudi presence. Saudi stability is of value, but America’s presence may undermine that.

As for renewed external aggression, most obviously by Iraq, even before Sept. 11, the Gulf states were working to resolve conflicts and improve their ability to defend themselves. The prospect of American disengagement would, like a hanging, help concentrate their minds, encouraging the Gulf states to develop an effective balance of power by forging defensive relationships with surrounding powers and to develop internal support by inaugurating serious political reform.

If they fail to act, however, the United States shouldn’t worry unduly about the future of the Saudi regime. Should the House of Saud fall, Washington would finally be relieved of the moral dead weight of defending that regime. And consumers would continue to purchase oil in a global marketplace.

The United States must not retreat from the world. But it should stop undergirding illegitimate regimes, as in Saudi Arabia.

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