The Saudi Paradox
It's the last day of the Arab League summit, March 29, and at the New Man barbershop, Ali Trabulsi is keeping one eye on his scissors and the other on a wall-mounted TV tuned to live coverage of the Arab leaders assembled in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
"The Saudis are really challenging the Americans, aren't they?" Trabulsi says gleefully, shearing the beard from a customer's face. "They don't want to listen to Bush anymore. They know that he's weak and that his people are turning against him." When one of his assistants turns on a blow-drier, Trabulsi makes him turn it off so he can hear Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal boasting how Arab leaders refused to change any part of their peace offer to Israel.
But what really excited Trabulsi was a speech at the summit's opening a day earlier by Saudi King Abdullah, in which he denounced, for the first time, the US occupation of Iraq as "illegitimate." "In beloved Iraq, blood is flowing among brothers, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war," Abdullah said. Trabulsi normally turns the TV in his shop to soap operas or music videos, but he tuned in to the summit around the clock--even if some customers complained about being bored by the rhetoric.
It's not just the notoriously skeptical Arab street that is falling for the Saudi regime's latest attempt to distance itself from unpopular US policies. American media and analysts rushed to portray Abdullah's comments as evidence that the Saudis are abandoning the Bush Administration, and that a renewed partnership between Washington and Sunni Arab regimes--to counter Iran--is dead.
Abdullah's speech "underscored growing differences between Saudi Arabia and the Bush administration as the Saudis take on a greater leadership role in the Middle East, partly at American urging," the New York Times wrote in a front-page story on March 29. "The Saudis seem to be emphasizing that they will not be beholden to the policies of their longtime ally."
Newsweek went even further, billing Abdullah's comments as "just the latest volley in Saudi Arabia's war of independence from Washington" and offering a glowing Q&A with the Saudi foreign minister. Even the Arab press got in on the trend: The leftist Beirut daily as-Safir titled its lead editorial "King Abdullah in Opposition."
There are signs that the Saudis are pursuing their own agenda in the Middle East. In February Abdullah brokered an agreement between Hamas and Fatah for a unity government in the Palestinian territories. The king called for an end to the US and European boycott of the Palestinian administration--despite Israeli and US insistence that the embargo continue until Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. The Saudis are also reaching out to Iran: Abdullah recently hosted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Riyadh, while other Saudi leaders are working with Iranian officials to broker an end to the five-month-old political crisis in Lebanon.
But taken together, these events don't prove a shift in Saudi policy toward Iraq or the Bush Administration in general. In late 2006, after the Democratic victory in Congress and release of the Iraq Study Group's report recommending a phased withdrawal, the Saudis were quite worried that America might leave Iraq. Nawaf Obaid, a consultant for the Saudi Embassy to the United States, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that if there was a US withdrawal, the Saudi government would provide funding, weapons and logistical support to Sunni militias in Iraq. (Although Obaid was later fired as a consultant, the op-ed was still seen as a warning of how the Saudis would react to a US withdrawal.)
So why are the Saudis sending conflicting messages? The Bush Administration has become so unpopular that even its staunchest allies are trying to publicly distance themselves from it. And this strategy appears to be working for the Saudis, judging by the reaction in the US media and on the Arab street. The Saudis are also hedging their bets--flirting with both the Americans and the Iranians.
The US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq fueled a new wave of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. Today, anyone allied with the United States is viewed in the Arab world as a traitor, starting with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. "People are against anything or anyone associated with America," says Mohammad Salah, Cairo bureau chief of the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat. "They don't want any more American meddling in the region."
The House of Saud has long experience navigating contradictory allegiances. Since the 1930s, the ruling family has managed a tenuous pair of alliances: one as an ally and major oil supplier to the United States, and the other as a political partner with Wahhabi clerics who dominate social and religious policy in the kingdom. The clerics have long vilified America and the West.
Saudi Arabia, which sits on one-quarter of the world's known oil reserves, is the second-largest foreign oil provider to the United States. Overall, Saudi Arabia provides about 11 percent of America's annual oil consumption, and uses its leverage within OPEC to keep oil prices at levels that please Washington and the oil industry. In return for a steady supply of oil, successive US administrations have supported the Saud family and provided military assistance whenever aggressive neighbors like Iraq have threatened the kingdom. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait, the United States sent hundreds of thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia and used it as a base from which to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. About 5,000 US troops remained in the kingdom at the Prince Sultan Air Base, and the high-tech command center served as headquarters for US air strikes on Afghanistan in 2001.
The American military presence on Saudi soil enraged Islamic radicals, who decried the Sauds' decision to allow "infidel" Western forces into Islam's birthplace. Osama bin Laden was among those who turned against the ruling family in 1990. Some Saudis speculate that bin Laden specifically recruited fifteen Saudi young men to be the majority of September 11 hijackers as a way to drive a wedge between Washington and the Sauds.
Today, the desert kingdom is full of gleaming office towers, strip malls with brand-name American stores and highways packed with Buicks and Chevrolets. Saudis love American culture and products; they hate American foreign policy. It's important for the House of Saud to make a show of opposing Washington because many Saudis think that America is exploiting their country.
"America has to stop seeing Saudi Arabia as just an oil station," Mojeb Zahrani, a literature professor at King Saud University and a leading Saudi reformer, told me in 2003 in Riyadh. "That's why it has been an unbalanced relationship for a long time."