Saudi Arabia, traditionally one of America’s most important allies in the Middle East, has recently come in for unusually sharp criticism in Washington. Political leaders and the press have blasted Riyadh’s refusal to allow the United States to use bases in the kingdom to launch attacks against the Taliban and for its lack of cooperation in investigating the September 11 hijackers, of whom fifteen of the nineteen were Saudi citizens, according to the FBI. Nor has it escaped notice that the Saudis until quite recently were the principal financial prop of the Taliban regime and that they have funded the radical Islamic schools in Pakistan and elsewhere known as madrassahs. On October 24 Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke scornfully of America’s “love affair” with the Saudis and said, “They need us more than we need them.”
Does all this mean that the Washington-Riyadh friendship is in serious trouble? Don’t bet on it. Thanks to its perceived strategic importance, the kingdom can count on high-level support in the capital, especially at the White House, State Department and Pentagon. To bolster their status, the Saudis conduct a discreet and effective lobbying program, which is backed by US businesses with a big stake in the kingdom, especially weapons makers and oil companies. “If the Saudis grew artichokes we wouldn’t care about the relationship, but we want their oil,” says Lawrence Korb, Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan years and now director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s why we put up with a lot from the Saudis and rarely lean on them.”
The modern US-Saudi partnership dates to the World War II era, when a State Department analysis labeled the kingdom’s oil reserves “one of the greatest material prizes in world history” [see Michael T. Klare, “The Geopolitics of War,” November 5]. Over the next half-century, the United States sold the Saudis about $100 billion in military goods and services, including cold-war-era bases built to be compatible with US forces and strategic needs. Riyadh’s importance was vastly enhanced in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini toppled the Shah of Iran, theretofore Washington’s chief ally in the Persian Gulf. In a paper written later, Anthony Cordesman, currently at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and ABC’s military consultant, said that insuring Saudi Arabia’s security had become “the most important element to Western strategic interests” in the Middle East.
The Pentagon maintains a significant presence in Saudi Arabia, and US military contractors help train every branch of its armed forces. Perhaps the most important US firm in the kingdom is Virginia-based Vinnell, which was owned by the Carlyle Group–an investment firm whose principals and paid advisers include former Secretary of State James Baker, former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci and George Bush Sr.–until being sold to TRW in 1997. Vinnell trains the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which protects the kingdom from its internal enemies and guards important strategic facilities, such as oil installations. “The royal family relies on the National Guard to insure stability in the kingdom,” says Chet Richards, who did ten tours of duty in Saudi Arabia as a reserve air attaché. “It’s far more important than the army.”
Oil remains the most important element in the Washington-Riyadh relationship. Last year the Saudis supplied the United States with about 1.5 million barrels per day–about 17 percent of all US oil imports. But economic ties between the two countries are far broader than petroleum alone. American exports to Saudi Arabia, which in addition to arms [see Roston, below] include automobiles, computers and agricultural products, came to about $8 billion in 1999. American corporations have about $4.1 billion in direct investments there, topping those in Israel and Egypt.