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.

Unlike most Third World countries seeking influence in Washington, Saudi Arabia is flush with money and hence has no need for foreign aid, development projects or debt relief. Its chief aims in America are to keep up its image–foremost, to insure that Congress and the White House don’t bother the kingdom about its abysmal human rights record–to win Congressional approval of periodic weapons sales to Riyadh and to make itself so valuable that it can continue to rest assured that the United States will come to its rescue in the event of any threat to the royal family, be it foreign or domestic.

Until the early 1980s the Saudis used fairly conventional means to buy political favors, namely hiring a long list of high-profile lobbyists and lawyers to represent their interests in Washington. Among those who helped promote the kingdom were Spiro Agnew, who after he resigned as Nixon’s Vice President served as a middleman for US firms looking to invest in Saudi Arabia; Robert Gray, the superlobbyist who served as director of communications for the first Reagan/Bush campaign; and a number of retired CIA officials including Raymond Close, a former station chief in Riyadh. The Saudis’ chief flack, though, was Fred Dutton, a former special assistant to JFK, who was as adept at working the media as he was Capitol Hill. Dutton threw brunches and receptions where his journalist friends–these included Katharine Graham, Benjamin Bradlee, CBS newsman Roger Mudd and columnist Joseph Kraft–mingled with government officials, especially those sympathetic to the Saudis. “The heart of Dutton’s strategy is his recognition of the central role of the media in shaping foreign policy,” Karen Elliott House of the Wall Street Journal, another of his press pals, wrote in 1982.

As the kingdom’s cachet in the capital climbed, it cut back on its overt lobbying efforts. It still has Dutton on retainer, but the Saudis’ total spending during the first half of 2000 came to just $490,000, according to records on file under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. That’s chump change for a country with its resources, and far less than what big spenders like India, Japan, Taiwan and Mexico shelled out, and lower even than the expenditures of Ukraine, Venezuela and Angola.

The Saudis can afford to be stingy because they have other means of demonstrating their importance to the United States. One has been their backing of a broad range of covert US activities, including paying for arms for the Afghan mujahedeen and the Nicaraguan contras, and quietly supplying oil to South Africa during the apartheid period. Said Aburish, a Saudi dissident exile, has detailed lesser-known examples in his book The House of Saud. They range from a $50 million payment to Mobutu Sese Seko, the former dictator of Zaire, for his support of anti-Communist rebels in Angola, to Filipino Muslim rebels who were “kept in Jeddah hotel suites and afforded a lifestyle which made them forget the reason for their being there.”

Riyadh has also purchased American weapons for nonmilitary reasons, a tactic that proved especially effective after the Gulf War, when US arms exporters went into a tailspin. Saudi Arabia has frequently bought weapons it doesn’t need, and in some cases–such as the M-1 tank–the orders were big enough to keep entire production lines running. “Their purchases have less to do with self-defense than with building political support for themselves,” says Gregory Gause, author of Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States. “It wins them favor with the Pentagon and industry, and with politicians who support them.”

The Saudis have won friends in high places by using their enormous oil reserves as a tool of US foreign policy. During the cold war the kingdom routinely increased production so as to keep the international market price of oil low, which hurt the Soviet Union, a major energy exporter. Energy-industry and Middle East experts say the Saudis continue to regulate the cost of oil, to America’s benefit. “They make sure the price doesn’t fall so low that it ruins Texas, but also that it doesn’t get so high that it damages the manufacturing states,” according to Robert Vitalis of the University of Pennsylvania.

Given the kingdom’s importance, Republican and Democratic Presidents have been careful to please the Saudis. In 1994 the Clinton Administration apologized to Riyadh after a State Department official had the audacity to state at a press conference that the United States had “serious concerns about human rights” in Saudi Arabia. At roughly the same time, according to a recent story in the New York Times, a group of US intelligence officials sought to undertake a study on internal stability in the kingdom. White House officials, knowing that the findings would likely be negative and fearful that they would leak, blocked the effort.

To win favor on Capitol Hill, where the Saudis have solid if less undisputed support, the kingdom dispenses what one former senior Congressional aide calls “largesse that is renowned” in Washington political circles. He recalls that the Saudis frequently sponsor “study trips” for staffers, usually at US resorts or pleasant overseas destinations like the Bahamas, and also throw lavish dinners at their embassy and local restaurants for government officials and revolving-door alumni. Such affairs are invariably hosted by the Saudis’ popular ambassador, Prince Bandar, and attendees–at least those not in government and therefore not legally barred from accepting gifts–are given expensive mementos like gold coins, earrings and silk scarves. As this source explains, “The Saudi embassy closely tracks important people in town. They know who’s in government, who’s out and who’s waiting to get back in. They handle things exactly as Machiavelli would have recommended.”

The Saudis also discreetly work Washington with the help of a few trusted “gatekeeper” organizations, a term used by Gwenn Okruhlik of the University of Arkansas in a 1997 article in Middle East Report. Among the key gatekeepers–DC think tanks, consultants and nonprofit foundations that the Saudis rely on as intermediaries–is the National Council on US-Arab Relations. NCUSAR puts out a variety of publications and sends Congressional delegations, military officials and academics to Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East. The council did not respond to requests for information about its funding, but its website describes NCUSAR’s supporters as “primarily individuals and institutions in the United States and the Arab world.” The council also sponsors a Corporate Cooperation Committee, which seeks to “inform American leaders and the public…about the shared interests and common concerns” of the United States and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The group is chaired by Boeing, and the vice chairs are Lockheed Martin and Parsons Corporation, the latter a construction and engineering firm for the oil and gas industries.

When the Saudis need help on a particular matter in Washington, the kingdom’s US allies normally man the frontlines. Following the Gulf War, arms makers established an ad hoc organization called the Middle East Working Group to lobby for weapons deals to the Saudis. It retained as consultants a number of national security veterans including Dov Zakheim, a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense under Reagan and the new Pentagon comptroller; Sandra Charles, who served on the National Security Council as director of Middle East affairs during the Bush Sr. years; and retired Lieut. Gen. Howard Fish, who once headed the Pentagon agency that handles foreign weapons sales.

Business support for the Saudis has extended into other areas as well. In 1998 corporations, mustered in a vehicle called USA*ENGAGE, mobilized to gut a bill that would have imposed sanctions on countries that persecute religious minorities. The bill was ultimately passed, but only after a preamble was struck that had called for an immediate investigation of Saudi Arabia and several other countries that were deemed guilty of widespread religious persecution. The bill also gave the President the right to waive sanctions if he determined that it was in the national interest. “Earlier versions of the bill were more extreme and lacked the loopholes that were included in the new version to minimize diplomatic tensions,” said a relieved account in The Oil Daily.

Another impressive display of Saudi influence came in 1996, after Congress acted to assist two US citizens, Scott Nelson and James Smrkovski, who had been unable to recover damages from the kingdom after being tortured there. Despite strong opposition from the White House and weapons makers, both the House and the Senate passed measures that would have allowed an exemption to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which prohibits most lawsuits in US courts against foreign governments in cases where those governments commit acts of state violence against US citizens. Leonard Garment, a former aide to Richard Nixon and the chief lawyer for Nelson and Smrkovski, says that with the bill headed for a House-Senate conference, the legal team “drank a bottle of cheap champagne to celebrate.” The commemoration turned out to be premature. “At 3 am, the measure was stripped from the bill,” Garment recalls. “The State Department told [conference negotiators] that Clinton would veto the whole thing if it wasn’t taken out.” The White House did later sign a bill modifying the FSIA, but it only allows citizens to sue foreign states placed on the State Department’s annual list of countries that support terrorism–a highly unlikely step in the case of Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh’s PR problems in the wake of September 11 will probably mean at least a temporary intensification of Saudi-bashing in Washington. A few critics even say that Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance is highly overblown. Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute, estimates that the United States imports $11 billion a year in oil from the Persian Gulf but spends at least $40 billion annually to defend the region. “It’s nice to have a friendly regime in Saudi Arabia, but it’s not essential to our security and well-being,” he says. “They have only one product, so they’re not going to pull it off the market. And if they do, there are other places to buy it.”

Still, that’s unlikely to become a majority view in Washington anytime soon. The kingdom has too many American friends to allow any sustained political attack on the Washington-Riyadh alliance.