Friend or foe? Riyadh has yet to decide.
Friday, August 16, 2002
President Bush has said repeatedly that countries must decide whether they are with us or against us in the war on terrorism. So far the Saudis haven't made up their minds.
As if to prove the point, last week Riyadh repaid American military support all these years by declaring Saudi airfields off-limits for any U.S. attack against the neighbor who would have eaten the kingdom for lunch a decade ago had the U.S. not stopped him. Then Crown Prince Abdullah sends his foreign-policy adviser on tour in America to insist that Saudi Arabia is a free, open society where hate messages aren't tolerated.
That might have worked under the oil-for-protection bargain that formed the basis of U.S.-Saudi relations in the past. But September 11 opened up the Saudi double-game to broader public scrutiny as Americans learned that 15 of the hijackers were Saudis and hundreds of Saudis were fighting alongside the Taliban. A dictatorship that allows anti-Western hate messages to flourish in schools, holds American women such as 19-year-old Amjad Radwan hostage to a policy of gender apartheid, and has directly and indirectly funded much of the terrorist network we now fight cannot be considered a friend.
Still, none of this means it's time to declare the country enemy territory and take over the oil fields of Arabia, as a lone Rand researcher proposed recently to a defense advisory board. The House of Saud is more axis-of-muddle than axis-of-evil at this point. This poses its own dangers for American interests, but the difference is that the U.S. can influence the historic changes taking place in Saudi Arabia.
Much of the muddle has to do with the country's succession struggle. With King Fahd ailing in Europe, Crown Prince Abdullah is ostensibly the new boss, a choice clearly not to the satisfaction of some of the King's other brothers, such as the more hard-line Defense Minister Prince Sultan. Nothing is final until the King dies and his replacement has the blessing of the country's religious and other elites. Meanwhile, no one is fully in charge.
The leadership vacuum increases the power of religious extremists, who control the mosques, schools and other outlets of social life. The House of Saud has given a free hand to the Wahhabi elite of the Nejd heartland, whose religious interpretation of Islam boils down to a rejection of all that is modern, female or vaguely Western. While this clearly is at odds with a growing population of sophisticated, Westernized and Western-educated Saudis, many privileged Saudis (including 5,000 princes pretty much above the law) see no reason to change the status quo, under which they live more than comfortably. They also argue that giving free rein to the religious extremists is the necessary payoff to protect the House of Saud from being targeted by terrorists who resent its Western ties and capitalist underbelly.
This devil's bargain not only threatens the U.S.-Saudi partnership, on which the kingdom's foreign policy is grounded, it perpetuates a state of economic and social decline. Unemployment among Saudi males stands at around 30%, though the country employs six million foreign workers to fill jobs Saudi men find dishonorable. Per capita income has dropped to less than $7,000 a year from $28,600 two decades ago, and debt has spiraled.
The U.S. no longer depends as it did on Saudi oil. And Saudi Arabia's vast oil reserves look less important these days with new sources in Russia and Central Asia. While Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in the Gulf War, an operation to depose Saddam Hussein would not necessarily need Saudi cooperation. The U.S.-built Al Udeid airbase in Qatar is reported to have a 12,500-foot runway and hangars (fortified against chemical and biological attacks) for up to 120 warplanes, and could serve as headquarters for an air campaign.
Enlightened Saudis realize that if their nation is to survive it must become more like modernizing Muslim states such as Bahrain. Less than a decade ago a strife-ridden basket-case, Bahrain introduced some democratic reforms and a respect for human rights unknown in the region. The results have been political stability and that rarest of things in the Middle East--tolerance.
Privately, there are Saudi officials who cite Bahrain as a model and declare themselves for a new order. And many Saudis admire the liberal values the U.S. stands for; some 50,000 Saudis study in the U.S., a significant force of influence in a population of 22 million. But all this means little when Saudi money still funds extremist schools, when cooperation against terrorism is withheld, or when American citizens are held captive against their will because a male relative refuses them permission to leave.
These are all things the House of Saud can change, even at this time of leadership uncertainty. If no effort is made, Americans would be right to conclude that the Saudis have made their choice, and that they are not with us.