Desert Chill

Jan. 1, 2003

Last August, Prince Bandar bin Sultan–fighter pilot, Johns Hopkins University graduate, and longtime Saudi envoy in Washington–paid a personal call on George W. Bush at the President’s Crawford, Tex., ranch. The American leader escorted Bandar and his wife around the 1,600-acre spread. Later, Bush hosted the couple and six of their eight children at a lunchtime barbecue.

It was a gesture of friendship offered to few heads of state, let alone diplomats. And it had a purpose. The President’s hospitality was meant to signal his desire to remain on good terms with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a key supplier of the West’s crude oil and a highly influential player in Gulf and Arab politics. Publicly, at least, the effort was a rousing success.

“We don’t agree necessarily on every issue,” State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said at the time. “There are points that we pursue with them and they pursue with us, but overall, the US-Saudi relationship is solid.”

That is probably true. However, the mere fact that the meeting had to be held at all underscores the tensions that have arisen lately in one of the most important of America’s foreign relationships. The aggravating factors range from the personal–disputes over international child custody–to the global–how to live with Israel and what to do about Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

Bush Administration officials, for their part, have been frustrated at what they view as a reluctance by Saudi Arabia’s aging leadership to recognize the degree to which its kingdom has become a breeding ground for terrorism and intolerance. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11 were Saudi citizens. Saudi clerics remain the source of some of the most virulent anti-Semitic and anti-American rhetoric in the Arab world.

A Bad Neighborhood

In reply, Saudi officials retort that the US has little understanding of the political and demographic pressures they are under. It shares a border with Iraq to the northeast and faces Syria to the northwest and Iran across the Gulf, a combination that makes its neighborhood the most volatile in the world. Its population is exploding, while its oil revenue is dropping. The House of Saud, the monarchical family that has dominated the nation’s life since the early 20th century, is entering a period of generational transition. Meanwhile, fiery leaders of the Wahhabi strain of Islam preach violence and resist social and political modernization.

The bottom line: Saudi Arabia, as a nation, is facing years of difficult fundamental change.

“The challenges the kingdom faces are more serious than any it has faced since the days of Nasser [Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Cairo in the period 1952-70] and the period before it acquired real oil wealth,” said Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a lengthy study of Saudi Arabia’s future.

Saudi Arabia today is a nation defined by two roles that are very different and sometimes in conflict.

To the developed world, Saudi Arabia means oil, and lots of it. The kingdom possesses an estimated 27 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves, far more than any other country. Saudi wells can produce, every day, upward of 10 million barrels of crude, if need be. This vast production capability allows Saudi leaders to quickly step in and stabilize world petroleum markets whenever supply falls in any other part of the world.

As a result, Riyadh can always prevent any use of “the oil weapon” merely by stepping up its own production.

To the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia isn’t oil at all but a religious heartland. The Hejaz region on the western flank of the Arabian peninsula is the birthplace of Islam, and the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina are considered its holiest sites. In fact, the fees paid by religious pilgrims traveling to Mecca were for decades (until the discovery of oil) the prime source of Saudi government revenue.

As a nation, the current kingdom is relatively young. In 1902, Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, a warrior-prince of the prominent al Saud family, stormed out of the desert and captured Riyadh in a daring military campaign.

Over the next 30 years, the man who would become King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud gradually consolidated his control over most of the Arabian peninsula. By 1932, he had become the recognized leader of a sprawling territory that included the Hejaz, the Nejd, the Eastern Province of the Gulf, and the Empty Quarter, the largest contiguous body of sand in the world, populated mainly by nomadic tribesmen.

The Mark of Wahhab

For a long time, the House of Saud has been associated with the rigorously fundamental Wahhabi branch of Islam. In the 18th century, the ancestors of King Abdel Aziz had given shelter to the sect’s founder, Muhammad Ibn Ab al-Wahhab, and from that time onward the fortunes of the two groups were intermixed.

It was the life’s mission of Muhammad to return his people to the “true” principles of Islam. A native of Medina, he wrote the Kitab at-Tawhid (“Book of Unity”), which is the main text for Wahhabi doctrines. His views were puritanical, and he took a strong stand against all innovations–he viewed them as blasphemous–in Islamic faith. Wahhabism has been the dominant religious force in Arabia since around 1800, and the Saudi royal family has accommodated its practitioners in ways large and small.

The modern petroleum industry came to the region in 1932, when a subsidiary of Standard Oil of California discovered oil in Bahrain. In the next year, the American company struck a deal with the neighboring kingdom of Saudi Arabia; SOCAL was permitted to explore the Eastern Province, which turned out to be a world-class petroleum mother lode.

Eventually SOCAL joined with other US firms in a unique partnership called the Arabian American Oil Co. Aramco erected a small corner of America at its facilities near Dhahran in the Eastern Province, and US oil experts ran the nation’s petroleum facilities for decades. The Saudi government assumed full ownership of Aramco in 1980, renaming it Saudi Aramco. A native-born president was appointed in 1984.

From the kingdom’s earliest days, its leaders saw the United States as a useful friend and ally. Like the British, colonial rulers of the region, the US could offer modern technology, arms, and aid. Unlike the British, the US appeared to have no imperial impulse.

The security relationship between the two nations began in earnest when the Saudis granted the US permission to build an air base at Dhahran in early 1943, a time when the outcome of World War II was still in doubt. Subsequently, President Franklin D. Roosevelt held a meeting with King Abdel Aziz on a warship at sea. FDR convinced the Saudi leader to enter the war on the side of the allies, and at war’s end, Saudi Arabia began to modernize its armed forces with US aid and weapons.

By the mid-1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had determined that Washington should try to firmly link Saudi Arabia to the West and promote the prospects of King Saud, who had assumed the throne in 1953 upon the death of his father, Abdel Aziz. Eisenhower even invited King Saud to the White House in January 1957, as part of an effort to convince key Third World leaders to resist communism.

In following decades, the kingdom became more and more dependent on its US friend for arms and military expertise. For a period in the 1970s the US promoted a “twin pillars” policy which envisioned Saudi Arabia (under the rule of King Saud) and Iran (under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi) as the West’s partners who would stabilize the region.

The fall of the shah in 1978-79 eliminated one of the pillars. The other, despite many dire warnings, has continued on with no interruption, to the surprise of many.

The Thrill Is Gone

Over the past 20 years, a general bargain–the US provides military defense, Saudi Arabia provides stability in oil production–has served both nations reasonably well, with the Gulf War vividly displaying the extent of the relationship. Even so, US officials often describe ties with Saudi Arabia as an arranged marriage, not a romantic one.

The two cultures are as different as any on Earth. Within Saudi Arabia, polygamy is legal, governance is based on sharia, or Islamic law, and the ruling elite is composed of Abdel Aziz’s many sons and grandsons. US support for Israel has been a consistent source of tension in the relationship. For many years, US presidents promised that no Jew would serve at the US air base at Dhahran. Aramco made the same promise.

US resupply of Israel during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War triggered a serious Arab oil embargo. When it ended, a series of major oil price increases drove up producer profits, which brought stupendous wealth to Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations. Today, the Saudis say they are dismayed by the extent of the Bush Administration’s support for Israel at a time of great turmoil and military action in the Palestinian territories. To the White House, the majority of these blows can be categorized as battles against terrorism. To the Saudis, many of them are terrorism itself.

In an open letter to the US not long ago, 126 Saudi so-called scholars and authors wrote, “We consider the United States and its current Administration a first-class sponsor of international terrorism, and it, along with Israel, form an axis of terrorism and evil in the world.”

Today the US-Saudi relationship may not be heading for a divorce, but since the Sept. 11 attacks, it has come under more strain than at any time since 1973.

The major reason: Iraq. Following the terrorist attacks in the US, the Saudis supported US military action in Afghanistan, if quietly. Since then, however, Saudi leaders have continually questioned whether a broad war on terror needs to include Saddam Hussein as a target.

It is not that the Saudis are fond of the Iraqi dictator; they are not. They remember those tense days in August 1990, when it seemed likely that Saddam’s armies might roll right through Kuwait and keep going to seize Saudi oil fields before US forces could get on the scene.

Riyadh simply does not appear to give high priority to regime change in Baghdad. They would prefer that President Bush focus his attention on solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which many Muslims consider a driving force behind the growth of Islamist extremism.

There are a number of nations besides Iraq threatening to acquire weapons of mass destruction, said Saudi senior foreign policy advisor Adel al Jubeir. “Are we going to go and attack every single one of them?” he asked rhetorically.

Blowback of US Policies

The thrust of American foreign and military policies has contributed to the rise in anti-American attitudes among ordinary Saudis. In a Gallup poll in Saudi Arabia early in 2002, only 16 percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of the United States. Identifiably American consumer products have suffered a decline in popularity; sales of everything from Coca Cola to Marlboros have dropped in recent months. Overall, US exports to Saudi Arabia were down 30 percent in 2002.

Meanwhile, many in the United States hold that the Saudis have been slow to grapple with the problem of homegrown religious extremism. Indeed, some argue that the royal family does not want to deal with it at all. In the days after Sept. 11, Riyadh only grudgingly accepted the fact that most of the hijackers were Saudis. In the months since that time, the royals have done little to change an educational system dominated by conservative Wahhabi clerics spewing hatred of Israel and the West.

An increasingly vocal faction of American political conservatives are calling on Washington to put an end to the so-called “special relationship.” Cultural and social differences between the two nations are too great, according to those in this group, and the Saudis too soft on terrorism.

In a now-infamous briefing last summer to a group of Pentagon advisors, a controversial Rand analyst lambasted Saudi Arabia as America’s “most dangerous opponent” in the Middle East and advocated planning for seizure of Saudi oil fields. The scholar later left his post at Rand.

In response to the criticisms, Saudi officials say that American claims do not take into account an important factor–the fragility of Saudi society. Saudi Arabia is facing massive social and economic dislocation, they say, and the kingdom is doing all it can to remain a friend to the United States while preserving its own stability. To be seen in the mosques as a complete puppet of Washington might doom Saudi rulers as it did Iran’s shah, claim these Saudis.

Geriatric Ward

To the outside world, one of the most visible changes in Saudi Arabia over the next decade will be political. Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdel Aziz will almost certainly inherit the throne from his half-brother and current occupant, ailing King Fahd ibn Abdel Aziz. Yet Abdullah is himself already in his seventies and thus cannot count on ruling for decades. That will lead to problems.

At the heart of the matter is the nature of the Saudi succession. Unlike European monarchies, succession does not pass from father to son in every generation. Instead, succession has passed from the Abdel Aziz only to his sons (Saud, Faisal, Khaled, and Fahd) but not grandsons. The old king had more than 50 male offspring, but even the younger ones are getting up in years.

As a result, the country may be entering what one analyst calls a “post-Brezhnev” period. A number of aging leaders–Saudi equivalents of geriatric Soviet rulers Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko–may rule the country before power somehow stabilizes in a younger generation of princes.

Strong Force, Weak Structure

While oil wealth allowed Saudi Arabia to purchase some of the most advanced weapons in the world–in some cases, systems more modern than those fielded by many NATO nations–it has one of the most complicated military structures of any developing country. During the Gulf War, Saudi forces provided significant punch to the coalition that pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. By the time fighting began, the Saudi Army fielded 270 main battle tanks and some 50,000 men. Its Air Force flew six percent of all combat sorties–the most by any nation except the United States.

Since 1991 its military posture has deteriorated somewhat, however. Saudi Arabia also still struggles with structural issues, such as the prevalence of royalty in high-ranking positions, that has long made its forces less effective than they perhaps could be.

There are five major Saudi services: the Army, the National Guard, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Air Defense Forces. In addition the Interior Ministry controls a number of security and paramilitary units.

Saudi active duty end strength totals about 178,000, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Irregulars bring force numbers up to about 226,500.

The Army has about 75,000 full-time actives. The National Guard and Royal Guards add about 100,000 more. Navy end strength is about 15,500, with 20,000 in the Air Force and 16,000 in the Air Defense Forces.

The complexity of the kingdom’s force structure is reflected in the fact that it operates three different models of main battle tanks. Its armor mainstay is a force of 450 M60A3s and 315 advanced M1A2s. The Army also has 290 French-built AMX30s, older systems that lack firepower and the power and filtration necessary for desert operation.

Saudi Arabia also fields some 2,600 other armored vehicles, including 400 M2A2 Bradleys.

The Saudi Navy has eight major surface combatants, all missile boats. It has nine patrol craft, seven minesweepers, and a scattering of support vessels.

But it is the Air Force that has long had first claim on Saudi military funds, in large part because it is the only service that can credibly defend the entire vast Saudi peninsula. IISS estimates the Saudi air arm fields some 259 front-line fixed wing combat aircraft, organized into six wings and 15 squadrons. Total inventory is 432.

The force structure mix includes 72 F-15Ss, 67 F-15Cs, 20 F-15Ds, 85 Tornado IDSs, 22 Tornado ADVs, and five E-3A AWACS. Older F-5s–for years the mainstay of the Saudi force–have virtually all been grounded due to age and obsolescence and are now in storage.

Most decisions regarding regular armed forces are made by the Minister of Defense. Since 1962 that post has been held by Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz Al Saud, who has built his military into a credible shield against Iran and Iraq.

Because the nations that pose strategic threats to Saudi Arabia have larger populations, it will be difficult for Saudi Arabia to ever counter them completely without powerful allies, however. Promotion of mediocre members of the royal family into high positions has hobbled effectiveness as well. Command relationships are highly personal. “The Saudi command structure tends to be cautious and over-compartmented,” said Cordesman.

Additionally, much of the military’s organizational energy in recent years has been devoted to splashy weapons purchases at the expense of mundane support and maintenance issues.

“The Saudi military badly needs a new kind of leadership and one that focuses on military effectiveness and not major arms buys or force expansion,” concluded Cordesman.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is becoming more populous and thus younger and poorer, in a per capita sense. The Saudi birthrate is among the highest in the world, at an estimated 37.3 percent, and today more than 60 percent of Saudis are under 25.

Oil revenues have been falling for years, as the diversification of world production has undermined prices. The per capita income in Saudi Arabia has fallen from a peak of almost $30,000 in the boom years to $10,600 in 2001, according to a CIA estimate. Many educated Saudis are unemployed, yet the country still hosts some four million guest workers to fill jobs that the Saudis themselves find unpalatable.

It seems unlikely that any new spike in oil revenues will magically rescue the kingdom from what Crown Prince Abdullah has described as a coming economic crisis. Population growth plus more competition means “per capita export income from crude oil and gas will drop by another 40 to 60 percent, in real terms, by 2030,” said Cordesman.

Within the memory of many Saudis, Saudi Arabia was a largely rural and nomadic society. Today, it is rapidly urbanizing. Nearly half the nation’s population of 23 million lives in the big cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, or Dhahran.

Then there are Saudi Arabia’s neighbors. Regime change in Iraq might remove one of the chief external threats to Saudi stability, but it might also result in an unstable, Bosnia-like nation to the north. To the east, Iran remains a problem. There have been tensions between the Wahhabi branch of Islam and Iran’s Shiites for centuries. As modern nations, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been rivals for regional supremacy. Part of the problem is that much of the population in the oil-bearing Eastern Province follows the Shiite path. Moreover, the current struggle in Iran between conservative, theocratic rulers and reformist students fills Saudi leaders with misgivings, as they see in it some echoes of their own internal situation.

“Continuing internal political turmoil forces Saudi Arabia to continue to perceive Iran as a potential threat,” wrote Cordesman.

Riyadh and Washington still have strong common interests. Saudi Arabia’s percentage share of US oil imports has fallen into single digits, but it remains one of the biggest foreign suppliers as well as a producer capable of stabilizing market swings. US action in Iraq may not be to Riyadh’s liking, but without the 5,000 US military personnel based on its soil, Saudi Arabia would be vulnerable to aggression in a highly militarized part of the world.

Both nations will simply have to face up to the awkward trade-offs they will have to make in years to come, according to Cordesman. Saudi Arabia must quash extremism while maintaining its Islamic character. The US must lower its military profile in the kingdom while maintaining a capability to project its power when needed. Both want peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but they will pursue it from different directions.

As Cordesman sums up the situation: “The entire history of Saudi-US relations illustrates the fact that common interests are never identical interests, and this seems certain to be as true in the future as in the past.”

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Iran Problem,” appeared in the December 2002 issue.