Saudis and Americans: Friends in Need
by Ken Silverstein
The Nation magazine, December 3, 2001
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".
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, there-to-fore 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
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 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
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- I 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
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
l 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.
Ken Silverstein is a Washington, DC, writer who frequently
covers military and intelligence matters. Research support was
provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.