The United States has a bipolar relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates. On one hand, Western economies remain dependent on imported oil of which the Saudi fields are an important source. On the other hand, many policymakers are repelled by Saudi subsidization of Islamic extremism. Fifteen of the nineteen 9-11 hijackers were Saudi. Despite the importance of the relationship, literature about Saudi Arabia, the smaller Arab emirates, and their relationship with the West remains thin. What does exist falls into three categories: treatments of oil, examinations of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and studies of Saudi personalities.
Quantifying Energy: BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2006. London: British Petroleum, 2006. 45 pp. Available free online.
Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. By Matthew R. Simmons. Hoboken: John Wiley and Son, 2005. 422 pp. $24.95.
Oil Titans: National Oil Companies in the Middle East. By Valerie Marcel. London: Chatham House/Brookings Institution Press, 2006. 322 pp. $22.95.
That oil dominates discussion of the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf should not surprise. After all, Saudi Arabia has 22 percent of the world's oil reserves; Kuwait has 8.5 percent; and the United Arab Emirates has 8.1 percent. For policy analysts and industry experts alike, the annual BP Statistical Review of World Energy is a standard reference. Not only does it enable analysts to determine just how oil-wealthy various countries are, but it now also includes data on energy alternatives such as wind power and ethanol.
While many policymakers accept Saudi and other Persian Gulf statistics too uncritically, taking any product of these governments or state oil companies at face value would be a mistake. British Petroleum acknowledges it reproduces figures provided by national governments, even when such statistics are implausible. Industry experts, for example, believe Kuwait exaggerates its reserves; others governments might do likewise.
By voicing doubt over the kingdom's figures, Texan investment banker and veteran oil industry analyst Matthew R. Simmons angered Saudi officials. In 2003, as a guest of Saudi Aramco, he contrasted verified production shortfalls in twelve key oil fields with "unverified Saudi rhetoric." In Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, he suggests that the Saudi government lies about its reserves. Simmons argues that private geological and engineering information simply does not correlate to public statements. While Saudi officials and many oil industry experts maintain that Simmons is wrong, the matter will not be laid to rest until the kingdom allows an independent audit.
The question of the BP statistics and the anger over Simmons' assertions reflect the problem of state opacity that faces scholars and analysts of the Persian Gulf region. Arab governments (as well as Iran) prize secrecy. They release only that information which serves their interests. Thus, to rely too much on official data can be counterproductive. In Oil Titans, Valerie Marcel, a researcher at Chatham House in London, explores this opacity and the structure and thinking of these state-owned oil companies, not only in Saudi Arabia but also in Iran, Kuwait, Algeria, and Abu Dhabi, the chief oil producer within the United Arab Emirates.
Looking at the results of a questionnaire sent to more than 100 professionals and also interviewing several top executives, she finds the industry's common characteristic to be that of stifling bureaucracy. Here, the National Iranian Oil Company leads the field; by comparison, Saudi Aramco appears open. Everything is relative. While still opaque, Saudi Aramco can be efficient even as it has to operate within the limits set by the Saudi royal family. Such research may appear dry, but it has important implications in the ability of Persian Gulf economies to cope with a sustained drop in oil prices. In 1999, when prices dipped below $10 per barrel, only the United Arab Emirates had a budget surplus.
Absent a sudden shift towards privatization, the decision-making of state-owned oil companies will remain important for world energy security.
What Underlies U.S.-Saudi Relations?
America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. By Robert Vitalis. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006. 353 pp. $29.95.
Thicker than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia. By Rachel Bronson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 353 pp. $28.
National Security in Saudi Arabia: Threats, Responses, and Challenges. By Anthony H. Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid. Westport: Praeger Security International, 2005. 428 pp. $54.95.
State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. By James Risen. New York. Simon & Schuster, 2006. 256 pp. $26.
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. By Lawrence Wright. New York: Knopf, 2006. 470 pp. $27.95
Oil is interwoven into the modern history of the Middle East. University of Pennsylvania political scientist Robert Vitalis tackles the early history of Aramco in Saudi Arabia prior to that kingdom's 1980 nationalization of the industry in America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. Vitalis's research demonstrates that while a security-for-oil understanding forms the basis of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the origins of the bilateral relationship were private financial interests.
He approaches his study with an academic's love for archives and declassified documents. He does not whitewash Saudi history with the happy, pre-9-11 narrative so popular among Saudi scholars. Instead, he talks about the racism that pervaded Aramco camps, not only dividing Saudis and Americans but also segregating Palestinians and Pakistanis, who formed an intermediate tier. In an age of heightened political sensitivities, he points out early strains caused by U.S. workers draping a Saudi flag over a company bar and personal ridicule directed toward the Saudi king.
Interest in Saudi Arabia grew after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Perhaps the most influential addition to the literature is Rachel Bronson's Thicker than Oil. Bronson, formerly at the Council on Foreign Relations and now vice-president for programs and studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, argues against the idea that oil is the basis of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Rather, with meticulous attention to State Department archives, oral histories, and interviews, she argues that Riyadh's Cold War assistance solidified the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
While Bronson's argument is valid, it perhaps inculpates Washington too much in the creation of jihadi fighters in Afghanistan. True, Washington and Riyadh's interests coincided in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but the growth of jihadism was more the result of deliberate Saudi action coupled with U.S. negligence to hold Riyadh to account for its poorly-supervised infrastructure of Islamic charities and educational establishments. Riyadh's actions were deliberate while Washington was naïve and negligent to trust too much to Saudi intentions. Bronson's statement that "mutual recriminations are easy yet counterproductive" is facile. Moral equivalency falls flat. Her recommendation that "Saudi leaders must work to address issues surrounding the financing of extremist thought [and] in return, Washington must find ways to help the pragmatists prevail in their domestic battle," undercuts the depth of the problem the West faces because of Saudi religious incitement. The quest for Saudi moderates may also be ephemeral, especially if men such as King Abdullah are counted among them. After all, in 2004, it was Abdullah who proclaimed that there was a "95 percent" chance that "Zionist hands" were behind recent terror attacks in Yanbu on the Red Sea and Al-Khobar on the Persian Gulf coast.
In National Security in Saudi Arabia, both Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Nawaf Obaid, until recently a Saudi security adviser, argue that the special relationship between the West and Saudi Arabia needs revision. Rather than treat Riyadh as a client, Cordesman and Obaid argue that the United States and Europe should treat the kingdom "as they do other friendly states in the region." If the authors seek to imply that Riyadh's relationship with Washington should equal Jerusalem's, they do not say so directly. Still, even hinting at such an equivalency reflects a profound misunderstanding about the nature of U.S. foreign policy. Money and patronage are not the foundations of U.S. special relationships with countries such as Israel, the United Kingdom, and Australia but rather democracy and ideology.
Another question which permeates the literature, but which few authors address directly, is whether the U.S.-Saudi relationship is good for both countries. In State of War, James Risen of the New York Times writes that after 9-11 "no one in Washington worked harder to earn their keep than the spin merchants of Saudi Arabia." These he identified as "[s]o many people in Washington's power circles—lawyers, and lobbyists, defense contractors, former members of Congress and former White House aides, diplomats and intelligence officers, and even some journalists [who] rely so heavily on Saudi money or Saudi access that ugly truths about Saudi links to Islamic extremists have been routinely ignored or suppressed." It is a devastating but accurate comment. When Saudi officials address public meetings in the United States, their audience too often acts as supplicants, seeking notice and favor. Risen goes on to make the curious comparison that Saudi influence "is an issue only slightly less sensitive to discuss in polite company in Washington than that of Israeli political influence." It is an ugly reminder that although U.S. society is polite, strong opinions and prejudice can lie behind a smiling veneer.
While no judgment about the future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship is possible without gauging the kingdom's internal stability, few authors are willing to address the issue directly. In Twilight in the Desert, Simmons also questioned the kingdom's social stability. By focusing on rejection of his technical arguments, the Saudis have sought to discredit his book and sidestep its political dimension. Yet his political arguments are based on economics rather than partisan vitriol.
New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright tangentially addresses the issue in The Looming Tower, which tells the story of 9-11 through the interlocking lives of four men: Osama bin Laden, his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, FBI counter-terrorism chief John O'Neill, and then-Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal. His narrative addresses the historical compromises between the Saudi royal family and the Wahhabi clerical leadership. Wright provides anecdotes to illustrate shifting power balances, for example, relating a confrontation between Turki and a preacher who had objected to women running charitable organizations, and reporting Turki's decision to monitor religious police, even though they were outside his area of responsibility.
The Royal Family
Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs. Edited by Paul Aarts and Gerd Nonneman. London: C. Hurst and Co, 2005. 462 pp. $50.
The Prince: The Secret Story of the World's Most Intriguing Royal, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. By William Simpson. New York: Regan, HarperCollins, 2006. 480 pp. $32.50.
What undercuts many of the Western books about Saudi Arabia is a failure to treat royal family members critically. While scholars of Iran or Israel, for example, tackle the personal foibles of major personalities, Saudi specialists remain deferential to the royals. Many journalists treat them as if they are ten-feet tall. Many studies label Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz, king and prime minister for twenty-three years, as "revered." Others characterize Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, defense minister since 1962, simply as "powerful." Here, Vitalis is an exception, as he does relate critical anecdotes. Still, it would be useful to explore the personal weaknesses of royals who are crucial not only to the U.S.-Saudi relationship but also—because of Saudi Arabia's oil wealth—to the world economy. Energy independence might still be a pipe-dream for another two decades but, if Western policymakers and the general public better understood the frailties of the princes, they might take more seriously the need to invest in alternative energy sources to become less dependent upon the kingdom.
Archival records suggest senior policymakers recognize the venality of Saudi princes. In 2006, the British National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) accidentally released a series of 1985 documents relating to the multibillion Al-Yamamah arms deal in which Britain agreed to sell Tornado attack aircraft and other equipment. Among the papers was a briefing note for British prime minister Margaret Thatcher containing profiles of key Saudis that discusses the personal hypocrisy of many Saudi royals and notes King Fahd's unpopularity among both the public and the royal family. The British Foreign Office briefing describes Sultan, now crown prince, as "not highly intelligent, but he has charm … He has prejudices, is inflexible and imperious."
The British Foreign Office recognized that family interests defined Saudi policy. The Saudi foreign minister was a bit player; the king retained real control. A desire to co-opt radicals who otherwise might turn on the kingdom motivated Saudi rhetoric about Palestine. Checking Soviet and Iranian influence was also a priority. Despite the revisionism of Bronson and Cordesman and Obaid, London recognized oil dominated the U.S.-Saudi relationship since before World War II.
In terms of analysis of modern Saudi Arabia, none of the other books approaches Saudi Arabia in the Balance by University of Amsterdam lecturer Paul Aarts and University of Lancaster reader Gerd Nonneman. Some of their chapters are perhaps too academic for the general readership, but they have assembled a far-reaching collection of analyses on history, politics, and economics. "Circles of Power," a chapter by London University lecturer Madawi al-Rasheed is valuable for depicting Saudi royal politics not as the cleavage of now-King Abdullah versus the Sudairis—Fahd and his full brothers—but rather as five circles of power—Fahd's sons, Abdullah, Interior Minister Prince Nayif bin Abdul Aziz, Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, and the Governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud. The chapter "Political Opposition in Saudi Arabia," written by Abdulaziz O. Sager, director of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, also provides a useful survey.
Overcoming the impediments to U.S.-Saudi relations will be no easy task. Between 1983 and 2005, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, dedicated himself to this job. He is the subject of the new book, The Prince. Written by William Simpson, a former hedge fund executive who first met Bandar as a fellow trainee at Cranwell, the British air force training academy, it bills itself as an unofficial biography although, according to Simpson, Bandar provided unrestricted access to his family and friends. While not critical about larger issues, Simpson relates an anecdote about Bandar cheating while at Cranwell. The Saudi prince preferred a hot meal at a local guest house close to the rendezvous point to dodging British troops during an escape-and-evasion exercise. The incident recalls a similar example of avoiding physical exercise related by Bandar's half-brother, Khalid bin Sultan, in his autobiography.
While too sympathetic, Simpson's biography helps to fill out Bandar's character beyond the tales of hyperactive diplomat, dealmaker, and special envoy, roles he cultivated. Also revealed are important historical details. Simpson writes that Saudi Arabia considered a direct military role in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, with some in Riyadh proposing to bomb Eilat with ten aircraft, including one piloted by Bandar. In the end, the Saudi government instead sent a brigade to Syria where it remained well clear of the Golan front. Does Bandar deserve a superman image? Aside from a bad back, a legacy of days of driving fast cars and piloting fast planes, Simpson describes bouts of depression. The reality will be crucial since Bandar, as secretary-general of the Saudi National Security Council, must face a resurgent Iran and uncertainty in Iraq.
So what might be included in the next batch of Saudi-oriented books? Another biography of a Saudi royal would be welcome—King Abdullah himself certainly deserves one—although the secrecy of Saudi society would likely undercut its value to anyone who wants detail. Studies of regionalism in Saudi Arabia remain taboo. The only recent exception here is Chatham House researcher Mai Yamani's Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity, whose research reminds that many residents of the once-independent Red Sea region of Hijaz resent the domination of the House of Saud, which conquered the region in 1924. There is also a growing gap, after the surge of post-9-11 books, of studies examining the role of Islam. Saudi Wahhabism aside, the rest of the Persian Gulf Arabs appear to have a simple and deep faith, not well understood in the West. There is little recent scholarship about Saudi Shi‘ites or the Sufi communities which dot the Arabian Peninsula. Perhaps there will be a volume or two on the soaring economic success of Dubai, mimicked in lesser degree by Doha and Bahrain. But publishers be warned, watch the oil price. Any further softening could prick the bubble parts of these economies. There will be tears all round. The safest bet is that Iranian titles will still dominate, with the Saudis close behind. The other Persian Gulf Arabs might well prefer it that way.
 Quantifying Energy: BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2006 (London: BP Corp, 2006), p. 6.