Born in France and educated at the Sorbonne, Laurent Murawiec taught philosophy in Paris before becoming a correspondent for the French business daily, La Vie Française. He subsequently co-founded GeoPol Services SA, a consulting company in Geneva, and worked as a consultant for the French Defense Ministry. In 1999, he joined the RAND Corporation as a senior policy analyst and taught at George Washington University. His published works include La Guerre au XXIe siecle (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2000) and L'Esprit des Nations: Cultures et geopolitique (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2002). He is presently working on a book on U.S.-Saudi relations.
Once upon a time, there were solid grounds for a partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia. After World War II, the kingdom's vast oil reserves and willingness to use its production capacity to ensure moderate and stable world oil prices were rightly judged to be vital to American national security. In return for these strategic assets, the United States pledged to protect the kingdom's oil supplies and obstruct those who would seek to control them, particularly the Soviet Union. Thus, when FDR met with King Abdulaziz bin Saud in 1945, a marriage of convenience was born. But the original reasons for this marriage of convenience have long since faded away. It is time for a divorce.
Cracks in the Marriage
The first indications that the foundations of this partnership were eroding came in the early 1970s, when the Saudis took the lead in establishing the OPEC oil cartel. Saudi Arabia was among the three leading instigators of the 1973 embargo on oil shipments to the United States and was the principal beneficiary of it. Rather than standing by the United States at a time when tensions between American and Soviet naval vessels in the Mediterranean were at an all-time high, the Saudis cut off oil supplies to the U.S. navy in October of that year.
The rationale for this partnership completely unraveled following the 1979 establishment of an Islamic Republic in Tehran, when Iranian clerics challenged the religious credentials of the Saudi monarchy. Ayatollah Khomeini condemned Saudi royals as corrupt, venal and decidedly unIslamic. That they should be challenged at all was bad enough - that they should be challenged by Shiites, regarded as a heretical sect by most Sunni Muslims, was intolerable.
The Saudi Royal Family
Since it established control over the Arabia peninsula in the 1920s, the Saudi royal family has claimed to be the guardian of Islam's two holiest sites – Mecca and Medina – and prides itself on upholding the "purest" form of Islam, known as Wahhabism. Wahhabism dates back to a pact between eighteenth century Arabian zealot Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and a desert brigand named Ibn Saud, which enshrined an alliance through marriage that produced the Saudi royal family. Until the late 1970s, Wahhabism was an extreme sect that happened to rule Saudi Arabia, but did not bother too many outside the kingdom's borders. To counter the proliferation of anti-Saudi Iranian propaganda, however, the Saudis decided to spread Wahhabi teachings abroad. The royal family's oil wealth poured into countries throughout the Islamic world, from West Africa to Indonesia, fueling a proliferation of madrasas (religious schools) that indoctrinated a new generation of Islamists. Even in the United States, Muslim children studied Islamic primers shipped from Wahhabi institutes in Saudi Arabia.
The Monster they Created
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 provided the kingdom with an ideal opportunity to sponsor a bona fide holy war that would showcase Wahhabi ideals and quiet Iranian-inspired Islamist opposition to the monarchy. Madrasas around the Arab and Islamic world produced shock troops for this jihad. After the Russians were driven out of Afghanistan, these "Arab Afghans" began trickling home and looked for other jihads. The Saudis had created a monster; to be sure they did not wreak havoc inside the kingdom, bin Laden and other Saudi Islamists were encouraged to wage holy war abroad. When the Clinton administration cornered Osama bin Laden in the Sudan in 1998, the Saudis refused to allow his extradition back home, where he could be neutralized. Instead, the Saudi intelligence chief – Prince Turki – reportedly offered bin Laden $200 million to go to Afghanistan, on the condition that he not target the Saudi royal family. Bin Laden honored his promise – there has not been a single attack by Al-Qaeda against the Al-Saud family. Inside the kingdom, Al-Qaeda has only operated against the Americans and the British. Over time, the understanding became that bin Laden would leave the Saudis alone only if they allowed the network of charities funding Al-Qaeda to operate unhindered. On the day after the September 11 attacks, the first thing Riyadh did was evacuate two dozen members of the bin Laden family residing in the US on the private jet of its ambassador, Prince Bandar.
With the end of the Cold War, the most persuasive reasons for maintaining the marriage of convenience with Saudi Arabia disappeared. With the September 11 attacks, the returns on this partnership went from zero to negative. The Saudis have become the friends of our enemies and the enemies of our friends. Bin Laden is an extension of Saudi foreign policy. To be fair, the Saudis don't quite know how to deal with the monster they've created – so far they've avoided tough choices. As long as the benefits of sponsoring terror are enormous and the costs of sponsoring terror are negligible, they will not take decisive action. The US must therefore make the costs of funding Wahhabi extremism terribly high, while making the benefits slim pickings.
Summary account by Gary C. Gambill, a research associate at the Middle East Forum