Saudi Arabia has a very clear interest in maintaining regional stability because like the United States, it has a lot to lose. Anything that disrupts the political and economic status quo—be it Nasser’s brand of Arab Nationalism, Bin Laden’s brand of Islam, or an unresolved Arab–Israeli conflict—is a threat to Saudi security and prosperity.
Widespread Arab sympathy for the Palestinians and a belief that the United States is not an honest broker in the peace process is a domestic issue that complicates Riyadh’s relationship with its most important ally. Likewise, public support for Israel has often made strong ties to Saudi Arabia a political liability for American presidents. From the Al Saud’s perspective, it would be much better to get the Arab–Israeli problem resolved—and they have tried to do so more than once.
After the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, Arab leaders met in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where they adopted their reflexive “Three Noes” with regard to Israel. “No recognition, No negotiation and No reconciliation.” With the exception of Egypt, this remained their unanimous, unwavering and unhelpful position for the next fifteen years. Only in 1981 did then Crown Prince Fahd put forth a fresh proposal by which “all states in the region should be able to live in peace.” Fahd’s plan did not explicitly recognize Israel but it implied that this was now a possibility after the acceptance of a Palestinian state and a return to 1967 borders. Forty years ago, that was a radical policy change. A watered down version of Fahd’s plan was adopted in 1982 by Arab leaders meeting in Morocco. Known as the Fez Plan, it remains Arab League policy to this day. President Ronald Reagan called the Fez Plan “the single largest step towards peace on which the Arab World has been able to agree.”49
In 2002, then Crown Prince Abdullah repeated the Saudi offer to The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman: “full withdrawal from all the occupied territories, in accord with UN resolutions, including Jerusalem, for full normalization of relations” with Israel.50 The following month Abdullah presented his plan to the Arab Summit in Beirut, where a modified version was unanimously adopted. The Beirut Plan differed from the Fez Plan in that it explicitly stated the conditions under which the Arabs would “consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over and sign a peace agreement with Israel.”
At both Fez and Beirut, the Saudi proposal was more forward- leaning than the eventual Arab consensus position adopted. Like Prince Fahd, Prince Abdullah took political risks and spent both political and financial capital convincing other Arab leaders to go as far as they did. Neither proposal was fully acceptable to Israel or the United States as they did not adequately address important issues such as the status of Jerusalem or the return of Palestinian refugees. However, these proposals remain the most constructive plans put forward by the Arabs to date. King Abdullah had them reaffirmed at the 2007 Arab League Summit in Riyadh, and King Salman reiterated them to President Donald Trump during his 2017 visit to Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has almost always supported independent American efforts to negotiate an end to the Arab–Israeli conflict. The most notable exception was breaking off diplomatic relations with Cairo after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the 1979 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. Yet even when Riyadh followed the Arab consensus in breaking ties with Cairo, the Saudis did not completely cut off financial aid to the Egyptian military or expel thousands of Egyptian guest workers who continued to send home economically vital hard currency remittances.51 The eruption of the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000 put severe new strain on Saudi-American relations. Graphically vivid Saudi press coverage of Palestinian suffering resulted in an unofficial, but widespread, Saudi boycott of American consumer products. Crown Prince Abdullah, one of whose wives was Palestinian, felt strongly about the issue. The king also believed that rising public anger over Palestine threatened the position of the United States’ moderate Arab allies. In May 2001, King Abdullah declined an invitation to visit the White House, and later canceled high- level military meetings.
Like many of his predecessors, King Abdullah wrote to the President of the United States complaining about the plight of the Palestinians. Unlike his predecessors, in August 2001 Abdullah’s missive threatened to re- examine the entire Saudi American relationship if something was not done about it. His Ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, read the letter to President George W. Bush, noting that from now on Saudi Arabia would pursue its own defense, security, and economic interests without taking into account the interests of the United States.52 The president’s written reply was intended to avoid such a breach. For the first time, the United States formally agreed to support the creation of a Palestinian state and promised to announce this publicly at the upcoming UN General Assembly meeting.53 It seemed that another crisis in Saudi American relations had passed.
Only days later, al-Qaeda terrorists carried out a series of coordinated attacks on the United States that killed 2,996 people, injured another 6,000, and caused more than $10 billion- worth of damage. On September 11, 2001 more than 100 people leapt to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center towers; 343 firemen and 72 police officers lost their lives. Civilian airspace was closed for two days and the New York Stock Market remained closed for a week. Hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic debris was scattered over Lower Manhattan. In Washington, DC, Army Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. General Timothy Maude was the highest- ranking officer of the 123 people killed at the Pentagon.
Citing Washington’s support for Israel and the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia as justifications, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for these atrocities, which killed more people than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor almost sixty years previously. When the FBI confirmed that fifteen of the nineteen terrorists were Saudis, Saudi American bilateral relations went into free fall. Draconian restrictions were placed on Saudis traveling to the United States; some in Washington argued that the US consulates in Jeddah and Dhahran should simply be closed. Saudi tourists previously accustomed to receiving American visas in forty- eight hours now faced waiting for six months. Saudi trade missions to the United States disappeared; far fewer military officers from the kingdom went to the US for training; and the number of Saudi students studying in the United States collapsed. For many Americans, it did not matter if another Saudi ever came to the United States. These were precisely the reactions that al-Qaeda’s leadership had been hoping for.
Despite allegations that it had supported the attacks, the Saudi government had in fact been at war with Osama bin Laden since 1996 when he issued his “Declaration of Jihad on the Americans Occupying the Two Sacred Places.” In this document, Bin Laden had spelled out in great detail how the Al Saud were “agents of imperialist Christians and Jews.” Long before 9/11, the Saudi government had stripped Bin Laden of his Saudi citizenship and seized what funds and assets he had in the kingdom. Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, had actually gone to Afghanistan in 1998 in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Taliban to expel or even extradite Osama Bin Laden to Saudi Arabia.54 The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist
Attacks Upon the United States, informally known as the 9/11 Commission Report, was released in 2004. It identified Saudi individuals as the primary source of al-Qaeda funding but, as noted in Chapter 12, found no evidence of Saudi government involvement. The release of the classified portion of the report a decade later did not change that conclusion.55
Still, the view that Saudi proselytizing efforts contributed to the 9/11 attacks continues to color Saudi American relations. Some Saudi apologists argue that this is unfair. They point out that al-Qaeda’s world view has more in common with Muslim Brotherhood doctrines and the teachings of militants like Brotherhood theorist, Sayyid Qutb, than with Mohammed Abd al-Wahhab and the views of the Saudi ulama. That is partially true. While a young engineering student at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University, Osama bin Laden had indeed been taught Islamic Studies by Sayyid Qutb’s brother, Mohammed Qutb, and by the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, Abdullah Azzam. These two professors preached a hybrid philosophy of Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabi doctrines that Bin Laden adopted.56 On the other hand, it is equally true that for three decades Saudi Arabia exported its fundamentalist brand of Islam by building schools and mosques across the Muslim world. In Europe, South Asia, Africa, and North America the message deliveredby these Saudi- funded institutions made global Islam less tolerant, more conservative, and more prone to violence than it had previously been.57
The 9/11 Commission Report further noted that “[a] number of FBI and CIA officers complained to the Joint Inquiry (i.e. the 9/11 Commission) about a lack of Saudi cooperation in terrorism investigations both before and after the September 11 attacks.” This state of affairs changed quickly in May 2003 after the al-Qaeda attacks on Riyadh residential compounds. Counterterrorism cooperation became the most significant factor in reviving Saudi American relations. It quietly replaced Soviet containment as the “third leg” of a relationship long based on global energy supplies and Saudi security. More counterterrorism training was provided and more terrorists were apprehended. By 2004, the State Department’s Counterterrorism Coordinator, Ambassador J. Cofer Black, was telling Congress that the Saudis were a key ally in the global war on terror.58 After 9/11, the Saudi government supported the American campaign to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan but opposed the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Crown Prince Abdullah stated clearly that invading Iraq “would not serve American interests or the interests of the world.”59 Many Saudis doubted that the invasion could succeed, and worried that if things went badly the Americans would simply go home leaving them with a large problem on their doorstep. That proved an accurate prediction. Yet despite their misgivings, the Saudis quietly supported Operation Iraqi Freedom—allowing limited air operations from Saudi bases, overflights by US military aircraft and missiles, and the staging of Special Forces operations. They prepared campsto receive anticipated Iraqi refugees and, as they had done many times before, increased oil production to cover anticipated disruptions.60
The invasion of Iraq was only one of the policy differences that emerged between the Saudi government and the administration of George W. Bush. Riyadh regarded the new Shia- dominated government in Iraq as an Iranian pawn and refused to give it political or financial support. The Saudis believed that Israel’s 2006 war with the Iranian- backed militia, Hezbollah, had only increased Tehran’s influence in Lebanon.There was little appetite in the Royal Diwan for President Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” to democratize the Arab world.
Yet, there were always tangible signs that both sides still saw value in maintaining a cooperative relationship. Counterterrorism efforts were foremost. In 2008, Saudi Arabia and the United States established The Joint Commission for Critical Infrastructure Protection (JCCIP), which coordinates the activities of numerous US government agencies working with the Saudi Ministry of the Interior to protect oil wells, pipelines, loading terminals, and other critical infrastructure facilities.
Security- related delays in processing Saudi visas post-9/11 had led many Saudis to avoid travel to the United States; a few people seeking medical treatment in the US had, in fact, literally died waiting for a visa. The solution lay not in reducing the scrutiny of security checks but in imposing them less frequently by extending visa validity from two years to five. Extending visa reciprocity for the country many blamed for the 9/11 attacks was not easy. Saudi Arabia’s strong counterterrorism cooperation helped — so did the effective lobbying efforts of the American Ambassador in Riyadh, Ford Fraker. One unclassified cable prepared by the embassy was particularly persuasive. It showed that 50 percent of the members of Saudi Arabia’s fledgling parliament, the Majlis al-Shura, had American university degrees — as did 70 percent of the Council of Ministers and 100 percent of Saudi Aramco’s Board of Directors. It seemed doubtful that outside of Washington there was another country in the world in which half the parliament was American- educated. As the cable pointed out, this source of influencewas not likely to continue if Washington kept turning Saudi students away.
In 2008, the two nations agreed to grant each other’s citizens five- year multiple- entry visas and Americans remain the only Westerners able to obtain such visas to Saudi Arabia. Incoming President Barak Obama quickly grasped the importance of Saudi Arabia to global economic growth, counterterrorism efforts, and resolving the Arab–Israeli conflict. While he made his 2009 address to the Muslim world from Cairo, he stopped to confer with King Abdullah on his way to Egypt and visited Saudi Arabia more often than any other president. The Obama Administration authorized a dramatic increase in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which approached $100 billion in total.61 In 2015, the president broke off important meetings in India to attend King Abdullah’s funeral. Yet President Obama never warmed to the Saudis, and bilateral relations remained strained over many issues. In 2011, the two sides differed over civil unrest in Bahrain, where Riyadh focused on clandestine Iranian involvement and Washington on human rights violations. In 2012, the two sides differed sharply over Egypt’s Arab Spring.
Riyadh saw the Muslim Brotherhood as dangerous extremists and Washington cheered their democratic election. Ironically, having advised against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in 2013 the Saudis strongly argued that a premature American withdrawal would leave a dangerous vacuum to be filled by the likes of ISIS.
When the Arab Spring in Syria deteriorated into a sectarian civil war, King Abdullah became deeply and very emotionally distressed by military attacks on the country’s Sunni civilians. During an August 2012 press conference, President Obama gave an answer that the king found reassuring when he said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”62 A year later, when UN inspectors confirmed that the Syrian government had used the nerve gas sarin to kill hundreds of civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, the king expected the president to act. Although the Obama Administration had credible reasons, both domestic and international, for not attacking Syria, King Abdullah never forgave the president for failing to enforce his own red line, protect Syrian civilians, or seize an opportunity to remove the Assad regime.
Riyadh’s confidence in Washington’s value as an ally eroded further in 2015, when the five permanent members of the UN Security Council along with Germany and Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The Saudis reluctantly supported the agreement but feared that while it lifted sanctions on Iran, it did not completely dismantle the Islamic Republic’s enrichment capacity or close the door on future nuclear weapons development. Moreover, when President Obama then advised the Saudis to “find an effective way to share the neighborhood”63 with Iran, it sounded to their ears rather like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain advising the Czechs to find a way to share the Sudetenland with Germany in 1938.
Since World War II, the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia has often been more volatile and more strained than with other major allies. This ambivalent partnership between a conservative, theocratic monarchy and a liberal, secular republic has always been about common interests rather than shared values. It has never been popular with the public in either country. It has remained one of the few American alliances implemented through high- level personal relationships rather than formal institutions. In a legal sense there is no treaty of alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States, only a time- honored understanding between the White House and the Saudi king’s Al Yamamah Palace. In both countries the aforementioned factors have made a relationship that benefited both parties vulnerable to leadership changes, shifting public opinion and domestic political agendas. On numerous occasions the partnership has nearly collapsed, and by the end of the Obama Administration widecracks were appearing in this pillar of Saudi security policy.
49 Ronald Reagan, Letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate on the Sale of AWACS Aircraft to Saudi Arabia, June 18, 1986, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library website, available at https://www.reaganlibrary. gov/research/speeches/61886e.
50 Thomas L. Friedman, “An Intriguing Signal from the Crown Prince,” The New York Times, February 17, 2002.
51 Bronson, Thicker Than Oil, 144.
52 Ottaway, The King’s Messenger, 151; and Marwan Muasher, The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 110.
53 Riedel, Kings and Presidents, 134.
54 Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 397–8, 401.
55 Jim Sciutto,“Congress Releases Secret 28 Pages on Alleged Saudi 9/11 Ties,” CNN, July 16, 2016, 0244 GMT. Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, made clear “it is important to note that this section of the report does not put forward vetted conclusions, but rather unverified leads that were later fully investigated by the intelligence community.” Senators Richard Bird and Dianne Feinstein, the Chairman and Ranking Minority Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued another statement noting,“These pages include unconfirmed allegations and raw reporting that have been subject to conspiracy for years.”“We need to put an end to conspiracy theories and idle speculation that do nothing to shed light on the 9/11 attack.” Bruce Riedel, who served on the White House National Security Council staff for four presidents, concludes in his book, Presidents and Kings, 207, “The existing evidence alleging Saudi involvement in the 9/11 plot, thus, has been reviewed carefully by the U.S. government more than once. The FBI keeps the investigation of the attacks open to evaluate any new material, but there is no smoking gun that points to any Saudi official.”
56 Gilles Kepel, Jihad, The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 314.
57 See Dore Gold’s Hatred’s Kingdom for a detailed account of how Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood teachings were fused into a new hybrid ideology that was widely disseminated with Saudi funding. However, the book, which was published in 2003, predates the many efforts that the Saudi government has subsequently taken to correct that problem—particularly under King Salman.
58 Cofer Black, testimony before the House Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, May 24, 2004.
59 Michael R. Gordon, “Saudis Warn Against Attack on Iraq by the United States,” The New York Times, March 17, 2002.
60 John Solomon, “Saudis Secretly Provided Extensive U.S. Help During Iraq War,” Associated Press, April 24, 2004; Bronson, Thicker Than Oil, 239; and Robert Jordan, Desert Diplomat (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 138–9.
61 Christopher Blanchard, Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations, (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2016), 39.
62 Peter Baker, “Off the Cuff Obama Line Puts U.S. in a Bind in Syria,” The New York Times, May 4, 2013.
63 Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” Atlantic, April 2016.