A Relationship in Transition – And Then 9/11

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)


Saudi-American Forum: Two years have passed since the terror of 9/11 changed the fundamental nature of the US-Saudi relationship. How would you characterize the state of the relationship and the challenges facing ‘stakeholders’ who seek to maintain strong ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: I think the word restoring is probably more accurate than maintaining because the relationship is in great difficulty. I would say that the last two years, as we mark the anniversary of September 11th, have seen a major deterioration in the atmosphere and tone of the U.S.-Saudi relations broadly written, even as the two governments have continued a fairly cordial and cooperative relationship.

The irony is that both Washington and Riyadh have ended up defending the value of the relationship and the quality of the relationship against, frankly, often very ignorant and uninformed, but malicious attacks from their own publics. So you have the two governments each confronting an atmosphere domestically, which is increasingly skeptical or actively hostile to the relationship and to the other country.

This has come about because the U.S.-Saudi relationship was essentially really rather narrowly based and did not have a mass media or broad public dimension to it. It was managed at the top of the governments in both countries without much engagement by the respective bureaucracies. It did not involve, on the U.S. side, the Congress in a very active manner, and the number of Americans who actually were involved with and engaged with Saudi Arabia, or who had any direct knowledge of it was really quite small. So, the relationship was being managed in a narrow band. 9/11 took this rather narrowly based relationship and suddenly made the people in both countries intensely interested in it. It turned out that there was not the level of understanding to sustain the relationship against all the detractors in the wake of 9/11.

Saudi-American Forum: How have Americans’ and Saudi Arabians’ understanding of each other been transformed?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: On the U.S. side I think it is fair to say that Saudi Arabia has been successfully vilified in the eyes of the American public. And it has a terrible image of unreasoning and animus and even complicity with Al-Qaeda and other enemies of the United States. On the Saudi side, the attitude toward the United States, and increasingly toward Americans, is one of resentment and disaffection or active hostility, not because what the United States stands for or what Americans believe, but it’s because of Americans’ behavior. By behavior I mean American policy in the holy land, the American military occupation of Iraq and critical statements by prominent Americans about Islam, Saudi Arabia and Arabs in general of the sort that would be highly objectionable to anybody.

So, there is a level of mutual invective and a chill in the relationship that is really quite unprecedented and is very difficult to deal with. And, this contrasts I think with the continued confidence that the leaderships of both countries have to each other and with the continuing interest of each country in engaging the other. So, there is a great disconnect between popular mood and national interest.

Saudi-American Forum: Was the nature of the relationship changing before 9/11?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: There were increasing frictions that arose from the fact that the original basis of the relationship in many respects no longer existed or had been transformed. This is not to cite a list of difficulties, and imply that they are not manageable or the problems are not resolvable — but the fact is that resolving problems, I think, starts with recognizing what they are and the degree of gravity that they have. In this case, the U.S.-Saudi relationship began as a fairly simple and unadorned bargain between the United States, a powerful country far away from the kingdom with no ambitions or agendas of its own in the kingdom’s region, acting to backstop the kingdom’s security on one hand while the kingdom on the other hand undertook to meet the energy requirements of the United States and the global economy.

This basic bargain was really that simple, it was security for energy, and it led to a broader partnership and joint ventures, if you will, on many issues. Among them, and probably the greatest of them, the collaboration in support of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, which ultimately brought down the Soviet Union. The United States was a desirable partner for Saudi Arabia for really two reasons. First, there was a common interest in opposing godless communism. That was seen by the Saudis as the principal threat to the kingdom and to Islam and to the region. It was seen as the principal strategic threat globally and in the region by the United States. So, there was a common interest there that allowed other issues on which we differed to be deferred or set aside for later resolution.

The most prominent among the other issues was differences over the Israeli-Palestinian issue, or the Israeli-Arab issue in its early phases. That Israeli-Arab and later Israeli-Palestinian issue was made manageable in the U.S.-Saudi relations by the fact that both sides recognized there were greater interests at stake. It was the end of the Cold War that common interests in opposing godless communism became irrelevant. And not surprisingly, issues like the Israeli-Arab issue, which had been less salient before, became much more salient.

So, we have a totally different context in which to manage the relationship. One in which we retain the fundamental national interests in exchanging security for the kingdom and energy for the world, but in which our ideological differences and our differences on particular issues in the region are far less easy to handle. So, that’s the first part of this.

Saudi-American Forum: What other considerations, besides the disappearance of the unifying threat posed by the Soviet Union and the ascendancy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, helped to transform the Saudi-US relationship?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: The second part is that the United States began to develop its own ambitions and agenda for the region. In the 1990s, the defeat of Iraq’s military and the liberation of Kuwait did not bring down Saddam Hussein and his regime, much to everyone’s surprise. That led the United States to station forces in Saudi Arabia long after we would have expected them to be withdrawn. It led to increased friction on the very issues that Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda had exploited during the Gulf War. So, we also had differences over the force presence to manage there.

As the United States began talk of using force against Iraq, other differences, including different views of the utility of sanctions or the justice of sanctions and the effect on the Iraqi people and questions about the legitimacy of the use of force arose to divide us. Meanwhile, Americans were developing an ideological agenda of social change – focused on women’s rights and human rights in Saudi Arabia – that added to the friction. So, these issues arose in the mid-nineties to complicate and some ways darken the American understanding of Saudi Arabia and sympathy for it. And I would say that neither the Saudis nor other Arabs either took advantage of the partnership of the Gulf War or even the earlier Cold War period to build a broad base of support in the United States.

Saudi-American Forum: What should have been done to build a “broad base of support” for the relationship?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: The level of effort financially and in human terms that has been devoted to public diplomacy or public relations or building bridges between Arab peoples and Americans is very small – probably, in terms of the importance of these relationships, the most extraordinarily miniscule level of effort of any major American relationship in the world.

In a sense, you get what you pay for, you reap what you sow, and if you don’t put out the money and sow the seeds, you have very little to show for things at the end of the year, and 9/11 was the end of the year.

There was no broad base of support for the relationship, no broad understanding of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, at the time, was a largely closed society, which rarely allowed the press in. There was very little literature of any kind, scholarly or otherwise about the kingdom. While Saudis in large numbers visited the United States, many had houses here, and quite a few had been educated here – their level of understanding of the United States wasn’t reciprocated by us.

When 9/11 happened to us, it happened that it involved 15 Saudis among the 19 perpetrators. I would say the inadequacy of the earlier effort to educate each other and the Saudi effort to educate Americans or to engage Americans in Saudi Arabia made this relationship extraordinarily vulnerable. And it was in fact deeply wounded by 9/11.

Part II
Saudi-American Forum: How would you characterize the nature of our ties with Saudi Arabia two years on from the 9/11 attacks and in the midst of US efforts to reshape the region?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: Americans and Saudis continue to share important interests. The importance of Saudi Arabia in the energy markets and to global energy security in both the short and the long term is not in any respect diminished. The centrality of Saudi Arabia, therefore, in global commodities trade and in the realm of the dollar, the dollar-zone if you will, is not diminished.

Saudi Arabia is still and always was astride the lines of communication and transport routes between Europe and Asia. Its geopolitical significance has not in any respect been diminished. Finally, not only is Saudi Arabia’s centrality in the Islamic world and its moderate approach to the management of the Islamic holy places in the interest of the U.S., but its denial of the pulpits in Mecca and Medina to extremists is arguably more important than ever.

From an American point of view, I would say that this relationship requires careful tending. From a Saudi point of view the United States has the capacity to cause enormous trouble for Saudi Arabia if the relationship is not managed well or to be enormously beneficial to Saudi Arabia as we have been on numerous occasions. The Saudi interest attending to good ties with the United States is clear. That is especially the case in the military and security side because given the preponderance of American military power in the world, there is no alternative to the measure of dependence on the United States for Saudi Arabia’s defense and for its weaponry. Saudi Arabia can perhaps dilute this reliance on the United States or it could diversify its international relationships to some extent; but, in the end, there is no substitute for the United States.

Saudi-American Forum: What about the war on terrorism?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: The interests on both sides are clear. They demand a strong and healthy relationship, and this is perhaps even more so in the area of terrorism, where Saudi Arabia is either part of the problem or part of the solution, or both. The United States cannot deal with the issue of Islamic radicalism and terrorism related to Islam without the cooperation of the Saudis. Not only is Saudi cooperation necessary to ensure Saudi Arabia is not a incubator for future terrorists or a source of funding for them, but Saudi help is needed in legitimizing the American effort globally and in tracking down terrorists. After all, the terrorists have as their primary objective, the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy with their attacks on the United States merely being a means to that end – a means to compel the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia.

I guess that is the great irony that Osama bin Laden’s objective was to drive wedges between and bring about serious deterioration and withdrawal of American support from Saudi Arabia and to a great extent he has succeeded on the mass level, even though the administration has not acceded to that.

Saudi-American Forum: What has to be done?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: Well, first of all a great deal more of education. There is no short-term fix for this. What I would say to both Saudis and Americans is this is not the kind of thing that a few delegations traveling to the other capital can fix. This requires a broad effort in public education and public diplomacy in both societies. It requires a broadening of dialogue so the dialogue is not a narrow and secretive one between government officials and a few business people but rather a much broader one. It will require a great deal of time and effort by both countries to overcome and correct negative stereotypes and serious misunderstandings on the part of their own publics and of the other country and its culture.

Saudi-American Forum: Do you see either side or both sides moving in any of those directions?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: I think there is more effort being made on the Saudis’ side than there is on the American side, but frankly I think the level of activity and engagement by Saudi Arabia, again in its own interest, remains pitifully inadequate. The kingdom has done some very useful things. It has made itself a great deal more open to the press, and therefore, the level of press understanding of Saudi Arabia and the level of coverage of Saudi Arabia has increased. It has experimented with different ways of trying to reach the public at large — none of them terribly successful in my view.

Saudi-American Forum: It seems all the efforts by Saudis to explain the nature of the relationship and to refute erroneous charges are viewed very cynically and turned against them.

Ambassador Chas Freeman: Well, this is of course. This is what it means to have been successfully vilified. Everything you do is regarded as suspect or self-serving or duplicitous or deceptive in some respect, even when it’s absolutely straightforward and sincere and should be taken on face value, and it is not.

Saudi-American Forum: A recent book review in Time on Robert Baer’s critical examination of the US-Saudi relationship said, “According to Baer, the Saudis can do no right. Even when they sink a trillion dollars into US banks, he sees only potential blackmail and warns of dire consequences if the money is ever withdrawn. Or when the Saudis help the US by keeping a lid on oil prices, he labels the assistance nothing more than blood money.” It seems no good deed goes unpunished.

Ambassador Chas Freeman: Yes, I think that’s true. I think the reality is that Saudi Arabia had a great deal of closet detractors prior to 9/11. 9/11 gave them the public respectability to come out of the closet and wallop away. That’s what they’ve been doing. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, I have to say the mood of anti-Americanism has very sharply increased for obvious reasons.

Getting back to what needs to be done — I think the two governments do seem to be able to continue to cooperate; the Crown Prince and the President appear to have a good relationship and a productive one. Of course leaders change and one should not put too much weight on individual leaders. We have an election coming up, and Saudi Arabia has emerged as a campaign issue. This is an illustration of why support for the relationship needs to be broadened.

There has also been an enormous amount of misinformation — some of it disinformation — about Islam that has found its way into our press. There is a misunderstanding of some of the issues surrounding the relationship. For the benefit of your readers I’d like to say that there are really only a handful of broadly based American institutions that are trying to educate the American public about Arabs in general and Saudi Arabia or Islam in particular. Each one does quite a different thing.

The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations obviously, in addition to operating GulfWire it organizes an annual policy conference that’s coming up on [Sep. 7-8] and conducts a series of exchanges that are very useful for professionals and congressional staff and journalists. Therefore, it plays a key role in facilitating human contact of different kinds that no other organization does.

There is the Middle East Institute, a sister organization of the Middle East Policy Council. It’s a membership organization that provides a forum for discussion among its members and between visitors and its members. It has a first rate scholarly journal and a research library, and it teaches Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Hebrew to the public. All of them are very useful functions, which no other organization performs.

I would like to say the Middle East Policy Council, of which I am president, does three things, each of which is also unique. The first is to ensure that controversial or politically incorrect or awkward policy issues of interest to Arabs and Americans are publicly aired in a fair and balanced way on Capitol Hill. The Middle East Policy Council Capitol Hill series — we conduct about four conferences a year — does take up issues that are not taken up elsewhere or which are taken up first by us and only picked up later by others. Transcripts from these conferences become the first item in Middle East Policy — the quarterly journal of the Middle East Policy Council. It is the most often cited in the field and has quite a broad readership in the United States and in Europe as well as in the region. Middle East Policy is focused on American national interests as they relate to the region and is, again, unique.

Finally, and I think most relevant in the context of all we have been talking about, the Middle East Policy Council conducts teacher-training programs for high school teachers throughout the country on how to teach about Arab civilization and Islam. Obviously given the intense focus on Saudi Arabia at the moment, Saudi Arabia is an important part of the curriculum. We have trained over 14,000 teachers so far and we reach about a million high school kids every year with our programs.

These are the three non-advocacy organizations — public education and outreached focused — that try to counter negative stereotypes with facts. I would say that all three organizations are in the same rather parlous financial condition — that is to say we live month to month. We don’t get a lot of help from our Arab friends. I go back to the problem that there is a propensity in the region for short-term fixes and trying to address problems by individual contacts or small delegations. This isn’t the way to address the fundamental problem of a broad lack of understanding. It’s sad that nobody in the region seems to understand the need for a long-term effort of the sort that only an endowment for organizations like these can produce.

A Relationship in Transition — What Is To Be Done?
Saudi-American Forum: You have said that despite the transformation in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and the post-9/11 vilification of the Kingdom in American media, the two continue to share important interests. You also talked about the past inadequate level of effort to build understanding between people on both sides. What factors currently contribute to further damage to the relationship?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: I think the most important negative effect has been caused by changes in U.S. visa policy and entry procedures, which essentially dried up the arrival of students in the United States from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Consequently, an important part of the relationship — the previous generation had a good understanding and sense of connection to the United States — has suffered. The next generation will not have that understanding or that connection, not having studied here.

In the business area, the difficulty of getting visas and the well grounded fear of humiliation at the border, or by law enforcement officials in the United States after arrival, or by airline crews, or by others has essentially dried up business travel. New business is not being done and old business relationships are atrophying, and exports from the region are rapidly declining. The terrorists’ focus on the American expat community in the kingdom and in the region more broadly, and various incidents like the [May 2003] Riyadh bombing plus the negative image of Saudi Arabia in the United States have significantly reduced the flow of American travelers to the region and led to an outflow of the resident Americans there.

The two countries really need to sit down and talk about how to reverse the trends that are ensuring that the basic human fabric from which the relationships have been sustained does not fray and disappear. We must ensure that the future generations of Americans and Saudi Arabians do not grow up in ignorance of each other – that they do not have negative views of each other formed by the absence of contact. These are very real possibilities.

Saudi-American Forum: What should be done to reverse the estrangement between Americans and Saudi Arabians?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: It seems to me that some useful things could be done here, and some of them are really fairly simple. If the American visa system, for example, which now records three names for Arab visitors — meaning the given name, the father’s name and family name or tribal or place name — were expanded to parallel the Saudi passport system, which has four names, mainly the given name, the father’s name and the grandfather’s name and the tribal or place name or the family name. Then, there would be far less confusion by computers about people who the United States ought to welcome to our shores versus people who we have a justified concern about.

There are a series of technical fixes that could be worked out if the two sides sat down and talked earnestly about how to reverse current negative trends, which I think they should do. My feeling is that there needs to be a much larger effort made by Saudi Arabians and their government on a much more institutionalized and long-term basis to build a base of understanding and support in the United States to replace the current suspicion and ignorance. There needs to be a dialogue between the two governments in the ways of reversing the current trends towards estrangement at the popular level and rebuilding the relationship.

Obviously the trend in Saudi Arabia toward openness needs to continue, such that the press here does not criticize Saudi Arabia for imaginary faults but perhaps criticizing it for things that are genuinely wrong. I think that’s been the trend, and I give the government of Saudi Arabia a good deal of credit.

I should also say I’ve been very impressed by the extent to which Saudi Arabia, in the wake of 9/11, has engaged in introspection and taken on some tough problems that it had avoided addressing for many decades. These include cleaning up elements of its education system, not just the sexual apartheid issue of separate women’s educational management system but also the curriculum.

Crown Prince Abdullah has, in effect, staked out the positions that Americans ought to applaud on a wide range of issues: the need for Arabs broadly to cease blaming others and to correct their own faults; the willingness of Arabs — if the Palestinians and Israelis can work out a mutually satisfactory peace — to step in with their own normalization of relations with Israel; and to buttress that, with the Arab Reform Charter. These things are very positive and represent progress.

I’m sorry to say that I do not see the same level of introspection and consideration by Americans of what it is we might do to reduce friction with countries and peoples in the Middle East. There has been no examination of our policies in the region which may have played a part in producing the threat to our own security we now confront. Actually, I think we could learn a lot from the Saudis in terms of facing up to the need to take a good hard look at ourselves and our behavior.

Saudi-American Forum: There has been great a reluctance to examine the roots of terrorism, especially in terms of US foreign policy. An episode that comes to mind is former New York mayor Guliani’s rejection of a $10 million donation to a 9/11 victims’ fund from Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal. Giuliani returned the check when he learned Prince Talal suggested Washington should examine its policies in the Middle East.

Ambassador Chas Freeman: Well, that was of course the classic example of this, but it’s far from the only one. Also, I think with better organization, with better funding, with a commitment to a long-term effort in education, some of the slanders that have been put forward about Saudi Arabia or Islam — there are many in the United States — would find a more effective rebuttal.

Saudi-American Forum: There is no shortage of people putting forward charges – I think earlier you called it misinformation and disinformation – and each new round of rhetoric stands on the shoulders of those who have been bashing the Kingdom for years.

Ambassador Chas Freeman: Well, they’re creating their own reality in terms of perceptions that are quite dubious, but which linger and are very hard to erase. There are a fairly wide range of books that have now been published about Saudi Arabia, most of them — you mentioned Baer — most of them are polemics, they’re not fair and balanced examinations of the kingdom. There are a great number of people who have historically, on the basis of very little knowledge, have been detractors of Saudi Arabia. They don’t have any more knowledge now than they did before, but they feel much more able now to voice their criticism in public, and there’s a great deal more receptivity to it.

Saudi-American Forum: Can you talk about the comments you made on the lawsuit – the $1 trillion suit by 9/11 victims and families against top-ranking Saudis — talking about how it would further unravel the Saudi-U.S. partnership?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: When I was asked by the lawyers for the National Commercial Bank whether I would be willing to write a statement in connection with the lawsuit, I immediately agreed in part because I believe in the importance in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. I believe this lawsuit is potentially, profoundly disruptive to that relationship. But, mainly, I believe the Constitution gives the executive branch responsibility for conducting U.S. foreign relations and that the United States can only have one government at a time. We may have a separation of powers domestically — that may be how we reach decisions domestically — but internationally we can only speak with one voice.

It seemed to me to be completely anomalous to have the executive branch praising Saudi cooperation with us in connection with our struggle against terrorism, obviously arguing with the Saudis for even greater efforts on their part on the one hand, while on the other the courts might accede the views of the plaintiffs that the Saudis are criminals who should be punished and they’re incorrigible.

I think the action of a court would jeopardize not only the U.S.-Saudi relationship but more broadly our ability to conduct foreign relations and successfully to cooperate internationally against terrorism. So, I had two motives in joining this and in putting myself forward in public with the full expectation that I would receive the sort of slanderous ignorant attacks that I have received. I’ve always believed that if you consider yourself a friend of someone or the supporter of a cause, you should not duck that issue, even when standing up is going to cause people to take pot-shots at you.

Saudi-American Forum: We appreciate your candor in that regard and for the insights you’ve shared with us.

Ambassador Chas Freeman: Well, I don’t think there’s any reason for us to throw up our hands in defeat. I think actually this all presents a fairly rich agenda that we ought to be addressing. And the point of identifying the problems is to focus us on dealing with them. So, that’s my point.

Saudi-American Forum: Do you have any last thoughts on US-Saudi relations?

Ambassador Chas Freeman: I mentioned that I believe Saudi Arabia needs to make more serious long-term efforts — not just making new friends in the United States but helping its existing friends to be friends. Sometimes it’s difficult to be a friend to Saudi Arabia. The current atmosphere brings you no public credit instead it brings you sometimes vicious criticism. So, that’s the other side of this. Americans need to do a lot more to educate ourselves about the world and defend our own interests, but the Saudis need to do a lot too.

Saudi-American Forum: Thank you, Ambassador Freeman.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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