Shifting Sands in the U.S.-Saudi Arabian Relationship

An interview conducted with Chas. W. Freeman, Jr., by the Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service (SUSRIS)

SUSRIS: Thank you, Ambassador Freeman, for taking time to discuss US-Saudi relations. You are a frequent visitor to Saudi Arabia and just completed a trip there. Can you tell us your impressions of the relationship?

Freeman: Well, I think there is an enormous sense of disappointment and frustration on the part of America’s friends in Saudi Arabia that the relationship has not been restored to the level of trust and mutual comfort that they had hoped for. In fact, in many ways, the relationship is evolving away from familiar patterns.

A good approach to understanding the current situation is to look at the relationship from the perspective of the four or five major interests that tie together the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. It is important to see how these interests and how the relationship that serves them are being redefined under the pressure of events and in the context of the broad and deepening estrangement at the popular level. We have a situation where the two governments, particularly with respect to counterterrorism, are cooperating very effectively. Yet, the attitudes by people on both sides continue to deteriorate.

SUSRIS: In what ways are current events reshaping the basis of the relationship?

Amb. Freeman: If you look at the four or five different interests that tie the United States and Saudi Arabia together, it’s clear that the healthiest area of the relationship is cooperation on law enforcement, intelligence and counterterrorism. We have a common enemy and recognize that.

There are domestic agencies on both sides, which had previously been inexperienced and even inept at working with each other, that have learned to cooperate and coordinate. There are now good working relationships between the Ministry of Interior and the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, between the Treasury Department and the Ministry of Finance in Saudi Arabia and so forth. Those parts of the government on both sides are focused on the struggle against terrorists.

But while there is a very effective level of cooperation in counterterrorism, a new element in the relationship, the traditional interests of the two countries are finding some considerable erosion.

SUSRIS: Which components of the relationship are being eroded?

Amb. Freeman: To begin with there’s the classic basis of the Saudi-U.S. relationship. It had been a fairly straightforward trade-off of preferred American access to energy resources in return for American defense of the Kingdom against external enemies.

Several things have happened on this score. First, the principal enemies of Saudi Arabia now are not external but internal, making the American connection less relevant to the Kingdom’s defense. Second, those internal enemies in fact are stimulated to their enmity by their objections to the Saudi-American relationship, especially the defense relationship. Their objective is to bring down Saudi-American relations. To the extent that the U.S. in engaged against them by the Kingdom, this allows them to score propaganda points. It strengthens rather than weakens them. Of course, since the occupation of Iraq, the United States has removed combatant forces from the Kingdom, so they’re no longer present.

In many respects, the arms sales relationship, which was traditionally at the heart of our cooperation, is diminished as the Saudis look elsewhere for new or replacement systems. So, the military or security element of the relationship is in fact in the process of being lowered in level of importance for both countries.

The United States no longer relies on facilities in Saudi Arabia for regional power projection. Saudi Arabia, similarly, is much more on its own in terms of defending itself against its principal enemies. So, I think the security element, which was at the core of this relationship, has become less important to both sides.

The other side of the bargain, of course, was energy supply to the United States. Here, the Saudis for many years made a major effort to maintain a preeminent market share in the United States in part to symbolize this bargain. It appears that they are not making that effort to the same extent.

As China emerges as an alternative destination for Saudi oil exports — a much faster growing market than the United States — Saudi Arabia is increasingly interdependent with the Chinese on the energy front even as its relationship with the United States in this area declines.

So, here too, you see a redirection of connections, probably not intended by anybody and maybe in large measure a function of circumstance or events that are beyond anyone’s control. However, the net effect is to lower the importance of the relationship to both sides, and in the case of both countries, to make the relationship not so much first among equals as merely one among equals.

In the new era the United States is developing new energy-supply relationships with Russia and Western African countries and looking increasingly to its own hemisphere, to Venezuela or the gulf for energy and emphasizing conservation as much as new discoveries. The Saudis are emphasizing the rapidly growing markets in East Asia.

SUSRIS: In an interview last month Professor Jean-Francois Seznec made many of the same points but he attributed the shift to Saudi Arabian decision makers having given up on the U.S. relationship. He attributed the shift to US policy in the region as well as the relentless condemnation of the Kingdom by American media, Congress and other critics.

Amb. Freeman: I don’t see that they have “given up” on the relationship. I think the Saudis are profoundly distressed by our campaign rhetoric. The royal family is insulted by some of candidate Kerry’s comments for example. But, at the same time, I think they recognize that it is campaign rhetoric.

Saudi decision makers are very realistic and pragmatic. I think they are pragmatically seeking to rebalance their relationships internationally in a way that relies less on the United States. In fact, I would argue that without having necessarily articulated such a policy at all, the Bush Administration has been doing the same — rebalancing relationships to rely less on Saudi Arabia.

So, you have a conjunction of market forces, events and trends, and perhaps hurt feelings on both sides that bring about this result. Now, the fact is, however, that there is a natural limit to how far this can go. It is illustrated by the fact that the United States remains the largest energy-consuming country in the world. Even if we are eventually overtaken by China, we will still be a major factor in global energy consumption. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is going to remain a major focus of American interest for many reasons — one of them being its preeminence in global oil reserves.

SUSRIS: How is the change in the energy relationship likely to play out?

Amb. Freeman: I have a sense that there are very momentous changes in Saudi policy emerging. One is that the Saudis place less emphasis on —maybe no emphasis on — maintaining preeminence in market share in the United States. Therefore, they treat American purchasers like any other purchasers with no preference — no more special relationship, if you will.

Similarly, I don’t think the Saudis are committed to continuing to pre-invest in excess production capacity or to play the sort of swing producer role or market-regulating role that they have traditionally played in OPEC. This, I think, many Saudis see as having been a very expensive favor on their part to the United States. We complain bitterly about the Saudis and OPEC until oil prices go very high, at which point Americans turn to Saudi Arabia and OPEC to beg that they intervene to bring prices back down. So, on one hand, denigration and complaint, and on the other hand in times of trouble, requests for assistance from Saudi Arabia were the norm. I don’t think Saudis, by and large, are prepared to continue that pattern of interaction. That means that in the future, Saudi Arabia will be producing essentially to meet market demand and building capacity to meet market demand. It will probably limit its investment in new production capacity and decline to put pressure on its oil fields with excessively high levels of production. One can expect the considerably higher oil prices as a result.

SUSRIS: Weren’t there more reasons for maintaining spare capacity, such as having the ability to throttle prices thereby keeping other energy sources from becoming cost-effective?

Amb. Freeman: This was something that the Saudis traditionally didn’t want to see happen. One of the reasons that they tried to keep prices at a moderate level was to discourage research and development of alternative energy sources. I think that they are much less concerned about that now. They are fairly confident that there is not much alternative to their oil reserves as the key component of future global oil supplies.

Major new discoveries elsewhere are not very likely. Production elsewhere is largely declining or is troubled in one way or the other. Iraq is clearly not an alternative to Saudi Arabia. New producers are likely to be marginal in terms of overall global demand. So, I think the Saudis have concluded that on the whole, they would be better off with higher prices even if this meant that some substitutes for oil emerge. It’s a very different world that we are looking to now as a result of that.

There will be more efforts made here, of course, in the United States to look at alternative sources of energy whether from renewable sources like wind power, hydro, solar energy or those sorts of things, which will actually become economical at this level of oil pricing. The same sort of surge in prices is very likely in the gas area, so that’s not an answer to higher crude costs. Perhaps Americans will have to look to coal conversion or other technologies. There will still be demand for fossil fuels but there will be an effort to substitute something else for imported oil.

SUSRIS: Is it more a confluence of political and economic pragmatism?

Amb. Freeman: Yes, you can sum all this up by saying that the Saudis seem to have concluded that the special relationship with the United States is no longer special to the United States and that they, therefore, should not make much of a special effort for the United States either.

What is emerging is a much more, if you will, nationalistic or self-centered or selfish set of Saudi policies, that is likely to be markedly more independent of American desires than has been the case in the past. We are also looking because of this at a world in which the role of OPEC is likely to diminish, and Saudi Arabia’s leadership within OPEC is likely to be lessened. Even if Saudi Arabia achieves a measure of independence from the United States, its global leadership role perhaps will also be diminished.

SUSRIS: What other areas of common interest do you see as changing?

Freeman: We talked about the trade-off between security for energy, but you can see other elements being redefined as well. Saudi Arabia continues to be an essential territory for transit by American forces to bases that are located elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, specifically in Qatar and Kuwait or in Iraq. You can’t get to those bases without crossing Saudi territory and that requires the permission of the Saudi authorities. Therefore, Saudi Arabia remains very important to American forces from a strategic point of view.

Interestingly, as the United States has placed garrisons in countries like Qatar or in Kuwait, to some extent, we have become part of the traditional rivalry, if that’s the right word, at any rate, contention between the smaller emirates in the Gulf and the Saudi Kingdom. The British used to defend those emirates against Saudi influence, but the United States was traditionally on the Saudi side. Now we’re less clearly on the Saudi side, and maybe in some respects, beginning to develop relationships with the other emirates that Saudis find annoying if not objectionable.

So, there is a beginning of the possibility of some level of disagreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia on regional security management issues and on intra-GCC matters. As much as the United States has traditionally promoted GCC cooperation on security matters, there is, in fact, not much of it. I think this is an area where the trends are perhaps not clear, but there are beginning to be question marks apparent about the way things might develop.

Then, we look to the next area of interest, which is Islam. The United States has always had a major interest in moderate management of the Islamic holy places in Saudi Arabia and in Saudi efforts to maintain a relatively open approach to Islam internationally, even if its own version of Islam is not a particularly open one. Now, however, we see a set of new issues arising with respect to religion. For much of the American body politic, the Saudis are seen as a negative force within the realm of Islam. That is they are seen as a force for fanaticism. I think this is in fact a false accusation in many ways, and it reflects a misunderstanding of the Saudi role. But, in politics, perception is reality. This perception is now firmly grounded in American thinking.

SUSRIS: What about the perceptions on the Saudi side, regarding Americans’ views of Islam?

Amb. Freeman: In Saudi Arabia the United States is increasingly seen as engaged in a war with Islam or against Muslims whether with respect to American support of Ariel Sharon and extreme repression by Israeli authorities of the Palestinians and annexations of land by settlers or whether in Iraq, where increasingly, the opposition to the occupation has a religious tinge to it. Perhaps the symbol of our emerging differences is the recent designation of Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern” under the Religious Freedom Act. Traditionally, the White House, the President, recognizing the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, took action to shield the Saudis from such criticism on the grounds that it was counterproductive and affected other American interests negatively. This President has chosen not to pay the domestic political price of intervening in that matter.

SUSRIS: Did that catch people off guard in the Kingdom?

Freeman: I think it probably did. I think the American ambassador and the American Embassy made a very professional effort to try to give early warning and explain the decision or put the decision into context. Nonetheless, this does represent a sharpening of differences. The United States at present is, perhaps without even realizing it, in the middle of a broad redefinition of our relationship with the Islamic and Arab worlds in the context of the so-called war on terror.

Increasingly, there is animosity between that part of the world that is Islamic and the United States, and there is less and less interaction at the people-to-people level. Travel is way down because of new barriers. In the case of the United States there are visa requirements and other practices that have been altered out of a concern to stop terrorists from entering the United States. It’s down because people in the region, including Saudis, don’t feel welcome or secure in the United States anymore. It’s down because American businesses are concerned with their security as terrorists target them and are concerned about an atmosphere that is increasingly anti-American.

There is less communication and dialogue and heightened animosity on religious questions. This is a very negative combination that is driving things in a bad direction, which is in turn affecting the final element, or pillar, of the relationship, which has been its business dimension.

There is an enormous expansion of the Saudi economy going on under the impact of money coming in from high oil prices. There is a great deal of construction, imports, private sector innovation, and prosperity, in fact, from the perspective of ordinary Saudis, which I think I want to come to at the last. Although the relationship with the United States is deteriorating, things in Saudi Arabia look pretty good. But, Americans are excluded to an increasing extent from participating in this happy set of developments in the Kingdom. We are notable by our absence.

While U.S. exports to the Kingdom have risen in absolute terms, our market share, which I think is the far more important indicator of our role in Saudi Arabia and the region, is declining sharply. So, relatively speaking, we are not participating in the economic boom to the extent that we would have if we didn’t have all the other problems that I’ve been talking about.

SUSRIS: What must be done to reverse these trends?

Amb. Freeman: From the point of view of the interactions of the two countries, I would say a couple of things. There is a real danger, given the negative trends that I’ve outlined, that if there is not intelligent intervention by the new administration in the United States, whoever leads it after November 2, that is some sort of effort made to sit down with Crown Prince Abdullah and with his brothers to reassess and redefine the relationship along all of the axes that I have discussed, that the relationship will in fact drift permanently into a mutually disadvantageous mode.

Therefore, one of the most important things that both sides need to be doing is to think about how to overcome the legacy of the last three years and the negative campaign rhetoric that has been voiced by Mr. Kerry and how to restore a more balanced relationship.

Both sides need to recognize that their new relationship will not be the relationship that existed in previous years. It will not have many of the qualities of “specialness” that the previous relationship had. It will be, perhaps, the most important relationship for each country — in terms of relations with the outside world for Saudi Arabia and in terms of the Middle East for the United States, but it will merely be one such relationship among several other relationships, which may be growing to become relatively greater in importance.

The two countries will find that we need to have a clearer understanding of how to manage regional security issues. We need to address the question of the relationships between the Islamic world and the Arabs with the United States in order to put these relationships on a sustainable basis. At the moment, they are on a deteriorating basis.

If we can’t do these things, we will not be able to manage some of the regional security issues or continue the effective cooperation against terrorists that we have begun over the last three years. So, there is, I think, a great deal at stake for both sides, and I hope that the leaders on both sides after January 20 will rise to the challenge.

SUSRIS: What other challenges face those who recognize the importance of US-Saudi relations?

Amb. Freeman: A great deal of what is driving the relationship on both sides is a negative image of the other. There exist often ignorant and uninformed stereotypical popular attitudes by one side toward the other. I think a great deal more has to be done by both sides to educate the public in the other, and there’s room for cooperation between us to ensure that our own public is educated by us.

It would be a very positive move for the United States to consider some sort of effort to educate our citizenry about Islam and the Arabs in a more systematic way than we have done because the consequences of misunderstanding for our country are very grave. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, as a new generation arises — that did not study in the United States and which knows us more from Hollywood movies rather than travel here on vacation or study here — there is going to be a much greater requirement for the United States to explain itself. We need to work with Saudis who are friends of the United States to improve our image in Saudi Arabia and more generally in the region.

This requires something much deeper, though perhaps lower key, than mounting public relations campaigns. It is a kind of grassroots effort in which there is a continuing important role for organizations like the Middle East Policy Council. There is also a need in Saudi Arabia for counterpart organizations that don’t yet exist. That is to say institutions that put arguments about relations with the United States and the West before the Saudi public as the Middle East Policy Council puts before the American public arguments regarding US interests in the Arab and Islamic worlds and for strong ties to support those interests.

In our case, we argue from an American point of view; in the Saudi case, the case for improved relations would be argued from a Saudi point of view. But, the fact is that there needs to be more effort by those who do understand and support the relationship on both sides to make the case to skeptics and hostile critics. This is a very different task than the one of spin control or spin doctoring as events occur or putting out press releases when positive developments happen, important as it is to do those things too.

Frankly, I don’t think a public relations effort can succeed in the long run unless it is addressing a better-educated and more sympathetic public than the one that we now have on both sides. So, I would argue that in sum that after the elections, after the inauguration, the two sides need to sit down at a high level and seriously review our interests and redefine our relationship to fit the new circumstances so that the relationship can be sustained and can grow in a healthy manner. Second, we need to consider how to address the problem of popular estrangement and ignorance in a sustained fashion on both sides.

SUSRIS: I’d like to pick up on one of those themes — the one on image. In January you were cited by Arab News as saying that Saudi Arabia needed a long-term strategy to refurbish its image in the U.S. In early October, a conference was held in Riyadh on Saudi Arabia’s image. They set out to study and work out strategies to improve their image overseas, in the West and especially in the United States. Some of the things talked about included creation of think-tanks in Saudi Arabia, more introspection as to what the outward appearance of Islam and Saudi Arabia’s role in Islam, and using economic clout to discipline countries that unfairly portrayed Saudi Arabia in the world. Is this a step in the direction of meeting the long-term need?

Amb. Freeman: I think the conference and the ideas that it brooded about were a very positive development. As I said, the Saudis need to develop institutions in Saudi Arabia that can connect them to the outside world more effectively. A good example is think-tanks. Saudis are not present at many international scholarly and policy gatherings because Saudi Arabia does not have institutions that connect to similar organizations — think-tanks and university audiences — that organize and go to those conferences. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is absent, and its voice is silent. Its influence is zero or even less than that. So, that’s clearly an important point, and one that needs to be addressed.

I would argue that the returned students from the United States, the alumni of American universities could, if they can find the appropriate way of organizing themselves, play a greater role in outreach to their alma maters in the United States or for that matter, in the U.K. They could exercise a measure of influence that they have not done in terms of raising Saudi Arabia’s profile. They could ensure that university endowments are present for studies of Saudi Arabia or the Gulf as well as for ancient history or other less immediately relevant topics. Clearly, there is a lot that needs to be done in Saudi Arabia along this line.

SUSRIS: There are organizations in the US that seek to inform Americans about the Arab world, and occasionally public information campaigns such as those recently conducted by Saudi Arabia. Are they effective?

Amb. Freeman: Although Saudi Arabia has started a sort of public diplomacy effort through hired public relations companies in the United States and in the U.K., and this is a step in the right direction, there is a real danger that in the process, other things may be neglected or lost.

I will say honestly that I am concerned about the future of American institutions which make arguments on behalf of Americans for better relations with Saudi Arabia and the region, like the Middle East Policy Council or the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations or the Middle East Institute or AMIDEAST. All of them, to one degree or the other, share the characteristic of being American institutions arguing for stronger relations with Arabs. These organizations may in fact go under because of the combined impact of lack of funding, lack of attention, and an increasingly hostile atmosphere for their work domestically. I think that if they do go under, if the grassroots efforts and constituency consolidation role that they perform is neglected, then it will be impossible to reinvent them, and America and Saudi Arabia will have lost something very fundamental in terms of resilience and vitality of our relations.

So, I think what is required is a strategy that’s balanced and includes several elements. First is building institutions to connect Saudi Arabia with similar institutions abroad. Second is sustaining or putting on a sustainable basis, endowing if you will, or otherwise putting on a firm long-term basis, organizations in places like the United States or the U.K. that support a better understanding of the Kingdom and the region. Third is a better-focused public relations effort. Some effort to build, within the Saudi diplomatic service, a public diplomacy function that is more proactive and less concerned with preventing information getting out than putting it out. In other words, I think the Ministry of Information, which has begun to move in this direction, needs to make significant further moves.

There is quite a range of things to do. It is not enough to do one thing and neglect others. Unfortunately, I would have to say that historically, the Kingdom has had a hard time putting together comprehensive, strategic approaches to issues on any issue. This one is a particularly difficult one to get a hold on intellectually or organizationally.

SUSRIS: You mentioned your concerns about the US organizations that work to support Arab-American relations. What are their prospects for contributing to the work that needs to be done.

Amb. Freeman: I think it is very likely that one or more of us will be gone in a few years because, among other things, of the perpetual fascination in Saudi Arabia with doing new things. You do new things, and then forget about the old things.

To put it very bluntly, I think there is a direct trade-off between buying influence in public relations — you buy staff time at a public relations company, and if it’s a good one, you get a good deal for that money, but, the minute you stop paying, that’s it — versus sustaining friends who are doing things on their own. They look to find ways to do things for mutual interests and they try to do that regardless of whether you help them or not.

If you let the self-motivated American institutions that believe in strong U.S.-Saudi relations as something that is good for the United States go under, then you’re not going to be able to substitute for that by hiring public relations executives. Quite aside from the fact that those of us — I can’t speak about other organizations particularly — my presidency of the Middle East Policy Council is a part-time function. It’s volunteer — I don’t get paid very much at all for doing this. Our staff is very lean. Our entire budget is less than the take home pay of senior officials of public relations companies in Washington — the whole organization’s budget. The bang for the buck is vastly larger. And the credibility of having Americans make arguments from an American perspective is invaluable.

SUSRIS: So in addition to the challenges of educating Americans among other tasks they are also faced with struggling to survive financially?

Amb. Freeman: The requirement for the work that organizations like the Middle East Policy Council, the National Council on US-Arab Relations, the Middle East Institute — do, has never been greater. But the level of financial support from the region has never been more erratic and less reliable. The size of the American business community there, which has been an important source of support, is declining rather than expanding, so our base is not what it was.

It is very difficult for us to operate in an environment where governments in the region, not just the Saudi government, but other governments in the region, don’t really know what they’re doing, they’re constantly reassessing. There is no confirmed strategy, no reliable base of financial support for work that all acknowledge is in their own interest as well as that of both sides.

In the long run the only answer for the US organizations is some sort of endowment. But I see no effort being made by benefactors in the region to organize such an approach even though the amount of money that would be spent to provide an endowment for any one of these organizations would be probably less than is being spent on some specific public relations activities. It would be a once and for all, one time and forever investment.

We come back to the point that there needs to be a comprehensive strategy. Putting Saudi Arabia’s existing friends and institutions that support the relationship on a sustainable long term basis has to be part of that strategy.

SUSRIS: Shifting gears a little at the end — this is crunch week in the presidential campaigns. How do you see the role the US-Saudi relationship is playing in presidential politics.

Amb. Freeman: Well, it’s the first time in a long time, if ever, that US-Saudi relations have actually been an issue in a campaign, where the challenger is accusing the incumbent president of having failed to act forcefully against the Saudis.

Even if critics don’t take as extreme a line as Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 911, there are those who hold to the position that Bush is in bed with Bandar and Prince Bandar and the Saudi royal family call the shots in the US-Saudi relationship. This is a ludicrous parody of reality and has no credibility at all with anyone who knows anything. Yet this has been very warmly received by segments of the public and it is now an article of faith among many. It reflects the facts that I mentioned that there is a deep level of estrangement between the United States and Saudi Arabia at the popular level.

There’s a great deal of suspicion by Americans of the Saudi royal family, a lack of understanding of Saudi society and a fundamental misunderstandings of Islam. These misunderstandings have come together to produce an atmosphere where this sort of political cheap shot is good electoral politics.

After the election, whoever wins is going to have to govern. And whoever governs is going to have to deal with the interests I mentioned. This means energy security in which Saudi Arabia is an important factor; a relationship with the Islamic world in which Saudi Arabia plays a key role; the management of security issues in the Persian Gulf and adjacent regions in which again Saudi Arabia is a key; and of course the question of cooperation against terrorists, many of whom focus their attention on Saudi Arabia as much as, or even more than they do on the United States.

There are these things plus the interests of the American business community in remaining competitive internationally. There are the interests of the American labor unions that there be jobs, that produce US exports. These things are among the realities that anyone who governs is going to have to deal with.

It means that the gratuitous insults and rhetorical slights of the campaign will have to be put aside. It’s a vital part of retuning the struggle against terrorists internationally to put the US-Saudi relationship back on a firm, solid, long-term, sustainable basis, and that requires a measure of thought and a measure of politeness, in mutual dialogue that has been lacking in the campaign.

SUSRIS: Thank you Ambassador for your consideration today in sharing your insights and experiences.

Amb. Freeman: Not at all.

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

Washington, DC

  • 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.

Scroll to Top