After Sept. 11, Severe Tests Loom for Relationship

By David B. Ottaway and Robert G. Kaiser

Washington Post Staff Writers

Tuesday, February 12, 2002; Page A01

Last in a series

The day after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz, the Saudi leader, summoned Oil Minister Ali Nuaimi. Saudi Arabia, they quickly decided, would renege on a recent promise to other OPEC nations to cut oil production. Instead, it would rush an extra 9 million barrels of oil to the United States to ensure ample supplies and show Saudi support for a wounded ally.

For the next two weeks, using its own tankers, Saudi Arabia shipped 500,000 barrels or more a day to the United States. This extra Saudi oil helped reduce the price of crude from $28 a barrel in late August to less than $20 a few weeks later. Ever since, American consumers have enjoyed cheap gasoline.

Though it was known in the oil industry, the Saudis never advertised or explained their decision. Abdullah's instant gesture of support for the United States went unnoticed and unappreciated. Instead, Saudi Arabia became the target of angry American criticism.

Politicians and the news media blamed Saudis for financing Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, supporting the Taliban movement that harbored bin Laden in Afghanistan and creating conditions that made it easy for him to recruit the terrorists who had attacked the United States, 15 of whom were Saudi citizens.

For the Saudis, the timing of these attacks on them was painfully ironic. Just days before Sept. 11, they thought they had made an important breakthrough by persuading the Bush administration to change course and seriously engage in the Middle East "peace process." Now, unexpectedly, the Saudi-American relationship was under more strain than at any time since 1973, when the Saudis imposed an oil embargo on the United States because of its support for Israel.

Since Sept. 11, "the veil has been lifted and the American people see a double game that they're not terribly pleased with," said Samuel "Sandy" R. Berger, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, who considers the relationship with Saudi Arabia an "extremely important" one. "They see a [Saudi] regime that is repressive with respect to the extremists that threaten them, but more than tolerant -- indeed, the more we find out, beneficent -- to the general movement of extreme Islamists in the region."

The Saudi government has become so alarmed about expressions of American hostility toward the kingdom that it has launched a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to try to restore confidence in the Saudi-American "special relationship," and to guide it through what Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador here since 1983, describes as "a massive storm called 11th September."

But the strains in the relationship may be beyond the reach of public relations. For a variety of reasons, said policymakers and American specialists on Saudi Arabia, U.S. relations with the kingdom will be tested in new ways in the years ahead.

These experts see serious disagreements emerging between the Bush administration and the Saudi ruling family over how to deal with Iraq and Iran. Already, the two sides are at odds over Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hard-line policy toward the Palestinians and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, an issue that almost ruptured their relations last August.

The future of the U.S. military presence in the kingdom is also in question. At stake for the United States is its continued use of the Prince Sultan Air Base southeast of Riyadh, where the Pentagon has built a state-of-the-art command center that has been used to help direct U.S. war operations in Afghanistan and to orchestrate military activities throughout the Persian Gulf. The air base hosts 5,000 U.S. servicemen, mostly Air Force personnel, and American aircraft used to monitor southern Iraq.

The Washington Post last month quoted a senior Saudi official as saying his government might ask the United States to stop using the air base on a regular basis once the war in Afghanistan is over. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. confirmed in an interview with CNN that the Saudis want a reduction of U.S. forces, and said the United States is interested in "reducing the [American] footprint" in Saudi Arabia. Card predicted that "it will happen over time."

U.S. policymakers and analysts also express concern about the ability of the Saud family to handle what may be a rapid turnover of kings in the next few years and its political resolve to undertake pressing domestic reforms judged critical to Saudi Arabia's future stability.

"The mass murder of September 11th . . . has raised many questions in the minds of Americans and others about Saudi Arabia and our relationship to it," said Chas. W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh who is now president of the Middle East Policy Council. "Is there something rotten in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Is it still stable enough to be a reliable partner of the United States in the future?"

"If one takes the president's question seriously, 'Are you with us or against us?' " Freeman continued, referring to President Bush's rhetorical challenge to the nations of the world after Sept. 11, "where does Saudi Arabia really stand?"

A Ruler Of Two Minds

One of the principal uncertainties is Abdullah, who has progressively taken over day-to-day rule of the kingdom since his half-brother, King Fahd, 79, suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995. Fahd is now attended by 26 physicians, according to an American adviser to the Saudi government; while he remains alive, Abdullah, 78, lacks full royal authority to make decisions on his own.

Abdullah appears to be of two minds about the kingdom's relationship to the United States. On the one hand, he firmly defends his country's alliance with America. "Our relationship has been very strong for over six decades, and I don't see any reason why there should be a change," he told visiting editors of The Post in Riyadh last month. But he has also provoked a debate within the ruling Saud family over whether the American military presence has become more of a political liability than a security benefit for the kingdom, according to Saudi sources. And he has stood by Saudi religious authorities who propagate the Islamic fundamentalism that alarms Americans.

In the interview last month, Abdullah discussed the strictures that govern Saudi society, where the Koran is described as the national constitution. The rules banning alcohol, denying women the right to drive or reveal their faces in public and banning non-Islamic religious practice "emanate from the fact that we are home to the House of God [Mecca] and the Prophet's Mosque [Medina]. The presence of the two holy mosques guide what we can do. . . . Our faith and our culture is what drives this country."

Abdullah has been described as less devoted to the United States than Fahd -- more of a Saudi nationalist, and more sensitive to Saudi public opinion that may be skeptical of the royal family's dependence on foreign support. Saudi analysts say Abdullah is much more popular than Fahd, in part because of his populist reputation as a pious man who listens to Saudi citizens.

But if Abdullah is an independent figure in the royal family, he has also demonstrated continued respect for the fundamental, oil-for-security bargain at the heart of Saudi-U.S. relations. Even when he toyed with a rupture in political relations with the United States last August, Abdullah ruled out any use of the oil weapon, according to a senior Saudi official. And it was Abdullah who decided to pump more oil for the Americans on Sept. 12.

It was also Abdullah who, in 1998, pushed through a historic reversal in Saudi oil policy and invited U.S. oil companies, whose Saudi interests were nationalized in 1975, back into the kingdom. The decision gave ExxonMobil and four other American companies a favored position in multibillion-dollar deals to develop Saudi Arabia's vast natural gas reserves.

That decision illustrated Saudi anxiety long before Sept. 11 that ties with the United States were deteriorating. Abdullah wanted to reverse the deterioration, according to senior Saudi officials, and decided to use the kingdom's vast natural resources to try to reinvigorate the American connection.

"Is any Saudi king going to take a chance on its relations with the United States? Absolutely not. It would be suicidal," said a Saudi official, one of several Saudis who said Abdullah's desire to make the U.S. connection somewhat less visible is actually intended to strengthen the alliance.

"The Saudis have this strange kind of attitude of not wanting to be seen in their own circles as having a relationship with the United States, yet wanting a relationship with the United States," said former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright.

Perhaps the most important fact about Abdullah is his age. What happens after he is gone is uncertain. Several U.S. analysts have compared the Saudi challenge to that facing the aging Politburo leadership in the final years of the Soviet Union -- short tenures at the top and many successions.

Next in line is Abdullah's half-brother Prince Sultan, the defense minister (and Bandar's father). But Sultan is Abdullah's age, and is said to be in worse health than the crown prince. There is no obvious candidate in line behind Sultan, raising the possibility of a power struggle in the relatively near future.

A Demographic Dilemma

Whoever is king, Saudi Arabia faces daunting new challenges in the years ahead that grow out of an immutable fact of Saudi life: The country's population is growing much faster than its wealth or its ability to create job opportunities. U.S. analysts say these conditions are creating a social caldron that can breed Islamic extremism.

Abdullah is a social conservative who has shown little interest in confronting his country's demographic dilemma. Saudi Arabia has been probably the fastest-growing nation on Earth. Its population, now about 18 million (plus 5 million or 6 million foreign workers) grew about 4.4 percent a year from 1980 to 1998. The average Saudi family now has six or seven children. A population of 33.7 million is projected for 2015.

Per-capita income has dropped from a peak of $19,000 in 1981 to $7,300 in 1997, measured in constant 1997 dollars -- a stunning reversal. Forty-three percent of the kingdom's 22 million people are 14 years of age or younger, and unemployment is rampant, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Saudi schools and universities are graduating students -- 343,000 in 1999 -- far faster than the economy is creating jobs. However, Saudi young people have shown little interest in taking over the lower-paying jobs held by foreigners working in the kingdom.

The government can no longer support the generous social welfare system it created at the height of the oil boom. Nor can it spend to revive its stagnant economy. From a peak of $227 billion in 1981, its oil revenue dropped to only $31 billion five years later, and remained at less than $60 billion annually throughout the 1990s (in constant 2000 dollars), according to the U.S. Department of Energy. This year, oil revenue is projected to reach only about $48 billion.

Despite their vast reserves, the Saudis have little influence on oil revenue, which is determined more by global supply and demand than by anything they can do unilaterally.

Falling state revenue has contributed to a sharp decline in the number of Saudi students coming to the United States for higher education, a fact that worries some Saudis. "Our children won't be as close to Americans as we have been," said one successful Saudi businessman.

Saudi Arabia's rulers do not believe they have a population problem. "Abdullah won't listen. It's one issue he won't discuss," said a foreigner who tried to discuss the issue with the crown prince. "The attitude is: The bigger the population, the better. When we have 45 million people, then you can talk to us about family planning."

"They look around and see Iran and Iraq with much bigger populations," he added.

Anthony H. Cordesman, author of the CSIS study, said it was not only Abdullah who is indifferent to the burgeoning population. "The technocrats don't listen, either. . . . Only a handful understand the population problem, and the Saudi clergy doesn't want to hear about it."

A Saudi official said Abdullah was aware of the population problem and had begun to discuss it. The official said it was an issue that had to be dealt with gingerly "because of cultural and religious sensitivities."

Abdullah does care about economic reforms, but Cordesman expressed doubt that the government has found ways to create the jobs it needs. For example, the Saudis had hoped each $1 billion of investment by foreign oil companies in the new gas projects would produce 15,000 jobs. But the companies told the Saudi government the project under discussion could never meet that goal.

"Gas and oil are capital-intensive, not labor-intensive, and so cannot solve the unemployment problem," said Cordesman.

Another concern among American Saudi specialists is Saudi Arabia's five Islamic universities, currently churning out thousands of clerics -- many more than will ever be hired to work in the mosques and religious institutions of Saudi Arabia. Many end up spreading and promoting the kingdom's strict brand of Wahhabi Islam at home and abroad, according to U.S. and Saudi analysts.

"Abdullah doesn't seem to care," said the foreigner who also tried to discuss the birthrate with the crown prince. One reason for that indifference, other specialists said, is Abdullah's close ties to the Wahhabi religious establishment, the Ulema.

Clerics dominate the Saudi education system, which places heavy emphasis on religious instruction and comparatively little on science and math necessary for a "real-world job," according to Cordesman. The religious leaders also control the metaween, the Taliban-like religious police who enforce Saudi customs.

Abdullah is probably the best-placed of any senior Saud family member to control the kingdom's Wahhabi clerics because of his own reputation for piety, according to U.S. and Saudi analysts. He has used that stature to call on them to condemn more forcefully Islamic extremism and terrorism after Sept. 11, but Abdullah has yet to take any steps to curb their control of the education system or of the religious police.

Appealing to 'Joe Sixpack'

Last fall, when U.S. politicians and editorial pages lit into Saudi Arabia for perceived failures to help prevent or fight terrorism, the Saudi officials who have worked hardest on the Saudi-American relationship were appalled.

"Everyone in America was dumping on Saudi Arabia," said Adel Jubeir, a Saudi diplomat who served for years in Washington and is now foreign policy adviser to Abdullah.

Jubeir rushed to Washington to plead the Saudi cause on television and before editorial boards. The hostility they encountered was painful for Jubeir, Bandar and other Saudis who were accustomed to generally warm relations with the United States.

Saudi newspapers featured stories about the harassment of Saudis and other Arabs by American authorities and ordinary citizens angry about the terrorist attacks. According to numerous Americans and Saudis, many of the Saudis who usually travel often to the United States stopped coming. Freeman, the former ambassador to Riyadh who still travels regularly to the Gulf countries, said after a trip in October, "I did not find a single businessman or woman in the Gulf who was willing to come to the U.S. for any purpose."

Taking a cue from Abdullah, many Saudis repeated the idea that for inexplicable reasons, the American news media had launched a campaign against Saudi Arabia.

In an interview, Bandar said saving the relationship would depend on large measure on "Joe Sixpack" -- the average American. "I believe the Saudi relationship with America will fall or continue based on how successful we are to reach the masses of Americans in their homes and villages," he said.

"If we fail there, everything we do with the [American] body politic, with the elites, government to government, will be irrelevant," he added, because "the first wind that shakes this relationship it will collapse because it will have no roots, no basis."

To help regain the mind and heart of Joe Sixpack, the Saudis have turned to a Washington-based public relations firm, Qorvis Communications Inc., to design and run a year-long campaign aimed at selling Saudi Arabia to the American public.

Qorvis is still designing a campaign strategy that will target "the average American" and begin by trying to answer the question, "Is Saudi Arabia a friend or foe? A lot of people don't know," said one company official.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll confirms that conclusion. A survey taken last month found that 10 percent of Americans considered Saudi Arabia an ally, and 14 percent said it was an enemy of the United States. Fifty-four percent said Saudi Arabia was a friendly country, but not an ally.

Qorvis has already run advertisements in major newspapers and magazines portraying a dove of peace in flight with the words "two nations, one goal" and the two countries' flags beneath them. The second phase of the campaign, according to Qorvis planners, will focus on "the values we share."

But what are those values? Jubeir, the crown prince's foreign policy adviser, compared the Saudi-American alliance to the Anglo-American relationship: "You will not find any country [besides Saudi Arabia] with which you have closer ties or a closer congruence of interests, except maybe Great Britain."

The Saudis have promoted that view for many years, but Americans who have been deeply involved in the relationship generally don't accept it. Exposure to the Saudis convinces many Americans that "they" and "we" could hardly be more different.

"These are two countries for which values are immensely important, but the values they hold are about as different as values can be," said Joseph McMillan, a Defense Department official who for years was the Saudi desk officer in the Pentagon's Bureau of International Security Affairs.

Walter B. Slocombe, undersecretary of defense in the Clinton administration, said Saudi Arabia and the United States are "two political cultures talking to each other in totally different languages."

And there's another potential problem: The two countries no longer share the same evaluation of the strategic situation in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has achieved a new detente with its traditionally hostile neighbor, Iran, which the United States still considers a hostile power. The Saudis do not believe a weakened Saddam Hussein can threaten them, while Americans debate whether to invade Iraq (a move Saudis say would cause a crisis in relations with the United States). And the Saudis are staunch defenders of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and his cause.

President Bush appeared to be addressing Saudi concerns last Thursday during a visit with the Israeli prime minister, when he rejected Sharon's request to marginalize Arafat and went out of his way to say he was "deeply concerned about the plight of the average Palestinian." However, these gestures fall short of the new U.S.-sponsored peace initiative that the Saudis thought they had persuaded the Bush administration to undertake just before Sept. 11.

In the face of persistent differences, said a number of American specialists, U.S. administrations and Saudi governments have created a veneer of comity that tends to hide small and large disagreements alike. "When there are disagreements, they go unresolved because resolving them would require contention and debate and argument," said McMillan, the Pentagon official who used to help manage the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

In McMillan's words, "What we have is a relationship that is based not on shared values, but on shared interests" -- security, and oil.

U.S. consumers are actually depending less on Saudi oil; the Saudi share of U.S. imports fell from 24 percent to 14 percent during the 1990s. The Saudis now provide about 8 percent of the oil consumed in the United States. But Saudi Arabia remains the world's dominant producer, because it alone has the capacity to turn on the spigot in a matter of days and transform the global oil market, just as Abdullah did on Sept. 12.

Saudi Arabia is the only oil producer capable of increasing production by 2 million barrels a day. This means, according to Fareed Mohamedi, chief economist at the Petroleum Finance Co., that Saudi Arabia is likely to remain "the dominant oil player and manager of global oil prices" for the foreseeable future.

The Saudi ability to parlay its oil power into political access in Washington seems assured for years to come, Mohamedi suggested, "especially if the American consumer wants to consume oil at the rate that they're become accustomed to, and U.S. politicians will pander to that taste."

Richard Holbrooke, ambassador to the United Nations in the second Clinton administration, agreed: "Our greatest single failure over the last 25 years was our failure to reduce our dependence on foreign oil . . . which would have reduced the leverage of Saudi Arabia."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company