The firestorm of controversy that ignited this week over the arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other gulf states opens up an important debate that needs to be thoroughly explored, yet the thrust of the discussion–typified by Bret Stephens fulminating this morning against supposed Saudi malevolent intentions in his column “A Kernel of Evil“–has largely sidestepped the more important question: What do we want our relationship with Saudi Arabia to look like? Unfortunately when it comes to Saudi Arabia, analysts, commentators and in particular our Congress, have instead chosen moral antipathy and political theater with wanton disregard for our long-term strategic interests in the region.
Take for instance the House foreign ops bill from late June where a bipartisan amendment to prohibit use of funds for assistance to Saudi Arabia (mainly linked to counterterrorism cooperation), was adopted by voice vote with a whole eight minutes dedicated to a one-sided debate, or rather rant, on the evils of the Saudi government. The consequence of the amendment vote was not the money itself (just over $1 million) but the symbolic effect it has given the rhetoric that surrounded it.
Rep. Shelley Berkeley (D-NV) introduced the amendment stating:
The Saudis are not our allies. They’re not our friends…We cannot trust them and we should not fund them. That is why every year, more and more members of this body vote to cut off funding to the terrorist regime.
And Rep. Ferguson (R-NJ), who also stated that Saudi “is not a partner of the United States in any effort,” co-sponsored the amendment along with Reps. Weiner (D-NY) and Crowley (D-NY) and had sent out Dear Colleague letters titled “Top Four Reasons the Saudis are not American Allies” earlier that week.
Unfortunately these statements belie the rich history of US-Saudi intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation. In 2004, Coordinator for Counterterrorism Amb. Cofer Black testified before the House International Relations Committee stating:
The Saudis are a strong ally and are taking unprecedented steps to address an al-Qaida menace that threatens us both. We believe that they are headed in the right direction, are committed to countering the threat of al-Qaida, and are giving us extremely strong cooperation in the War On Terrorism. There remains, of course, much work still to be done, both singly and jointly, but we are optimistic that our efforts are paying off.
Given that Reps Berkeley and Crowley currently serve on the House International Relations Committee and did so at the time when this testimony was issued, they would have been wise to at least take the time to read and carefully consider the expert testimony before making sweeping judgments on the House floor.
Anyone seriously evaluating Saudi intelligence and military cooperation needs to take a look at Anthony Cordesman’s testimony before Congress that dispels the accusations of most Saudi critics (which should be read in its entirety). One could only hope that House members had bothered to read his testimony from late 2005 which credits the invaluable role Saudi has played in military and counterterrorism cooperation and praises their strides, though acknowledging vast greater room for improvement, in reigning in the financing of terrorism, the education system, and the role of the clergy:
Saudi Arabia did not support our invasion of Iraq at the political or diplomatic level. The idea of such a war was (and is) very unpopular among the Saudi people. Moreover, the foreign minister warned us of the problems we would encounter in the aftermath of such an invasion, and the Kingdom’s fear it could destabilize the region.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia provided critical support to the US in the war against Saddam Hussein, in spite of the fact the Saudis had strong reservations about the war. Saudi Arabia opened up its airspace, made available its airbases, and housed special forces when Turkey reneged on basing US forces at the last moment. The town of Ar Ar on the Saudi border, for example, virtually became a US base.
Unlike Turkey, which was offered a $30 billion aid package for its support, the Kingdom did not ask for any compensation. In fact, it provided free and subsidized fuel to US forces.
We need to remember that that the United States put intense and consistent pressure on Saudi Arabia to aid Islamist freedom fighters in Afghanistan during the Cold War, and that the US then saw Saudi support of Islamists as a counterbalance to communism. We were both slow to see the risks of what we were doing and how extremist might take advantage of such efforts — just as Israel once made the mistake of aid Islamists as what it hoped would be a counterbalance to the PLO.
Like the US, Saudi Arabia was slow to commit itself to the struggle against terrorism and extremism, but it drove Bin Laden out of the country in the mid-1990s and helped push him out of the Sudan.
Saudi Arabia was slow in taking substantive action after 9/11 — and some Saudis lived (and still live) in a world of denial and conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, Saudi leaders immediately condemned terrorism after 9/11, as did leading Saudi clerics. Saudi cooperation with the US has steadily improved over time, and has become far closer since when Saudi Arabia came under attack in mid-2003.
Saudi Arabia is now actively involved in an internal battle with Al-Qa’ida terrorists. Many such terrorists have been killed or captured, and many Saudi security personnel have lost their lives in the line of duty. This battle is being fought with considerable US support, and US and Saudi cooperation has become much stronger in recent years.
The full scale of this cooperation, like Saudi cooperation with the US in the Iraq War, is highly sensitive. I have discussed this cooperation at length with US and Saudi officials in Saudi Arabia, however, I would urge the Committee to seek a briefing on the details from the Bush Administration in closed session, on why the State Department praised Saudi Arabia for its internal and foreign efforts to fight terrorism in the annual report on “Patterns in Global Terrorism” that it issued in April 2004. Ambassador J. Cofer Black, Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism, stated in his introductory remarks that: “I would cite Saudi Arabia as an excellent example of a nation increasingly focusing its political will to fight terrorism. Saudi Arabia has launched an aggressive, comprehensive, and unprecedented campaign to hunt down terrorists, uncover their plots, and cut off their sources of funding.”
(In fact the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did receive closed member briefing which went into greater depth on Saudi counterterrorism cooperation in April 2004 and I suspect the same must have been offered to the House as well).
The difficulties the military has had in finding a location for the newly established AFRICOM demonstrates that strategic cooperation cannot be taken for granted, especially with declining public support for the US throughout the world.
With Saudi Arabia cultivating strong ties with China, and to a lesser extent with India, members of Congress and their advisors need to start taking a step beyond puerile tirades on the House floor, to asking themselves what we lose–in terms of security cooperation and a potential ally to help us regain some credibility in the Middle East–if Saudi Arabia continues to turn eastward.
And in terms of fighting extremism, the government has a vested interest in doing so. Saudi officials are well aware that al Qaeda’s endgame, after the US eventually withdraws from Iraq, is to topple the “near enemy”, and simply regime self-preservation will motivate the government to cooperate with the US to fight al Qaeda. And because they have to deal with the effects of Iraqi blowback, the Saudis have introduced novel approaches to fight terrorism at home and abroad waging a war of ideas through intensive de-radicalization programs and countering jihadist websites, methodologies we could stand to learn from through further counterterrorism cooperation.
Recently accusations have shifted to blame Saudis for the foreign fighters coming over the border into Iraq. First of all the accounts and blameworthiness of the Saudis are disputed by US intelligence officials as they have tried to control their borders and build a security fence. But given that Saudi shares an 814 km border with Iraq, most of it desert, it is small wonder that recruited, brainwashed extremists manage to find their way through to Iraq. Though we share a border with Mexico that’s four times longer, somehow over 485,000 Mexicans manage to evade border patrols and illegally make their way to the US.
Changes and Reforms, From the Symbolic to the Structural
Aside from the factually inaccurate and counterproductive statements during the foreign ops debate in June, the House displayed an acute propensity for exceptionally poor timing. The day before Interior Minister Prince Nayef, considered by Saudi scholars as one of the more conservative and orthodox princes in such a high position of power, strode in front the Saudi religious clerical establishment and denounced those who lent support to jihadists in Iraq or who sent hapless Saudis on suicide bombing missions going so far as to describe it as a “virus”. This was not as simple as it sounds–the Sauds’ reign rests on a deal struck with the clergy and to challenge it in such a fashion incurs great risk. Dispatching Nayef to confront the clergy signaled a public shift in Saudi stance. It was no longer sufficient to simply try and stop the flow of foreign fighters crossing into Iraq–now the Saudi government was making public strides and demanding the cooperation of the religious leadership.
This was not the first significant signal being sent by high-ranking government officials to go completely unnoticed–just three weeks earlier, Crown Prince Sultan announced that 1/3 of all government jobs would be filled by women. For a country that is often derided for its mistreatment of women, this is a significant departure, one that again fell on the deaf ears of the US Congress. I’m all but certain the voice vote made on June 23rd against the funding was made by Congress oblivious to the sea changes taking place around them. Instead, members dusted off talking points from five years ago to critique the Saudi Arabia of today.
During the Cold War, Sovietologists were highly valued for their ability to pick up on even the slightest domestic political movements of the Soviet Union to decipher their next moves and in turn, our next move. Despite the authoritarian nature of the Soviet regime, there was value in studying and encouraging moderate elements for at minimum, stability of relations, at best, changes in the nature and actions of the regime.
This valuable experience seems to be lost in today’s political climate where scoring cheap political shots is much easier than thinking through how we ought to re-define our strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. Combing through key domestic political movements would reveal a distinctive pattern and significant shifts:
–the recent speeches by the two conservative prices staking out decidedly moderate or reformist positions,
–the plans underway to reinvent the Saudi economy and decentralize power away from the conservative heartland,
–the overhaul of investment in education, particularly science and engineering, and
–the reinstatement of journalist Dr. Jamal Khashoggi as editor of a leading daily Al Watan, years after his outspoken criticisms of the religious establishment’s extremist wing and the threat they posed to the country got him fired, as the editor of a leading Saudi paper. (I’ve been informed that all editorial appointments must be cleared by the King which means this was no mere oversight but a deliberate and significant maneuver to bring the reform debate back into the fold).
These events over the past year reveal King Abdullah to be firmly in control and calling the shots for his country. Since he formally assumed the throne in the summer of 2005, the King immediately began the heavy lifting for a reform agenda that included over 50 bureaucratic reforms to steer the country into the WTO and reap the rewards of the international trade regime. A moderate leader with a religious piety that secures him credibility both with religious leaders and his constituents, King Abdullah is a man who can produce real productive change for his country, the region, and the US-Saudi relationship, though it may be deliberately carried out below the radar.
The Strategic Fulcrum of the Region
The Saudi government has also emerged as what we have hoped of other players in the region–a responsible stakeholder with a significant capacity to move agendas. Its leadership on the Arab-Israeli conflict can be traced back to 2002 with the launch of the Arab Peace Initiative but in the past year, it has taken on a more active role facilitating dialogue with Hezbollah leaders in December of 2006 (despite Saudi being a Sunni state and Hezbollah a Shiite organization), brokering the Mecca deal for a Fatah-Hamas unity government earlier this year in the face of a failed Quartet policy to isolate Hamas, re-launching the Arab peace initiative with Syria present at the summit, and now as Clayton Swisher has detailed, indicating support for the fall conference that President Bush has called.
And contrary to the popular belief of oil windfalls recklessly squandered, there is good evidence to suggest Saudi’s constructive investments in the rest of the region affords it considerably political leverage. Dr. Steffen Hertog has analyzed the most current regional economic data that reveals a marked increase in cross-border investment by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in the Middle East. As a result, he concludes the GCC, with Saudi as the most pivotal heavyweight, are poised to play a key stabilizing role in the region (particularly Syria and Lebanon) that would certainly be in America’s interest:
With its emerging role as the dominant economic hub of the region, the GCC arguably is a potential anchor of stability in the Arab world. Relatively weak in military terms, it has a vested interest in political calm, as it can then flex its economic muscle. At a time in which American hegemony has become of questionable value even to its “moderate” allies, the GCC might be willing to play a more assertive role based on its economic resources.
Needless to say, no amount of Gulf capital can buy stability amid a mess of epic proportions, as in Iraq (although Gulf money has been helping significantly to shore up the economy of the war-wrecked country). Still, the “soft power” of Gulf capital is not an academic point. As more and more GCC money is channeled into Syria, for example, Gulf political influence there is bound to increase. Its regime in rather dire economic straits, Syria will be increasingly reluctant to alienate Gulf governments–which are not capable of micromanaging the investment decisions of their business classes but can certainly use their moral suasion to indicate which investment destination is not palatable. Similarly, Gulf FDI imparts considerable soft power in Lebanon, where it will play an important role in reconstruction.
When Congress is ready to trade in petty ad hominems for a constructive approach to dealing with the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century, they ought to consult New America fellow Afshin Molavi and Georgetown professor Jean-Francois Seznec, who in their recent article in Foreign Policy, sketch the beginnings of a role the US and EU can play in ushering Saudi Arabia into the modern era and influencing the trajectory of their economy, and as a result their society:
Here’s where Europe and the United States can step in. Europe and the United States should embrace Saudi Arabia’s newfound economic openness with strategic investments and trade agreements aimed at bolstering the Kingdom’s manufacturing and industrial capacity, creating jobs for the country’s growing middle class. By doing this, Washington and Brussels will be supporting the civil service and merchants who favor modernization and contributing to the marginalization of Salafists. A growing, industrializing economy will provide a virtuous loop that reinforces education reform as more Saudis seek the skills to compete. Issue number one on the minds of many Saudis–nearly two thirds of whom are under 30–is unemployment. If the civil service, the merchants, and the reform-minded king can create new jobs, their new alliance will gain the legitimacy of success.
Part of the king’s jobs strategy includes the creation of six massive new special economic zones (essentially free-trade zones) that will provide much-needed diversification to an economy still dominated by oil. It will also contribute to the “backdoor” modernization that takes place as middle classes grow and economies become interlinked with the world. The zones are seeking joint ventures in research and high technology from the United States and the European Union, and the zones are also expected to be a freer environment socially as well.
A modernizing, moderate Saudi Arabia could be a lodestar for an Islamic world in turmoil. For most of modern Saudi history, the Kingdom has simply poured fuel on the burning oils of the Muslim world. Getting its own house in order by empowering the forces of modernization is a positive first step. But Europe and the United States need to realize that they have an important role to play in writing the country’s next chapter
Professor Cordesman closed his testimony summarizing our strategic options:
In short, any effective strategy to deal with terrorism and extremism means addressing two key strategic issues that go far beyond the so-called war on terrorism. One is whether the Arab world can recognize the need for reform and achieve it. The second is whether the West, and particularly the US, can learn to work quietly with nations for effective reform, rather than seek to impose it noisily, and sometimes violently, on an entire region.
It is apparent that the Saudi government, under the leadership of King Abdullah, has begun the quiet reforms. The jury is still out whether the US can carefully work with them on these efforts, as Molavi and Seznec suggest, or whether noisy theatrics like the ones experienced this summer are just too tempting for politicians who forgo the opportunity to be leaders.