Riyadh Revisions

In July 2002, a RAND corporation research analyst named Laurent Murawiec gave a briefing on Saudi Arabia to the Defense Policy Board, a blue-ribbon group of former secretaries of defense, chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and an assortment of nongovernmental experts. The meeting was chaired by Richard Perle.

Murawiec was one of the itinerant peddlers of the national-security world, an authority on everything and nothing. He was, however, at one with the zeitgeist. His PowerPoint presentation that day began with the conventional wisdom about the Arab world: Centuries of failure had driven Arabs to the depths of despair and the heights of envy; humiliated, with nothing to show for themselves since the golden age of medieval Islam, they had lashed out against the West.

He then focused on Saudi Arabia: The country's rule, he said, had been usurped by Wahhabists whose mission in life was to draw blood from the West. "Saudi Arabia," Murawiec explained, "is central to the self-destruction of the Arab world and the chief vector of the Arab crisis and its outwardly directed aggression. The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader. Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies; a daily outpouring of virulent hatred against the U.S. from Saudi media, 'educational' institutions, clerics, officials—Saudis tell us one thing in private, [but they] do the contrary in reality."

Nevertheless, Murawiec said, the situation was not entirely hopeless. Although "the role assigned to the House of Saud [by the British] ... has become obsolete -- nefarious," the Saudis' position could be taken away. "There is an 'Arabia,'" he assured his audience, "but it need not be 'Saudi.'"

Murawiec's policy prescription, bearing the authoritative seal of the RAND Corporation, was to present the Saudis with an ultimatum:

  • "Stop any funding and support for any fundamentalist madrassa, mosque, ulema, [or] predicator anywhere in the world;
  • Stop all anti–U.S., anti-Israeli, anti-Western predication, writings, etc., within Arabia;
  • Dismantle [or] ban all the kingdom's 'Islamic charities'; confiscate its assets; and
  • Prosecute or isolate those involved in the terror chain, including in the Saudi intelligence services."

Why would the House of Saud accede to these demands? Because, said Murawiec, "what the House of Saud holds dear can be targeted," and here he listed oil installations, dollar investments, and Islamic holy places. He then capped his proposal to seize Mecca and Medina by dismissing the Saudis as "lazy, overbearing, dishonest, [and] corrupt."

After the briefing leaked, administration officials acknowledged to reporters that it indeed reflected a change of attitude toward the Saudis. According to one official, "People used to rationalize Saudi behavior. You don't hear that anymore. There's no doubt that people are recognizing reality and recognizing that Saudi Arabia is a problem."

The new view of an untrustworthy Saudi Arabia was widely shared by the Bush administration's recruits responsible for Middle East policy, such as Bill Luti, the retired Navy captain who served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs and as the vice president's assistant on Middle East policy. (The joke about Luti was that he concluded every thought with the phrase "Fuck the Saudis.")

The attitude coexisted uneasily with the views of career diplomats. If the discomfort at the State Department was palpable, one can only imagine the consternation in Riyadh, as the realization sunk in that George W. Bush did not march to the beat of the family drum. All told, this was a startling turnabout from the intimate relationship between the House of Saud and the Bush family.


Murawiec's bizarre performance was in fact an extreme expression of festering bipartisan discontent in Washington with Riyadh's behavior as an unreliable ally. In February 1998, the United States sought to punish Saddam Hussein for impeding, then ejecting, United Nations arms inspectors. Large-scale air strikes were planned. At the last minute, or so it seemed to the State Department, the Saudis informed the Clinton administration that the air bases needed to execute the U.S. plan would not be made available. Regional public opinion about the damage inflicted on Iraqi civilians by UN sanctions, against the background of Israeli-Palestinian violence, had become too hot for the Saudis. The United States was forced to back off its threat to hit Iraq and stand aside as Kofi Annan worked out a face-saving deal with the Iraqi regime. A military divorce between Washington and Riyadh -- already under way after the bombing of the U.S. Air Force housing complex in Khobar two years before -- gained momentum.

Neoconservatives waiting to take power in Washington had concerns that went beyond the utility of Saudi Arabia as an aircraft carrier. Explaining the Saudis to a Congress naturally suspicious of an ally that didn't share American values and seemed implacably opposed to Israel was difficult at best, and the neocons saw the House of Saud as doomed by the unholy bargain the ruling family was supposed to have struck with a xenophobic Wahhabist clergy. If the family tacked with the prevailing fundamentalist winds, it would grow even more untrustworthy and undependable; if it opposed the clerics, it would be overthrown by the very militants that had been dispatched from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan 10 years before to battle the Soviets. Either way, America's investment in Saudi Arabia looked like it was going to tank. Given America's dependence on Saudi oil, this was a dangerous situation, to say the least.

Iraq, on the other hand, held real promise. It had nearly as much oil as Saudi Arabia. It was a technocratic state. Culture there had been ruthlessly secularized. Women were doctors and lawyers. The country had fielded a large, mechanized army. Iraq was advanced enough to have come close to weaponizing a nuclear device just before Operation Desert Storm. The regime was horrible, but Iraqi foreign policy had long been geared toward containing Iranian revolutionary power, a goal shared by Washington. With its oil and Arab nationalist credentials, a grateful Iraq -- especially compared with a fragile, obscurantist regime like Saudi Arabia's -- could be the ideal platform for the projection of American power in the Middle East. All it needed was regime change.

The neocon view of the Saudis seemed confirmed by September 11. The evil seeds planted by the ruling family's support for the Wahhabist movement and its overseas missionary work had born bitter fruit. Hundreds of Saudis fought against the United States in Afghanistan; more than 130 wound up at Guantánamo Bay. The Saudi government seemed unable to cope with post–9-11 pressure to cut off the flow of private money to jihadist causes and help Washington get to the bottom of the conspiracy. The outbreak, in 2003, of the so-called Saudi intifada, in which homegrown militants launched dramatic attacks on foreign installations in Saudi Arabia and on the interior ministry, further validated the fin de siècle mood of the moment.

As these dramatic developments unfolded, Washington escalated its warnings that only political liberalization could sustain America's friendship and royal-family rule. The powerful example of Iraq reinforced these tocsins, as did the administration's public commitment to democratization. In Cairo in 2005, in a weird echo of an oft-heard Arab conspiracy theory, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared, "For 60 years, my country pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region ... and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

There were, in fact, serious problems in the kingdom: a growing population, lower incomes, a flawed educational system, and high unemployment -- all of which were nourishing an existing radical religious streak. Pressure on the House of Saud to distance itself from the United States came not from the establishment clergy but from the "Awakening Sheikhs," popular fundamentalist firebrands. The initially ineffectual government response to the crisis of the 2003–04 countrywide insurgency justified the jittery reaction of outsiders, especially Americans. And there was no escaping the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9-11 had been Saudi.

But in both Riyadh and Washington, domestic reform soon took a backseat to containing terrorism. And the kingdom ultimately put down its homegrown insurgency. Like the prospect of a hanging, the violence of those years concentrated the minds of the ruling family. Desultory policing took on a new seriousness and efficiency. Perhaps as important as the vigorous policing, the government competed for the hearts and minds of a Saudi silent majority, through the shrewd use of images of carnage and the statements of a compliant official clergy.


Five years after Murawiec's briefing, the antipathy of the Bush administration toward the Saudis has clearly been reciprocated. King Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since 1995 (but officially the king only since 2005), has increasingly distanced Riyadh from Washington. The Bush administration's public pressure for liberalization, its botched Iraq War, its neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and a resurgent Iran have made this inevitable.

In August 2001, Abdullah, then the Saudi crown prince, threatened privately to reassess the Saudi–U.S. relationship if the Bush administration took no action to reduce the carnage of the Palestinian intifada, then in its second year. A year later, in his first visit to Crawford, Texas, Abdullah showed President Bush a 10-minute video of Israeli violence against Palestinians, as well as photos of dead and wounded Palestinian children. Later, in 2006–07, as king, he publicly rebuked the Bush administration for doing too little to rein in Israelis or improve the lot of Palestinians.

Bush's Iraq policy worsened relations. In February 2003, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, warned the president that if the United States invaded Iraq, it would be "solving one problem and creating five more." More recently, an aide to Abdullah wrote in The Washington Post that Saudi Arabia would have to intervene in Iraq to protect Sunni lives if the United States was going to abandon its responsibilities. And in late March, in a high-profile speech to Arab heads of state, the king infuriated Bush officials by labeling the U.S. presence in Iraq an "illegitimate foreign occupation." In yet another blow to the United States, he has also refused to meet with the U.S.–backed Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, which will further erode the legitimacy of Maliki's government. According to a former Bush administration ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Abdullah has said that he is unwilling to be known as President Bush's "Arab Tony Blair."

The Saudis have blamed U.S. mismanagement in Iraq for what they see as an Iranian, and thus, Shia ascendancy. Worried about Iranian inroads into their left flank -- Palestine -- the Saudis brokered a deal between Hamas and Fatah in March. The bargain undercut a simultaneous U.S. effort to get Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert back to the table with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, while keeping up the pressure on Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence. The Saudis, who believe that isolating Hamas is counterproductive, simply blew past Washington's priorities. Riyadh's reentry into the peace process -- by reviving its 2002 proposal for resolving the Israeli-Arab impasse -- was also spurred by frustration with Washington's dithering.

Even as the Saudis' disgust was rising, the Bush administration's view of the kingdom was softening, partly due to personnel changes at the Defense Department and a weaker vice president, and partly as awareness of the troubles in Iraq began to sink in. The United States was going to need Saudi Arabia not only in Iraq but also to help counter the resulting empowerment of Iran.

Although the administration had already noted Iran's assertiveness, the Hezbollah-Israeli summer war of 2006 heightened its perception of Iran's reach and ambition. For the White House, the war was part of a larger pattern of aggression, featuring the defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons and dangerously provocative rhetoric about the Holocaust and Israel's legitimacy.

In the new dispensation, the administration took another look at old-fashioned balance of power politics. As a large, wealthy Arab country threatened by Iran, Saudi Arabia could be the linchpin of a Sunni counterweight to Iran, consisting of Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, and tacitly allied to Israel.

New opportunities for joint action did arise, with Lebanon as a key venue. The U.S. government reportedly began covertly funding the moderate, anti-Hezbollah government of Fuad Siniora in a coordinated effort with the Saudi government, whose ample resources and excellent connections might be used to hem in Hezbollah more directly. This approach seems to have had a useful impact on Hezbollah's readiness to deal in a more pragmatic way with the Siniora government. Saudi support for the UN investigation of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's murder two years ago serves American interests vis à vis Syria. And it appears that long-standing but discrete Saudi contacts with Israel have slightly increased and improved.


Having Saudi Arabia as a participant in a realignment between the region's extremists and moderates, as the Bush administration now dichotomizes regional states, is certainly preferable to demonizing the House of Saud. But the kingdom's own internal divisions and increasing independence from Washington could make the Saudis a weak reed. The political liberalization sought by the Bush administration and heralded by King Abdullah has stalled. Long-promised municipal elections were held, but the winners who have emerged have meager authority. The national dialogue that had begun in 2003 -- which brought together women, Shiites, Sufis, and followers of non-Hanbali legal schools -- continues but is more fizzle than sizzle.

The problem is not that there's no constituency for reform; it's that there's little agreement on what "reform" means. To some, it means a greater reliance on the clergy, safeguarding a traditional curriculum, and staving off concessions to women's rights. For these reformers, elections have seemed like a good thing: They thought they'd do well -- and they have. For liberal reformers, though, elections haven't appeared to be unambiguously good for exactly that reason. Apart from the continued subordination of women, which reformers tend to support, the fractured reform movement shares only an interest in greater accountability and transparency on the part of the House of Saud. This would necessarily clip the wings of the ruling family. The family, however, has no intention of giving up its power.

The royal family does understand that some accommodation is probably necessary if it is to retain control. To the degree that there are fissures within the family, which some personify as a feud between the irascible Wahhabist Prince Nayef and the comparatively pragmatic King Abdullah, the differences are over the size, speed, and nature of concessions necessary to preserve the family's position. Nayef's off-the-wall suggestions that the Jews and the Muslim Brotherhood conspired to destroy the World Trade Center reinforced his image as a retrogade, quasi–bin Ladenite. But as the man on whose watch 15 Saudis plotted, undetected, to participate in what became the 9-11 attacks, he needed whatever talking points were available for domestic consumption. The initial success of the jihadist uprising of 2003 further tarnished his credentials. Yet Nayef is as determined as any other member of the family to thwart any threat to its authority. The April roundup of 172 jihadists is an indication of his seriousness -- just as it indicates the seriousness of blowback from Iraq.

For the moment, this internal debate over reform has probably receded. It always does when oil revenues are burgeoning and the ruling family can raid the kingdom's coffers to buy off dissent. If there truly were cracks in family unity over make-or-break issues, they would be apparent in the public behavior of key princes. In the 1950s and '60s, when such tensions prevailed between Saud and Faisal, the losers spent time out of the country. The same was true in the 1970s, when a split over how the kingdom should respond to the peace deal between Israel and Egypt drove then–Crown Prince Fahd abroad. Nothing like this is happening now.

In the meantime, though, recent succession reforms have institutionalized arrangements for the passing of the torch whenever Abdullah passes from the scene. Among the implications of the new rules is that the 74-year-old Prince Nayef, even if he were to live that long, would not make it to the throne. Instead, the crown would likely to pass from the current prince, the 77-year-old Sultan, to a younger generation. Prince Muhammad bin Fahd, governor of the eastern province where the country's oil and Shia are located, or Khalid bin Sultan, son of the defense minister, are two plausible possibilities; either would be a responsible, relatively pro-Western choice.

Despite the sluggish pace of the reform process, and given the toxic jihadist propaganda permeating the region, there is little chance that the existing order will be swept away. Members of the middle class, even those now in their 20s and 30s, reject violent change. The clerics that had endorsed violence, the so-called "instigating sheikhs," who explicitly endorsed violence recanted in 2003. And recent research shows that the "Iraq" generation of Saudi jihadists is more likely to frame its complaint as one against Christians and Jews, rather than its allegedly apostate rulers.

None of this signifies that Washington should take pressure off the Riyadh on counterterrorism, especially the control of unlicensed funds that support jihadist groups. Saudi Arabia has come a long way from the pre–9-11 breeding ground of the global jihad. The Saudis still need to ratchet back their funding of mosques and religious schools outside the kingdom.

Domestic political reform is secondary. The United States should be under no illusion that the Saudi ruling family will go much beyond existing concessions, especially in areas that concern Washington, like education and women's rights. If educational reform could be sold as the key to job opportunities and not immunity to religious radicalism, it might be more feasible. Gender equality, however, will remain the third rail of Saudi politics.

Diplomatically, there are opportunities for a constructive Saudi role. The United States will continue to need Saudi cooperation in Lebanon. Revival of Riyadh's 2002 peace initiative could prove valuable, too. On the other hand, the Saudis are not in a position to be helpful in the ongoing quest to block Iran's pursuit of a nuclear fuel cycle. In Iraq, Saudi funding for large infrastructure projects could put Iraqis to work. But Riyadh is limited in its ability to forge a consensus among Sunni insurgents that might lead to the isolation of al-Qaeda and negotiations with the U.S. and Iraqi governments.

With the loss of fevered neocon dreams of taking the "Saudi" out of "Arabia," and the return to realpolitik, the U.S.–Saudi relationship is a bit closer to where it should be. It is not, nor will it ever be, a "special relationship" grounded in shared values or common experience. Serious policy differences, especially over Israel and Iraq, are likely to persist. Political liberalization will remain important, though perhaps not decisive, when it comes to the longevity of House of Saud's authority. As neoconservative rigidity has begun to give way to neorealism, a strong relationship with the kingdom is in America's interest. And as Lord Palmerston said: "Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they only have permanent interests."