Council on Foreign Relations
A Product of the Independent Task Force
on America's Response to Terrorism
A PAPER PREPARED FOR THE
INDEPENDENT TASK FORCE
ON AMERICA'S RESPONSE TO TERRORISM
The U.S.-Saudi relationship is based on common interests that are
fundamental and critical to both countries. Since September 11,
however, many factions on both sides are calling for a divorce. Yet,
advocating for a divorce does not take into account the powerful
influence a strong U.S.-Saudi relationship has on American strategic
interests and regional stability. Rather than a divorce, leaders on
both sides must work to strengthen the relationship and reforge
Since the end of the Gulf War, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has
been largely neglected. There is no broad engagement of
intellectuals, media, foreign affairs experts, and religious figures
about the importance or benefit of the relationship. The cultures
remain distant and the potential for misunderstanding and misreading
is great. Symbols of common purpose have faded. Indeed, September 11
revealed the degree to which the gap had grown. Saudi Arabia is key
to U.S. policy and pursuit of interests in the region. The absence
of serious dialogue has undercut the fundamental foundations of this
Sustained attention to the relationship is urgently required and
serious discussion on numerous levels is painfully necessary.
Through consultations on political, economic, and military issues,
both sides can work toward addressing the wide gaps dividing the two
Now is the time to begin such discussions. The United States has
in Crown Prince Abdullah a partner who is committed to positive
reform in Saudi Arabia and who understands the benefit of a strong,
stable U.S.-Saudi relationship. Abdullah's prominence provides the
United States with an opportunity to achieve progress in moving the
relationship forward. Within the context of the current escalation
of violence among Israelis and Palestinians and the surge of
demonstrations in the region, the United States must work with Saudi
Arabia as a partner in moving all sides toward peace. Through his
initiative, the Crown Prince has demonstrated his willingness and
ability to take serious steps and serious risks toward peace in the
region. This is an opportunity that the United States should not
overlook. As the crisis deepens, Saudi involvement and coordination
with the United States is crucial in helping to stop the violence
and, eventually, moving the parties toward the peace table.
As the United States addresses the critical components of the
relationship, it must avoid further deepening the gap between the
Saudi public's perceptions of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the
Saudi leadership's perception. A renewed U.S.-Saudi dialogue must
work toward sustained communication that enforces the stability and
the strength of the relationship.
- The U.S.-Saudi relationship helps further American interests.
Given the demands on the relationship, U.S. priorities and
leverage must be devoted to primary national security and foreign
policy issues. These issues are of pressing importance for the
United States and must be dealt with urgently:
- Middle East peace negotiations
- Islamic political radicalism and its export
- Oil supply and price stability
- Internal Saudi issues-i.e., economic advancement and
stability-are important to the U.S.-Saudi dialogue but should be
pursued with a difference in tone, urgency, and commitment. This
is largely because the Crown Prince recognizes the need to
undertake domestic reforms.
- In focusing on issues of social, political, and economic
development, the United States will have the greatest chance for
breakthrough if it focuses on issues that engage Saudi interests
and parallel Crown Prince Abdullah's own priorities-i.e., rule of
law, accession to the World Trade Organization, economic opening,
and education. This should be a broad, collaborative dialogue
going beyond the institutions of government.
- The superficiality of contact between American intellectuals
and media and those in the Arab world is serving the interests of
neither; the lack of depth and variety of contact is reflected in
- This trend will be difficult to reverse because dialogue will
immediately focus on "hot button" issues and not proceed to deeper
- Creating a dialogue between intellectual and religious elites
from the two countries should be a priority for American
foundations and institutions, but it needs to be pursued patiently
with a long-term view of expanding the discussion.
- Consultations should include Saudis who have studied at U.S.
schools and universities and "next generation" leaders.
- Maintaining Saudi stability is a cornerstone of U.S.-Saudi
relations. Saudi Arabia has gone through serious change over the
past fifty years-some of which is potentially destabilizing. Saudi
Arabia faces significant social challenges-demography and
galloping population growth, relatively slow growth in economic
opportunity, tight social and religious controls, and a volatile
region. The pressures on Saudi Arabia will grow over the years.
- Crown Prince Abdullah's regime provides a window of
opportunity for the United States to move the relationship along
to accommodate Saudi Arabia's and the U.S. need for change.
- There is reason for serious concern regarding the Saudi
succession and the potential instability that may ensue after the
reign of the prominent sons of Abdul Aziz. Uncertainty as a result
of the generational shift in leadership from the sons of Abdul
Aziz to the grandsons will be an underlying feature of Saudi
politics in the future and will thus shape U.S.-Saudi relations.
The Arab-Israel Crisis: Abdullah's Initiative
- Saudi Arabia will be the key to any success the United States
has in reducing the violence between the Israelis and
Palestinians. If the United States recognizes Saudi Arabia as a
key partner, keeps it informed, and consults with it on issues of
mutual importance, the U.S. can expect that Saudi Arabia will
invest its prestige in the outcome.
- Abdullah's initiative is more than a vision; it demonstrates
the level of concern the Saudi leadership has regarding the
situation. It communicated with the Israeli public and addressed
their concerns for broader peace in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia
rarely takes the high profile, political role, even in Arab
councils that it is now taking. The challenge for the Bush
administration is to effectively harness the change.
- Abdullah's initiative will not be effective unless the United
States helps the parties move toward a cease-fire and a political
process that will connect the end of violence to the Saudi
- If the United States can begin a credible peace process and
keep Saudi Arabia involved, it should expect Saudi Arabia to work
toward reducing the volume of anti-Israel and U.S. rhetoric in the
public fora, education, and media, and sell the concept of peace
to the Saudi public.
- The need is underlined by recent experience. The United States
has complained of Saudi Arabia's lack of involvement in the peace
process since Oslo, and Saudi Arabia is frustrated by what it saw
as U.S. disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
especially at a time of serious escalation.
- The U.S.-Saudi military relationship is longstanding and a
centerpiece of the U.S.-Saudi political relationship.
Nevertheless, the U.S military presence in Saudi Arabia is not
"secure." The absence of serious dialogue and communication has
resulted in mutual misunderstanding of goals and purpose of the
military relationship at the highest levels of both governments.
The United States must work toward restoration of this strategic
- The United States and Saudi Arabia must address, through
consultation and dialogue, the growing tensions surrounding the
U.S. military presence in the Saudi kingdom. Neither the United
States nor Saudi Arabia want a reduction in the level of military
cooperation, but U.S. military activities in their current form
are increasingly unsatisfactory to both sides. The United States
must address its military presence in the region within the
context of both U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Gulf relations. The United
States must explore new concepts and ideas with Saudi Arabia and
the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) about objectives, divisions of
labor, risk, and ways to minimize political friction and improve
efficiency in U.S. military deployment in the region.
- Saudi Arabia and the United States see their defense
relationship differently. Both agree that the U.S. military is
present in Saudi Arabia in the event that Saudi Arabia and the
Gulf are invaded. The agreement stops there. The United States
wishes Saudi Arabia would extend its cooperation to other missions
important to American interests. The Saudis see these interests,
notably those related to enforcing the no-fly zones, as not
necessarily congruent with their own.
- The United States should not strive for an explicit set of
agreements on military arrangements with Saudi Arabia, rather a
consultative dialogue that sets out clearly the goals and
continuously reviews the management of the relationship.
- Consultations on details are important. When possible, the
Saudis should be convinced that the United States will operate
with their consent.
- The U.S.-Saudi defense relationship has been a major outlet
for American arms sales and defense supplies. Saudi cooperation
has helped defer the cost of U.S. operations in Saudi Arabia.
While this arrangement has been a cornerstone of the military and
political relationship, Saudi Arabia sees it as a political and
fiscal burden given their current economy.
Conflict with Iraq
- U.S. military action against Iraq would be extremely difficult
without the political support of Saudi Arabia and access to its
airspace, ports and bases. Without permission to use port
facilities, bases, or airfields in Saudi Arabia, a major U.S.
military operation against Iraq would be incredibly difficult.
Moreover, Saudi political support is critical to the willingness
of most GCC and other Arab countries to support major U.S.
military operations against Iraq.
- Jordan will not allow the United States to launch military
operations against Iraq from its territory unless Saudi Arabia
supports the U.S. operation. Moreover, Jordan is not a useful
option for military operations against Iraq for a number of
reasons: attitude of the monarchy, a divided population, and the
difficulty in providing security for bases. If Jordan were to be
involved in a U.S. military operation against Iraq, the United
States would carry an even greater obligation for Jordan and the
Hashemite monarchy's security. Moreover, securing American
deployments in Jordan would be difficult.
- Saudi Arabia has grave reservations about U.S. military action
against Iraq and does not think that U.S. strategy is adequate to
carry Arab opinion, unseat Saddam, and provide for Iraq's
- Saudi Arabia might support U.S. action against Iraq if there
are clearly understood, shared objectives that are limited to the
removal of Saddam Hussein, are short in duration in order to
minimize Iraqi casualties, and result in a unitary post-Saddam
Iraqi government that is acceptable to Saudi Arabia.
- Egypt's close relationship with Saudi Arabia makes it an
important factor in Saudi Arabia's decision to support U.S.
military action. Egypt often serves as a political cover for Saudi
activities in the region, and vise versa.
- Saudi Arabia now enjoys fully normalized relations with Iran
and would welcome any U.S. attempt toward engagement with Iran.
U.S. steps would be viewed as offsetting other regional political
costs that Saudi Arabia may incur if it supports U.S. military
action against Iraq.
- The issue of Islamic radicalism and its export is key to the
stability of the region and central to American policy interests.
The question is complex, but must be addressed. The United States
must support Saudi efforts in confronting the impact of radical
theology and its role in Saudi intellectual life.
- The U.S. objective is to engage the Saudi government and offer
them assistance as they address: financial flows in support of
Islamic radicalism; strengthening intelligence collection on
individuals engaged in subversive activities.
- The United States and Saudi Arabia have had a long, extremely
successful petroleum relationship.
- Saudi Arabia will continue to be the largest source of the
world's oil for the foreseeable future, making it a U.S. strategic
concern for the long run.
- Denying Saudi Arabia and the peninsula's oil reserves to
powers hostile to the United States has been a constant in
American policy for over half a century.
- The United States is interested in the broadest possible oil
market, including Russia, and yet, should not signal to Saudi
Arabia a confrontational oil diversification strategy.
- The United States should work toward lessening and
diversifying reliance on imported oil.
- Domestic instability born of a domestic fiscal crisis and a
malfunctioning labor market is a serious potential threat to Saudi
oil supply and world oil security.
- Saudi Arabians have what is estimated to be almost $700
billion assets invested in the United States. Maintaining these
financial flows is important to the stability of American
- The institutional link between the U.S. government and Saudi
financial institutions has dwindled. Given the amount of resources
invested in the United States and the renewed campaign to choke
off al-Qaeda funds, the United States has strong interests in
Saudi financial policies and should work to reestablish this
- There is no clear evidence that Saudis are pulling their funds
from the U.S. financial market post-9/11; yet, it would be
valuable to monitor financial flows post-9/11. At the same time,
the United States must be careful to use financial mechanisms
wisely and with due process in order to avoid frightening Arab
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