The Saudi Riddle

Tuesday, September 15, 2020
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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a new book, Crosswinds: The Way of Saudi Arabia, by the late Hoover fellow Fouad Ajami. Writing in 2010 and looking back over two decades, Ajami provides deep insight into the political culture of the Arabian Peninsula, presenting a firsthand look at Saudi Arabia’s leadership, its rival factions, and its conduct and influence in foreign lands. Crosswinds, released today, is available from the Hoover Institution Press.

The Iraq war and the jihad in nearby Anbar and Baghdad were on the margins of Saudi life. Four or five years after 9/11, after the (usual) speculations about the troubles of the Saudi state, the ship had been steadied. There was that Arabian luck which had seen this realm through many a crisis, and it would come in the nick of time. In the summer of 2005, the ailing King Fahd, incapacitated for the full length of a decade and barely conscious of his surroundings, died and was succeeded by his half-brother Abdullah.

Fahd had taken the country through a great ideological fight with Iran in the 1980s and had seen it through Saddam Hussein’s challenge in 1990–91. He had been shrewd but self-indulgent, and generous to a fault with his children and retainers. He had been something of a libertine in his earlier years; it took some imagination—and a generous suspension of disbelief—to label him Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. His personal history had left him at a severe disadvantage in his dealings with the religious reactionaries.

Abdullah was Fahd’s opposite: tight with money and with the treasure of the state, disciplined, and keen to repair the realm. True, he had had a long period as an understudy for Fahd, but kingship was to give him greater authority and self-confidence. He no doubt saw himself in the role that had been played to perfection by King Faisal, who had come to the rescue in 1964 when his older brother Saud had placed the realm in jeopardy with his extravagant ways and self-indulgence. Abdullah led a successful push to take his country into the World Trade Organization. The religious establishment had opposed that bid. The jurists had complained that membership in that organization would compel the country to trade in pork and liquor, and that the sharia would be trumped by foreign laws. The clerics were overridden; the economic reforms and transparency sought by Abdullah would be defended as needed concessions for membership in that world body.

If a fight to keep the social and religious peace of the land was under way, Abdullah was the better standard-bearer. If the Saudi-American relationship required new terms of engagement, this new monarch would be the one to draw them. He wanted distance from the Americans; it was his way of displaying greater fidelity to Arab and Muslim loyalties. He was unsparing in his opposition to the Iraq War. He saw President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda,” unfurled in 2003, as a threat to his dynasty and his country, an intervention at once dangerous and naive in the internal affairs of the Arabs.

In a memorable formulation, Ibn Saud, who had sought and obtained British patronage but made sure he was not hurt by Britain’s embrace, spelled out his attitude toward his benefactors: “England is of Europe, and I am a friend of the Ingliz, their ally. But I will walk with them only as far as my religion and honor will permit.” In the same vein, Abdullah, this son of the founder of the dynasty, sought some distance from the Americans. He did so perhaps secure in the knowledge that the American security guarantee would still be there in a time of peril. Abdullah was too old, and too wary, to wager on some new, untested doctrines of how international order is secured in our time. He courted the Chinese, and hosted Russia’s president on Saudi soil, but he had no illusions about the Chinese or the Russians or the Indians rushing to the aid of his country in the face of a major threat.

America was fickle, the Saudis knew, they did not want to be too close to it lest they burn, too far lest they freeze. They had successfully warded off George W. Bush’s “diplomacy of freedom,” they had kept the Americans out of their affairs; they had waited out that period of American assertiveness (2001–6), and could experience a sense of relief as the Bush administration sputtered to the finishing line. Bush had “circled” the Saudis, and the Egyptians for that matter. He had tried to prod them, push them in the direction of reform and openness. It hadn’t worked. The oil markets worked in favor of the Saudis, and the Egyptian ruler had hidden behind his country’s reflexive suspicion of foreign powers.

In November 2007, with little more than one year left of the Bush presidency, the administration convened a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, aimed at securing Israeli-Palestinian peace. It was too late in the hour, and this was the kind of diplomacy the Saudis had fully mastered. They were unsentimental about Annapolis’s chances of success; they hadn’t wanted the conference, but they showed up for it. There was safety in numbers: nearly fifty countries and international organizations were there as well. There was no point in picking a fight with the Americans, no need to squander political capital on a symbolic occasion. The question of Palestine was not about to be resolved, nor was it going to go away.

Cat-and-Mouse with the Americans

The Americans probe, and the Saudis hunker down: this has been Saudi Arabia’s way with the Pax Americana for as long as America has had dealings with the Saudi state. In the war on terror, the Americans were keen to disrupt the money trail, to cut off the sources of terrorist financing. The Saudis promised cooperation, but that opaqueness of the realm and of its charities was a great barrier. Very little had come of that 2002 pledge to establish oversight of the charities. In February 2008, the leading American official who had been tracking terrorist financing, Treasury Department undersecretary Stuart Levey, charged that millions of dollars were being raised in Saudi Arabia, and in the other oil states of the Gulf, and given to terrorist organizations. Levey was blunt when it came to Saudi Arabia’s place in that money trail: “If I could somehow snap my fingers and cut off funding from one country for terrorism, it would be Saudi Arabia.” The realm was big and inaccessible, and nearby there were offshore banking centers in Dubai and Bahrain that could launder and conceal and transmit money. The Americans were destined to be locked into this cat-and-mouse game with the Saudis.

In November 2008, in one of those sudden seismic shifts in the American landscape that shall forever bewilder foreign observers, the American electorate chose for its political standard-bearer a newly minted US senator, an African-American, with a Muslim pedigree on his father’s side.

The Saudis had not known Barack Hussein Obama. In truth, they had kept their distance from this American election. Back in 2000, they had been heavily invested in the contest between George W. Bush and Vice President Albert Gore. They had sweated out that drawn-out drama. They hadn’t thought much of Gore; in their eyes he was an unabashed supporter of Israel, he was heir to Bill Clinton, and they had never taken to him either. The dynastic element in George W. Bush’s election greatly appealed to the Saudis; after all, this was George ibn George Bush, and the Saudi rulers had known and trusted Bush senior. In contrast, the contest between John McCain and Barack Obama elicited no great interest in Arabia. In his years in the Senate, McCain was not the sociable politician the Saudis favored. He was an American nationalist; on the stump, he had promised an energy policy that would secure American independence from “countries that don’t like us very much.” The Saudis knew they were the principal target of his remark. All along, he had been skeptical of the Saudi claims that they were serious about prosecuting the war on terror and cutting off the sources of terrorist financing. The American electorate would make this decision, and the Saudis would live with the new American president.

President Obama would send mixed early signals. He was done with George W. Bush’s “diplomacy of freedom,” he would pursue a foreign policy of realpolitik. For his first message to an Arab-Islamic audience, he had chosen a Saudi-owned forum based in Dubai, Al-Arabiya television. (This television channel had the advantage of being the un–Al-Jazeera, as it were.) In that interview, he promised a return to the “respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as twenty or thirty years ago.” Obama was no revolutionary in foreign affairs, and the new tone was reassuring for Arab rulers unnerved by George W. Bush’s Wilsonianism. There were, though, hints of Jimmy Carter in Obama—a belief in multilateralism, an olive branch to the Iranians, a willingness to reach an accommodation with the rulers in Damascus.

This was a president carried into office by a massive financial crisis at home: he looked at burdens abroad with a jaundiced eye. He would not push the Saudis on matters of internal reform, nor did it seem likely that he would pursue a muscular foreign policy in the face of America’s and Saudi Arabia’s rivals in the region.

President Obama came into office with a blueprint for “engaging” Iran. The Saudis could only wait—and puzzle over the direction of American policy in the Persian Gulf. They had made their own uneasy peace with Iran. They had watched the Bush administration’s mix of rhetorical belligerence toward Iran and passivity in the face of Iran’s growing claims of power. They had correctly concluded that there would be no strike against Iran, and no bargain with it during President Bush’s tenure. Obama’s promise of engagement—at least on the face of it—was more problematic. It awakened the dormant Saudi (and wider Arab) suspicion that an American deal with Iran would be made at their expense.

It was hard to divine the mood in Washington as the new stewards of American diplomacy alternated between promises of engagement and threats of more biting sanctions. The president talked of accommodation, but his secretary of state held out the possibility of punitive sanctions and “crippling action” against Iran. The Saudis are no strangers to Washington’s chaotic ways. The notion of a “defense umbrella” for the states of the region introduced by the secretary of state was as baffling to them as it was to the Israelis—perhaps as it was to the Americans pondering their options in Iran.

Three months into its tenure, the Obama administration dispatched one of its top Middle East hands, Dennis Ross, to Saudi Arabia to lay out to King Abdullah the American policy toward Iran. Roger Cohen of the New York Times has supplied a telling narrative of this meeting:

[Ross] talked to a skeptical monarch about the Obama administration’s policy with Iran—and talked and talked. When the king finally got to speak, he began by telling Ross: “I am a man of action. Unlike you, I prefer not to talk a lot.” Then he posed several pointed questions about US policy toward Iran: What is your goal? What will you do if this does not work? What will you do if the Chinese and the Russians are not with you? How will you deal with Iran’s nuclear program if there is not a united response? Ross, a little flustered, tried to explain that policy was still being fleshed out.

Is it any wonder the Saudis have survived so many obituaries of their doom?

A few weeks after this briefing, chaos would engulf Iran in a very un-Saudi event: a presidential election. Crowds seized by both delirium and a sense of violation—with women in a prominent role, no less—would take to the streets. The upheaval came close to overwhelming the new Obama approach to the Iranian theocracy.

From this sort of chaos, the Saudis averted their gaze. They no doubt derived some satisfaction from seeing the Iranian regime reeling at home. But a regime that abhors popular passions, and does all it can to keep its people out of the contests of politics, had no interest in seeing the Persian realm undone by popular fury.

Walls of Passivity

There is a Saudi (perhaps a Najdi) pride in the indifference of the realm and of the people of the desert to the tumult, and the temptations, of the outside world. This prideful imperturbability was on display when President Obama came calling on the Saudi monarch in June 2009. Obama was on his way to Cairo for what was billed as his major speech, his outreach to the Islamic world. Cairo would celebrate him, but the Saudis barely took notice. I was in Saudi Arabia at the time; the earth did not shake. A young, untested American leader had come to visit Arabia’s wise and skilled monarch—the importance of the Saudi realm and of its monarch had been acknowledged. The media downplayed the visit.

The Saudis, it was later learned, had not given the American visitor anything by way of diplomatic concessions. He was keen to restart the moribund Israeli-Arab negotiations and wanted help from the Saudis, and they had none to offer. They had a diplomatic initiative on the table, made back in 2002, and they would go no further. Egypt, Obama’s next stop, would be more exuberant in its enthusiasm for the American visitor. Cairo was a city of fife and drums, but Arabia was not easily stirred; there was wealth there, and an ability to stand up to foreign pressures.

“The Saudis are second-guessers,” former secretary of state George Shultz said to me in a recent discussion of Saudi affairs. He had known their ways well during his stewardship of American diplomacy (1982–9). This was on the mark. It was as sure as anything that the Saudis lamenting American passivity in the face of Iran would find fault were America to take on the Iranians. There is a congenital Saudi dread of big decisions.

In a perfect world, powers beyond Saudi Arabia would not disturb the peace of the realm. The Americans would offer protection, but discreetly; they would not want Saudi Arabia to identify itself, out in the open, with major American initiatives in the Persian Gulf or on Arab-Israeli peace. The manner in which Saudi Arabia pushed for a military campaign against Saddam Hussein only to repudiate it when the war grew messy, and its consequences within Iraq unfolding in the way they did, is paradigmatic. This is second-guessing at its purest.