Skip to main content

Cold Desert Nights

Lee Smith

The Saudi Embassy is covered in snow, and U.S. Foreign Service officers on their lunch breaks in Foggy Bottom skid by and giggle. Washington is notoriously incapable of digging itself out from under, and almost a year into the Obama administration, it seems the Saudis are having the same problem. For years, the Saudis have had a direct line to the Oval Office, thanks in part to the two-decades-long tenure of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the larger-than-life Saudi ambassador to Washington who shaped the capital of the free world after the image of his rolodex. Now, as Iran turns up the heat on Saudi and American interests across the regionin Yemen, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the Persian Gulfit appears that no one in Washington is managing the Saudi account. The rulers of the desert kingdom that has allied itself with America for 60 years are not accustomed to weather like this: the Saudis are out in the cold.

The Saudi-American relationship has traditionally been managed from the Saudi embassy, especially during the heyday of U.S.-Saudi comity presided over by Prince Bandar, a high-spirited Dallas Cowboys fan affectionately known to members of two recent administrations as Bandar Bush. Bandar used to have strong ties with everyone in town, explained Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a Washington-based journalist with Kuwaits Al-Rai newspaper. The prince, who once bought a Jaguar for the wife of his long-time tennis partner, Colin Powell, and was shown war plans for Iraq, was far and away Washingtons preeminent diplomat. The new Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, said Hussein, is just not as influential. While Bandar was famous for visiting presidents at their homes and smoking cigars on the Truman Balcony, al-Jubeir has apparently visited the White House only once during the first year of the Obama presidencyas one of some 50 Muslim guests invited for Iftar, the evening meal during Ramadan.

Riyadh is in special need of a capable point man in Washington, one who can prevent Saudi Arabias contradictory signals from confusing the Americans. This is no mean feat, for it often seems there are as many Saudi policies and agendas as there are Saudi royals with private treasure chests. Princes like Al-Waleed Bin Talal donate hundreds of millions of dollars to American universities, such as Georgetown, to promote a positive view of Islam, while other Saudis distribute still greater sums to disseminate Wahhabism, an austere version of Islam that provides the ideological bedrock for al-Qaida.

Yet relations between states are never a one-way street, and theyre rarely the product of personal chemistryor a lack thereof. Knowledgeable observers point to a sea change in American behavior towards the Saudis since Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush and began paying less attention to what the Saudis want. Were the ones whove changed, said a former senior official in the Bush administration who worked closely enough with the Saudis to learn that its a very high-maintenance relationship. Look around. Sure, the Saudis have a new U.S. ambassador, and Yemen is heating up, but whats really changed for them? Nothing. The trouble in the relationship is from our side.

We were having lunch in a noisy cafeteria close to Dupont Circle in downtown Washington. Its the kind of place where people out of power like to have lunch. The Saudis need to have their hands held all the time, the former official said. They had it for 20 years with Bandar, and their ambassadors are accustomed to access straight to the Oval. It seems that no one is caring for the Saudi account.

Whatever side of the political divide you are on, it seems clear that Obamas June 2009 trip to Riyadh was a disaster. After pushing the Israelis on settlements, Obama counted on securing some minor confidence-building measures from the Arabs and instead wound up with an earful from the 85-year-old Saudi king. The administration had not done its homework.

People at the upper echelons do not seem to understand the complexity of Saudi Arabia, the former official said. If you come at it blindly and conventionally, then you assume that their main concern is the peace process: It is a huge issue for all Arabs, so the Saudis must care. The Palestinian-Israeli issue was not the highest priority with the last administration, and we found that if you dont bring it up, the Saudis wont bring it up either. But if you do bring it up, they feel they have to talk about it, or else they will be shamedthe Saudis cant be less pro-Palestinian than the Americans. The Obama people didnt know this or care, and they didnt seem to know or care what the Saudis were really concerned about. The number one issue in Riyadh is Iran.

In addition to projecting power through their ambassador in Washington, Saudis have gilded a number of think tanks and analysts, like Chas Freeman, who in March 2009 withdrew his nomination to head the Obama administrations National Intelligence Council, citing a smear campaign by the Israel lobby. Freeman often stated that the Middle Easts single most important issue is the Arab-Israeli conflictand yet the Saudis themselves tell anyone who will listen that their major concern is not in achieving a just resolution for the Palestinians but in countering the Iranian threat the the kingdom.

In the Middle East, Saudi policy is similarly incoherent, except for its consistent efforts to push back against what it perceives as a Shia crescent rising out of Tehran. In Yemen, the Saudis are fighting a proxy war on their Southern border against the Iranians. Yemens president has accused Tehran of supporting the Houthis, a band of Zaidi Shia rebels with some similarities to Hezbollah, Lebanons Shia militia. Lebanon, too, was once a vital interest for the Saudis, and Riyadh closely worked with the Bush administration to counter Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors. Recently, however, the Saudis have jumped ship to get closer to Damascus in the conviction that this would weaken Syrias alliance with Iran. Nothing of the sort has happened. Instead Syria and Iran have helped Hezbollah strengthen its grip over Lebanon.

It is possible to argue that abandoning the Saudis isnt such a bad thing. Its not clear, after all, why the United States should desire an alliance with a country that executes witches and lashes adulterers. Women are treated as second-class citizens, as are members of Saudi Arabias Shia minority, who happen to inhabit the kingdoms oil-rich Eastern Province. Yet even after the Sept. 11 attacks and the revelation that 15 of the hijackers carried Saudi passports, the Saudis, like the Israelis, enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Bush White House. According to one Riyadh-watcher, Vice President Dick Cheney, who managed the Saudi file, rarely returned from any trip abroad without a stopover in the Kingdom to consult with and calm the Kings executive office, the Royal Diwan. There the Americans learned to defer to their hostsand to eat quickly, for once King Abdullah had picked at the food during his one circumambulation of the buffet table, it was time to get down to business.

Obama, despite his famous bow to Abdullah, has hardly shown much deference to the Saudis. That raises the interesting possibility that the Obama administration has decided to reevaluate Washingtons regional commitments on a grander scale than has previously been imagined. Most observers have focused on Obamas Israel policy, a strategy premised on the State Departments conventional approach to the Arab-Israeli issueto get tough with Jerusalem on settlements and punish right-wingers like Netanyahu. Perhaps Obama is freezing out Riyadh, too.

A Saudi freeze-out might be welcome in some quarters, especially among those who have moral qualms about Americas other special relationship in the Middle East. Yet it carries some of the same risks as Obamas failed get-tough policy with Netanyahua situation in which American influence is reduced and the threat of independent action by American allies is increased. The Saudi line, the former official said, was this: Americans, are you going to do anything about our number one issue? If not, we will go our own road.

Wherever theres an American vacuum, the Saudis are apt to stumble into trouble. Now that American troops are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq, Riyadh and Syria share an interest in bringing down Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose Interior Ministry has named both countries as suspected supporters of recent attacks. This is what happens, says Tony Badran, a Middle East analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, when the Americans leave the Saudis out on their own.

Distance between Washington and the Saudi Kingdom allows Riyadh to pursue policies that are dangerous to U.S. interests and deadly to American citizens. For the Saudis, the former official said, going their own road could mean making a deal with the Iranians, getting their own nuclear deterrent, or backing Sunni fighters such as al-Qaida. Or it could mean doing all of those things.

Riyadhs need to be protected from Iran is one way to understand the recent uptick in al-Qaida activities coming out of Yemen, where the Saudis are really fighting on two fronts. One front is a conventional counterinsurgency waged by the hapless Saudi military against the Houthi rebels. The other is a campaign to combat Iranian influence by dumping cash into al-Qaida bank accounts, and there is evidence that some of the Saudi money flowing into Yemen is not being used for its intended purposes. In October 2009, for instance, an al-Qaida operative tried to kill a Saudi counterterrorism official with explosives hidden in his underwear.

Al-Qaida picks up when and where Saudi money is dispensed. When the cash flow is curtailed, the jihadi handout lines move elsewhere. If you handhold the Saudis, they can be helpful partners. Let them wander off on their own, however, and you pay in blood.

Related Articles

Why American Support for Kurdistan Could Soon Become a Matter of Life and Death

Lela Gilbert

Let’s hope our oft-myopic Western leadership doesn’t foolishly overlook Kurdistan while continuing to prop up Baghdad. Kurdistan is a natural ally in ...

Continue Reading

Ditching Israel, Embracing Iran

Lee Smith

To the administration, Israel isn’t worth the trouble its prime minister causes. As one anonymous Obama official put it to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg...

Continue Reading

Unconstrained Grand Strategy

Bryan McGrath

How grand is grand strategy? Frank Hoffman, a friend and WOTR contributing editor, wrote an article titled “Grand Strategy: The Fundamental Consider...

Continue Reading