Over the past decade, the American public has
been presented with the case against Saudi Arabia, and it's a damning
indictment: oil (dirty), terrorism (evil), fundamentalist Islam (dangerous),
human rights (shockingly bad). President Barack Obama has spoken of the need to
"get off Middle East oil" so that America is no longer beholden to the "whims
of oil-rich dictators" -- rhetoric that will inevitably increase as oil prices approach $100 a barrel for the first time since 2008. Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and others argue
that petroleum profits fuel terrorism and fundamentalist interpretations of
Islam. Human rights groups point to the reality that women can't drive in Saudi
Arabia, that beheading is a common form of punishment there, and that the
country still has no constitution -- only an austere, seventh-century
interpretation of the Quran.
The verdict: Guilty. But so what? You can't throw a
country in jail. In fact, a decade after the 9/11 attacks were mounted by a
team of mostly Saudi terrorists, America needs Saudi Arabia more than ever.
Let's start with the dream that one day soon Americans
won't need Saudi oil. In the first eight months of 2010, the United States got
about 11 percent of its oil imports from the kingdom, making it the country's
third-largest supplier. Imports have fallen in recent years, but U.S.
dependence on Saudi oil is not going to dry up anytime soon. Wind and solar?
Over the coming quarter-century, they will satisfy a few percentage points of
domestic energy supply, but U.S. oil demand will fall only slightly, according
to U.S. government statistics. There is no way of foreseeing precisely how much
of that future oil will be Saudi, but suffice it to say that it will still be a
lot. Saudi Arabia's 260 billion barrels of oil, by far the planet's largest
single-country reserve, will be a bulwark of the global economy for decades to
come. George Kirkland, vice chairman of original Saudi pioneer Chevron, says
the country has tens of billions of barrels still to be counted. And even if
the United States acquires its oil elsewhere, it won't bankrupt the kingdom;
the Saudis already sell more oil to China than to the United States, and India
is not far behind. What if the United States drills more at home? As Anthony
Cordesman, a former top Pentagon intelligence official at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, puts it, "What is the benefit for the U.S.
of 'deplete America first'?"
Besides, Saudi Arabia isn't just a giant gas station
with a flag. Saudi help is now essential for numerous top-shelf U.S.
priorities, from containing Iran to countering terrorism to extricating U.S.
troops from Afghanistan and keeping Pakistan stable. Only Saudi Arabia, with
its carefully cultivated, behind-the-scenes links to countries and leaders who
do not trust Washington, can play this role.
In some ways, what we're seeing is just a revival of old
ties. For nearly five decades after President Franklin D. Roosevelt met King
Abdul Aziz aboard a U.S. destroyer in the Suez Canal in 1945, the relationship
pivoted on oil, but also on a mutual distrust of the Soviet Union. When the
Soviet empire broke up in 1991, that logic fell apart too, and the alliance
struggled for a new rationale, fitfully working together to contain Iraq and
Iran, the region's chief troublemakers, but finding few other shared interests.
Cooperation against terrorism languished. Saudi royals
funneled money to militants in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and the former
Yugoslavia. Across the Muslim world and in mosques in Europe and the United States,
Saudi-backed Wahhabi madrasas preached anti-American vitriol. U.S. officials
investigating the 1996 Khobar Towers attack, in which 19 Americans were killed,
complained of being stonewalled by their Saudi counterparts. And we all know
where Osama bin Laden grew up.
September 11 marked a breaking point. U.S. public
opinion turned sharply against the kingdom because of the large number of Saudi
terrorists involved in the attack, and members of President George W. Bush's
administration bristled at the lack of investigative cooperation from Riyadh.
Meanwhile, the Saudis tired of Washington taking them for granted as allies.
The final straw for Riyadh was fury at Bush's perceived coddling of Israel and
inaction in the face of Palestinian deaths. By the summer of 2002, a distinct
chill had set in.
Then, in 2003 and 2004, the two countries were brought
together again after al Qaeda's Saudi branch launched a series of attacks on
oil installations, government facilities, and foreign compounds in Riyadh and
other cities -- an audacious attempt to deepen the split between the royal family
and the United States. After a bruising crackdown that included gun battles in
the streets, Saudi security forces eventually triumphed, and the remnants of
the militants fled south to Yemen.
The Saudis poured money and security help into Yemen,
with which the kingdom shares a 930-mile border. So did the United States. But
Yemen struggled to deal with an influx of battle-hardened radicals from
Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere. The wake-up call came in August
2009, when an al Qaeda suicide bomber tried to kill the Saudi counterterrorism
chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Prince Nayef then had his agents infiltrate
Yemeni tribes that protect the militants, a turning point that helped uncover
the details of an October 2010 bomb plot, when al Qaeda's Yemen branch
attempted to send explosive packages through FedEx and UPS to the United
States. Without Saudi Arabia's insistent calls to the CIA, U.S. officials
concede, there is almost certainly no chance the bombs would have been
Beyond al Qaeda, the United States and Saudi Arabia
share a host of common enemies, most notably the Saudis' Persian Gulf rival
Iran. When the United States invaded Iraq and ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, it
also removed a Sunni shield against Iranian radicalism. U.S. troops now fill
that role, but ineffectively. Tehran has won much influence within Iraq, and
its sway over Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza is increasing. Now, with
U.S. forces gradually drawing down in Iraq, Washington wants Saudi Arabia to
carry a larger portion of the burden.
Riyadh appears more than happy to help America "cut off
the head of the snake," as the Saudi king was quoted saying in a WikiLeaked
cable. In October, the State Department authorized the largest arms sale in
U.S. history, a $60 billion Saudi purchase of 154 new and upgraded F-15 fighter
jets, 190 helicopters, advanced radar equipment, and satellite-guided bombs.
Saudi diplomats are also playing an invaluable role in Afghanistan, Lebanon,
Pakistan, Palestine, and Syria, working to mediate between the various warring
factions and carrying private messages from Washington to U.S. adversaries like
Hamas and the Taliban.
Don't expect to see Obama holding hands with King
Abdullah anytime soon, though; domestic politics in both countries won't allow
for that. But the idea that the United States can end its dependence on Saudi
oil is an illusion, just as the notion that Washington should abandon one of
its closest security partners is profoundly unwise. These two countries were
frenemies long before anyone coined the term -- and for better or for worse, they
will be ambivalent allies for a long time to come.