WASHINGTON – The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia has been based on a disarmingly simple proposition: In exchange for cheap Saudi oil, the United States has guaranteed the kingdom’s defense.
President Franklin Roosevelt asserted in 1943 that protecting the Arab nation, and its oil, was a vital U.S. economic interest. Although the two countries have no defense treaty, the substance of Roosevelt’s policy remains intact and has served both sides well.
But now doubts are arising about the stability of Saudi Arabia and the ability of the United States to come up with answers.
Islamic firebrands, apparently linked to al-Qaida, have been targeting of late Americans, other Westerners and Western interests in general as part of a campaign to overthrow the Saudi monarchy in power since the 1930s. They consider the Saudi establishment too hospitable to Americans and other foreign “infidels.”
Former U.S counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke says the stakes in the struggle for Saudi Arabia are hard to exaggerate.
“The threat to the political and economic world posed by Saudi instability, I think, is greater than the threat that was posed by Iraq,” he said.
The latest American victim of Saudi militancy was an American employee of Vinnell Corp., a U.S. defense contractor, who was shot to death Tuesday in eastern Riyadh.
On May 29, the militants attacked the Saudi oil center at Khobar, killing 22. Although only one of the dead was American, the attack has prompted many compatriots to consider leaving with their families.
On May 2, attackers killed two American engineers at a U.S. oil contractor’s office in the western city of Yanbu. Also killed were two Britons, two Australians and a Saudi.
“Clearly, the terrorists have taken their operations to a new level,” President Bush’s counterterror chief, Fran Townsend, said in an interview Friday.
A new Islamic edict by Saudi Arabia’s top religious authority, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheik, which brought average Saudis into the anti-terror fight, was “probably the single most extraordinary step that you can imagine in an Islamic country,” she said.
The edict, or fatwa, told people “to inform on everyone planning or preparing an act of sabotage, to protect the people and the country from the devastating effects of these acts and to protect the planners from the results of their actions.”
Since April, the United States has been warning U.S. nationals to defer travel to Saudi Arabia and is urging private American citizens in Saudi Arabia to leave.
The State Department has no information on how many have heeded the advice.
Former CIA official Robert Baer says American skills are needed to keep oil flowing in the kingdom. “If the Americans all left, it would be a catastrophe,” he said.
This month, Saudi Arabia is producing 9.1 million barrels a day, more than 10 percent of the global total.
The Saudis have been reliable suppliers of oil, including during periods of crisis. They sharply escalated oil production during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and following the Sept. 11 attacks a decade later.
Just last week, after a spike in prices induced by the Khobar attack, the Saudis used their clout in the OPEC oil cartel to win agreement on a price-calming production increase.
The United States has been a good defense partner for the Saudis; the American military commitment in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and since was aimed partially at defending the “House of Saud,” as the monarchy is known. Many of the operations, including air patrols to enforce a “no-fly zone” in southern Iraq, flew from bases in Saudi Arabia, although the Saudis allowed no offensive operations from its territory in last year’s invasion of Iraq.
To reduce U.S. dependence on oil from Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries, Bush’s Democratic rival, John Kerry, says the United States should strive for energy independence in 10 years.
But James Phillips, Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation, says he sees no alternative to the status quo for the short term.
“We’re stuck with Middle East and Persian Gulf oil,” he said.
Phillips worries about possible al-Qaida moles working in oil industry jobs Saudi Arabia. They would know, he says, where a well-placed bomb would have the best chance of disrupting oil output.
Bush believes the answer to extremism in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries is more democracy. But the Saudis, while taking some tentative action toward a more open society, have spurned the Bush proposal.
They turned down Bush’s invitation to send a delegation to this week’s G-8 summit at Sea Island, Ga., to discuss the idea.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, recently publicly advocated all-out war against terrorists.
“War means war. … It is a war that does not mean delicacy, but brutality,” he wrote in a Saudi government daily.
If the nation merely asks the militants “to follow the path of righteousness, in hope that they will come to their senses, then we will lose this war, and this means that we will lose everything,” Bandar said.