The following report of a Saudi-American dialogue held at Bellagio, Italy, June 2-6, 2003, was written by Clifford Chanin and F. Gregory Gause, III. Mr. Chanin is president of The Legacy Project and Dr. Gause is an associate professor at the University of Vermont (see participant list at end).
HOW WE SEE EACH OTHER
In June 2003, the Rockefeller Foundation convened a conference on relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, as part of its longstanding efforts to encourage dialogue on critical global issues. The conference, “U.S.-Saudi Relations: Bump in the Road or End of the Road?” brought together 20 prominent Saudis and Americans at the Foundation’s Bellagio Study and Conference Center.
The dialogue revealed how much the events of the last three years have shaped mutual perceptions in both countries, and how negative these perceptions have become. A relationship that for many years had largely been conducted out of public view has now become a major focus of attention in both countries. Though the Saudi and American participants disagreed on many critical questions, they did recognize that a long period of relatively untroubled bilateral relations had come to an end. Seemingly long-settled mutual interests are facing – and likely will continue to face – greater scrutiny from the media and the public in both countries.
Though tensions had occasionally marked U.S.-Saudi relations, particularly in differences over the Arab-Israeli conflict, these were generally submerged in much larger areas of agreement. The traditional Saudi-American relationship has been described as a grand bargain: Saudi oil for American security guarantees. Though the logic of this bargain remains powerful, doubts on each side about dependence on the other have weakened its compelling power. Do Americans have better options for their oil supply? Is Saudi security now undermined – rather than reinforced – by a reliance on the United States? Previously unimaginable questions have gained a serious currency in discussion of the relationship.
Certainly, participants agreed, the events of 9/11 mark a critical turning point in the relationship. Yet the Saudis and the Americans viewed the consequences of these events with different shadings. For the Americans, the attacks were transformative, exposing vulnerabilities that had not been recognized, and redefining American security needs. For the Saudis, the attacks were the culmination of a sharp deterioration in both American foreign policy and in Arab politics. There was no disagreement about the unjustifiable horror of the attacks; there were starkly different perceptions of whether these attacks had come out of the blue.
Saudi Views of the United States
There was near unanimity among the Saudis attending the dialogue that public attitudes towards the United States in the kingdom were extremely negative, to the point that even positive models for change would be rejected at the popular level if they were seen as “American.” This marks a profound change in longstanding Saudi attitudes toward the United States. Tens of thousands of Saudis have studied in American universities, mastered English, and continue to admire American values and creativity. Saudis have invested many billions of dollars in American businesses, and perhaps 100,000 own homes in the United States. Yet anti-Americanism is widespread in Saudi Arabia. Why is this so?
First, the “war on terrorism” is seen by many in the Saudi public as a war on Islam generally and Saudi Arabia in particular. Even those Saudis who view the United States in a more favorable light react negatively to specific aspects of the “war on terrorism,” whether it be detention without charge of Arabs (including many Saudis) in the United States, what is seen as racial profiling by American customs and immigration officers, or the perception of a new unilateralism in American foreign policy, with the war against Iraq seen as the prime example. There is a belief that American foreign policy is beginning to target Saudi Arabia as a potential enemy. While some American participants argued that this Saudi view may exaggerate the importance of conservative and neoconservative media commentary in the United States, it does reflect the reality of a more general reassessment of Saudi-American relations both inside and outside of the Saudi government.
There is a widespread perception among Saudis that large segments of American society have embraced an openly hostile stance toward Islam. A number of Saudi participants referred to derogatory comments made by prominent American religious figures, particularly fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in the post-9/11 period. In this Saudi view, while the American government criticizes Saudi Arabia for religious bigotry, it tolerates insulting characterizations of Islam. The charge that the American media equate Islam and terrorism resonates among many in Saudi Arabia, even those who would like to see reform within the Saudi religious establishment itself.
Second, the Palestinian issue profoundly shapes Saudi views of the United States. Since the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the fall of 2000, Saudi public opinion has overwhelmingly held the United States responsible for Israeli actions against Palestinians. The “hands-off” attitude taken by the Bush administration toward the issue in its first two years in office contributed to the sense that the United States not only tolerated, but encouraged harsh Israeli tactics. In this view, Israeli actions are seen as an extension of American hostility toward Arabs and Islam. The Saudi attendees were unanimous in their assessment that the Palestinian issue is a genuine and deeply felt public cause in their country. Solidarity with the Palestinians (mirrored, it was argued, in many Arab and Muslim societies) has become an “identity issue” in Saudi society.
American Views of Saudi Arabia
Since 9/11, for all the obvious reasons, American public opinion has focused much more than in the past on Saudi Arabia. That focus has generated both a new level of interest in Saudi domestic political, religious and social issues and a much more negative perception of Saudi Arabia. Saudis have always been interested in the United States, because of how the United States can reach into their lives. By contrast, prior to 9/11, with some brief exceptions, Americans did not view the domestic arrangements of Saudi Arabia as particularly relevant to their daily lives. 9/11 changed that, if not forever, then at least for some time to come.
The core of this new American focus is “Wahhabism,” the official interpretation of Islam in Saudi Arabia, its organizational relationship to the state, and its intellectual relationship to the jihadist anti-Americanism preached by Osama bin Laden. While acknowledging the distinctions between “Wahhabism” and “bin Ladenism,” a number of participants expressed concern that the narrowness of the “Wahhabi” interpretation of Islam could provide a basis (not the basis) for an overt rejection of the West in general and of the United States in particular. There is concern that Saudi efforts to propagate the “Wahhabi” interpretation of Islam, both at home and abroad, have become a breeding ground for anti-Americanism and, in extreme cases, sympathy toward and recruitment by al-Qaeda. At a minimum, there is concern that the Saudi government has not been sufficiently vigilant in preventing radical political interpretations from being grafted onto Saudi-supported religious and charitable ventures both inside and outside the country.
Two other issues related to the Saudi interpretation of Islam also contribute to the negative public perceptions in the United States of Saudi Arabia. The first is the lack of religious freedom in the kingdom, not only for non-Muslims but also for Muslims who do not follow the official interpretations of Islam. American interest in this issue has now been institutionalized through the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, established by Congress. The Commission has already issued a very critical report on Saudi Arabia. The second issue is the official restrictions on the public and professional role of women in Saudi society, restrictions justified by many Saudis on Islamic grounds.
The new, official American focus on promoting democracy in the Middle East highlights yet another divergence between the two countries, but now more salient in the post9/11 atmosphere. While in most Arab republics parliamentary elections are a sham, at least there is the recognition that elections are part of a modern political order. There are no elections to representative governmental bodies anywhere in Saudi Arabia. In other Arab monarchies – Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain – there are elected parliaments that purportedly serve as a check on the executive. No elected parliament exists in Saudi Arabia. To the extent that American policy highlights the “democratic deficit” in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia will be cast in a negative light.
Finally, the widely expressed Saudi view of excessive Jewish influence on American Middle East policy has a significant impact on American public opinion concerning Saudi Arabia. Serious differences over the shape of an eventual Arab-Israeli settlement are colored by American perceptions of religious intolerance and antisemitism as shaping factors in Saudi policy. As a result, there are significant Saudi-American disagreements even about the nature of American support for Israel: what many Americans understand as broad-based support is seen by many Saudis as the consequence of manipulation of the American political system. Both Saudi and American participants were encouraged that Crown Prince Abdullah’s recent peace proposal might better align Saudi and American positions on the Arab-Israeli dispute.
THE NEW MIXING OF FOREIGN POLICY AND DOMESTIC POLITICAL AGENDAS
For most of the history of Saudi-American relations, the agenda has been dominated by issues of high politics, security and energy. Oil, military cooperation, a common anticommunism and Arab-Israeli issues were the core of the relationship. Consequently, the relationship, particularly in the United States, was the focus of a select few with direct interests in these specialized areas. Now, however, both sides are intensely interested in domestic political and social issues in the other country, which are now seen as directly related to international security concerns. But as these domestic issues take on new salience in the relationship, the likelihood of tension and misunderstanding grows. No one likes to be told by outsiders how to arrange his or her own affairs. But that is what is happening now, on both sides of the relationship, and there is no reason to think that this trend is temporary. How these sensitive issues are handled by Washington and Riyadh will determine, to a great extent, the tone and tenor of the relationship for the foreseeable future.
Saudi Domestic Issues and American Foreign Policy
The realities of power mean that there is an inherent imbalance in Saudi-American relations when it comes to domestic political issues. Saudis might be concerned about elements of American domestic politics, but there is little the Saudi government can do about them. The United States, on the other hand, has the power to pressure the Saudi government on domestic political issues considered important by Washington. It is already doing so in a number of areas under the broad rubric of the “war on terrorism” – financial transfers, domestic security issues, the Saudi education system. Even before 9/11, American officials were urging the Saudis to pursue more open and transparent economic policies. Since 9/11, many in America have urged Washington to make political and social reform the central issue in U.S.-Saudi relations. They argue that greater political freedom, religious tolerance and an expanded social role for Saudi women would reduce incentives for Saudis to adopt terrorist and anti-American agendas. To the extent that American elites – policy makers and opinion leaders – believe that Saudi domestic political arrangements contribute to anti-American violence, Saudi domestic issues will be a more prominent element of the agenda of bilateral relations than they have been in the past.
Saudi attendees expressed a variety of views on the acceptability and effectiveness of American pressure over domestic political and social issues. While a number of the Saudi participants acknowledged the need for fundamental reform, they did not believe a reform agenda could – or should – move ahead in response to American pressure. Some argued that any American emphasis on political reform would be counterproductive, mobilizing conservative forces in the country and branding reform with an “American label” that would lose it public support. Others held that American intervention in Saudi domestic affairs is a reality, and that if Washington is going to intervene on some issues, it should also do so in favor of political reform. The Saudi attendees generally agreed that the Saudi government is sincere in its desire to introduce reforms, but is hamstrung by its own internal logjams and by the resistance of well-organized and powerful interests, particularly in the religious establishment. They differed on whether direct American intervention on political-reform issues would help or hurt local reformers, both inside and outside the government. Among the Saudis, there was little confidence that American pressure could be exercised in a way that would not seem arrogant or meddlesome to the Saudi public.
Yet there was also a nuanced appreciation for the role of international leverage on the Saudi reform process. The challenge facing Saudi reformers lies in finding a balance between authentic aspirations for change and outside pressure. This is the practical side of the argument for increased international, including American, attention on issues of women’s rights, religious freedom and political development in Saudi Arabia. While all agreed that the movement for reform in these areas must be generated by a domestic constituency, it was also recognized that evolving international norms on these issues have an influence on Saudi decision makers. Such attention could strengthen Saudi reformers in their struggle with well-entrenched opponents of reform. In this light, the role of non-governmental and international organizations was particularly valued by a number of Saudis; international civil society could provide powerful support for the cause of Saudi reform.
Saudi interest in joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) also figured in this discussion. While this has largely been seen in the kingdom as a welcome opportunity to advance economic reform, WTO rules would also apply international standards to Saudi Arabia on a number of important labor and transparency issues. WTO membership could legitimize international challenges to a wide number of domestic practices that appear natural to many Saudis but do not necessarily meet WTO standards.
American Domestic Issues and Saudi Arabia
While the Saudi government cannot effectively raise American domestic political issues in its foreign-policy dialogue with Washington, American policy makers should know that several post-9/11 American policies have raised the level of hostility and distrust toward the United States in Saudi Arabia. While the Saudi participants expressed sympathy for America’s new security concerns, they also criticized the sweeping character of American domestic security measures. These, it was argued, appear to target Saudis (as well as Arabs and Muslims) for special attention, contradicting admirable American commitments to civil liberties.
In this regard, repeated mention was made of the arrest and incarceration of a number of Saudis in the United States. The names of those arrested have not been released. They have not been charged with a crime. They are not permitted to see counsel. The importance of this issue goes beyond the families of those who have “disappeared” in the American criminal justice system. Given the size and importance of the extended family in Saudi society, the effects just within families goes far beyond what most Americans could imagine. For those Saudis who see the United States as a model for political and social reform, this issue has called into question bedrock American values of transparency and due process that elicit admiration not just in Saudi Arabia, but around the world.
Another important Saudi concern is the new stringency in visa approval and in the management of border control. It was argued that unreasonable obstacles are being placed in the way of any Saudi seeking a visa. Specific cases of Saudis seeking medical treatment in the United States and who were denied visas were raised by Saudi attendees. Saudi students in legitimate degree programs, with no immigration or other violations on their records, were being denied permission to finish their studies. Many regular Saudi visitors, with homes and investments in the country, now refuse to travel to the United States. People-to-people contacts between Americans and Saudis, in the past centered largely on Saudis visiting, studying or living in the United States, have dwindled since 9/11. The long-term consequences of this cut off in regular interchange between Saudis and Americans will be very negative for the relationship.
Finally, the Saudi attendees at the meeting stressed the very negative ramifications of anti-Muslim statements made by prominent American religious leaders, particularly fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, and by conservative American commentators. The Saudi participants acknowledged that the American government does not control what is said and written about either Saudi Arabia or Islam. A number of them applauded President Bush’s public statements about Islam in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. At the same time, they noted the close political ties between the Administration and some of the most prominent American critics of Islam, and asked whether political expediency prohibits the president from directly confronting anti-Muslim statements from these quarters. Within Saudi Arabia, it was argued, such statements confirm a widespread belief that hostility to Islam plays a role in American policy making, regardless of the president’s laudable sentiments.
ENDURING COMMON INTERESTS
All the attendees, Saudi and American, recognized that important interests continue to tie the two countries together, particularly in oil and security matters. For many years, the United States and Saudi Arabia have coordinated closely on regional security concerns, with a particular emphasis on stability in the oil-producing countries of the Gulf and, during the Cold War, on opposition to communist regimes, particularly in the Muslim world. Most notable in the history of the relationship was the closely concerted support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Additionally, the Iran-contra affair illustrates Saudis’ willingness to provide covert support to an American initiative that, however misguided it may now seem, was nevertheless a priority at the time. Much of the bilateral cooperation between the two countries was based on the presumed benefits of Saudi leadership in the Muslim world and the Saudis’ use of their wealth to support causes of common interest.
Saudi Arabia is the largest producer and exporter of oil in the world, and it has the largest proven oil reserves in the world (25 percent of the world total). Its centrality in the world oil market today cannot be exaggerated. The fact that Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to allow foreign capital back into its energy sector – unlike other major oil producers – could reduce its central role in the future. However, for now there is no denying the dominant role Saudi Arabia plays in the world oil market, or America’s interest in assuring stability in the world oil market.
For the most part, Saudi Arabia has exercised its oil power in ways consistent with American interests in stable supply and stable pricing. The Saudis hold an excess production capacity of roughly 2 million barrels per day (mbd) (producing on average only 8 million of a potential 10 mbd). They have consistently adjusted their production to prevent prices from spiking above $28 per barrel for an extended period. Immediately after the attacks of 9/11, Saudi Arabia increased oil shipments to the United States to prevent panic buying in the American market. In the run-up to the Iraq war of 2003, the Saudis increased oil production to more than 9 mbd, smoothing out a market made jittery not only by the impending war but also by political problems in Venezuela and Nigeria. Should market fundamentals change dramatically, the Saudis will act to keep prices from falling below $20 per barrel, which could place them in opposition to American preferences in the future. In the current situation, however, Saudi and American energy interests generally coincide.
The Saudis get little credit in American public opinion for their energy policies. First, they almost always take initiatives quietly. They did not publicize their increased production either after 9/11 or in the lead-up to the recent war. The markets took immediate notice, but there was very little recognition outside of specialist circles. Second, there is a widespread cynicism in the United States about Saudi oil policy, which is seen as serving Saudi interests. This may be so, but the question remains whether the Saudis define their interests in ways compatible with American interests. Generally, the Saudi government pursues policies that aim at stability in price and supply. This emphasis corresponds with the stated policy goals of successive American administrations. A different government in Saudi Arabia might take a very different stance. It would certainly have to sell oil, but would it have to sell as much? Would it carry the costs of maintaining excess production capacity, so as to be able to bring oil immediately to the market in times of supply disruption? Would it continue to denominate oil transactions in U.S. dollars, thus shielding the United States from the effects of dollar fluctuation on energy prices? All these issues would be on the table if relations broke down or if a new government took power in Saudi Arabia.
Post-9/11, however, the nexus between Saudi oil wealth and the Saudi role in the Muslim world appears in a new light, illuminating potentially troubling contradictions. Oil wealth has reinforced a leading Saudi role in the Muslim world. As custodian of the Muslim holy places, Saudi Arabia hosts annual religious pilgrimages, drawing millions of Muslims from around the world. The Saudi government provides generous financing for a large number of Muslim international and nongovernmental organizations, as well as charitable and religious organizations. Yet disagreements about the distribution, use and oversight of these funds represent a considerable, and growing, dispute between the two countries.
The American government (and public opinion) have now come to question the nature of Saudi influence across the Muslim world, asking whether Saudi educational and charitable practices have underwritten anti-American (and, ironically, anti-Saudi) movements. Americans are focusing now, as they have not before, on the link between their own oil consumption and the heretofore unregulated flow of Saudi oil wealth to extremist religious groups and institutions. The question, then, for both Americans and Saudis is whether the long-established interest of both parties in a stable oil economy is being destabilized by growing differences on socioreligious matters. In the traditional Saudi American relationship, oil and security concerns – the “grand bargain” – have been mutually reinforcing; post-9/11, they may pull the two countries apart.
U.S.-SAUDI RELATIONS: BUMP IN THE ROAD OR END OF THE ROAD?
The conference concluded with a somber exchange about the future of the bilateral relationship, mirroring, it was said, high-level discussions in both countries. The Saudi need to produce oil and the American need to consume oil make a complete rupture unlikely. Nonetheless, most of the participants accepted the view that relations have become too close. Increased public focus on the relationship in both countries meant that the traditional means of easing tensions – a private, senior-level rapprochement – would no longer be effective.
The question facing both Washington and Riyadh is whether to view this trend toward greater distance in the relationship as a disengagement or a divorce. The enduring interests enumerated above argue for disengagement, lessening the intensity of the relationship in light of public opinion objections on both sides, while maintaining the bilateral ties on energy and general security issues. However, the intense interest both sides have in the domestic politics of the other makes disengagement hard to sustain. The new American agenda with Saudi Arabia is so freighted with domestic Saudi issues that it would be hypocritical of Washington to say that it seeks greater distance from Riyadh. The centrality of the Palestinian issue for Saudi public opinion also makes disengagement unlikely. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the Saudi government to “wall off” negative trends in the peace process from other aspects of the relationship.
Some measure of disengagement would allow both sides to think more clearly about where their interests might lead and what they might still be able to expect from one another. On the Saudi side, the perceived failures of American policy represent a potential threat to the Saudi system if the royal family does not take some distance from the United States. At the same time, much needed reforms would be jeopardized if they were associated in the public mind with either American pressure or American preference. On the American side, there appears to be genuine uncertainty about the nature of the Saudi system: Is it a genuine partner in the international order, or the source of a deepening hostility to things American? On both sides, there is active debate about whether the relationship has now been caught up in “the clash of civilizations.”
Participants noted that there were few existing avenues for a continuing, informal dialogue about these critical issues. This was the price, it was agreed, of the traditional orientation of U.S.-Saudi relations. For many years, critical matters have been handled privately, in elite-level contacts. Now, for better or worse, the relationship has been democratized; public opinion in both countries will play a critical role in the future of bilateral ties. Elite contacts are no longer able to sustain a relationship that appears to have valued stability above all. Lacking broad public support, these contacts are weakening, it was agreed, at the very moment, in the words of one participant, “when we have the most to talk about: What kind of relationship are we going to have?” In part, the answer to this question will be shaped by adding a new dimension to the relationship: Track Two contacts, conducted unofficially by leading elements of both societies. This will involve civil society exchanges engaging diverse leaders from the religious, social, educational and business sectors in discussing where the two countries can make common cause and where they cannot.
CRITICAL SHORTAND MEDIUM-TERM ISSUES
While the conference produced no formal statement by the participants, a number of critical issues emerged repeatedly in discussions. These are noted below, in order to summarize some of the short and medium term steps that each side asked of the other.
On the Saudi Side
- An unflinching and public confrontation with those elements in Saudi society which advocate violence against the United States. Since these elements also advocate the overthrow of the Saudi government, this should not be a difficult step for Saudi authorities to take. The May 2003 bombings in Riyadh have opened up a window of opportunity for the Saudi government to confront these elements.
- Public and transparent Saudi action on preventing financial transfers to terrorist organizations. A difficult issue here is how to deal with Palestinian charities and organizations linked to Hamas. If the peace process proceeds, the United States will have greater credibility in urging the Saudis to close down such avenues of funding, and the Saudi government will be in a stronger position to create alternative ways for Saudis to express their financial support for Palestinians.
- Public stands in international Islamic organizations delegitimizing bin Ladenist interpretations and putting forward alternative interpretations of Islam.
On the American Side
- A continued commitment to the Arab-Israeli peace process, which remains a core identity issue for Saudis and other Arabs. It is hard to exaggerate the effects on American credibility throughout the region of developments in the peace process.
- A forthright effort by the administration to challenge those, even within its political constituency, who make insulting and degrading remarks about Islam as a religion. President Bush’s public statements on the topic have struck exactly the right tone. He need only continue them, and respond directly to egregious statements by prominent Americans, to make a major impact.
- Greater transparency from the Justice and Defense departments regarding Arab prisoners being held by the United States, either at home or abroad.
- A serious effort to overhaul the visa process for Saudi citizens, in a way that will protect American security while facilitating the highest level of exchange possible between Saudis and Americans. One simple step could help that process: Saudi passports list four names for every Saudi citizen – the first name, the father’s name, the paternal grandfather’s name and the family name. American visa applications have space for three names. Given the commonality of tribal family names in Saudi Arabia, without the three preceding names there can be substantial overlap in names. Thus Saudis can appear on watch lists because their name is similar to people on the list. If American visa applications asked for all four names listed on the Saudi passport, most of these unfortunate cases of mistaken identity could be avoided.
Abdulaziz M. al-Dukheil: president, Consulting Center for Finance and Investment
Abdulaziz H. al-Fahad: attorney
Munira N.A. al-Nahedh: assistant professor, social studies department, King Saud University
Wafa al-Rasheed: business consultant
Ziad Bin Abdulrahman al-Sudairy: attorney; member, Majlis al-Shoura
Abdullah A. Alireza; minister of state
Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg: minister plenipotentiary, Gulf Cooperation Council
Jamal Khashoggi: journalist
Hussein Shobokshi: president, Shobokshi Development & Trading Company
Marjorie A. Adams: president, National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce Brian Byrd: assistant director, communications, The Rockefeller Foundation Clifford Chanin: conference organizer; president, The Legacy Project
Chas. W. Freeman: president, Middle East Policy Council
Claire L. Gaudiani: senior research scholar, Yale Law School
F. Gregory Gause, III: associate professor of political science, University of Vermont.
Gary Hart: attorney, former U.S. senator
Richard D. Land: president-treasurer, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
Edward L. Morse: executive advisor, Hess Energy Trading Co
Hugh B. Price: former president, National Urban League
Lynn Szwaja: deputy director, creativity & culture, The Rockefeller Foundation