The Magazine

Saudi Arabia's Identity Crisis

A strategic partnership unravels.

May 12, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 34 • By AMIR TAHERI
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In Saudi Arabia, it is the end of the lunar month of Safar and the beginning of summer, which will last until October. Traditionally, wealthy Saudis spend at least part of that period abroad, while the less well-to-do trek to the cool oases of the Ta'ef region on the Yemeni border.

This year, however, most wealthy Saudis will stay at home. The reason? They feel they are no longer welcome in their favorite destination, the United States. Or they've decided to wait and see "what happens next."

As one travels around this vast kingdom, almost as big as Europe, the mood is one of quiet concern about a troubling present and an uncertain future. The feeling of uncertainty has just been deepened with the announcement by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that soon almost all the American troops will be withdrawn from the kingdom.

"This is what Osama bin Laden wanted," says a Saudi university teacher. "People wonder when he will get the other things he wanted, including regime change here."

Many Saudis see Rumsfeld's visit as a historic parting of the ways for two traditional allies. "The Americans now have Iraq and no longer need us," says Abdul-Muhsin al-Mualaa, a businessman. "It is as if the ground has fallen under our feet."

In one of those paradoxes of politics, this birthplace of Islam had developed into the most pro-American of all Muslim countries. In 1991 a decision was made to use the acronym KSA for Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in obvious imitation of the USA. Since 1980, an estimated 200,000 Saudis have studied in the United States, and at least a quarter of a million Saudis have visited the country every year. Saudi investment in the United States is estimated at $300 billion. Prince Walid bin Talal, a nephew of the king, boasts that he is the single biggest foreign investor in New York City. Many top American firms, from Disney to Citicorp, have major Saudi shareholders.

At the other end of the spectrum, Saudi Arabia is the biggest source of American energy imports. It sits upon almost a quarter of the world's known oil reserves, and experts regard the recently developed fields of Shiba as "an almost endless source" of cheap oil. The country's importance as a strategic prize is certain to increase in the coming years as it develops newfound reserves of natural gas.

For over a decade the kingdom played host to the largest American military presence between Europe and the Far East. And it has played another crucial role in American global strategy: that of go-between with the Muslim world. As the site of Mecca and Medina, destination of Islam's two major pilgrimages, and host to almost six million pilgrims each year, Saudi Arabia enjoys immense prestige in the Muslim world--a prestige enhanced by the billions it spends on Islamic charities, Koranic schools, aid projects, and the purchase of patronage throughout the Muslim world.

The "strategic partnership" between Washington and Riyadh began in the 1940s, when the United States first established a military presence in the kingdom. In the 1960s and 1970s the two worked closely to deal with the threat of Arab nationalism, backed by the Soviet Union, and to contain the Palestinian issue. In the 1980s they were partners in stopping the spread of the Khomeinist revolution from Iran to other Muslim countries.

Then came their joint venture in support of the mujahedeen fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Thousands of Saudis went to fight the Communists in Afghanistan or to raise funds and procure arms for the Afghan mujahedeen. Among those who went was Osama bin Laden, member of a wealthy Saudi family of Yemeni origin. So close did the two countries become that Washington consulted with Riyadh even on issues such as defeating communism in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Then in 1990-91, the two worked together to force Iraq out of Kuwait. In an important symbolic gesture, the United States made Prince Khaled bin Sultan, a nephew of King Fahd, deputy commander in chief of the allied forces.

The "special relationship" came to an abrupt end when it turned out that 15 of the 19 terrorists who took part in the September 11 attacks were Saudi citizens, some from prominent and wealthy families. As the FBI proceeded to arrest suspects, hundreds of Saudis in the United States were rounded up and thrown into prison. Many managed to escape the dragnet aboard specially chartered flights arranged by the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a nephew of the king. Among those who escaped were 18 members of the bin Laden family who had been working or studying in the United States.