The Saudi Problem

King Abdullah of Saudi ArabiaPosted by Rich Trzupek on Dec 2nd, 2010 

It shouldn’t have needed confirmation, but the latest WikiLeaks release affirmed what astute observers of the Middle East have known for a long time: Saudi Arabia is a most dangerous ally. On the one hand, King Abdullah is reported as having urged America to “cut off the head of the snake,” referring to the radical fundamentalist regime in Iran. On the other hand, another cable states that “Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like al-Qaida.” Neither bit of news is terribly surprising, but it puts new focus on the troubling, entangling and often hypocritical alliance between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration, like administrations before it, surely understands the complexity of the Saudi problem. The question is: how to solve it? Given Obama’s lamentable foreign policy track record, it would seem that America is farther away than ever from formulating a plan to deal with the Saudi monarchy.

There are multiple challenges in dealing with the Saudis and they’re all intertwined. Oil is at the root of the problem of course. As much as we love to dream of a world in which Saudi crude doesn’t matter, that’s not the world we live in. Nor will we live in such a world in the foreseeable future. No amount of cornfields or wind farms are going to supplant crude in any meaningful way. A stable, reliable global petroleum supply chain is essential to America’s economic health, and the nation that churns out twenty per cent of the world’s crude oil is the most critical aspect of that supply chain. So, in the case of Saudi Arabia, we are choosing the devil we know and hope we can make the relationship work. Yet, the larger problem inherent in dealing with Saudi Arabia is that we’re not dealing with the interests of a nation, but rather those of a family.
Estimates vary, but the Royal House of Saud, which has ruled the kingdom since unification in 1932, has between 7,000 and 20,000 members. In a nation of 25 million, a stunning amount of national wealth flows through the hands of the Sauds – around forty percent of GDP by some estimates. Over $200 billion per year is under the control of one extended family. The princes of the House of Saud and their families live very well and they know it. They are also very aware that the foundation of their authority rests on two very shaky pillars: their continued control of the kingdom’s vast oil reserves, and keeping the restless and often resentful populace of the nation in check. Those two over-riding goals of the royal family manifest themselves in two very contradictory policies when it comes to relations with the United States of America.

Keeping control of the source of the family’s wealth (those enormous oil reserves) means ensuring that none of Saudi Arabia’s more dangerous, covetous neighbors get their hands on it. Thus, King Fahd was happy to help American during the First Gulf War in order to thwart Saddam Hussein’s naked ambitions — even if doing so meant suffering the undying enmity of Islamic purists like Osama bin Laden. In the same vein, which nation in the region represents the greatest threat to the royal family today? Iran, and in particular, a nuclear-capable Iran. Thus, King Abdullah’s wish that America use its military might to cut off the head of the kingdom’s latest threat comes as no surprise. The King could hardly be expected to hope for anything else.

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