Beyond secret drones: The roots of the awkward, improbable, contradictory U.S.-Saudi relationship

February 6, 2013

Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki al-Faisal, a chief architect of the modern U.S.-Saudi partnership, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan -- AFP/Getty Images)

Sometime around early 2011, as pro-democracy movements challenged the Arab dictatorships of old, often with public support from the United States, the Obama administration opened a secret drone base in one of the oldest. That September, an American drone took off from the base in Saudi Arabia and headed south to Yemen, where it struck and killed an American-born al-Qaeda official named Anwar al-Awlaki.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States have been locked in an awkward but strangely intractable embrace for decades, brought together by oil, terrorism and opposition to Iran. The secret drone base, publicly revealed for the first time Tuesday evening, is probably not on its own a major lynchpin of that relationship. But it is a symbol of how the partnership has endured, despite geo-political and ideological forces that would seem likely to pull the two countries apart, and two years of predictions that they inevitably would.

The American-Saudi relationship began with oil and deepened with the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, where Washington and Riyadh found common cause in backing the anti-Soviet mujaheddin. That same year, Saudi Arabia began its campaign against Islamist extremists, some of whom had seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca that November in a disastrous act of terrorism. The United States would join this fight only much later, but the two countries, for all the difference in their tactics (Saudi Arabia has at times sought to appease or co-opt the extremists outright), have worked together closely against groups such as al-Qaeda, and at times against Osama bin Laden personally.

The relationship was thrown into a crisis, one from which it has recovered only fitfully, when Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, and the United States deployed troops to Saudi Arabia to protect against Saddam Hussein's armies. "For many Saudis," Steve Coll wrote in his Pulitzer-winning book, "Ghost Wars," "the Iraqi invasion and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of troops to defend the Kingdom shattered the myth of Saudi independence and ignited open debate about Saudi identity."

The internal Saudi debate turned largely on the presence of American troops. "It is not the world against Iraq. It is the West against Islam," a Saudi sheikh declared on one of several cassette tape sermons, millions of copies of which circulated the region. "America has occupied Saudi Arabia." One particularly popular tape, according to Coll, was titled "America as I Saw It" and declared the United States "a nation of beasts who fornicate and eat rotten food." A number of Saudi Islamists and preachers published a petition demanding, among other things, quasi-democratic reform. The movement against America was turning anti-monarchy.

Though Saudi royal leaders remained as reliably pro-American as ever, within Saudi society, the Islamists and anti-Westerners had won the public debate. The contradiction has remained within Saudi Arabia ever since. But that contradiction, for all the danger it poses to the Saudi monarchy, seems to have only deepened their reliance on the United States.

American diplomats, according to Coll's book, warned members of the Saudi royal family that their government could be at risk from domestic extremists. The Saudis agreed, and began to co-opt the extremists by encouraging them to push their Wahhabist ideas and oil-backed money out into the broader Muslim world, which has contributed to the rise of extremism from North Africa to Central Asia. But it also turned against some of the most volatile extremists, for example by expelling bin Laden, who had been preaching in Jeddah against the monarchy's reliance on America.

A few years later, in 1996, John Brennan arrived in Riyadh to head up the CIA station there, where he worked closely with the Saudi government on its extensive counterterrorism efforts. Brennan, whose work is undergoing public scrutiny this week as he faces Congressional confirmation hearings to take over as Director of Central Intelligence, is reported to have personally negotiated the secret drone base in Saudi Arabia.

That cooperation appears to have deepened after September 2001, but it has also suffered some blows since the Arab uprisings began in early 2011. The Saudi government, which tightly restricts civil liberties and political rights, is deeply skeptical of pro-democracy movements. The United States's very public support for protesters in the Arab world, and its pressure on the remaining authoritarian regimes to reform, has put it at odds with the Saudi royal family. That's not just because the Saudis likely fear popular unrest, but because the Arab Spring has threatened their own influence in the region.

One particularly awkward flashpoint has been Bahrain, a Shia-majority Gulf nation that is ruled by a Sunni monarchy closely allied with both Riyadh and Washington. The United States has been noticeably silent on Bahrain's pro-democracy movement and on the monarchy's continued imprisonment of several high-profile activists. There are probably several reasons for this – the United States houses an entire naval fleet in Bahrain – but analysts often portray it as a cost of the Saudi alliance. In 2011, Saudi troops entered Bahrain to help quell the largely peaceful protests.

The two years of secrecy surrounding the U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia, perhaps almost as much as the base itself, highlight the contradictions in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The Obama administration has requested that news organizations not report on the base in part because, according to the Washington Post's reporting, it believed the disclosure could "potentially damage counterterrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia."

The Saudi government, in other words, seems to believe that the U.S. drones make their country safer. But it also seems to fear that public Saudi knowledge of the drones could be dangerous. The same might be said for the Saudi government's view of the U.S. troops deployed to its soil in 1991 to protect against Hussein and again in 2003 to topple him. The United States faces a contradiction of its own, as it strives to publicly support Middle Eastern pro-democracy movements while closely collaborating with an authoritarian government that opposes them.

Analysts, including Coll, have wondered how long the United States and Saudi Arabia could possibly maintain an alliance with such glaring contradictions. But as American drones fly out of Saudi Arabia, and as a former Riyadh station chief potentially takes over the CIA, it seems that both countries are still, despite it all, committed to one another.

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