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Frontline: House of Saud

Martin Smith
Wednesday, February 9, 2005; 11:00 AM

The House of Saud has controlled every aspect of Saudi life and politics since the kingdom was established in 1932. But outside the Desert Kingdom, little is known about Saudi Arabia's secretive royal family. In "House of Saud," Frontline explores how the Al Saud family maintains its hold on power in the face of growing tensions between Islam and modernity. Through interviews with members of the royal family, government officials and other experts from Saudi Arabia and the U.S., the two-hour documentary also traces America's relations with the Saudi royal family from their first alliance in the 1930s through Sept. 11 and beyond to the present day.

"Al Qaeda's New Front" aired on Tuesday, Feb. 8, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings). Producer Martin Smith was online Wednesday, Feb. 9, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the report.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Boston, Mass.: In a new book, "Confessions of an Economic Hitman," John Perkins alleges that the NSA, working through companies such as Bechtel, attempts to get third world countries to take on massive debt for development projects. The deal is that the leader of the country gets rich, but the country becomes indebited to the U.S., which can then call on the country for favors down the road or demand additional projects that will be to the benefit of U.S. companies. But Perkins says that Saudi Arabia, because of its oil wealth, was an exception to the rule. There was no way for the U.S. to get Saudi Arabia indebted to it because it was independently wealthy. I was surprised then to learn that Saudi Arabi took on significant debt during the Gulf War. Question: where does Saudia Arabia currently stand regarding that debt? Is is paid off? If not, does this give the U.S. leverage agaisnt Saudi Arabia that it did not have in the past?

Martin Smith: The Saudi debt still stands but with oil at $45 a barrel, they're working it off. The debt overhang certainly makes them dependent on keeping oil supplies up.


Houston, Tex.: Martin, Great program. Did you consider speaking to Robert Baer during your research? He of course has written about Saudi Arabia from an ex-CIA staffers perspective, seems to have been one of the more recent vocal people on the topic.


Martin Smith: Thanks. For this film, Jihan El-Tahri, the main producer/director, and I talked to people most centrally involved in the US-Saudi relationship, especially those who've spent considerable time in Saudi Arabia. We've spoken with Robert Baer in the past on other issues and always found him interesting and valuable.


Fairfax, Va.: I lived in Riyadh for a few years, and left in August 2001. There seemed to be insupportable conflicts (or hypocrisy?) in the Saud family. It was common to see misbehaving princes at non-Arab receptions (drinking alcohol, mixing with women, etc.) and I saw princesses trolling for men in the Diplomatic Quarter. Rumors abounded of drug dealing and worse. On the other hand, the Sauds also harshly enforced strict Islamic standards on everyone else, including non-Muslims, by using the mutawa (religious police). I had numerous ugly run-ins with them.

Unfortunately, my impression was that the average Saudi citizen preferred the puritanical eighth century vision espoused by bin Laden, if not his violence. No one likes Saud hypocrisy, but I saw little taste for toleration or modernization there. Longtime expatriates said they expected a revolution and that it would be won by the strict Wahabis.

Martin Smith: Thanks for your comments. It's good to hear from people who've lived in the Kingdom.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Great show -- absorbing.

How is the Saudi monarchy taking the U.S. decision to abandon Saudi Arabia as a base for Middle East operations and moving to Kuwait, Qatar and now Iraq?

Is the war in Iraq just the formal announcement to the kingdom that the Sauds did absolutely nothing to combat islamic terrorism in their sphere of influence so the USA is taking its kill-the-extremists show on the road -- building staging and forward area bases elsewhere and obtaining support from other, more proactive (we'll help you nail these guys) regimes?

Finally, if reapproachment can be achieved between Iran and the USA, does that really put the House of Saud between a rock and hard place?

The idea behind this move would be: if the kingdom falls to internal civil war, who cares, we've got oil and influence in Iraq, Iran and the other Gulf states and we'll just patiently wait for the dust to settle in the former kingdom before re-establishing and rebuilding there. Too bad they didn't see it coming.

Thanks much.

Martin Smith: Thanks. I believe the royal family is happy to have the Americans out. It takes pressure off. However, I don't think the Kingdom is on the brink of civil war. Nor do I think America is about to cozy up to Iran. With the ongoing insurgency in Iraq, Saudi Arabia is still the most reliable source of oil in the Middle East.


Kalamazoo, Mich.: How is Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud related to the Saudi Royal household? In other words, of the 44 sons of King Abdal-Aziz, who is his father?

Martin Smith: Prince Al Waleed is a son of Prince Talal, whom we interviewed in the film. He is a grandson of the founder of the Kingdom, King Abdul Aziz.


Providence, R.I.: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.

How significant is the link between the royal house of Saud and the Bush family? I have not yet read the book "House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties," but would be interested in your insight into the situation.

Martin Smith: The truth is that the Saudis have been close to US Presidents throughout modern history. It's not just the Bushes. Much is made of the fact that they contributed $1 million to the building of the Clinton Library, for example. On the other hand, the Bush family is an oil family and has common interests with prominent Saudi oilmen. There has always been a lot of business between Texas and Saudi Arabia. Therefore I don't find it surprising that there are many linkages. I think it's been made into some kind of conspiracy theory, which in my view is overblown.


New York, N.Y.: What where the main reasons why Saudi Arabia didn't accept bin Laden's offer to aid in pushing back Iraq from Kuwait and instead handing over large amount of money infidels to do the work?

Martin Smith: As romantic as the Saudis can be, the idea of a mujahedin army taking on Saddam's troops seemed fanciful. They didn't think he could get the job done. They also didn't trust Bin Laden. They knew he was no friend of the royals and could turn on them afterwards.


Centreville, Va.: Did you have the chance to talk to regular citizens while you were at the Kingdom? I would be interested to find out what the average Saudi thinks of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations?

Martin Smith: Yes, we did. But certainly our sampling was not scientific and there is no polling in Saudi Arabia, so getting a clear idea of where the people stand is difficult. Most available are Saudi liberals, who are generally more comfortable with the West. Yet many of them expressed to us their frustrations with the government, with corruption and the lack of any true democratic reform. They're also angry at US policies in the region and the demonization of all Saudis as Bin Laden-loving terrorists. The people that are harder to get to are conservatives, like the cleric, Nasser Al Omar, interviewed in the film. And it is also difficult to talk to most women. One of the ways you take stock is by talking to people after Friday prayers and discussing with them the content of the sermons. These continue to be harshly anti-American.


Boston, Mass.: Thanks for that answer to the House of Bush, House of Saud question. I've tried to tell people those same things whenever it came up, but have always been derided as just being close-eyed.

Martin Smith: You're welcome.


Falls Church, Va.: Good show, I worked in Saudi Arabia from 1983-84, 1990-94, and 1996-2001.On several occasions in talking with the Saudi military I worked with, they were quite open on a one on one basis to express the distaste they had for the royal family. Do you feel a coup maybe possible in the future?.

Martin Smith: You probably have a better idea than we do. But the Saudi royals are still careful to keep the military segmented and out of politics precisely to avoid the fate of the Shah of Iran and King Farouk of Egypt.


Washington, D.C.: With local elections about to take place in many parts of the Kingdom, what are the chances of Saudi Arabia following a path similar to that of Great Britain -- where the royal family gradually ceded political power to the populace over the course of centuries while maintaining much of their wealth and ceremonial functions?

Martin Smith: I think they may be on that path, but I think it's going to be very, very slow. And messy. Remember that the elections that are taking place this week are municipal only and women are excluded. Registration has been low, which speaks to Saudis own skepticism about achieving any real people-power. Power is still handed down from above.


Canton, Ohio: I noticed you have travelled to the Kingdom several times for Frontline. Does it seem more open to you now?

Martin Smith: Yes and no. There is a more lively debate in the Saudi press, a more open exchange of ideas. It seems the royals have decided to tolerate more dissent. The Tash Ma Tash episode we showed in the film is another example of this. Two years ago things were more buttoned down. On the other hand, the place is a whole lot less safe for a Westerner. Few Americans venture onto the streets or into restaurants outside their heavily guarded hotels. It's also the case that some liberal reformers are today in jail for rather mild protests and petitions. Most militant clerics continue to enjoy free speech. It's a confusing place.


Washingtin, D.C.: Saudi Arabia will be holding municipal elections this Thursday (Feb. 10), however women are barred from participating whether by voting or running for office citing logistical issues, do you think that oil interests in the Kingdom is preventing the United States from criticizing or condemning the election committees decision to exlude women?

Martin Smith: No question about it. Oil trumps democracy in world politics.


Milford, Mass.: Great program. My biggest concern about the US-Saudi relationship is the number of former State officials who end up as recipients of Saudi largesse, and how they influence PR and policy.

Bandar likes to spread it around.

Also, American madrassas are teaching jihad as reported by Freedom House last week.

Is another Frontline on any of this being considered?

Martin Smith: The Saudis have money and they like to use it. It's long been their principal tool of diplomacy. The former state officials do need to be monitored and that's our job in the press.


New York, N.Y.: Great program: in your opinion who is a good bet to be the first third generation ruler of the kingdom?

Martin Smith: The Faisal family seems among the most savvy. Prince Turki was for a long time head of their intelligence services, now he's Ambassador in London. Prince Saud, his brother, is an able and reasonable foreign minister. You can read from Prince Saud's interview on the film's website: www.frontline.org.


Kalamazoo, Mich.: Thanks for your earlier response Mr Smith.

What governmental role do ordinary Saudis have in the day to day running of thier country since every governmental post seems to belong to the members of the royal farmily?

Martin Smith: Almost none. As we say, it's a government by patronage. Having said that, there is a great weight of conservative opinion in Saudi society and the royals ignore it at their peril. Even dictators and absolute monarchs have to pay attention to their subjects.


Manassas, Va.: Do you think the Saudi royal family is taking advantage of the anti-U.S. sentiment felt by the people by exploiting it to hide their own mistakes and their own corruption?

Martin Smith: This might be true at times, but I think that they are more concerned with anti-American sentiment turning on them. They're losing investment and because of their continued alliance with the US, anti-American sentiment goes against them as well. Certainly populist clerics stir up anti-US feeling in order to blame America for any and all their society's failings.


Waukegan, Ill.: Hi Martin and thank you, for the great report. What do you think will be the next trigger point for disruption in the Middle East?

Martin Smith: I don't know, but I think you have to keep looking at Iraq and what kind of government takes shape there and how emboldened the Bush administration is by any possible successes.


Homosassa, Fla.: The House of Saud was very informative. I have been interested in what makes the Aribs tick sence 9/11. Can you direct me to outher sites where I could learn more.

Thank you.

Martin Smith: Thank you. Let me plug the FRONTLINE website again: www.frontline.org. On the site for "House of Saud" there are links to several good articles and sites about the country. The ICG reports, I think, are especially insightful.


Statesville, N.C.: Martin,
Thanks for a very informative report. The Middle East can be a confusing study at best but I thought that you conveyed the tribal and religous mindset of the region very well. Was it difficult to get the interviews becasue many of them were very candid? Also do you have a web-site where more information is available?

Martin Smith: Thank you. The lion's share of credit must go to the very talented producer/director, Jihan El-Tahri. She worked two years on this report before it even came to FRONTLINE. My colleague, Chris Durrance, and I updated the program and added some new material. As for the early interviews, Jihan spent considerable time gaining the trust of her interviewees. It's a testament to her skill. You can read more of her interviews and mine at www.frontline.org.


Brooklyn, N.Y.:
I know from the program there are no income taxes in the kingdom. How is the oil wealth/benefits distributed to the average member of the kingdom, directly or indirectly?

Martin Smith: Members of the royal family, which numbers around 5,000, receive allowances ranging from $1,000 to $30,000 a month. Ordinary citizens benefit in terms of government services - health care, education etc. But not directly. One major problem is that the Saudi population is growing very quickly. Families are very large. Unemployment is high. The government is beginning to struggle with this, trying to create more jobs for Saudi youth and to lessen the dependence on foreign workers.


Washington, D.C.: For years, I've read about how mass revolt is imminent in Saudi Arabia, due to the unpopular secular government and gross corruption within the royal family. And yet, nothing's happened. Have reports of the Saudi people's anger and frustration been exaggerated? And if the government is one day overthrown by the people, do you think the U.S. would contribute military force to help return the royal family to power?

Martin Smith: The royals seem firmly in control and have faced down many crises before. On the other hand the Shah of Iran was thought to be a stable, reliable pillar in the region. His fall surprised everyone. The royals have been adept at channelling anger away from the Kingdom, notably during the Afghan War in the 80s. Now problems seem to be coming home to roost. Over the past two years, there's been a lot of violence in the Kingdom. This is unprecedented. Combine this with the demographic problems they face and it gives the royals plenty to worry about. As far as the US getting involved in moving in to protect the oil fields, I only need to refer you to the section of the film that deals with the 1973 oil embargo. America stood ready to militarily seize control of the oil fields, laying bare the our foremost interest in Saudi Arabia.


Wheaton, Md.: Is it true that the Al Saud family is directly involved in funding the Wahabbi movement, which calls for the destruction of the U.S.?

Martin Smith: Yes. But the Wahhabi movement is not specifically about calling for the destruction of the US. It's a reading of Islam that is deeply intolerant to non-Wahhabis, be they Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. The Saudi government sponsors Wahhabi mosques, preachers and schools across the world, including in the US. They do however try to police the most militant of clerics and scholars. It doesn't always work.


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