With Friends Like These
Washington's ties to Riyadh had been troubled for decades -- and then came 9/11.

Reviewed by Steve Coll
Sunday, June 4, 2006

THICKER THAN OIL

America's Uneasy Partnership With Saudi Arabia

By Rachel Bronson

Oxford Univ. 353 pp. $28

Eight sheep and 42 courtiers followed King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia aboard the USS Quincy, afloat in the Red Sea in February 1945, to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The war in Europe was ending, and the oil age had arrived. On his way home from the Yalta summit with Stalin and Churchill, Roosevelt met the Saudi king to secure landing rights in Arabia so he could rush war materiel to the Asian front. More farsightedly, he also wanted to construct a postwar alliance based on oil production and a shared antipathy to Soviet communism. What happened aboard the Quincy during those several wintry days would define the terms -- and the misunderstandings -- at the heart of America's partnership with Saudi Arabia for more than five decades, until Sept. 11, 2001.

Roosevelt was charming and empathetic; he and Abdul Aziz, an erstwhile desert warrior who limped from disease and old battle wounds, bonded immediately over the wonders of the wheelchair. On the main issues -- "oil, God, and real estate," as Rachel Bronson puts it in her well-documented new history of U.S.-Saudi relations -- they also fell into easy, warm agreement.

Crucially, from Abdul Aziz's point of view, FDR sympathized with the king's opposition to a Jewish state in British-ruled Palestine. Aboard the Quincy, Roosevelt promised that before the United States changed its policy toward Palestine, it would consult with all sides; America, he added, would never do anything hostile to the Arabs. President Harry S. Truman, of course, embraced Israel at its birth three years later, to Abdul Aziz's fury. Still, the aging king was much too practical to sever ties with the United States, which was pumping his oil and plying him with gold, and so he forged on with the U.S.-Saudi alliance, more sullen and mistrustful than before.

The same pattern prevailed, to varying degrees, with his sons and successors. Pragmatic self-interest and visceral anticommunism bound the United States and Saudi Arabia together during the Cold War, but persistent, emotional disagreements -- usually about Israel, and often vented in private -- infused the alliance with rancor and doubt. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the two governments drifted apart until the shock of 9/11; the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis forced a new reckoning -- one that remains far from settled.

This is the narrative that Bronson, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, unfurls compactly and intelligently, if a little dryly, in Thicker Than Oil . Bronson's title emphasizes that there has always been more to the partnership than the two sides' cartoon imagery would allow, be it the American caricature of Saudi Arabia as a self-satisfied gas station or the Saudi caricature of the United States as a self-satisfied Humvee nation. The best sections of her impressively researched book explain the complexity and ambition of joint U.S.-Saudi undertakings against communist governments and guerrilla movements during the Cold War -- not only in Afghanistan, where they famously worked during the 1980s to support the mujaheddin fighting the Soviets, but also in the Middle East, Africa and Central America.

Bronson wants her book to be read as a sober, balanced counterweight to "recent books [that] seem more intent on feeding public outrage than on seriously probing" the U.S.-Saudi relationship. She lists as offenders such provocative recent bestsellers as Robert Baer's Sleeping With the Devil and Craig Unger's House of Bush, House of Saud , which accused Washington of selling its soul for crude. Both of those authors railed, on behalf of at least some of the American public, against the individual greed and shady deals that they argue shaped U.S.-Saudi relations at the highest levels before 9/11.

Were those authors utterly wrong? It is hard to tell what Bronson thinks about the emotional core questions, such as whether America's energy-for-security pact with Saudi Arabia is corrupt or corrupting, what values we actually share with the puritanical kingdom and what alternatives to the House of Saud there might be. She slaps the bestsellers aside but never really wrestles with their critiques, disqualifying them as recklessly argued (which, to be fair, they are). As her very conventional list of policy recommendations makes clear (she urges mutual understanding and pragmatic engagement), Bronson is not interested in upending the status quo, and she does not explore the implications of what even an old wildcatter like President Bush has come to acknowledge as America's unhealthy "addiction" to imported oil.

Still, Bronson writes with some verve and skepticism about Saudi Arabia's financial support for radical Islamist groups -- the main irritant in the relationship since 2001. Overall, she has produced a reliable, efficient book that policymakers and regional analysts will find useful. In doing so, however, she has extended a pattern in the bibliography of post-9/11 books about Saudi Arabia (and Saudi journalism about America) in which there seem to be only two categories of authorial voice: the outraged shout and the slightly condescending corrective lecture.

Perhaps that reflects the fact that, between the two publics, the U.S.-Saudi relationship today is colored by mutual disdain as well as mutual dependency. Ordinary Americans and Saudis alike recognize that the alliance that FDR and Abdul Aziz forged aboard the Quincy is in serious trouble. Saudis fume about Guantanamo Bay, Israel and the invasion of Iraq; Americans fume about individual Saudis' funding for al-Qaeda and the Saudi suicide bombers who keep crashing into our troops in Baghdad, apparently funded by $3-a-gallon gasoline. The two governments, however, are loath to address this deterioration of public attitudes too openly, and since they have yet to discover a plausible alternative to their long union, the old ship just rocks along, however queasy its passengers may feel. ยท

Steve Coll, a former managing editor of The Washington Post, is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ghost Wars."

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