Books: 'Thicker Than Oil'

Rachel Bronson
Director of Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Monday, April 24, 2006; 11:00 AM

Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was online Monday, April 24, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her new book, "Thicker than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia."

The transcript follows.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia had been allies for decades before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the relationship between the two nations came under increasing scrutiny as the U.S. shifted its focus to the threat of Islamic radicalism. Bronson examines the history of this close yet controversial relationship and the intricate foreign policy goals that have created a partnership driven by far more than the simple need for oil. "Thicker Than Oil" is also a look at the future, as the Saudi government faces opposition to its support of the U.S., and the immense challenges of this ongoing partnership lead both nations to reevaluate their roles.


Rachel Bronson: I look forward to engaging in a discussion of US-Saudi relations over the next hour.

Rachel Bronson

Sarasota, Fla.: Do you think King Abdullah's "National Dialogues," which invites the various Shi'a communities and the Sufis to take part in political and social discourse will have a long-term effect, or is it purely cosmetic?

Rachel Bronson: The first national dialogue was held in June 2003, just after the multiple bombings in Riyadh that caused the royal family to begin cracking down seriously and visibly on home grown terrorists. I was at first quite skeptical of them, as nothing more than mere window dressing. That is, until two things happened. First, a number of Saudis that I respect began to tell me how important they were, for giving permission to ordinary people about what could be spoken about. And also, when I saw how the debate was shifting inside the kingdom, during my interviews there, to reflect the subjects of the national dialogues.

National dialogues are not the whole answer and Saudis themselves are very frustrated that more follow up has not taken place around the recommendations that have followed each one. However, I don't belittle them.

When Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah has a Sunni cleric sit down with a Shi'a cleric it shows that the King not only acknowledges the presence and legitimacy of a Shi'a cleric but the need for society to reconcile itself to their existence. Suddenly there was a flurry of discussion inside the kingdom that 10-15 percent of their population is Shi'a.

There is still a ways to go. Shi'a leaders have pointed out to me that horrible things are still being printed in the text books about Shi'a. But the national dialogues are important and the longer King Abdullah reigns the more time Shi'a activists and others will have to try to change the current anti-Shi'a climate.


Washington, D.C.: Energy investor Matthew Simmons, author of the 2005 book "Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy," argues that "There is only a small probability that Saudi Arabia will ever deliver the quantities of petroleum that are assigned to it in all the major forecasts of world oil production and consumption." On May 6 in Washington, D.C., energy experts including oil industry analysts Jan Lundberg and Richard Heinberg are convening a conference called "Petrocollapse," to discuss the implications of "peak oil" -- that is, in other words, the theory that global production of conventional oil is more or less at its peak now, and will soon start declining due to the exhaustion of the world's largest oil fields and the oil industry's failure to discover new oil sources to replace them. As gas prices soar and show no signs of falling, is "peak oil" something that ordinary Americans should be concerned about? And if Saudi Arabia does fail to deliver the quantities of oil that we expect from it, now or in the future, how will that influence or change America's "uneasy partnership" with this country?

The data doesn't seem to support the notion that we are running out of oil, but only that much more is needed and others including Saudi Arabia will need to invest in increasing capacity.

Washington, D.C.: I've always heard that Saudi Arabia would pay extremist groups off not to attack on its own soil, a relationship that seems to have eroded over time. Within the last few years the number of attacks against the Saudis or security actions on their part seem to have increased. With the attack on the oil refinery a few months ago, is this a strategic shift for these groups to attack the Saudis instead of the west with major operations? Are terrorists 'hardened and trained' in Iraq migrating back to Saudi Arabia for operations? Do they see it as a training ground or are they simply there to stay?

Rachel Bronson: It is certainly true that the Saudis made this kind of deal during the 1980s. By the 1990s, the deal was beginning to fall apart and the Saudi government was no longer as lax with fighters returning back from places like Bosnia and Chechnya. Still, it wasn't until May 2003 and even more dramatically November 2003 that the Saudi government seemed to fully realize that terrorism was home grown and deeply rooted. Since then, there has been a concerted effort to crack down on terrorist cells inside the kingdom, namely al-Qaeda on the Peninsula.

The attack on Abqaiq facilities in February was particularly noteworthy because it targeted oil infrastructure in particular. Saudis and Americans had been picking up intelligence that al-Qaeda was starting to target such infrastructure because of a delusional logic that it would make oil prices go up which would hurt Americans, but not local Arabs (this is in contrast to earlier attacks which targeted resident compounds and killed a disproportionate number of Arabs).

What we've seen is an increasing sophistication of Saudis dealing with terrorists. Some were killed on the spot, but others were followed home to Riyadh, where some more were killed, others arrested, computer documents seized and money confiscated. It provided more information for what's going on in the kingdom.

Saudis are still fighting in Iraq. More important, there is money flowing to Iraq that the US Treasury believes may be coming from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are dealing much more convincingly in trying to prevent those from going -- they know full well that these guys will come back armed and dangerous. The Saudis have also done a lot of things to stop the money flow in, although, again, there's still some important things they must do, like deal more seriously with "multilateral organizations" like the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and others.

Munich, Germany: Like other nations in the Middle East, I've read that Saudi Arabian Shiites are also considered to be second class citizens in their own country.

Also, in the event of another armed conflict in the Middle East, what would be a likely scenario between Iran and Saudi Arabia? Would Saudi Arabia be able to protect its oil fields and would armed Wahabbi extremists (if there are any), supporting the Saudi Arabian monarchy become involved in a conflict with Hezbollah and/or al Qaeda?

The Iran/Saudi rivalry is a long one, stemming back most dramatically to the Iranian revolution in 1979. Then, the Saudis were very concerned that a new religious power was emerging that could claim the mantle of Islam. This is a religious, geopolitical and ethnic (Persian vs. Arab) rivalry.

Today, Saudi Arabia, like the United States, is again deeply worried about Iran's intentions. They see in Ahmedinejad a return to "Khomeinism" which did not serve them well. Iran's nuclear program terrifies them, as made clear by statements made by Saudi leadership calling for a nuclear free Arabian Gulf (not just a nuclear free Middle East, which is primarily about Israel). They are also worried that if the U.S. should attack Iran, Iran will retaliate against Saudi Arabia defining it as an American proxy.


Kfar Saba, Israel: This book merits the immediate attention of anyone who wishes to gain an understanding of the historical basis and changing dynamics of the relationship between the two countries.

Rachel Bronson: Thank you.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think of the small, but growing number of Saudi reformers? Do you think they have had any success in sparking change? What do you see as the role of Saudi reformers who live outside of the Kingdom? Thanks.

Rachel Bronson: I think the most important factor behind reform is King Abdullah. He is no radical and he is no revolutionary. He is moving slower than most of the "reformers" would like, but he is making clear that social,economic and to a lesser extent political reform is a priority. When I asked one reformists who are the reformers in government that he looks to he said "Abdullah -- first, second, third and fourth" an interesting although somewhat disheartening answer. Others have named important princes, grandsons of the founder, who will some day move into positions of power, but aren't quite there yet.

I believe that now is a moment in Saudi history for changes to happen. I think the jury is still out whether the changes will outlive King Abdullah (who is 83). Reformers certainly hope it will.

Forward movement won't just come from the liberal reformers though. It must come from the conservatives who believe that Saudi religious asceticism has gotten out of control. There is reason to believe this happened and many of the more radical rabble rousers from the 1990s are now working on the side of the government, which in the long run is a good thing.


Washington, D.C.: To paraphrase a bit (and perhaps incorrectly), Plato said in the Republic that the best form of government was a good king and that the worst form of government was a bad king. So how does the Saudi king measure up? And how do the future generations of leaders look in terms of leadership character, skill, and views towards the west? Can we expect a major change in policy in the future with these personalities or will it be more of the same?

Rachel Bronson: When I was in Saudi Arabia in 2005 on reformer said to me that he'd rather have a just king than religiously out-of-control democracy, a play off your Plato quote.

My view of King Abdullah was given above. I think he has created a window for the more pragmatic in Saudi Arabia, those who believe that the kingdom MUST engage the international community for its own good.

I am less certain about successive leaders -- a King Sultan, a King Naif. I think the jury is still out on a King Salman, but he would be better than either of the other two.

There are some very impressive next generation leaders coming. The sons of King Faisal, Princes Naif, Salman and others, very sophisticated, highly westernized and better in touch with their own population than their fathers, in some regards (although not always).

I don't expect to see major changes any time soon. What I will look for over the next decade or so is whether the sons of King Abdel Aziz, the kingdom's founder, can continue with the slow changes implemented under King Abdullah, or whether they side-step them, or worse backtrack, when given their chance at the kingship.


Rachel Bronson: Very tough question. The Saudis are very angry that the U.S. pushed democracy only to get a Hamas led government. While Saudis in the past have supported Hamas, the Saudi government certainly does not want them ruling. From the Saudi government's perspective, its a terrible precedent that through elections a religious party has gained control of the political apparatus.

But, what makes this particularly tricky is that now Iran has pledged to contribute $50 million to make up Hamas' shortfall created by the American and European aid boycott.

Saudi Arabia is watching Iran make advances in Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon and now Gaza. Whether or not the Iranian money actually gets to Hamas will probably determine Saudi Arabia's ultimate response.


Arlington, Va.: Is there any realization in Saudi Arabia that they'll eventually have to offer some token form of democracy to placate their population? Also, why is the U.S. population so unaware of how much the Saudi government bashes the United States and spreads anti-Semitism to deflect blame from themselves?

Rachel Bronson: I think there is a sense that an opening up of civil society may be necessary. The Saudis held municipal elections between Feb. and April 2005. Such elections had not taken place since the 1960s (or in some parts of the kingdom ever). More importantly, I think, are lower level efforts, like women running and winning in engineering societies, and for journalist societies, the kinds of grass roots organizations that are so necessary to make a democracy work.

The strongest emphasis on reform though is clearly in the economic realm, in essence, following a China model. WTO accession was a major victory for the King as are many of the new rules that facilitate outside investment.

Politically, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go before ever becoming a democracy. But there does seem to be a little more space to breathe inside the kingdom than there was before and the religious zealots seem to be reigned in more, if peoples' anecdotal evidence of a decreased visibility of the religious police is to be believed.

The US government has become more aware of what's being said inside the kingdom than in the past. In different forums, including congressional testimonies, translations of local broadcasts are much more frequent than was true in the past.

Still, lack of language skills continues to hamper US diplomacy.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: I read a long article by an American who had been invited to Saudi Arabia to train journalists. He observed that there is very little for Saudi youth to do. No concerts or movies or plays. He opined that Saudi art and literature is very thin and marveled that the opening of an IKEA drew 15,000 bored shoppers. Is this something you have experienced? It seems to me bored, unemployed youth in a repressive culture is very dangerous.

Rachel Bronson: Yes, I think you are referring to Lawrence Wright's excellent piece in the New Yorker and he points to a very dangerous phenomenon. The good news is this problem is now actively debated in the Saudi media, something that did not happen when Larry was there and what he was reporting on. Acknowledging the problem is a big piece to solving it, but the rulers have yet to address this problem head on.


Rachel Bronson: Thank you for all the questions. There are still a lot of questions in the queue, but unfortunately my time is up. I look forward to continuing the conversation at some other point.

Rachel Bronson


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