Oil and militant Islam: strains on U.S.-Saudi relations

Oil and militant Islam: strains on U.S.-Saudi relations

Gawdat Bahgat

For more than six decades, the United States, the world’s largest oil consumer and importer, and Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer and exporter, have enjoyed close and friendly relations. Indeed, after his meeting with King Saud Ibn Abd al-Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, in 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the defense of the kingdom as a vital U.S. national interest. Since then the relations between the two countries have been built on long-standing traditions of friendship and informal alliance. Recently, however, the strong ties between Washington and Riyadh have been intensely tested by the 11 September terrorist attacks against the United States. In his speech to Congress on 20 September, President George W. Bush declared that in the aftermath of the attacks the world has been divided into two camps–good and evil. Each country has to define where it stands; “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” the president affirmed.

The official Saudi position has left no doubt that Riyadh strongly condemns the attacks and supports the war on terrorism. Still, given that more than a dozen of the hijackers were Saudi citizens, and in light of mounting accusations that Saudi private money was a main source of financing for the terrorist organization al-Qaeda, there has been strong criticism of Riyadh’s role in combating terrorism. Several U.S. news organizations have questioned the level of Saudi cooperation in the new war. Furthermore, prominent senators such as John McCain (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), and Joseph Biden (D-DE) have joined the media in raising doubts about Saudi enthusiasm in prosecuting the war on terror. (1) On the other side, the Bush administration has refrained, at least in public, from criticizing Saudi policy. Instead, many top officials have repeatedly expressed satisfaction with Riyadh’s approach to the crisis, particularly with regard to sharing intelligence.

In spite of the administration’s general satisfaction with the Saudi contribution to the war against terrorism, Washington has taken several initiatives that are likely to complicate relations with Riyadh. These include the FBI’s issuing of an updated list of most wanted terrorists in October 2001. (2) Several on the list are Saudis, the majority are Arabs, and all are Muslims. (3) Similarly, in November 2001 the Department of State announced that it would slow the process for granting visas to young men from Arab and Muslim nations in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks. According to the new policy, visa applications from any men sixteen to forty-five years old from twenty-six countries would be checked against databases maintained by the FBI. (4)

Thus, the 11 September terrorist attacks against the United States by militant Muslims have created a significant challenge to the long-term partnership between Washington and Riyadh. In this article I briefly examine two dimensions of the American-Saudi relationship: oil dependence and Arab-Israeli conflict. Thereafter, Ideal with a third dimension: militant Islam. I will address two main questions. First, how has the economic and political environment in Saudi Arabia contributed to the creation and nurturing of militant Islam in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century? Second, is Riyadh a reliable partner to Washington in the war against terrorism? In spite of some Saudi reluctance and some valid U.S. criticism, I argue that militant Islam is as much of a threat to the Saudi government as it is to the United States. Put differently, Riyadh has strong incentives to remain committed to the war on terror.


With approximately 261 billion barrels of proven oil reserves (more than one-fourth of the world total) and up to 1 trillion barrels of ultimately recoverable oil, Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading producer and exporter. (5) In addition to this enormous oil reserve, Riyadh’s cost of production is one of the lowest in the world–less than $1.50 per barrel, whereas the global average cost is about $5, and much higher in some places. Also, Saudi Arabia has a great advantage when it comes to adding new reserves or increasing production capacity. According to the Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, it costs the kingdom less than ten cents a barrel to discover new reserves; the cost in some other areas of the world can be as high as $4 per barrel. (6)

Most of the world’s spare production capacity is located in Saudi Arabia, which means that whenever a sudden interruption of supplies occurs, Saudi Arabia can fill the gap in a very short time. That can be seen as an insurance policy against temporary shortages in world oil supplies. For the last several decades Riyadh in most cases has proved to be a reliable partner in overcoming oil crises. That is an important strategic asset for the kingdom. The United States government and American oil companies have been closely involved in the exploration and development of the kingdom’s hydrocarbon resources.

Four characteristics of the U.S.-Saudi oil partnership are especially significant: First, in Saudi Arabia oil exploration and development have been carried out almost entirely by American companies. That has not been the case for other major producers in the Persian Gulf and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In the early 1930s, U.S. oil companies were looking for commercial opportunities overseas. Promising oil reservoirs had been discovered in several locations in the Persian Gulf, including Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain. The newly discovered hydrocarbon wealth was dominated by companies from Europe, particularly from Great Britain. Meanwhile, indigenous leaders were interested in granting concessions to foreign companies to strengthen their rising economic and political power. Under those circumstances, in 1933 King Saud Ibn Abd al-Aziz, who was suspicious of European intentions, gave an American company, Standard Oil Company of California (Socal, later Chevron), exclusive right to explore for and produce oil in the kingdom. Accordingly, the Californian-Arabian Standard Oil Company was formed and in 1944 was renamed the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO).

Second, the nationalization of foreign oil companies’ assets was much smoother in Saudi Arabia than in neighboring countries. For example, the bitter dispute in the early 1950s between the Iranian authority and British Petroleum was very different from the close cooperation between Aramco and the Saudi government, which reached an agreement in 1950 on a modified system of profit sharing, introducing the fifty-fifty division between the host country and the concessionaire. In 1973, the Saudi government took a 25 percent stake in Aramco. A year later, in 1974, its share was increased to 60 percent, and in 1980 it was amicably agreed that Aramco should become 100 percent Saudi-owned, and ownership backdated to 1976. (7) The friendly and nonconfrontational change of ownership helped the two sides to maintain their cordial cooperation. Despite the Saudi takeover of Aramco, U.S. administrators and technicians, side by side with their Saudi counterparts, continued to occupy important positions in the company. Finally, in April 1989, the last American to preside over Aramco, John J. Kelberer, handed over power to its first Saudi boss, Ali al-Naimi, who became oil minister several years later.

Third, since the late 1990s Saudi Arabia, like other oil-producing countries, has reconsidered its state-monopoly energy policy. Riyadh has sought to invite international oil companies back to its hydrocarbon industry. Not surprisingly, initial contacts were made with American companies. In September 1998 Crown Prince Abdullah met in Washington, D.C., with senior executives from several American oil firms and told them that U.S. oil companies had been the “bedrock” of the U.S.–Saudi relationship for half a century and that the Saudi government wanted them involved again in a new, strategic energy partnership. (8) After lengthy negotiations the Saudi government chose Exxon-Mobil to take the lead in a $17 billion scheme to explore for and produce gas in the southern area of al-Ghawar field and in a similar project, estimated at $4 billion, in the Red Sea area. (9)

Fourth, for several decades Saudi Arabia used its influence to encourage moderate oil prices. A close examination of the international oil market over the last three decades suggests two constant characteristics that shaped and guided the dramatic changes the industry has experienced. First, since the early 1970s oil prices have been highly volatile. In the last thirty years the price of a barrel of oil has fluctuated from a low of $9 to a high of $37. That volatility has contributed to political and economic instability in both consuming and producing countries. Second, in addition to economic factors, oil markets have always been driven by political forces. Put differently, the prices of oil do not merely reflect an equilibrium between supply and demand. Rather, they are equally determined by political developments in both producing and consuming countries. Thus, the global oil market has been rightly described as “guided laissez-faire.” (10) Taking those two characteristics into consideration, the Saudi government has realized that high prices have potential long-term disadvantages, including the development of alternative or competing energy sources, which could undermine the importance of petroleum and investment exploration in the kingdom. Furthermore, high prices would encourage oil production in competing regions such as the Caspian Basin and the North Sea. Finally, excessively high prices could have a negative impact on the world economy, which in turn weakens demand for oil. Thus, Riyadh has always advocated stable prices at a “reasonable level.” This Saudi stand has contributed to the stabilization of the global economy and substantial savings to U.S. consumers.

In spite of the close cooperation among U.S. administrations, American oil companies, and the Saudi government for more than half a century, there has been a growing concern in the United States over dependence on politically unstable regions such as the Persian Gulf. In May 2001, only a few months after taking office, President Bush presented a national energy policy that provides a long list of recommendations to avert an “energy crisis” and enhance the nation’s energy security. The main theme of the recommendations is the need to diversify both the fuel mix (i.e., oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear power, hydroelectricity, and other renewable resources) and the fuel origin (i.e., North America, West Africa, and the Caspian Basin). The drive to reduce U.S. vulnerability to disruption of oil supplies from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf producers has gained momentum after the terrorist attacks in September 2001. The globalization of oil markets, however, has made the question of who sells and buys a particular barrel of oil less and less relevant. U.S. oil security depends on sufficient supplies to support both the American and the global economy. Supply disruptions from any producing region will be felt everywhere. Interdependence, rather than independence, is the cornerstone of contemporary oil security. With its huge reserves, Saudi Arabia will continue to hold the keys to global (and U.S.) energy stability. Washington and Riyadh need to continue consolidating their long-term cooperation and avert any misunderstanding in response to the terrorist attacks. In addition, the two sides need to overcome their disagreement regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Nowhere has the gap between the United States and Saudi Arabia been greater than on the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the American side, for a long time different administrations have tried to keep energy issues on a separate track from the Arab-Israeli conflict/peace process. Washington has adhered to the notion that the main reasons for instability in the Middle East were Soviet policy (until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991) and the lack of genuine efforts to reform the economic and political systems in the region. On the other side, with their deeply ingrained sense of themselves as the custodians of Arabism and Islam, the Saudis have always retained a sense of kinship with and obligation toward the Palestinians. In spite of sporadic crises and occasional disagreements between the Palestinians and the Saudis, officials in Riyadh have always supported the Palestinians in their conflict with the Israelis. The Saudi stand is also based on internal considerations. The legitimacy of the Saudi royal family and government is largely based on their adherence to Islam. A large segment of the Saudi population sees the Arab-Israeli conflict in religious terms. Thus, Saudi officials have stressed to their American counterparts that Israel is the main reason for instability in the Middle East.

Given those two divergent perceptions, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the strong American support for Israel have always complicated the relationship between Washington and Riyadh. The idea of using oil as a political weapon against Western powers that support Israel has been considered by Arab producers since the early 1950s. Thus, in the Suez crisis (1956) and the Six-Day War (1967) limited embargoes were implemented, though with little effect. In 1956 the United States was able to compensate for the embargo against Britain and France with its own domestic production. In 1967 the Saudi government ordered Aramco to stop oil supplies to the United States and the United Kingdom during the Arab-Israeli war. The ability of the international oil companies to reroute supplies, however, made the embargo ineffective. Furthermore, the Saudi leaders were not fully convinced of the validity of mixing oil with policy. Rather, the Saudi leaders preferred to use oil revenues as a “positive weapon” to build up the military and economic strength of the Arab world. (11) Accordingly, Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil producers gave substantial financial aid to Egypt and Jordan from 1967 to 1973.

Debate over the potential of the oil weapon continued nonetheless. Shortly after the breakout of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, President Nixon asked Congress to provide $2.2 billion in emergency security assistance to replace Israel’s losses in the war. (12) On the following day Saudi Arabia, which had not gone beyond cutting production and issuing warnings during the fighting up to that point, announced a total embargo on oil shipments to the United States. (13) Other Arab producers followed suit. In the following months Saudi production dropped sharply, and skyrocketed the posted price of oil.

The embargo was lifted in March 1974 after U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger had embarked on the “shuttle diplomacy” that brought disengagement agreements between the Israeli troops on one side and the Egyptian and Syrian armies on the other side. This probably was one of the lowest points in the relations between Washington and Riyadh. Another sign of the deteriorated relations was Kissinger’s warning that the United States would not rule out the use of military force to secure oil supplies from the Persian Gulf region. (14) Saudi Arabia and the United States were able to overcome that short-lived crisis in their relations. Under President Jimmy Carter the talk about potential use of military force ceased, and instead, the administration proposed and the Congress approved the sale of some of the most advanced weapons in the U.S. arsenal to Saudi Arabia.

Another low point between the two nations occurred in the late 1970s when Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat visited Israel and the United States brokered the Camp David Agreement, which was followed by the signing of the first peace treaty between ah Arab country (Egypt) and Israel. The Saudi response was to side with radical Arab states in their attempt to isolate and punish Egypt. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, along with other Arab oil-producing countries, agreed to provide substantial new annual subsidies to the remaining “confrontation” states–Jordan and Syria–as well as to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Interestingly, a few years later, in 1981, Crown Prince Fahd offered an eight-point peace plan, which basically called for the Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in the 1967 war in exchange for Arab recognition of the state of Israel. Both the Arabs and the Israelis rejected Fahd’s plan. More recently, in the 1990s, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, and two Arab Gulf states (Oman and Qatar) established trade and commercial relations with Israel. There have not been similar movements by the Saudis.

Recent developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the collapse of the peace process and the beginning of al-Aqsa intifade (uprising), have substantially complicated relations between Washington and Riyadh. (15) With nightly news reports of continued clashes between the Israeli army and the Palestinians displayed on Saudi television, anti-Israel and anti-America feelings have risen sharply. Some Saudis believe that the United States has given the Israeli government tacit support for its crackdown on Palestinian violence. They accuse Washington of having a double standard in insisting on enforcing the UN resolutions against Iraq while not insisting with equal fervor that UN resolutions concerning the Palestinians be fully implemented. The rising and continued violence prompted Crown Prince Abdullah to abandon plans to visit President Bush in Washington in 2001. Moreover, the Saudis have intensified their diplomatic efforts to convince the Bush administration to resume its active role in sponsoring negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

To sum up, the setbacks in the Arab-Israeli peace process and the escalation of violence have contributed to the alienation of a large segment of the Saudi population. The Saudi royal family, with its close ties with Washington, finds itself in an embarrassing position. On one side, it has to respond to and be sensitive to the growing domestic anger against Israel and its main ally, the United States. On the other side, the Saudi royal family has to maintain and develop its close cooperation with Washington. The peculiar situation has given ammunition to Saudi dissidents, particularly Muslim militants.


More than a dozen of the participants in the 11 September terrorist attacks came to the United States with Saudi passports. This raises the question of the historical, socioeconomic environment that has nurtured these Muslim militants. It is important to address that question, not only to provide an explanation for what happened on 11 September but, equally important, to eliminate the chances of other such attacks. Two intertwined explanations can shed some lights on the conditions that created fertile soil for militant Islam in Saudi Arabia at the end of the twentieth century.

First, from the very beginning to this day the Saudi state has been built on an alliance between a religious movement known as Wahhabism and the Saudi royal family. (16) The legitimacy of the latter has been intimately linked with the main principles of the former. The alliance was created in the mid-eighteenth century and has survived all the ups and downs in relations between the two dynasties. An important doctrine of Wahhabism is to avoid all bida (innovations). (17) Accordingly, Saudi Arabia has adopted a very cautious approach to modernization and reform, particularly in comparison with the other five Gulf monarchies. (18) Two examples illustrate this very slow and gradual approach–connecting to the Internet and joining the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In the late 1990s the Saudi government initiated the most extensive examination of the applications and implications of the Internet of any country in the region. The review process took about two years. Finally a royal decree was issued stating that all public Internet traffic to and from the kingdom has to be funneled through a single control center (King Abd al-Aziz City for Science and Technology) and that a firewall will interdict Saudi citizens’ access to material deemed inappropriate by the government. In 1999 Saudi Arabia was finally connected to the Internet, later than all its Gulf monarchy neighbors. Similarly, Bahrain and Kuwait have been members of the WTO from its inception (January 1995), Qatar and the United Arab Emirates since 1996, and Oman since 2000. In early 2002 Saudi Arabia has yet to make the necessary adjustments to qualify for membership in the WTO.

Second, although none is a full-fledged democracy, all of Saudi Arabia’s monarchial Gulf neighbors have taken important steps to reform their political and economic systems. These include holding elections, granting some freedom of press and broadcasting and some rights to women, and establishing trade, financial, and commercial centers. Again, Riyadh lags behind. Some of the main flaws in the Saudi socioeconomic structure, with serious political ramifications, need to be underscored. First, despite attempts at diversification, the Saudi economy at the dawn of the twenty-first century still is heavily dependent on oil. Oil revenues make up around 90-95 percent of total Saudi export earnings, 70 percent of state revenues, and around 35-40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). (19) Consequently, Riyadh is seriously vulnerable to severe fluctuations in oil prices. Second, over the last two decades the Saudi economy has suffered from a very low level of economic growth. According to the World Bank, from 1980 to 1990 the Saudi GDP’s growth rate was 0.0 percent (no growth at all) and in the following ten years (1990-2000) was 1.6 percent. (20) The economic stagnation has been worsened by an extremely high fertility rate. In the last two decades the Saudi population more than doubled. In other words, in the early 2000s the kingdom has fewer resources to meet the demands of more people. No wonder the standard of living has substantially declined.

Third, another important result of the high fertility rate is a change in the demographic makeup of the country. Saudi Arabia now has a very young population. That means that every year hundreds of thousands of new job seekers ate added to the labor market. With the economy failing to generate enough jobs, the inescapable outcome is rising unemployment and underemployment. Fourth, since the late 1990s the Saudi leadership has expressed great interest in privatization and reducing the state’s role in the economic system. A Supreme Economic Council was created in 1999 to achieve that goal. However, the Saudi economy is still heavily dominated by public enterprises, particularly Aramco and the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation. Bold initiatives to reform the kingdom’s tax code, to attract foreign investment and to reduce government subsidies are yet to be taken. Fifth, given those socioeconomic problems there is no doubt that political discontent should rise. The Saudi political system, however, shows little tolerance, if any, for dissent. Under such circumstances, violence is seen as the most likely vehicle for expressing opposition to the government.

Thus in light of the historical ties between Wahhabism and the royal family, and the slow and hesitant approach toward political and economic reform, one can understand the Saudi reaction to the 11 September attacks and the subsequent war on terrorism. At the time of the Gulf War (1990-91), the Saudi government was able to obtain ah endorsement from the clerical establishment for its close cooperation with the United States. In the case of the war on terrorism, the ulama (religious scholars) have adopted a somewhat different stand from the official one. Some imams (religious leaders) condemned any attack against “our Muslim brothers in Afghanistan.” The Grand Imam stated that “this issue [terrorism] calls for new policies, not new wars.” (21) The apparent reluctance to endorse a declared Saudi policy of cooperation with the United States in the war on terrorism has prompted Crown Prince Abdullah to strongly urge the kingdom’s clerics to be cautious in their public pronouncements.

Meanwhile, the Saudi government has had a hard time articulating its stand and responding to critics both in the U.S. Congress and in the media. To start with, the official Saudi cooperation in combating terrorism has always been shaky. American (and Israeli) officials have always accused Saudi Arabia of supporting Hamas. (Washington classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization, whereas Riyadh considers it a legitimate resistance movement against Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.) FBI agents repeatedly expressed their frustration at the lack of Saudi cooperation during the investigation of the truck-bomb attack in 1996 on the Khobar Towers housing complex in Dharan, in which nineteen American servicemen were killed. In the aftermath of 11 September, the cooperation between Riyadh and Washington has proved, once again, questionable.

Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent the United States, was one of few countries in the world that initially expressed satisfaction with the Taliban’s takeover of most of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. Indeed, the kingdom, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries in the world to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government in Kabul. That initial Saudi support was based on two factors. First, after years of fighting between different Afghani factions, the Taliban were emerging as a stabilizing force with the potential to end the civil war and establish public order. Second, creating a fundamentalist Sunni state on the eastern borders of the predominately Shi’ia Iran would contribute to the isolation and containment of Iran (then seen as a rival to Saudi Arabia). The short-lived relationship between Riyadh and Kabul deteriorated in the late 1990s, mainly because of the close association between the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Shortly after 11 September, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with the Taliban.

That decision by Saudi Arabia was welcomed in Washington as another step toward isolating the Taliban and undermining any legitimacy they might have had in the Islamic world. Still, some members in the U.S. Congress and several American news organizations have publicly criticized the lack of Saudi support in the war against terror. Their criticism has focused on the involvement of Saudi citizens in the terrorist attacks and on allegations that Saudi private money had been funneled to terrorist organizations.

American investigators believe that several of the participants in the 11 September attacks were recruited by al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, particularly from Abha, the capital of Asir province in the southwestern part of the country. That province was the last to be brought under the rule of the Saud family when the country was created more than seven decades ago. Individuals from the region have also been linked with the attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, in October 2000, in which seventeen American sailors were killed. In response, Saudi officials say that U.S. authorities often mix up the names of Saudis. One reason for the confusion is that hundreds of Saudis have the same first and last names as some of the participants in the terrorist attacks. Furthermore, Saudi officials claim, some of the suspected terrorists were using stolen Saudi passports. In addition to those explanations, Riyadh acknowledged that the involvement of several Saudi citizens in the 11 September attacks is “the most disturbing and the most painful aspect of what happened” and that there is a need for introspection. (22)

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, several U.S. officials have claimed that much of al-Qaeda’s funding is funneled through organizations that provide humanitarian aid to Muslims around the world and that much of the money comes from wealthy Saudis, including prominent Saudi citizens and even some members of the Saudi royal family. Riyadh’s response to the allegations is three-fold. In mid-October 2001, representatives of the six Gulf monarchies agreed to freeze the assets of groups and individuals blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury. Since then the Saudi monetary authority has begun policing local charities and financial institutions more aggressively. Still, to regulate and inspect money transfers is a daunting task, given that the kingdom employs approximately six million foreign laborers, who send billions of dollars back to their home countries. A large proportion of the foreign laborers are Pakistani and Afghani, some of whom might sympathize with al-Qaeda. Finally, the Saudis assert that zakat (giving money to religious charities) is one of the five pillars of Islam, according to which all Muslims should donate 2.5 percent of their profit or income. The Saudis strongly stress that they have no evidence that money from any Saudi-based charity went to Osama bin Laden and his organization.

Despite disagreements between Washington and Riyadh regarding the nationality of the participants in the 11 September attacks and the source of funding for al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia has quietly cooperated with the United States in sharing intelligence information and in allowing American commanders to coordinate the military campaign in Afghanistan from Prince Sultan Air Base southeast of Riyadh. In short, the Saudi record of cooperation with the United States in the war against terrorism is mixed. That can be explained by the necessity for the Saudi royal family to find the right balance between the demands of its domestic constituencies and the desire to maintain and strengthen ties with its traditional ally, the United States.


Shortly after the Arab oil embargo in 1973-74, the United States (and other Western countries) created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) as the nation’s first line of defense in case of an oil crisis. In November 2001 President Bush made an unprecedented decision to fill the SPR to its full capacity of 700 million barrels. (23) That initiative would serve two important goals. First, it would enhance the oil security of the United States in a time of uncertainty regarding the effect of the war on terrorism on oil supplies. Second, it would boost demand for oil during a time of falling oil prices (the price of a barrel of oil fell from $31 in September 2001 to about $18 in November 2001). Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia (and other producers) warmly welcomed President Bush’s decision.

The initiative to fill the SPR to its full capacity also underscores several findings of this study. First, U.S. oil security, the stability of global oil prices, domestic stability in Saudi Arabia and other oil producing countries, and terrorism are all related. Enhancing the prospects for political and economic reform in Saudi Arabia will not only serve U.S. and global energy security but will also alter the dynamics under which suspected terrorists were nurtured. Second, since 11 September, President Bush has repeatedly affirmed that although the war on terror began with al-Qaeda, it will not end there. Nations that continue to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as hostile. Efforts to defeat terrorism should also target the political and socioeconomic conditions under which terrorism is born. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, quiet diplomacy should be implemented to urge friendly regimes to speed up and deepen the process of popular participation in public policymaking and economic reform. Third, the United States should continue its efforts to bring a peaceful settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The continuing violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians undermines the legitimacy of major U.S. allies in the region, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and fuels anti-American emotions all over the Islamic world. Recently, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, rightly stated, “[U]ndoubtedly, the sore that festers in the Middle East, that taints every aspect of life in the region, is the continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” (24)

Finally, in the war against terrorism the United States and the Saudi government need each other. President Bush has repeatedly and correctly stated that the United States is at war with terrorism, not Islam. The political support of major Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan (and the silent support of Iran or at least its failure to object) is essential to legitimize the military campaign against terror. On the other hand, one of Osama bin Laden’s chief goals is toppling the Saudi monarchy, which he regards as corrupt and un-Islamic because it is allied with the United States and has allowed American troops to be stationed there since the Gulf War. Militant Islam is a threat to the Saudi government just as it is to the United States. The two sides are together in the same fight against one enemy–militant Islam. Therefore, I argue, in spite of criticism of the kingdom in the U.S. Congress and American media, the Saudi government is a reliable partner to the United States in the effort to defeat terrorism. Riyadh’s apparent reluctance is due to the attempt to reconcile the two contradictory pillars of its survival: a military alliance with Washington and the conservative Islam that dominates its society.


(1.) Senator John McCain said that Saudi Arabia had satisfied extremists at home by allowing them to “have the megaphone” and had also financed some of those groups. Similarly, Senator Joseph Lieberman stated that the Saudis have pursued a strategy of riding the back of the tiger. See “Senators Jump on Anti-Saudi Bandwagon,” Middle East Economic Survey 44, no. 44 (29 October 2001), on-line at . Finally, Senator Joseph Biden accused Saudi Arabia of “funding hatred” and added that the United States had “gone overboard” in its “love affair” with Riyadh. See Elaine Sciolino and Neil MacFarquhar, “Naming of Hijackers as Saudis May Further Erode Ties to U.S.,” New York Times, 25 October 2001.

(2.) The list includes twenty-two accused terrorists from different nationalities: seven Egyptians, five Saudis, three Lebanese, two Kenyans, one Libyan, one Kuwaiti, one Tanzanian, one Comoros Islander, and one Iraqi American.

(3.) The complete list can be found at the FBI website at .

(4.) Those countries are Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

(5.) British Petroleum, BP Statistical Review of World Energy (London: BP, 2001), 4.

(6.) Ali al-Naimi, “Saudi Oil Policy Combines Stability with Strength, Looks for Diversity,” Oil and Gas Journal 98, no. 3 (2000): 16-18.

(7.) For more details see Aramco’s Web site at .

(8.) David B. Ottaway and Martha M. Hamilton, “Saudis Talk with 7 U.S. Oil Firms,” Washington Post, 30 September 1998, Al.

(9.) In the same announcement Royal Dutch/Shell was awarded the leadership role in the $4 billion Shaybah development in the Empty Quarter desert.

(10.) David A. Deese and Joseph S. Nye, Energy and Security (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1981), 7.

(11.) Joe Stork, Middle East Oil and the Energy Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), 211.

(12.) Seth P. Tillman, The United States in the Middle East (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 75.

(13.) The embargo was also imposed on the Netherlands, Portugal, Rhodesia, and South Africa.

(14.) In an interview with Business Week, Kissinger said, “I am not saying that there’s no circumstances where we would not use force.” See “Kissinger on Oil, Food, and Trade,” Business Week, 13 January 1975, 66-76.

(15.) In September 2000 Ariel Sharon, then the leader of Israel’s opposition party Likud, visited al-Aqsa Compound, which is considered holy for both Muslims and Jews. The Palestinians considered his visit provocative and, in response, started a wave of violence against what they perceive as the Israeli occupation of their land.

(16.) The followers of this movement call themselves Muwahhidun (Unitarians).

(17.) M. T. Houtsma, A. J. Wensinck, H. A. R. Gibb, W. Heffening, and E. Levi-Provencal, The Encyclopedia of Islam (London: Luzac, 1934), 1086.

(18.) These are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

(19.) Energy Information Administration, Country Profile: Saudi Arabia, June 2001, on-line at .

(20.) The World Bank, World Development Report 2000/2001 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 295.

(21.) Howard Schneider, “Bombing in Saudi City Kills American,” Washington Post, 7 October 2001, A1.

22. See an interview with Prince Turki bin Faisal, former head of the Saudi intelligence service, in Douglas Jehl, “Saudi Sees No bin Laden-Iraq Link,” New York Times, 22 November 2001.

(23.) In November 2001 the SPR holds approximately 545 million barrels.

(24.) Douglas Jehl, “Saudi Says Bush’s Words May Soothe Arab Feelings,” New York Times, 23 November 2001.

Gawdat Bahgat is the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Department of Political Science, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in Indiana, Pennsylvania.

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