Commentary Magazine


Arms and the Saudi Connection

The connection between the United States and Saudi Arabia, long considered a well established partnership, recently has been elevated in official parlance to the status of a “special relationship.” This honor is not unique among Middle Eastern states—the U.S. also has special relationships with Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Iran—but the decision to use this particular term is significant. It is meant to elicit a sense of satisfaction and reassurance, a peculiar warmth of feeling that no other combination of words will produce. In the dictionary meaning, of course, every relationship is special in the sense of being distinct or different, having a particular character, or being specific to the participants. But as a code phrase, a special relationship connotes something more, something exceptionally dear and valued, to be honored and protected beyond other relationships in the same class. Thus President Carter’s formulation: “The future of Saudi Arabia and the future of the United States are tied together very closely in an irrevocable way.”

Some irrevocable ties derive from a deep cultural affinity, a perception of common history, or the natural attraction of nations with similar socioeconomic systems and strategic interests. Often these elements are bound together in a feeling of shared destiny, as in the phrase “the future of the Western world.” But in the present international system this class of irrevocable ties is almost invariably recorded in formal alliances, and clearly Saudi Arabia is not such a case.

The genus “special relationship,” on the other hand, seems to apply to the other cases where there is no military alliance, only limited cultural affinity, not much shared history, and a difference of socioeconomic systems. In these special irrevocable relationships, there is a shared future interest but not a shared past. The declaration of “irrevocable ties” in such cases is more an expression of hope for the future than of demonstrated past performance under trial by fire.

In the Saudi case, the special relationship is rooted in the politics of the oil revolution and its consequences. With 25 per cent of the world’s proven reserves and a still larger share of exportable oil, as well as influence over the United Arab Emirates and other producers, Riyadh now holds the key to the global price and supply of the life-blood of the world industrial system. Now pumping about 8 million barrels a day (mbd), Saudi Arabia presently needs to export only 5 mbd to finance its own import requirements. American and OECD specialists expect that the Saudis will have to increase liftings to 12 or 16 or 20 mbd to meet global demand by 1985, but most observers do not expect that Riyadh’s own revenue requirements will expand at a rate commensurate with these assumptions (though it is likely that they will expand considerably due to rapid inflation of development-project costs). Unspent surplus revenues, already accumulating at a rate unprecedented in the history of finance, will, if the Saudis cooperate, multiply still more rapidly. Responsible recycling of these reserves will continue to be necessary to correct balance-of-payments disequilibriums for the nations hardest hit by inflated oil-import bills, including the United States, in the form of loans, bond purchases, bank deposits, and foreign investments. Relatively small fluctuations in Saudi production, pricing, or investment policies can set in motion waves of disruption throughout the industrial world, while having minimal impact on the fortunes of Saudi Arabia itself.

In the extreme case, as Sheikh Yamani once noted in an unguarded moment, unilateral actions by the Saudis could destroy either the oil importers—primarily the West and the more advanced countries of the Third World—or the oil exporters. The importers could be devastated by a halving of Saudi production and a doubling of prices; and the revenue-dependent exporters (such as Iraq and Iran) could be undercut by a doubling of Saudi production and a halving of prices. Similarly, unilateral actions in Saudi financial policy could fundamentally upset the structure of the world monetary system, the value of individual currencies, and the availability of investment capital to finance growth in many countries of the First and Third Worlds.

It is true that Saudi Arabia is also dependent on the West—for technology, managerial assistance, the stability of the global environment, and the security of its overseas investments. Optimists see a self-correcting element in Saudi foreign deposits, in that Riyadh, they assert, could not bring down the Western house of cards without suffering substantial losses in its own sunk investments. But, as one writer has observed, this is a little like telling a man holding a gun to your head that he cannot blow out your brains because, if he does, he will get blood all over his new suit. The plain truth is that the basic relationpship is one of grossly asymmetrical dependence, and the leverage is there if the Saudis should ever want to exploit it.

The fact that Riyadh up to now has behaved “responsibly”—i.e., in a fashion consistent with the interests of other states—has not been primarily a function of counterthreats or self-deterrence in fear of unacceptable losses. The Saudis have acted responsibly not because they are held in check by a balance of power but rather because they have been restrained by their own self-interest and their conception of good citizenship. There is a highly developed “superego” in this kingdom founded on and socialized by the conservative moral principles of the Wahabbi movement in Islam, and it is likely to continue to be effective in the future. Western fears, therefore, hinge not on whether the Saudis will continue to be responsible, but rather on the possibility of a change in the main principles from which their responsibility derives. What if the Saudi leaders continue to be good citizens, but redefine their allegiance to a community with different values?

Community membership is above all a question of self-concept and identity. A Saudi leader is simultaneously a citizen of Saudi Arabia, of the Arab world, of the Nation of Islam, of the Third World, of OPEC, and of the West, not to mention an array of internal tribal, familial, regional, and class loyalties. The implicit assumption of Western writers and statesmen when they speak of Saudi “responsibility” is either that fidelity to Western interests serves these other communities, or that the stability of the Western world and its security against Communism is a preeminent interest for Saudi Arabia, standing above its other obligations.

It is less clear that the Saudi leadership sees its obligations this way today or will continue to do so in the future. The cardinal precept of the Wahabbi movement is a return to Islamic fundamentalism. The Saudi leaders are the trustees of the birthplace of Mohammedanism, and they have a special mission to reawaken the original inspiration throughout the increasingly secular Islamic world. Strengthening the Western (mainly Christian) system is not the ultimate objective, but merely an instrument to protect the bastion of Islamic conservatism from the threats of radicalism and Communism. It follows that, should at some future date the interests of Islam and those of the West come to be perceived as divergent, the responsibilities of the Saudi leadership might shift accordingly.

For American policy-makers, the possibility of conflict between Western and Islamic interests is a relatively remote concern. But the intensification of the Saudis’ Arab identity and their renewed commitment to pan-Arab goals are recognized as a more immediate reality. Yet the willingness of Riyadh to assume a role of Arab leadership and to offer itself as an alternative to Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad as the focal point of the Arab coalition is regarded by Washington as a positive development, indeed one to be encouraged by the United States. According to the prevailing view in Washington, the Wahabbi leadership is moderate and responsible and can be expected to exercise a restraining influence on the more strident and adventurous elements of the Arab camp. The Saudis are doves within OPEC, a stabilizing influence in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian peninsula, and, it is said, a moderating influence in the Arab-Israeli context. But is this view accurate?

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An understanding of the Saudi role in inter-Arab politics must begin with the linkage between Saudi domestic and international concerns and the wider Arab political sphere. Prior to 1967, the kingdom was ostracized by Nasser and by the radical elements in the Arab camp, and the top Saudi leadership saw the direction of the pan-Arab movement as a threat to the stability of the regime. From 1951 to 1957, Egyptian military missions had trained Saudi forces, and Nasserite ideas infiltrated the middle-officer ranks. But in 1957, following the Suez crisis and the creation of the first United Arab Republic, King Saud abruptly terminated the alliance with Egypt and reoriented Saudi policy toward the United States. Simultaneously, he launched a vitriolic propaganda campaign against the Egyptians and, according to Egyptian sources, attempted to bribe the chief of the Syrian general staff to assassinate Nasser. Yet when, in 1964, Saud was deposed by his brother Faisal, the former king went to Egypt and broadcast pro-Nasser speeches over Radio Cairo—asserting, among other things, that he had been ousted because a squadron of U.S. jets based at Dharan had intervened to frighten the Royal Guard into submission.

During the 1960′s anti-royalist influences continued to operate within the kingdom. In 1963, during the Yemen crisis, nine Saudi pilots defected to the Nasserites, forcing the grounding of the air force. A few years later, several hundred arrests were necessary at Dharan to break up a conspiracy of civilian reformers and young officers. A (Nasserite) Arabian Peninsula Peoples Union gained influence within the army and among tribes in the northern Shammar region. The hazards of Arab pariahdom made a deep impression on the leadership of the extended royal family.

Two subsequent wars helped the Saudis escape from this tightening vise. The 1967 war displaced Egypt from the position of unchallenged bloc leadership and provided an opportunity for the Saudis to regain credibility within the Arab world. The 1973 confrontation, accompanied by the fourfold increase in the crude-oil price, provided the leverage. Both Egypt and Syria became dependent on Saudi subsidies, and the Saudis became the key to influencing the West.

Today, the driving force of Saudi external policy is to achieve dominance and hegemony on the Arabian peninsula and a position of seniority in the inter-Arab sphere. The importance that the U.S. attributes to Saudi leadership enhances the influence of the kingdom within the Arab camp, and the enhanced influence of Riyadh within the Arab camp increases its leverage with Washington. American advocates of the Saudi connection recognize certain anomalies in this alliance, such as the failure of Riyadh to support the Sadat peace initiative and its extensive financial support to Syria and the PLO. But these are excused by the imperatives of pan-Arab leadership: e.g., Riyadh cannot openly endorse Sadat (a position that is assumed otherwise to be natural) because this would split the Arab world into two caucuses and reduce Saudi influence with the Arab hawks. Prince Fahd considers “Arab fragmentation more fatal than wars.” Similarly, it is said, Riyadh must contribute to the PLO to demonstrate its solidarity and to enhance its restraining influence with the Palestinians. American policy-makers accept and even endorse this Saudi tactic of sitting on the fence to see what develops without committing Riyadh to any specific party.

Proponents of this analytical line seldom consider its obverse: that while Saudi leadership may influence the direction of Arab policy, the requirements of becoming the leader of the Arab bloc may also change the Saudi perspective and influence Saudi policy. Within the pan-Arab context, a prospective leader must have certain qualities: (1) a demonstrated independence of the West and, if necessary, a willingness to oppose it; (2) a tangible commitment to the struggle against Israel; (3) solidarity with the Arabs of Palestine; (4) a willingness to commit resources to, and sacrifice other objectives for, the first three principles; and (5) open lines of communication with the other principal states of the coalition. Inherent in these imperatives is the potential for serious conflict between an Arabized Saudi Arabia and the West, with implications that seem to be overlooked by present American policy.

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II

The five imperatives of pan-Arab leadership are interconnected, and the observance of one is mutually supportive of the others. For example, support for the Palestinians is itself an expression of opposition to Israel; it often involves the commitment of resources and the sacrifice of other objectives; it implies dissatisfaction with the Western and especially the American roles in the region; and it reinforces links with other states in the region. In practice, a commitment to the Palestinians is the sine qua non of bloc participation, for without the Palestinian cause there is no unifying theme to bind the heterogeneous elements of the coalition and to bridge such differences as the conflicts between Syria and Iraq, Libya and Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, Iraq and Kuwait, and Libya and Tunisia. The Palestinians own the Arab conscience. This is their power, and today it is also the power of the Arab idea.

The Saudis are well aware of the centrality of the Palestinians. In the past twelve months, Yasir Arafat has made at least four pilgrimages to the Wahabbi capital, more than any other senior Arab leader, and on each occasion he has met with the top officials of the Saudi kingdom. The Saudis in turn have reiterated their opposition to any settlement that fails to provide a “just solution to the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” and they appear ready to put the full weight of their influence and the considerable means at their disposal behind this commitment.

Many Israelis and friends of Israel believe that a general solution of the Palestinian question will be the most intractable of the outstanding issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that the principle of linkage that ties a settlement on any one front to a resolution on all fronts in effect makes it impossible to achieve a settlement at all. Since Sinai is the easiest case, it is argued, the pragmatic approach would be a de facto separate peace with Egypt, under the cover of a nebulous statement of principles for the other fronts sufficient to satisfy Egyptian obligations without committing Israel to specific arrangements that would be unacceptable. It is conceded by advocates of this approach that Sadat’s latitude also is limited by pan-Arab principles (his country is, after all, the Arab Republic of Egypt, and the ruling party is the Arab Socialist Union, etc.), but in practice Sadat’s interpretation of his Arab responsibilities might be appeased by a statement of general principles to guide a settlement on the other fronts without the actual negotiation of the other pacts themselves.

It is not our purpose here to assess this analysis of Egypt’s options, but to point out that, even if it were otherwise correct, the new Saudi role makes such an analysis untenable. Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states under its influence today underwrite virtually the entire capital budget of the Egyptian armed forces, not to mention a considerable portion of Sadat’s economic-development program, and the key sectors of the Egyptian elite are beholden to Riyadh. Some have argued that if these subsidies were withdrawn as a consequence of a separate peace agreement engineered by the United States, Washington could provide enough aid to offset the losses. But American aid to Egypt already exceeds $1 billion per year. A small increment above this amount is conceivable, but an additional commitment of more than $2 billion per year for the indefinite future simply is not credible. Therefore, Egypt depends on the Saudi subsidies. Moreover, elements within the Egyptian armed forces that would in any case oppose a separate peace would be vastly strengthened if they had Saudi Arabia as their outside sponsor rather than Libya, Syria, or Iraq. It would be an exaggeration to say that Riyadh owns the Egyptian army, but certainly its influence is considerable.

In effect, then, the Saudi commitment to the Palestinians, which is a direct consequence of Riyadh’s pan-Arab leadership role, becomes a major impediment to the negotiating flexibility of the Egyptians. The Carter administration apparently considers it a truism that “Saudi Arabia has played an important moderating role in the search for peace in the Middle East. We consider the Saudis a constructive partner in our efforts in the region.” American officials seem inclined to do everything possible to encourage Saudi leadership of the Arab bloc. Yet the inherent ambivalence of Saudi policy puts in doubt whether such a development would in fact promote the peace process or impede it. Some may even conclude that things have not gone as well as they might have between Sadat and Begin precisely because of the Saudi role in limiting concessions by Egypt and Jordan.

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III

The assumptions being made about the Saudi role in a possible future war also need to be questioned. For example, President Carter asserted on February 17 that “Saudi Arabia has never been actively engaged in any aggression against Israel,” and administration spokesmen are sanguine about Saudi non-participation in a possible future war. But as early as 1948, Saudi Arabia furnished a battalion of troops under Egyptian command for the invasion of Palestine by the Arab League armies. On May 24, 1967, two weeks before the June war began, Saudi units entered southern Jordan as part of the Arab mobilization against Israel, while others waited in readiness near the border. None were actively engaged in the ensuing hostilities, but this was more a consequence of the lightning Israeli victory than of any apparent lack of will on the part of the Saudis. During the 1973 war, a Saudi brigade of approximately 3,000 men was dispatched to Syria, and several Saudi prisoners were reportedly taken by the Israelis. In addition, eight Saudi helicopters with Saudi pilots were sent to Egypt where they participated in logistic-support missions and did not return home until a few months after the war ended. Following the war, a brigade of about 4,000 men remained in Jordan encamped near Karak, in the mountains to the east of the Dead Sea, until late 1976. All of these deployments, it should be added, represented significant percentages of the forces in being at the times of conflict.

The actions of the Saudis since 1973 raise additional doubts. In November 1975, 15 F-5E Tigers that the United States had delivered to the Royal Saudi Air Force less than twelve months earlier (amid assurances to Congress that the administration was confident they would not be used against Israel) flew out of a Jordanian base into Syria to participate in joint Syrian-Jordanian-Saudi maneuvers lasting several days. (Riyadh explained to Washington that its squadron was merely participating in the “annual training cycle” of the Saudi brigade in Syria.) In November 1977, a squadron of F-5′s flew out of the Saudi base at Tabuk close to the Israeli border. Senior Saudi military commanders and officials now consult regularly with their counterparts in the confrontation states and make frequent visits to Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Riyadh is investing heavily in the Arab Military Industries Organization to build munitions and aerospace facilities in Egypt, and has just announced that it is building a $10-billion weapons-production center of its own. In the military sphere, as in diplomacy, Saudi policy is increasingly bound up with that of the other key Arab states, including those to the “Left” as well as those to the “Right.” To Prince Fahd, “the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is among the Arab states and within the framework of the Arab states. . . . All the Arab states fall within one framework.”

Saudi officials have also been forthright in stating that, should there be a fifth Arab-Israeli war, their country would commit its forces. King Khalid told the New York Times:

When we build up our military strength we have no aims against anybody, except those who took by force our lands and our shrines in Jerusalem—and we know who that is. . . . The strength of Saudi Arabia is a strength for the whole Arab and Islamic world. We always intended to make use of all military equipment that might help us to build our military strength.

Defense Minister Sultan told the Christian Science Monitor that “All our weapons are at the disposal of the Arab nation and will be used in the battle against the common enemy.” Foreign Minister Saud assured Newsweek that, “In times of war, when the interests of our brother Arab countries are involved and blood is flowing, nothing is too expensive to use [including] whatever resources we have to hurt our enemy.” The Kuwaiti newspaper Al Qabas reported that Saudi officials “feel their country will be exposed to any new war in the area and for that reason are preparing to participate in such war by opening a new front in the Eilat area.”

U.S. officials dismiss these as “hometown statements” made for the benefit of the leaders they are talking to at the moment, and not as statements of intent. What really motivates the Saudis, according to administration statements to Congress, is the putative threat from Iraq. This theoretical problem can justify almost anything, however, since Iraq has more than triple the armed forces of the Wahabbi kingdom, higher levels of combat efficiency, and an aggressive Ba’athist ideology, ostensibly hostile to the very existence of “reactionary” Arab regimes. Yet this situation has existed since 1963 (when the Ba’athists assumed power in Iraq), without Saudi Arabia requiring massive arms transfers until now. Even at the height of the Nasserite threat, nothing on the scale of the present military-development program was considered necessary.

By contrast, the present period of accelerated sales to Riyadh coincides with Baghdad’s recent moderation of its claims against Kuwait and Iran—which might have been expected to dampen incentives for a Saudi military buildup. In effect, the Iraqi arms inventory, whose main target is Israel, is being used to justify a Saudi counter-development, whose end target—according to almost all indications—will also be Israel. Moreover, if the fiction of building up Saudi Arabia against Iraq and Iran is accepted as the criterion for arms sales, the 60 F-15′s included in the Carter arms package will be merely the opening wedge for enormous future provisions. U.S. Air Force Secretary John C. Stetson acknowledged this recently when he described the 60 F-15′s as merely a “drop in the bucket” considering the size of the country the Saudis have to defend, and said that more aircraft will be required.

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IV

Current Saudi defense expenditures are nearly equal to those of Britain, France, and Germany and nearly two-and-a-half times those of Israel. The tenfold expansion in Saudi military capabilities that is now under way with U.S. assistance is significant not only for the Arab-Israeli balance but also for American strategic interests in the region. Indeed, it can be argued that the implications for the United States are potentially greater than those for Israel.

In themselves, the F-15′s promised by the Carter administration and the other elements of the kingdom’s military-development program (including a complete military infrastructure sufficient to absorb equipment levels far beyond those now on order), while significant, will not overturn the balance of power against Israel. A “counting the beans” comparison of arsenals alone is highly misleading, since the Israeli advantage is based primarily on a superior capacity to maintain, operate, and obtain the greatest combat utility from given sets of equipment. While differences in manpower are inherently less quantifiable than differences in equipment, a considerable body of evidence points to the conclusion that sound training, well-considered tactics, entrepreneurial skill, and the individual competence of personnel, especially pilots, have a much greater effect than any normal differences in weapons hardware. The very speed of technological change and innovation tends to reward the side that is able to modify its organization and tactics more rapidly and to absorb and integrate new equipment in shorter lead times. While it would be a mistake to underrate the Saudis—their armed forces draw upon the same Bedouin stock out of which the British fashioned the Jordanian Arab Legion (itself widely regarded as the best fighting force of its size in the Arab world)—the Israeli advantage is deeply rooted in a difference of social and cultural milieu and is likely to persist for quite some time.

But the new Saudi capabilities will represent a significant addition to the other elements of the Arab military coalition. Exactly for this reason, it may be impossible for the Saudis not to participate in another round of fighting if they hope to retain their leadership role. The new capabilities may generate their own intentions and enhance the pressures within the country and from other Arab states to contribute to a common Arab effort against the Zionist enemy. In this light, the expansion of the Saudi bases at Tabuk, Turayf, and Gurayat near the Israeli border, including a para-troop installation at Tabuk (paratroops being by definition offensive forces), is not an encouraging sign.

Given the scale of the Saudi assets and their potential threat to key Israeli targets such as the Hawkeye airborne radars and the Dimona installations, the Israelis may in a crisis feel compelled to launch a preemptive strike against Tabuk and other Saudi bases in the northwest. Already there are reports of Israeli photo-reconnaissance missions and feinting practice attacks against Tabuk. If Israeli intentions are ambiguous, the Saudis will have to take this into account; they may conclude that the option of staying out of a war is foreclosed by the new circumstances. In effect, the Saudi posture increases the likelihood of an action-reaction cycle of defensive-preemptive calculations on both sides.

In sum, the most serious problem raised by the Saudi buildup is that it increases the probability of the outcome least desired by the Carter administration, the Israelis, and presumably the Saudis: direct combat between forces of Israel and Saudi Arabia, making the latter, for the first time, a full-fledged confrontation state.

Even under the best of circumstances, including complete Saudi military abstention, a fifth Arab-Israeli war would severely strain the “special relationship” between Washington and Riyadh. It is conceivable that a crisis could be isolated if both parties stood at some distance from their respective clients during the fighting. Once direct Saudi participation is assumed, however, the diplomatic damage-limitation strategies fail. Rational interest alone may not limit the escalation from limited military involvement to complete engagement of the oil and petrodollar weapons. Once the hounds of war are unleashed, and Saudi blood is flowing, the pressures to employ the full panoply of Saudi weapons may be irrepressible. And when the Saudis come out of the war with a bloody nose, the postwar relationship with the United States will be altered, perhaps permanently. For these reasons, the United States may have an even greater interest than does Israel in keeping Saudi Arabia out of the military confrontation.

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V

The United States is more deeply involved in the military buildup in Saudi Arabia than in any other nation, including Israel and Iran. The U.S. has designed for the Saudis a thorough and systematic program to develop from the ground up a complete military infrastructure, including airfields, naval port facilities, radar and communications systems, supply depots and related logistical support, and maintenance and repair facilities, as well as training programs for personnel to maintain, operate, repair, command, and administer the weapons and facilities. Most of the actual construction and training is under the direct supervision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and American corporations, and tens of thousands of American citizens are on the ground in Saudi Arabia as part of this effort.

Americans who question the scope of this involvement are reminded of the “special relationship.” But President Carter himself, wearing his other hat as an arms controller, does “not believe arms sales buy lasting friends.” Critics also are reminded of the yawning balance-of-payments deficit. But in 1977, the American trade deficits with Libya and Iraq were equal to or greater than that with Riyadh, yet nobody favors major arms sales to these countries. In any case, all 60 F-15′s promised by the administration, which will be operational well into the 1990′s will pay for less than three weeks’ oil imports. Critics are asked how Washington could say no to the Saudis. But if this is the case, how will it say no if at some future point the request is for AWACS or cruise missiles or heavy bombers? Is Washington prepared to concede the principle that American policy is a mere hostage to Saudi demands?

The possibility of an Arab-Israeli settlement will be the first casualty if the United States maneuvers itself into a position in which unlimited Saudi Arabian influence over Washington can be taken for granted. If the Arabs conclude that they can get through the back door—i.e., through Washington—what they cannot get from Israel directly, their incentives to make the concessions necessary for peace will be reduced. The “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia, intended as an instrument to enhance moderate influence in the Arab world, will instead become an obstacle to progress. The dilemma is already evident in the Sadat initiative. Had Saudi Arabia committed itself to a pro-Egyptian line, the whole situation might be different now. In the event, Saudi Arabia has become not part of the solution but part of the problem.

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