Commentary Magazine


The American House of Saud, by Steven Emerson

The Saudi Lobby

The American House of Saud.
by Steven Emerson.
Franklin Watts. 450 pp. $18.95.

When the British tidied up the map of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman empire they probably thought they had done a good day’s work in keeping a colony for themselves at Aden and entrusting nearly a million square miles of the Arabian desert to the Saudi dynasty, which had been disputing it with the Ottomans and others. Aden was a useful entrepôt, but the only economic resource of the new Saudi state was the tourist trade into Mecca. It was, in fact, the decline of this trade that in 1935 led the Saudi authorities to grant a concession for oil exploration to the Arabian Standard Oil Company, later to be known as Aramco.

By 1980, the annual oil revenues of Saudi Arabia had risen to $110 billion—more than enough to buy anything available in the country, more than enough to import all possible luxuries for those members of the ruling class who stayed home and followed the austere tenets of the Wahabi sect, more than enough to maintain those who frequented the fleshpots of Europe, more than enough to fund the most ambitious of development plans. In fact, Saudi Arabia became rich enough to embark on a program of foreign largesse. The beneficiary has been the United States, and the money has energized an intense but very quiet campaign of public relations and political influence. All this is set forth with considerable detail and only slight journalistic melodrama by Steven Emerson, who in this book traces with precision the activities of a lobby that is considerably more active and in important ways more effective than the better-known Israel lobby.

For the billions of petrodollars flowing back from the Middle East have created an influential group of Americans with a substantial interest in seeing the Saudis kept happy. These include first and foremost the managers of the oil companies themselves, whose opinions on the Middle East Emerson finds indistinguishable from those of the Saudi embassy. Another group are the officials of the American corporations deeply involved in the development of Saudi Arabia—the construction companies being the most obvious, with the banks perhaps a close second. These Emerson classes as the “petrocorporations.” Other large groups include a number of universities that have found Saudi philanthropy attractive, and local booster organizations in such areas as Birmingham, Alabama. Bringing up the rear are public-relations men, registered agents, temporarily unemployed or retired politicians, and retired diplomats. John C. West, President Carter’s ambassador to Riyadh, appears to constitute a lobby in himself alone. All these organizations and individuals are bound to Saudi Arabia by the cash nexus, and on Emerson’s evidence they pursue their self-interest with considerable skill.

The arena of their endeavors is larger than the Congress of the United States. By and large, the U.S. government has made policy toward Saudi Arabia as an exercise of executive prerogative. Thus, the Treasury has long allowed U.S. corporations to deduct oil royalties—which enrich Saudi Arabia to the point that it does not need or deserve foreign aid—as if they were income taxes, leading to minimal U.S. tax liability. The Treasury has also applied confidentiality regulations to the holdings of Arab governments in the United States so that the general public and the Department of Commerce are kept in the dark as to the true magnitude of Saudi investment here.

The principal occasion when Saudi policy was thrown into the cockpit of the Congress was in 1981, with the debate over the proposed sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. What looked like a losing cause triumphed at the last minute when a massive wave washed over the people’s representatives from business organizations supporting the sale as good for America. Typical was the florists’ lobby, which argued that defeat of the sale would depress industrial conditions, and in depressed industrial conditions people buy fewer flowers.

The Saudi interest in Congress is not limited to matters of legislation, but extends to the investigative function as well. In 1976-77, the staff of the Subcommittee on Foreign Economic Policy of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after subpoenaing the records of the principal oil companies, developed persuasive evidence that Aramco had so mismanaged Saudi oil fields that in 1973 a substantial cut in production would have been necessary even if OPEC had not imposed an embargo; the evidence also showed that the companies consistently overstated production in the months following the embargo. But after insistent pressure by the Saudis, the companies, and legislators favorable to them, only a gutted version of the report was ever published.

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The Saudi lobby has a keen appreciation of the need to influence opinion-makers. The Saudi government, individual Saudis, and U.S. corporations involved in the Middle East have been very active in funding lectures, conferences, and academic research in American universities and other cultural institutions. In all these programs, there are two remarkable differences between Saudi support and most other kinds. Promoters of these activities are surprisingly open about their role in expounding “the Arab point of view,” and the donors retain extraordinary control over their philanthropic creations. In one case, involving an endowed chair at the University of Southern California, the Saudi government reserved the right of approval over the initial and all subsequent appointments. (The Center of which this chair was a part was eventually decommissioned by the university’s trustees.) Other institutions, including Georgetown and Duke, have maintained continuing and profitable relations with the Saudis.

Beneficiaries of Saudi largesse have been forbidden to add speakers to a panel for the sake of balance, or to hold a conference in Jerusalem. One of the most striking events cited by Emerson was a decision by the Smithsonian Institution to pick up a major exhibition on the archeology of Israel which had been rejected by the Metropolitan Museum; a few months later, the Smithsonian dropped the exhibition because of alleged doubts about the ownership of items in the exhibition. These—11 out of 320—had come from a museum in East Jerusalem. In between the decision to mount the exhibition and the decision to drop it, the Smithsonian received a $5 million grant from the Saudi government for an Islamic Studies Center.

The Saudi reach extends to the media. In 1980, WGBH-TV of Boston and an associated British company co-produced Death of a Princess, an account of an incident in which a Saudi prince was alleged to have ordered the execution of his granddaughter and the decapitation of her lover. The pressure brought on the British not to broadcast the program included scarcely veiled threats of economic warfare against the United Kingdom. Similar threats were made against other European countries. In Italy, France, and West Germany, they were effective; the film was not shown. In the United States, a number of PBS affiliates declined to carry the program after the Saudi ambassador objected to it and the usual cast of Saudi supporters, including Mobil Oil, argued that the program was insensitive and insulting to Saudi Arabia. One need only imagine the response of the media to similar claims that a television program was offensive to, let us say, the ruling classes of France, the United Kingdom, or South Africa.

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But Saudi operations are not limited to the intellectual and political elite. The Kingdom also has its eye on Main Street. No American city has reciprocated the interest more assiduously than Birmingham, Alabama. The city’s principal industries and banks, and its branch of the University of Alabama, have taken part in a concerted drive to establish lucrative ties with the Kingdom. In 1983, the flower of Birmingham gathered with a group of Arab investors for a major conference on the city’s developing relations with the Persian Gulf. One of the key speakers was former Congressman Pete McCloskey, sometime anti-Vietnam-war activist and—a fact not noted by Emerson—the man who, while on a visit to Lebanon in 1982, mistakenly thought he heard Yasir Arafat recognize Israel. McCloskey delivered a speech on the power of the Jewish community, which he accused of conducting its work “secretly.” Having suggested that all aid to Israel be cut off forthwith unless it adhered to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and withdrew from Lebanon immediately, he went on to assert that the political view held by the Jewish community “controls America today.” Then he offered the pious hope that there would never be a return of anti-Semitism to the United States.

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What is the source of the Saudi attraction? Emerson is content to explain it by petrodollars, and no doubt these loom very large. But the Kingdom offers other qualities useful for lobbying efforts. It is in the unique position of being the sole Arab country that is officially pro-American as well as anti-Israel; Billy Carter and his academic equivalents may be willing to go after Libyan money, but it is fairly hard to merchandise Colonel Qaddafi as a “moderate.” Many an American businessman must be the happier to sign a contract with a rich Third World nation that ceaselessly proclaims its anti-Communism.

In addition, it is easy to romanticize the Saudis. Americans love a king even more than they love a lord, and the Saudi dynasty seems to have an endless supply of dignified and handsome gentlemen to fill the role of latter-day Saladins, all urging the United States to pursue its enlightened self-interest. People who do not concern themselves too closely with Saudi enforcement of the religious common law also find it easy to admire the supposed simplicities and egalitarianism of Bedouin culture. Even that great champion of human rights, Jimmy Carter, speaking in 1983, reported that he had found the Saudis to have admirable views on family life and the place of the elderly.

The nature of Saudi influence in the United States is, finally, strikingly different from that of Israeli influence. The Israel lobby is overt, the Saudi lobby covert. The Israel lobby proceeds by mobilizing Americans, many of them Jews, many of them not, to exercise their franchise in behalf of our only democratic ally in the Middle East; the Saudi lobby is energized by international threat and by the payment of vast sums to private individuals, corporations, and institutions.

The two lobbies are admittedly identical in their ultimate focus: the survival of Israel. It is just that the one supports it, while the other opposes it. We know all about how the one operates; thanks to Steven Emerson, we may begin to understand the other.

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