Commentary Magazine

Riyadh and Us

To the Editor:

In taking aim at the U.S.-Saudi partnership [“Our Enemies, the Saudis,” July-August], Victor Davis Hanson writes as if he is shocked by the discovery of a monster in his own backyard. Yet he offers no workable proposals for how to tame or even, if need be, to destroy it.

Mr. Hanson asserts that we must abandon our dependency on Saudi energy reserves, and argues that this will happen once we liberate Baghdad from Saddam Hussein and help develop Russian oil production. But global demand over the coming generation will require all the output that the oil-producing states can provide. It is misleading to imply that the output of Saudi Arabia or of any other Gulf state will somehow become inconsequential. American policies aimed at defending global access to the energy sources of the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, remain valid.

Mr. Hanson insinuates that the Bush administration has lied to the American people about Saudi cooperation with our efforts to block the financing of terrorism. But Washington has received cooperation from Riyadh in tracking the money that has been reaching al Qaeda from Saudi donors. Last October, Riyadh quietly sent officials from its ministry of finance and central bank to meet with U.S. Treasury officials and discuss how to create a system to monitor Saudi charitable foundations and block funding for al Qaeda. These efforts continue today, which is probably why Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and other cabinet officers state that Saudi cooperation has been satisfactory.

We have not yet found a way to work with Saudi Arabia on the basic problems arising from the spread of militant Islamic fundamentalism around the world. Before September 11 neither Washington nor Riyadh adequately appreciated the indirect consequences of the Saudis’ evangelism abroad. The Saudi government is proud of its financial support for spreading the practice of Wahhabi Islam through religious schools and mosques. But it is simplistic to argue, as Mr. Hanson does, that this financing reflects a Saudi intent to encourage international terror and radical anti-Americanism.

As for failing to foresee consequences, Washington played a significant role in helping inflame the spirit of holy war among Arabs and other Muslims during the 1980’s by lavishly supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet army. To advance our anti-Communist policy, we pushed Riyadh to match dollar-for-dollar our investment in that war. Once the Soviets withdrew in 1989, we walked away, leaving a vacuum that the Taliban and al Qaeda eventually filled.

There are tough problems facing the Saudi-American relationship. To reach agreement on reforming that country’s educational system and how it performs its role as a leading propagator of Islam will require skill and sensitivity. Mr. Hanson’s call to stimulate destabilization, “if not outright chaos,” in Saudi Arabia will not bring changes favorable to American interests. His chosen means—to find or help create dissidents committed to democracy—has emotional appeal, but it will not lead to the safer world that all of us would like to see.

Richard W. Murphy
U.S. Ambassador to Saudi
Arabia, 1981-83
New York City



To the Editor:

Victor Davis Hanson’s call for a U.S. policy “seeking to spark disequilibrium, if not outright chaos,” in Saudi Arabia is not only irresponsible but downright dangerous to America’s vital interests. Saudi Arabia’s culture and values are so different from our own that Americans often find it difficult to understand the strategic value of our relationship. Yet the United States has always had important allies that were neither Western nor democratic.

Saudi Arabia holds a quarter of the world’s oil reserves and, along with the other Gulf states, two-thirds of the world’s oil supply. The special relationship established between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in 1944 has worked well for both countries, and has provided a degree of global energy security, especially during the cold war. Saudi Arabia has consistently demonstrated that its decisions on oil policy are intended to stabilize markets and prices in cooperation with the United States.

Because it is a tribal society that follows a strict interpretation of the Qur’an, Saudi Arabia sometimes appears secretive and inaccessible to Americans. Certainly, the events of September 11 raise serious and unavoidable questions for the Saudis themselves about the evolution of their society. Their challenge is how to become a modern Islamic state in a globalized world. They must also explore why a militant and violent ideology appeals to some of their citizens.

Still, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia need each other as strategic allies. The two countries have cooperated closely on energy security, Arab-Israeli peace, regional stability, and South Asia, and the relationship has endured for decades, through several global and regional crises. Incremental change in Saudi Arabia is inevitable and should be encouraged by the United States.

Judith Kipper
Center for Strategic &
International Studies
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

It is sad that COMMENTARY has published Victor Davis Hanson’s deplorable and inaccurate article. Mr. Hanson displays a total ignorance of the vast progress Saudi Arabia has made in recent decades and of the ways its standard of living has improved. Indeed, no state in Europe or the Americas has accomplished as much.

In Saudi Arabia, some $14 billion a year—a quarter of the country’s annual budget—is allotted to education. There are eight universities and over 24,000 schools, colleges, and vocational training centers. The country now has over 300 hospitals with 45,000 beds and 32,000 doctors (a quarter of whom are Saudi nationals). And the Saudi government has changed the country from a desert kingdom into one of the most modern states in the world, building fifteen cities and 300 villages with sewage, water, and electrical services.

Saudi Arabia is a democratic country according to Islamic law. Its constitution is the holy Qur’an and the hadith (sayings of the Prophet), which guarantee the rights of its citizens. The Qur’an and hadith respect Judaism and Christianity, and contain the principles of human rights, put in place 1,400 years before the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Saudi Arabia has a king, elected by the council of the royal family, and a crown prince, both of whom, for a few days each week, meet any citizen who wishes to see them. At 10 a.m. every day, cabinet ministers must meet any citizen who comes to their ministries presenting petitions, which are taken care of in due time. Can any U.S. citizen meet the President or cabinet secretaries whenever he wishes? The best of democracy is not elections, but the protection of the rights of citizens and the government’s accomplishments in their behalf.

Mr. Hanson states that the anti-Saudi Arabian terrorist Osama bin Laden is “a naturalized Saudi Arabian.” In fact, Osama bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia to a Yemeni father. But the Saudi government deprived him of his citizenship and made it illegal for any Saudi, including members of his family, to send him money. Saudi Arabia made efforts to have bin Laden extradited from Sudan and Afghanistan long before the U.S. treated him with adequate seriousness. That some of his followers are Saudi nationals is of great concern to the government of Saudi Arabia, just as the U.S. is concerned that some of his followers are native-born Americans.

Mr. Hanson also echoes the much-distorted view that Saudi Arabia finances religious schools in various countries. But Saudi Arabia did not finance even one such school in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. And while it is true that Saudi Arabia has published and distributed copies of the Qur’an around the world and has helped finance the construction of schools and mosques in other countries, it does not in any way interfere with the curricula of these schools or the freedom of their imams.

Another totally gross distortion is Mr. Hanson’s charge that Saudi Arabia’s “present government has been an active abettor of terror.” Saudi Arabia condemns and opposes terrorism, and has made it clear that any violent act against unarmed civilians anywhere is contrary to true Islamic beliefs. Similarly, to call Saudi Arabia “the most virulent anti-Israeli Arab country in the region” is ridiculous, since Saudi Arabia proposed the first practical peace proposal to enable Israel and Palestine to live side by side. COMMENTARY may be sued for libel for printing Mr. Hanson’s malicious statement calling the Saudis “international criminals who would destroy the West.”

Finally, Mr. Hanson’s stupid theories about Saudi Arabia’s role as the world’s biggest producer and exporter of oil prove that he is an evil man who opposes the best interests of the United States. All reasonable American citizens greatly appreciate the cooperation of Saudi Arabia in these matters. Only bigoted Zionist agents attack the oil policy of Saudi Arabia.

Issa Nakhleh
Legal Advisor to the Saudi
Arabian Mission to the UN
New York City



To the Editor:

Victor Davis Hanson fails to understand that the cause of all the terrorism directed toward the U.S. from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere is the occupation of Palestine by Israel. For decades the Arab world has been watching the occupation while the U.S. has provided weapons to Israel and vetoed every UN resolution meant to help the Palestinians. Double standards seem to be the name of the game in U.S. foreign policy. Kuwait was occupied and then liberated within months. Palestine was occupied, but there has still been no action in over 30 years. It is sad to know that a mighty country like the U.S. can be hijacked by members of a minority race—Jews, obviously—for their own selfish interests.

Asif Hanif
Rajarbagh, Bangladesh



To the Editor:

In recommending stronger ties with the states of the former Soviet Union as a means of breaking America’s dependence on Saudi oil, Victor Davis Hanson apparently assumes that Russia and Kazakhstan, in contrast to Saudi Arabia, represent Western values that deserve to be promoted. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kazakhstan is as much of a kleptocracy as Saudi Arabia, and Russia’s actions in Chechnya demonstrate daily that its supposed acceptance of Western standards of human rights is a sham. It is certainly a good idea to move away from relying on the Saudis, but handing over the leverage they now enjoy to the criminalized cliques of the former USSR would be a bad mistake.

Christopher Lord
St. Pierre en Vaux, France



To the Editor:

I agree with Victor Davis Hanson’s condemnations of the Saudis but not with his prescriptions for U.S. action. Mr. Hanson claims that in order to make the Saudi government move toward openness, freedom, tolerance, modernization, and friendlier relations with the West, we should shut off the current flow of American dollars by developing sources of non-Saudi oil.

That, however, is a prescription for creating another Iran. If we stop the flow of American money to the inept Saudi regime, it will not be able to survive in an already hostile environment and will eventually collapse or be overthrown. In its place may arise a truly loathsome and implacably anti-American fundamentalist Islamic regime like Iran’s. That “solution” will be far worse than the manageable problem we now have.

Jack Bethune
Sarasota, Florida



To the Editor:

Yes, Saudi Arabia has been led by a duplicitous bunch responsible for spreading hatred, fear, and intolerance throughout the world. And yes, it is high time to change our policy toward the Saudi rulers to make it as difficult as possible for them to continue to spread their vitriol. But we surely do harm by calling the Saudis “our enemies.” It gives Saudi rulers justification for their behavior, and is likely to alienate others. Better to separate the ruling monarchs from the people and make effective use of the observation Victor Davis Hanson makes at the end of his piece: where governments hate us most, the people tend to like us more.

Brian Forst
American University
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

As usual, Victor Davis Hanson provides a depressingly clear picture of a subject that has been shrouded in misunderstanding. There can be no doubt that the Saudi regime is inimical to the interests of the United States. But the prescriptive parts of Mr. Hanson’s argument seem incomplete. We responded to attacks arising from Afghanistan by declaring its leaders criminals and virtually conquering the country. And though he does not state it explicitly, it seems that Mr. Hanson would recommend similar treatment of Iraq. Why then, according to Mr. Hanson, should we not conquer Saudi Arabia, dissolve the House of Saud, imprison its leaders, and administer the land and its oil fields until a civilized indigenous leadership arises?

Daniel Rubin
Miami Beach, Florida



To the Editor:

Victor Davis Hanson understates the threat to the Saudi royal family of a successful U.S. invasion of Iraq. I simply cannot see Prince Abdullah and his 30,000 thieves surviving after we watch a million Iraqis celebrating their freedom in Baghdad.

Nathan D. Wirtschafter
Encino, California



To the Editor:

Just over a year ago, Victor Davis Hanson’s article would have appeared outrageous. It is a measure of the enormity of the events of September 11 that it now comes across as well-argued and full of common sense. Today we have a clearer picture of how much the House of Saud has done that is prejudicial to U.S. interests.

Before September 11, it was obvious that Riyadh had made a deal with Tehran over the investigation of the 1996 Khobar bombing in Saudi Arabia in which nineteen American servicemen died. By blocking U.S. investigations, the Saudis secured an Iranian promise of no more bombings on their own soil and a compromise on oil policy that reversed a plummeting price.

But there was also, we now know through U.S. intelligence, a second pact with a second devil. Following an explosion in 1995 at a Saudi national-guard facility in Riyadh in which five Americans were killed, senior Saudi princes began paying off Osama bin Laden, whose men were thought to be responsible. As a result, subsequent bombs went off elsewhere—at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and alongside the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden.

The Saudis may or may not have known about the plans for September 11, but they were financing them. There is probably enough money left to finance the next al Qaeda attack as well.

Simon Henderson
Saudi Strategies
London, England



Victor Davis Hanson writes:

For over a half-century, our alliance with Saudi Arabia has been an American institution. Its tripartite foundation—anti-Communism, uninterrupted oil, and enormous arms sales—has been as unquestioned by our government as it has proved satisfying to a few thousand members of the Saudi royal family and a legion of American ex-diplomats, armsmerchants, think-tankers, and consultants. So strong has this commitment been that elements of Saudi society quite odious to Americans have by needs been ignored: sexual apartheid, Wahhabi fundamentalism, virulent anti-Semitism, and subsidies for terrorist groups.

The events of September 11 changed all that. Given the role of Saudi citizens, both overt and complicit, in the planning and commission of the monstrous acts in New York and Washington, Americans of all sorts are slowly beginning to reexamine this complex and dangerous relationship. They seek to ask previously taboo questions, both moral and pragmatic, that are not easily answered. In both countries, elite apologists of the old business-as-usual school have much to lose should the present Saudi regime be either radically reformed or ended, or its relationship with the United States altered. And thus it is useful for us to see their hysterics formally presented in print.

An alarmed Richard W. Murphy apparently did not read the article I wrote. I was not “shocked” or unaware of the “monster” of Saudi Arabia, but, in common with other observers, I have been exasperated for years by our unquestioned, static, and intimate relationship with a regime so antithetical to the basic values of this country. Well before Mr. Murphy’s tenure in Saudi Arabia, it was clear that our oil dependency was propping up a kingdom whose skyrocketing birthrates, declining per-capita income, endemic corruption, and unbending despotism fueled rather than impeded radical Islamism. Some of us hoped that the end of the cold war and the growing diversity in the global oil market might suggest to realists in our diplomatic corps that there was now a chance for new and more imaginative initiatives. As deadly events would prove, our hopes were utterly in vain.

Contrary to Mr. Murphy, I did not propose that a sane Iraq and a more productive Russia would make Gulf oil “inconsequential.” What I wrote was that such considerations—along with conservation, greater commitment to domestic exploration, and use of alternative fuels—would begin the necessary and difficult process of reducing American reliance on autocracies like the Saudi kingdom and thereby allow us greater flexibility to abandon the disastrous policies that Mr. Murphy and others helped to craft or maintain.

Nor did I “insinuate” that the Bush administration had “lied” about the level of Saudi succor in tracing the multifarious links of Middle Eastern terrorism. Saudi intransigence is a matter of record. Apart from the avalanche of published complaints about Saudi obduracy, Mr. Murphy himself, no stranger to the language of diplomatic equivocation, unknowingly makes my case by quoting Secretary O’Neill’s dry assessment of “satisfactory” Saudi help in tracking down mass murderers. Three thousand Americans are vaporized by an ally’s citizenry, and we’re supposed to be pleased that we can give their investigatory efforts a grade of C?

That American methods vis-à-vis a nuclear and murderous Soviet Communism were sometimes less than noble in the past—and particularly in Afghanistan—is not under dispute, but nevertheless instructive in ways Mr. Murphy does not appreciate. The demise of the Soviet Union opened up just the sort of principled stance that Mr. Murphy appears to yearn for in retrospect—and evidently shuns in prospect.

As far as security and democracy go, Americans need worry far less about Turks, Qataris, Hamid Karzai’s once fierce countrymen, and Muslims in India (as opposed to those in neighboring Pakistan) than they do Saudis. In such places, Islamic peoples have some chance to participate in governments that enjoy far greater legitimacy. Indeed, we have learned that fundamentalism thrives best under autocracies, where it distorts the frustrations of disenfranchised citizens and is in turn either manipulated or bribed by a fearful and unpopular government.

In a tone similar to Richard W. Murphy’s, Judith Kipper, a long-time Washington insider, reminds us that the Saudis’ customs are “different” from our own, which no doubt explains why Saudi Arabia “sometimes appears secretive and inaccessible to Americans.” Secretive they may appear to us yokels in the heartland, but after September 11 they are hardly inaccessible. And so I take issue with every point Judith Kipper makes, and find her own reasoning both “dangerous” and “irresponsible.”

Where she sees Saudi help in defusing the Middle East crisis, I see the most virulent state-subsidized anti-Semitism in the Middle East and substantial funds given to reward suicide murders of Israeli innocents. She outlines a valuable strategic and military relationship; I think hundreds of Americans could die in Iraq because we may be barred from using a vast base on Saudi territory against an enemy that would once have overrun the Saudi kingdom itself had it not been for American troops. She underscores cooperation in matters of petroleum policy; I am more worried about embargoes, past and future, the use of petroleum-garnered dollars diverted to terrorists, and vast wealth in the hands of a tiny clique that is increasingly despised by its own increasingly impoverished people.

Judith Kipper’s advocacy of only “incremental” changes in Saudi Arabia is interestingly echoed in Issa Nakhleh’s semi-official communiqué. Mr. Nakhleh’s diatribe is edifying, and both Richard Murphy and Judith Kipper should read it carefully. His Orwellian assertion that the kingdom’s “standard of living has improved” is representative of much else in his letter, and tells it all.

Improved for whom? In fact, the per-capita wealth of Saudi Arabia has plunged by two-thirds in the last two decades alone. Whatever laudable elements of social infrastructure may exist, the billions spent on “education” give as much cause to shudder as to applaud when we remind ourselves that Saudi state schools and curricula, from the madrassas to the universities, are censored, laced with fundamentalism, and thoroughly anti-American and anti-Semitic in tone. What was so disturbing about the profile of many of the 9/11 murderers was not their ignorance but, precisely, the nature of their education.

I would also pause over Mr. Nakhleh’s use of the word “modern,” as well as his unintentionally comic phrase, “democratic country according to Islamic law.” Such nomenclature, mutatis mutandis, has served most despotisms of the last century, regimes that have been at once “modern” and enslaved. But democracy, pace Mr. Nakhleh, is a definable term, not a relative construct, and the same goes for human rights: though Mr. Nakhleh may associate the Qur’an and the hadith with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both the UN and the U.S. State Department have cited the Saudis’ nonsecular courts for imposing floggings, amputations, and beheadings, as well as the forced segregation of women.

But, really, what more can one say? Mr. Nakhleh gives the game away with his throwaway but seemingly obligatory phrase, “bigoted Zionist agents.” At this point, discussion must end.

Little more need be added in the case of Asif Hanif’s letter, which once again invokes the Jews and their vast conspiracy. Still, I do not think it wise of Mr. Hanif to raise the example of Kuwait—not after the United States spent blood and treasure to liberate it from neighboring murderous Muslims, only to see Kuwait ethnically cleanse tens of thousands of its own Palestinians and now, according to polls, loudly declare its displeasure with our alleged insensitivity toward the Palestinians. If there is logic there, I decline to follow it.

I share Christopher Lord’s concern about the former Soviet Union, but I did not “assume” the presence of enlightened Western values there. Instead, I stressed two points. Given our own present state of vulnerability and the nature of the global energy market, we have no power to “hand over” leverage to any one state. But helping the former Soviet republics develop their reserves is wise on a number of grounds. By diversifying the market, it might help obviate the type of insidious relationship we now embrace with certain suspect exporting countries. It is also a way of implicitly recognizing those republics of the former Soviet Union that do allow elections, and in which vicious or undemocratic practices are susceptible of amelioration. The fact that the states of the former Soviet Union can handle some of the domestic development of their reserves on their own, and are less parasitic on Western expertise, likewise reduces the need for the incestuous relations that have grown up between so many thousands of Americans and the Saudis, with all the attendant effects on American foreign policy.

Jack Bethune, like Christopher Lord, seems to believe we can control the world’s oil market. We cannot—and thus can neither “shut off” nor “hand over” much of anything until we get our own energy house in order.

My point was different: for both practical and moral reasons, we should attempt to create a climate in which Saudi oil does not dominate the world market and American petro-dollars are not used to promote terrorism abroad and to tighten the grip of domestic repression.

Mr. Bethune’s evocation of Iran is interesting. Like Saudi Arabia, it, too, may well be on the brink of revolution. But what follows surely will not be an Islamist state; the mullahs there, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, have proved that theocrats cannot garner long-term public support. Similarly, the way to deter their brethren in Saudi Arabia is not through bribery, appeasement, or stealthy encouragement but rather in the harsh light of an open society and reform. Only in that way can the populace be held responsible for its own errors should it vote to embrace medievalism rather than consensual government.

I also disagree with Mr. Bethune that the Saudi situation is “manageable.” Had fifteen Iranians—under the tutelage of an Iranian multimillionaire, with once-close family ties to the Iranian government—murdered 3,000 Americans, I think it would have been far easier either to demand accountability from Tehran or seek redress through military force. Overt enemies are sometimes less dangerous and more “manageable” than duplicitous “friends.”

As Brian Forst reminds us, we have learned that we are more liked by Middle Easterners whose autocratic governments we do not support. I certainly did not mean to suggest that we should be indiscriminately hostile to the Saudi people. Rather, I urged that we seek reformers among the Saudis themselves, including enlightened members of the royal family, who must not only liberalize their government but address problems in Saudi society that they no longer have the luxury to profess are none of anyone’s business but their own. I still naively believe that some elite and educated Saudis will be watching harbingers in post-bellum Iraq with interest and approval rather than only fear and anxiety.

Daniel Rubin, like many exasperated Americans, wishes a prompt and armed response to the perfidy of the kingdom, but I am afraid that at the present moment this would be utterly disastrous for reasons both moral and practical. The ultimate purpose of my article was not to advocate such a precipitous use of force but, for the sake of avoiding future bloodshed, to urge the necessity of fundamental change in our relationship with Saudi Arabia and/or fundamental change in the kingdom itself. For good or ill, as Nathan D. Wirtschafter points out, an invasion of Iraq may be catalytic toward one or the other of those ends. This is a good reason for both the kingdom and our own Saudi lobby to begin a reassessment, not “incrementally,” as Judith Kipper would like, but radically and immediately—if possible, before the removal of Saddam Hussein.

I have little to add to Simon Henderson’s astute and informed appraisal, for which I thank him.


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