The Saudis and US
Arabia, the Gulf, and the West.
by J. B. Kelly.
Basic Books. 530 pp. $25.00.
The recent outbreak of fighting between Iran and Iraq, and the manifest inability of the United States to influence events in that region, have led nearly everyone who thinks about these matters to conclude that American policy in the Persian Gulf is gravely deficient. But while dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs is rife, no new consensus on an alternative policy has crystallized, for the simple reason that the conceptual underpinnings of the old policy are not adequately understood. The timely publication of J. B. Kelly’s magisterial study therefore constitutes a major intellectual event. At once an analysis of the politics, history, and culture of the Gulf states and a trenchant examination of Western policy toward these states from 1967 to 1979, Kelly’s book is an indispensable guide to anyone concerned with the evolution of American policy in the Middle East.
Since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Kelly reminds us, the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf have raised the price of oil to exorbitant heights, have played havoc with the world’s economy, have engaged in open political blackmail, and have subjected several Western nations to an oil embargo. Until rather recently, however, the American public was repeatedly assured by a parade of government officials, academics, and businessmen that the Gulf oil producers entertained nothing but feelings of friendship and solicitude for the United States, that a natural harmony of interests obtained between the Western democracies and Islam, that the guardianship of the Gulf’s resources might be safely entrusted to those twin pillars of stability and pro-Western sentiment, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and that the West’s best hope for coping with OPEC’s price increases consisted in relying upon the good will and enlightened self-interest of the Arab “moderates.” With the fall of the Shah, this roseate picture was somewhat altered: where once it was said that the West could rely on two pillars to protect its vital interests, now it would have to rest content with one. In all of its essentials, however, the doctrine of Western-Islamic harmony has continued to guide American policy-makers.
According to Kelly, this doctrine—upon which the entire edifice of American diplomacy rests—is profoundly misleading. Far from being kindly disposed toward the West, the Gulf states have long nourished an “enduring and deep-seated resentment” against it, and regard the situation created by the OPEC cartel as a providential opportunity to establish the primacy of Islam in the world and humiliate Christendom. “Stripped of their specious justifications about past Western exploitation and the intolerable affront to Arab susceptibilities afforded by the existence of Israel,” Kelly argues, “the actions of the Arabs and Persians before, during, and since 1973, if placed in their historical, religious, racial, and cultural setting, amount to nothing less than a bold attempt to lay the Christian West under tribute to the Muslim East.”
Kelly paints an especially unflattering portrait of Saudi Arabia, a theocracy whose ruling dynasty, the house of Saud, has long been identified with the puritanical, revivalist Islamic movement known as Wahhabism. It is one of the principal tenets of this movement that its followers should engage in constant aggression and expansion at the expense of non-believers, and it was this policy, zealously pursued by the house of Saud, which accounts both for Saudi Arabia’s dominant position on the Arab side of the Gulf today, and for the fear which Saudi power inspires among the smaller Gulf principalities. In its relations with the West, Kelly points out, the Wahhabi state has been guided by the same principles of expansion and aggrandizement which have served it in the past.
That Saudi Arabia’s rulers have felt free to challenge the West, despite the backwardness and military inferiority of their kingdom, is due in no small measure to their experience with the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), which placed itself at Saudi Arabia’s disposal after it secured an oil concession there in 1933. Toward the Saudi government, Kelly notes, Aramco pursued “a policy of complacent liberality, of concession in preference to bargaining, in the face of successive and various government demands.” These demands, whether for greater revenues, an increasing share of Aramco’s assets, or an embargo on oil supplies to the U.S. navy in 1973, were faithfully and dutifully complied with by the oil company, leading Saudi rulers to infer that the West in general, and the United States in particular, would prove no less yielding and gullible when faced with similar demands.
In addition to shaping Saudi Arabia’s perception of the West, Aramco has also been instrumental in shaping American perceptions of Saudi Arabia. As the only source of readily available information about that country, it easily established itself for a long time as the acknowledged authority on Gulf affairs. Unfortunately, Aramco’s peculiar rendering of Saudi history owed more to Scheherazade than to Clio. Carefully omitting any mention of the fanatical nature of Wahhabism from their accounts, historians at Aramco’s Arabian research division in Dhahran, from the 1940’s onward, portrayed Saudi society as basically democratic and egalitarian, and the Saudi ruling house as imbued with a natural sense of kinship and affinity with the great American democracy across the seas. “The irony implicit in this inventive attempt to create the fiction of a community of outlook and a spontaneous camaraderie between the citizens of the world’s most advanced democracy and the subjects of one of its most unenlightened despotisms,” Kelly remarks, “never seemed to dawn upon the industrious fabulists of Dhahran.”
Neither, evidently, did it dawn upon the industrious Arabophiles of the State Department, who accepted the Aramco fantasy of Saudi-American amity at face value, and were quick to attribute any departure from their idyllic vision of Saudi-American relations to the unfortunate American connection with Israel. Often working in tandem, moreover, State Department officials and Aramco representatives set out to convert other influential Americans to their point of view.
A revealing example of this joint effort emerged during Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings held in June 1974. It appears that in January 1973, the director of the State Department’s Office of Fuels and Energy, James Akins (shortly to become U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia) invited Aramco’s Washington lobbyist, Michael Ameen, to his home, in order to inform Ameen—confidentially, of course—that John Ehrlichman, the presidential assistant, might be visiting Saudi Arabia in April. According to the transcript of the hearings, “Akins wanted Ameen to tell Yamani it was very important that he, Yamani, . . . see to it that Ehrlichman was given the message we Saudis love you people but your American policy [toward Israel] is hurting us.”
Given their view of Saudi-American relations, it is hardly surprising that State Department officials responded to OPEC’s price increases by urging further concessions from Israel. The Saudis, they claimed, shared a common interest with the U.S. in checking the spread of Communism. Therefore, they could be relied upon to use their considerable influence to moderate OPEC price increases, inasmuch as these increases only served to weaken the West’s position relative to the Soviets. But for the Saudis to do this, argued the State Department, the U.S. would first have to demonstrate greater appreciation for Saudi Arabia’s position in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thus, the proper American response to OPEC’s rapacity was to engage in a confrontation with Jerusalem, not with Riyadh or Teheran.
Far from encouraging the Saudis to tread the path of moderation, however, this policy, says Kelly, merely confirmed the Gulf states in their contempt for the U.S., and encouraged them to raise oil prices even further. Interestingly enough, the most spectacular price increases in the history of the oil industry occurred between December 1978 and December 1979, the period which commenced with the overthrow of the Shah and ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That the Muslim states chose precisely this time of Western weakness and disarray to put into effect such drastic price increases is perhaps a more reliable indication of their true feelings toward the West—and the validity of Kelly’s thesis—than the hollow assurances of Aramco lobbyists and State Department Arabists.
As Kelly compellingly argues, to have regarded the Saudis and Iranians as essentially benign powers, whose hostility to Communism and admiration for Western technology would necessarily lead them to engage in moderate and reasonable behavior toward the West, was “to make the cardinal error . . . of attributing Western modes of thought to Eastern minds.” Yet this is precisely what American policy-makers did. Having convinced themselves that Muslim and American interests ran along parallel lines, they poured the most sophisticated weaponry into the Persian Gulf, certain that these weapons would never be turned against the West. Having proved to their own satisfaction that the prosperity of the Gulf sheikhdoms ultimately depended on the continued growth of the American economy, they blithely permitted the sheikhs to accumulate a fantastic surplus of American dollars which they were confident would not be used to threaten our economic viability. And having assured themselves that Iran and Saudi Arabia were responsible, pro-Western military powers, they saw no need—until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—to establish an effective American military presence in the region.
Thus it came about that when the Iraqi-Iranian war broke out, the U.S. found itself not only without diplomatic or military leverage, but also without a strategic stockpile of oil to draw upon in case the conflict should escalate. The Saudis, it seems, had vetoed the possibility of the U.S. building up its petroleum reserves during discussions with Energy Secretary Duncan earlier this year.
While Kelly’s study is largely concerned with past policies, and does not address itself directly to the current situation, its bearing on recent events is obvious. To devise an effective role for ourselves in the Persian Gulf, we must first of all change the way we think about that region. More specifically, we must replace the Aramco-inspired reading of Gulf history with an interpretation more in keeping with reality. Once American officials learn to distinguish between friend and foe, the other pieces of the Persian Gulf puzzle will tend to fall into place automatically; until they learn to do so, however, our chances of digging our way out of the wreckage of current policy are exceedingly dim.