Do We Still Need the Saudis?

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A crude oil tank in Saudi Arabia

People in Saudi Arabia are sick of talking about Sept. 11. They have little interest in examining why 15 of their countrymen hijacked U.S. commercial planes and killed 3,000 civilians; many prefer to believe that the attacks were the work of the CIA or the Mossad, and that the 15 hijackers were unwitting players in someone else's plot. "They were just bodies," a senior government official says. Spend an evening in Jidda, the hometown of Osama bin Laden, where young Saudis today flock to American chain restaurants and shopping malls to loiter away the stifling summer nights, and you rarely hear bin Laden's name. "They find it silly when people talk about al-Qaeda," says journalist Mohammed al-Kheriji, 28, as he sips a latte at the city's newest Starbucks. "People are worried about their own problems."

But while Saudis remain uninterested—or perhaps they're in a state of denial—in the level of Saudi participation in Sept. 11, the country seethes with open loathing for the U.S. and sympathy for bin Laden's cause. Signs of anti-Western militancy are rife throughout this vast kingdom, from the capital, Riyadh—where in June separate car bombs blew up a British banker outside his home and nearly killed an American expatriate—to Abha, a remote mountain city in the southern province of Asir, where four of the hijackers were raised and locals still celebrate all "the Fifteen," as the group is called. "Their friends are really proud of them," says Ghazi al Gamdhi, 22, a university student. "They think the Fifteen were protecting Islam. Most of the guys here want to become heroes protecting Islam."

In recent weeks Saudi militants have resumed their campaign against one of the original sources of bin Laden's wrath: the 6,000 American troops stationed on Saudi soil. In June, after U.S. investigators discovered the spent casing of a Russian-made surface-to-air missile lying in the desert near the Prince Sultan air base, Saudi intelligence arrested 11 Saudi members of an al-Qaeda cell for plotting to shoot down U.S. jets that use the facility and for preparing attacks against other American targets in the kingdom. It was the first official acknowledgment since Sept. 11 that the organization is active in Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom's latent anti-Americanism has been stoked in recent months by fierce opposition to the Bush Administration's pro-Israel Middle East policies and the perceived harassment of Muslims in the U.S. The country's powerful fundamentalist clerics have used these issues to agitate the masses. Government officials are worried that the country's imams are slipping beyond their control. "Six months ago, you could call them in and say, 'Cut it out,'" says a senior Saudi official. "But now you have hundreds of imams condemning the U.S. at prayers every Friday. How can you stop that?"

Given the stakes, both countries need to figure out a way. Hundreds of Saudis fought alongside the Taliban against the U.S. in Afghanistan last year. More than one-third of the 350 hard-core fighters being held by the U.S. in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are Saudi nationals. Billions of dollars from wealthy Saudis have funded anti-American and anti-Israel terrorist groups and helped establish radical schools worldwide that foment Islamic militancy, including the madrasahs in Pakistan that produced the Taliban. Americans hardly expect that kind of treatment from their worst enemies—let alone their oldest strategic partner in the Arab world, which has relied on U.S. soldiers for more than a decade to protect it against Iraq's Saddam Hussein. But Saudi Arabia controls 30% of the world's known oil reserves. And so for years, in the interest of maintaining the world's supply of crude, Washington has ignored evidence that the ruling Sauds are allowing the country's powerful religious leaders to propagate anti-Western hate. "If the Saudis sold onions instead of oil," says Gregory Gause, a Saudi expert at the University of Vermont, "we would be talking about how to isolate them."

Should the U.S. not be talking about that anyway? In the aftermath of Sept. 11, it's worth asking whether America truly still needs the Saudis. In economic and strategic terms, the U.S. can probably manage without them. Saudi Arabia today provides only 8% of the oil consumed by Americans. It accounts for 15% of the U.S.'s crude-oil imports, less than half the amount the U.S. imports from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela. That's a far cry from the 25% figure for 1973, when the Saudis, piqued by Israel's victory in that year's war, embargoed oil sales to the U.S. and prompted a 70% rise in crude prices. The Saudis' vast reserves give them the power to manage the worldwide price of oil, making them critical to the smooth running of the global economy. But with promising new oil sources opening up in Russia and Central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, the U.S. has alternatives it didn't have in 1973. Oil-industry analysts believe that cutting the flow of Saudi oil to the U.S. would be painful—but far from fatal—to the U.S. economy.

Because of its size and clout in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia is capable of playing a role in the Middle East peace process. President Bush consults regularly with Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the Saudis' influence is limited. Though Abdullah has dangled normalized relations with Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state, only Washington has the credibility to drag the two sides to the negotiating table.

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