November 30, 2020

The Mysteries of the American-Saudi Alliance

Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads
By David H. Rundell
Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power
By Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck

One of my most embarrassing moments in government came in 1995. I was a young staffer at the National Security Council, and a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia suggested growing unrest there. At an interagency meeting on the subject, I turned to the representative from United States Central Command and asked when was the last time they had updated their contingency plan for internal conflict in the kingdom.

It struck me as the right question to ask, the kind of thing that the N.S.C. was supposed to ask. It would have been unforgivable not to have asked it.

But all of the older, wiser folks at the table looked at me as if I had just said to the general: “I’m going to douse myself with gasoline and strike a match. Would you like to join me?”

Afterward, another graybeard pulled me aside and explained, impatiently: “We don’t have contingency plans for that. It would be like trying to make contingency plans for the Earth colliding with the sun.”

Fast-forward a decade and I was having dinner with my friend Gideon Rose at a Chinese restaurant on Second Avenue in New York. Gideon is the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and was among the first to recognize the impact of the shale oil revolution on America’s interests in the Middle East. He argued that fracking would soon render the Middle East strategically irrelevant.

My response was that it someday might, but first it would drive down the price of oil and with it, the stability of all the sclerotic Middle Eastern states that had bought off their populations with sinecures and subsidies for so long. The key question was whether the eventual state collapses would come before or after the point when the world could live without Middle Eastern oil.

That, in a nutshell, is our problem with Saudi Arabia.

Fracking has knocked the legs out of the international oil market and helped make the tired old political-economic systems of the Muslim Middle East unsustainable. As the 2009 Green Movement in Iran and 2011 Arab Spring both illustrated, this is stirring the pot of revolution, civil war and other forms of internal upheaval all across the region.

Virtually all of the states of the Middle East face a choice between reform or revolution, although many insist on clinging to repression instead. Unfortunately, revolution and civil war have proved the greatest threats to oil production.

And the world is not yet ready to live without the unmatched reserves, enormous production and unique spare capacity of Saudi Arabia. All of the fracking in the world could not compensate for the loss of Saudi oil.

Which is why Riyadh’s current course under King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (M.B.S.), is so important to the United States. The dramatic transformation that M.B.S. is trying to bring about is exactly the right answer for the kingdom and what the United States needs to have happen there.

Yet Saudi Arabia is a difficult ally. It is too important to be cast aside, but too different to fit easily with American values. And as readers of this newspaper know well, M.B.S. is a brash young autocrat who makes as many outrageous missteps as laudatory moves. He is as determined to reinforce the kingdom’s authoritarian politics as he is to modernize its economy and liberalize its culture.

Thus, we are fortunate to have a new book on Saudi Arabia as helpful as David H. Rundell’s “Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads.” If you don’t know the author’s name, don’t worry. It’s because he is a longtime American civil servant who lived in Saudi Arabia for 16 of his 30 years with the Foreign Service, and has traveled the length and breadth of the land.

Rundell covers the kingdom from top to bottom with vast wisdom, depth and understanding. Yet it would be unfair to call his book a primer because that suggests a superficiality that is entirely at odds with the vast learning encompassed in this slim volume.

His book is not just the ABCs of Saudi Arabia; it is the DEFGs and Hs too. It provides a superb overview of the kingdom’s political, economic and social landscape, but it goes well beyond that. Rundell explains, clearly and concisely, the special dynamics that drive the kingdom and render it so alien from our own society. In so doing, Rundell illustrates why Saudis react to events so differently from Americans and how dangerous the American penchant for mirror-imaging is when applied to them.

I wish that every United States diplomat, military officer and journalist would read this book before deploying there. I wish that every member of Congress would read it before voting on any measure related to Saudi Arabia. I wish every American pondering the frictions of our long relationship with the Saudis would read it simply to understand.

Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, investigative reporters for The Wall Street Journal, approach the topic differently in “Blood and Oil: Mohammed bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest for Global Power.” For a certain kind of reader, this book will be ideal. It is lively and well written, and it draws a sharp portrait of the man at its heart.

But be forewarned that this is a book on an engrossing but narrow topic: M.B.S.’s lust for wealth and how it has been bound up with his drive for power. On that subject, Hope and Scheck have done a great deal of digging and have unearthed some eye-popping tales.

Many of the stories are not sourced, however. They often appear plausible but it’s impossible to be sure. And as F. Gregory Gause, one of the leading Western academic experts on Saudi Arabia, likes to say, when it comes to the royal family, those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.

Of greater consequence, because of this focus, geostrategic and geoeconomic factors often get short shrift in their telling. Thus, they have an entire chapter on M.B.S. buying a Leonardo da Vinci painting for $450 million but only a few pages on the decision to intervene in Yemen, arguably Riyadh’s most important (and damaging) strategic gambit of the past 30 years.

At times, they assert a narrative consistent with their emphasis on the foibles of M.B.S. at the expense of these other dynamics. So the 2020 oil war with Russia, in which Riyadh flooded the market to try to force Moscow to agree to collective production limits, gets reduced to a byproduct of M.B.S.’s overweening pride.

Whatever role ego may have played in it, this version overlooks the facts that the price of oil was plummeting, and the Saudis and other producers desperately needed to stabilize it, but Russia refused to do so. Moreover, the Saudi decision to flood the market and drive the price down below $20 per barrel worked. It forced Moscow to agree to production cuts and so was a huge victory for Riyadh.

Every alliance is difficult. Even Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt got frustrated with each other — let alone with Stalin and de Gaulle.

And as Rundell’s book gently observes, being America’s ally can be a maddening experience too. No other nation is as powerful as we are, and so we can indulge our preferences and caprices like no other country can. It can make us unpredictable, changeable, hypocritical, even terrifying to our allies.

As the Saudis learned after Iran’s 2019 attacks on its oil industry, what had once been an unshakable American commitment — and the foundation of their own security for 75 years — can be discarded with little concern for the consequences to them or anyone else.

Problematic allies the Saudis may be, but we might remember that the United States is often the most difficult ally of all.