The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - friend or foe of America? Having been asked exactly this question on such shows as CNN's Crossfire and ABC's Nightline, I've come to the conclusion that the answer is "neither." Rather, Saudi Arabia is a rival.
Saudi Arabia has been friendly to the extent that, since a dying Franklin D. Roosevelt met an aging King Ibn Saud in 1945, its leaders have kept their part of a crucial bargain: They provide oil and gas and in return Washington provides security.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt met King Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy on an Egyptian lake, Feb. 14, 1945.
This deal has sometimes held, as when the Saudis opened their oil spigot, to the annoyance of their fellow energy exporters; or when a half million U.S. troops were rushed over to Saudi Arabia in 1990-91 as Iraq threatened the kingdom.
In other ways, however, the relationship has been hostile, as in 1973-74, when a Saudi oil embargo helped spur the deepest economic crisis in the United States since the Great Depression. Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey has stated, "Much of the money for al Qaeda has come from Saudi Arabia," tying the Saudis directly to 9/11.
And since September, they repeatedly have failed Americans. They neither endorsed the U.S. attack on the Taliban, cracked down on their own bin Laden sympathizers, forthrightly acknowledged the role of Saudis on 9/11 nor made a priority of closing down the continuing financial flows to al Qaeda.
More, as a leading Saudi figure warned just last month, the kingdom might join America's enemies to survive: "If that means we move to the right of [Osama] bin Laden, so be it; to the left of [Libya's ruler Moammar] Khadafy, so be it; or fly to Baghdad and embrace Saddam [Hussein] like a brother, so be it." This cannot be dismissed as an empty threat.
Symbolic of these tensions, the Pentagon recently excluded the kingdom from a listing of U.S. allies in the war on terrorism.
Such differences mean that Saudi Arabia cannot be thought of as an ally. Instead, it should be seen as a rival, along the lines of like France, Russia or China.
Granted, compared to those three, Saudi Arabia looks pretty unimpressive, with a population officially estimated at 22 million, a political system dominated by thousands of princes and an economy deeply dependent on oil revenues. Its culture is notoriously backward (women banned from driving), closed-minded (total censorship) and barbaric (executions as public spectacles).
Despite these disadvantages, the kingdom's rulers see themselves as leaders of the billion or so Muslims worldwide and the vanguard of a movement that eventually will vanquish and replace Western civilization, which they dismiss as corrupt and doomed.
This outsized ambition derives in part from the Saudi state being "protector of the two holy places," the cities of Mecca and Medina. In part, it emerges from Wahhabism, the extremist vision of Islam that predominates in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi flag signals both the leadership's ambitions and its methods.
Worse, as The New York Times recently noted, an ever-more radical version of Wahhabism is gaining strength in the kingdom: an "extremist, anti-Western world view has gradually pervaded the Saudi education system with its heavy doses of mandatory religious instruction [and then it] seeped outside the classroom through mosque sermons, television shows and the Internet, coming to dominate the public discussions on religion."
Anti-Western views have stuck; in particular, Saudis have shown themselves wildly sympathetic to bin Laden. One American hospital worker in Saudi Arabia reported "Saudi doctors and nurses around him celebrating on 9/11." A confidential survey found some 95 percent of young educated Saudis sympathetic to his declaration of war against the United States.
A century ago, most Muslims viewed Wahhabism as little more than an Arabian curiosity. Today, thanks to vast oil revenues well spent, a vast Wahhabi institutional structure exists to spread these ideas, so that it has become a powerful force wherever Muslims live, from Afghanistan (where the Taliban embodied this ideology) to most mosques in the United States. There are times and places when cooperation with the government of Saudi Arabia makes sense.
There are also times and places when confronting it is necessary. The larger point is this: However much the United States predominates today, there are any number of would-be successors and Saudi Arabia is no less ambitious than the others. It must be watched with great caution.