The Scandal of U.S.-Saudi Relations
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
[Updates follow the endnotes.]
Consider two symbolic moments in the U.S.-Saudi relationship involving a visit by one leader to the other's country. In November 1990, President George H.W. Bush went to the Persian Gulf region with his wife and top congressional leaders at Thanksgiving time to visit the 400,000 troops gathered in Saudi Arabia, whom he sent there to protect that country from an Iraqi invasion. When the Saudi authorities learned that the President intended to say grace before a festive Thanksgiving dinner, they remonstrated; Saudi Arabia knows only one religion, they said, and that is Islam. Bush acceded, and he and his entourage instead celebrated the holiday on the U.S.S. Durham, an amphibious cargo ship sitting in international waters.
In April 2002, as Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, the country's effective ruler, was about to travel across Texas to visit President George W. Bush, an advance group talked to the airport manager in Waco (the airport serving the President's ranch in Crawford) "and told him they did not want any females on the ramp and also said there should not be any females talking to the airplane." The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at Waco complied with this request and passed it to three other FAA stations on the crown prince's route, which also complied. Then, when queried about this matter, both the FAA and the State Department joined the Saudi foreign minister in flat-out denying that there ever was a Saudi request for male-only controllers.
The import of these incidents is clear enough: Official Americans in Saudi Arabia bend to Saudi customs, and official Americans in the United States do so as well. And it's not just a matter of travel etiquette; one finds parallel American obsequiousness concerning such issues as energy, security, religion and personal status. The Saudis routinely set the terms of this bilateral relationship. For decades, U.S. government agencies have engaged in a consistent pattern of deference to Saudi wishes, making so many unwonted and unnecessary concessions that one gets the impression that a switch has taken place, with both sides forgetting which of them is the great power and which the minor one. I shall first document this claim, then offer an explanation for it, and conclude with a policy recommendation.
U.S. government acceptance of Saudi norms is particularly evident as concerns the treatment of women, children, practicing Christians and Jews.
A typical abaya.
A typical abaya.
The U.S. government accepts the unequal treatment of women in connection with Saudi Arabia that it would otherwise never countenance. Two current examples tell the story.
Starting in 1991, the U.S. military required its female personnel based in Saudi Arabia to wear black, head-to-foot abayas. (This makes Saudi Arabia the only country in the world where U.S. military personnel are expected to wear a religiously-mandated garment.) Further, the women had to ride in the back seat of vehicles and be accompanied by a man when off base.
In 1995, Lt. Col. Martha McSally, the highest-ranking female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, initiated an effort within the system to end this discriminatory treatment. As she put it, "I'm able to be in leadership positions and fly combat sorties into enemy territory, yet when I leave the base, I hand over the keys to my subordinate men, sit in the back, and put on a Muslim outfit that is very demeaning and humiliating." Not succeeding within the system, McSally went public with a law suit in early 2002. Her complaint points to the violation of her free speech, the separation of church and state and gender discrimination. (Male military personnel not only have no parallel requirements imposed on them but are specifically forbidden from wearing Saudi clothing, and non-military women working for the U.S. government in Saudi Arabia are not expected to wear an abaya.)
After McSally filed her law suit, the Department of Defense responded by changing the requirement that women wear abayas off base; it then rescinded the policies on the other two issues (sitting in the back of a vehicle; having a male escort). Yet these were largely cosmetic changes, for women are still "strongly encouraged" to follow the old rules so as to take "host nation sensitivity" into account. The U.S. government continues to purchase and issue abayas. McSally has argued that the military's "strongly encouraged" abayas effectively continue the old regimen, as women who do not wear the Saudi garb fear harm to their careers; so she has continued with her suit. Finally, the House of Representatives in May 2002 voted unanimously to prohibit the Pentagon from "formally or informally" urging servicewomen to wear abayas and forbade the Pentagon from buying abayas for servicewomen. (The Senate has not yet acted on this measure.)
The Executive Branch's weak policy vis-à-vis women's rights has an impact on private institutions, as well, which also discriminate against women. U.S. businessmen and diplomats in Riyadh
One Western diplomat complains that American businessmen use empty excuses, such as the demands of local laws, there being no place for the women to sit or go to the toilet, and concludes that, "It's just like it was in South Africa."
The pattern of Saudi fathers abducting children from the United States to Saudi Arabia, and then keeping them there with the full agreement of the Saudi authorities, affects at least 92 children of U.S. mothers and Saudi fathers, perhaps many more. In each of these heartbreaking cases, the State Department has behaved with weakness bordering on sycophancy. To be specific, it has accepted the Saudi law that gives the father near-absolute control over the movement and activities of his children and wife (or wives). The department has made no real efforts to signal its displeasure to the Saudi authorities over these cases, much less made vigorous efforts to free the children held against their American families' wishes.
Here are three cases featured at a June 2002 hearing in the House of Representatives, organized by Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN):
Alia (b. 1979) and Aisha (b. 1982) al-Gheshayan, are two girls born in the United States and abducted to Saudi Arabia in 1986 by their father, Khalid al-Gheshayan, in defiance of a U.S. court order. Until this past August, they were not allowed to leave Saudi Arabia and their mother, Pat Roush, has had only a few minutes to visit them over the many years. Both children have now reached adulthood and both have been married off; but as females, they cannot leave the country without their male guardian's protection-first their father, now their husbands. One U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia (Walter Cutler) tried to get the children released, only to be instructed by the State Department to "maintain impartiality" in this dispute, after which his efforts to assist came to an end. A second ambassador (Hume Horan) brought the matter up with a ranking Saudi official but soon after found himself recalled due to Saudi complaints. A third ambassador (Roy Mabus) devised a plan to put pressure on the Gheshayan family to spring the children but, after his departure, the steps he took were all reversed.
Rasheed (b. 1976) and Amjad (b. 1983) Radwan are a boy and girl born in the United States who moved with their parents to Saudi Arabia in 1985. After their father, Nizar Radwan, divorced their mother, Monica Stowers, in 1986, he refused to permit the children to leave the country with her. Stowers left for four years, then returned to take back her children in 1990. In December of that year, she did get them and all three took refuge in the American Embassy, where Stowers desperately sought help to take her children out of the country. Instead, the consul general ordered the Marines to evict mother and children from the premises. Shortly after, the children were taken back to the father and their mother was jailed. Rasheed, being male, could leave Saudi Arabia, which he did in 1996; his sister remains confined there as she enters adulthood.
Yasmine Shalhoub (b. 1986), a girl born in the United States, was abducted by her father to Saudi Arabia in 1997. As her mother, Miriam Hernandez, developed plans to extricate Yasmine from her captivity, the American Embassy made it clear that it would provide no help against the father's wishes. Left on her own, Hernandez did find a way to smuggle Yasmine out in 1999, and she is now back in the United States-no thanks to her diplomatic representatives.
In all three of these cases-and in the many others like them-the U.S. government has singularly failed to stand up for the rights of its most vulnerable citizens.
In Saudi Arabia, the U.S. government submits to restrictions on Christian practices that it would find totally unacceptable anywhere else in the world-starting with the U.S. president's not celebrating Thanksgiving in the Kingdom, as mentioned above. The hundreds of thousands of American troops in Saudi Arabia in December 1990 were not permitted to hold formal Christmas services at their bases on Saudi soil; all that was allowed to them were "C-word morale services" held in places where they would be invisible to the outside world, such as tents and mess halls. The goal was for no Saudi to be made to suffer the knowledge that Christians were at prayer.
At least the soldiers in 1990-91 could hold services, a privilege not normally accorded Americans in Saudi Arabia on official business. Timothy Hunter, a State Department employee based in Saudi Arabia during 1992-95 (a rare source of information from inside the U.S. establishment in Saudi Arabia, and one subjected to reprisals for his whistle-blowing activities), had the job of "monitoring and coordinating the 'Tuesday Lecture' at the Jeddah consulate general - really the Catholic catacomb." (Services in Jeddah, he explains, took place on Tuesday, not Sunday, due to the paucity of clergy and their need to be in other locations on Sundays.) In an article in the Middle East Quarterly, Hunter details the methods he was told to use to discourage Catholic worshippers and the even worse options faced by Protestants:
With Jews, the issue is not freedom of religious practice in Saudi Arabia; it is simply gaining entry to the Kingdom. In several instances over many years, agencies of the U.S. government have excluded Jewish Americans from positions in Saudi Arabia. Hunter explains that a protocol prohibiting Jews being assigned to the Kingdom was signed by the U.S. Embassy in Jeddah and the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as a result of which the State Department avoids sending Jewish employees to reside in Saudi Arabia. Select senior diplomats of Jewish origin may briefly visit the country on official business but "no low or mid-level Jewish-American diplomat was permitted to be stationed/reside in Kingdom" during Hunter's three-year experience. He writes:
The consequences of the U.S. government's boycott of Jews has on occasion come to light. Congressional hearings in 1975 exposed the fact that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its subcontractors excluded Jewish (and black) personnel from projects in Saudi Arabia. The Treasury Department issued guidelines in 1976 to help U.S. businesses get around anti-boycott provisions just signed into law. More recently, to prepare its defense in a case brought against it by the Boeing Corporation, the U.S. government hired a Virginia-based contractor, CACI Inc.-Commercial, to send a team to microfilm documents in Saudi Arabia, a task that would take several months. At a November 1991 meeting called by the Air Force, Col. Michael J. Hoover, the chief trial attorney for the Air Force Materiel Command, informed representatives of the Justice Department and CACI Inc.-Commercial that Jews or people with Jewish surnames could not go to Saudi Arabia as part of the microfilming team. On this basis, David Andrew (the senior CACI Inc.-Commercial employee involved in the microfilming project) drafted and Jane Hadden Alperson (Office of Litigation Support, Civil Division, Justice Department, the case manager involved in the microfilming project) edited an "operations plan" in which the "Screening/Selection Process" included the following text:
As the Justice Department and CACI Inc.-Commercial hired the team to go to Saudi Arabia, "At least one U.S. person was refused a place on the team based on religion or national origin."
After hearing a complaint from the Anti-Defamation League, the Office of Antiboycott Compliance at the Department of Commerce conducted a probe lasting (the unusually long period of) one and a half years. The office reached a settlement on February 27, 1997, in which CACI Inc.-Commercial and the key individuals in each institution (Hoover, Alperson, Andrew) agreed to settle the allegations against them. The individuals were assessed suspended fines and CACI-Commercial paid $15,000. Hoover also received a letter of reprimand. For their part, the Air Force and the Department of Justice "agreed to institute measures to prevent a similar event from happening again." To all this, the New York Daily News acerbically commented, "The Air Force and Justice apologized and promised to abide by the law. That's comforting, since Justice is supposed to uphold the law."
As in the case of women, where the government leads, private organizations follow. Excluding Jews may be in contravention of U.S. law, which states that "U.S. companies cannot rely on a country's customs or local preferences and stereotypes to justify discrimination against U.S. citizens", but it occurs nonetheless. Until 1959, the Arabian American Oil Co. (ARAMCO) had an exemption from New York State's anti-discrimination laws and was permitted to ask prospective employees if they were Jews, on the grounds that Saudi Arabia refused to admit Jews into the country. When this arrangement was challenged in 1959, the New York State Supreme Court derisively condemned this practice. It told ARAMCO, "Go elsewhere to serve your Arab master- but not in New York State", and instructed the State Commission against Discrimination to enforce the ruling against ARAMCO.
World Airways, which boasts of having "pilgrims from more Muslim countries to the Islamic Holy Land than any other airline in the world", was charged in 1975 with demanding a "letter from a church showing membership, or proof of baptism or marriage in a church" from staff traveling to Saudi Arabia. About that same time, Vinnel Corporation excluded personnel with any "contact or interest" in countries not recognized by the Kingdom.
In 1982, two cardiovascular anesthesiologists (Lawrence Abrams and Stewart Linde) brought charges of discrimination against their employer, the Baylor College of Medicine, for excluding them from an exchange program with the King Faisal Hospital in Saudi Arabia due to their being Jewish. The case went to court, and in 1986 the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with the doctors, finding that "the college intentionally excluded Jews from its beneficial and educational rotation program at Faisal Hospital." The court surmised that Baylor's actions were motivated, at least in part, "by its desire not to 'rock the boat' of its lucrative Saudi contributors."
The Federal government appeases Riyadh when it "meticulously cooperate[s] with Saudi censorship" of mail going to Americans living in the Kingdom:
It hardly comes as a surprise, then, to hear from Ron Mayfield, Jr., who worked in Saudi Arabia for eight years with the Army Corps of Engineers, ARAMCO, and Raytheon Corp, that while he was working at Raytheon, the mail censors confiscated a photo of his grandmother on her 95th birthday, given that this picture contravenes the (episodic) Saudi prohibition of representations of women. More broadly, Mayfield recounts:
The Jeddah office of what used to be called the U.S. Information Service, an agency charged with presenting the official American point of view and refuting hostile accounts, was "almost completely staffed by non-U.S. citizens from the Middle East, many of them not friendly to American values and policies", according to Hunter. It "made no effort to counter the systematic, widespread falsehoods in the Saudi media about American society. In some instances, in fact, the usis actually provided misinformation about U.S. society." The public library at usis did not stock books critical of the Kingdom or other volumes considered "too sensitive" for Saudi society (such as family health issues). The only books touching on Jews, he reports, were "a small Jewish cookbook" and a great number of anti-semitic tomes, including the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.
The U.S. government's weak policy can be seen in yet other areas: it does not fight for U.S. scholars or media to get access to the Kingdom; it does not challenge the Saudi refusal to allow American researchers to engage in archaeological excavations; and it provides scant assistance to those unfortunate Americans who get caught up in the Saudi legal system (for something as minor as a fender-bender).
In contrast-and this is a rich subject in its own right-the State Department and other agencies bend over backwards for the Kingdom, for example, going to great lengths to keep secret the specifics of its investments in the United States. And when Saudi nationals living in the United States get in trouble with the law (common charges include various forms of rowdiness, sexual harassment and keeping slaves), they are often granted diplomatic immunity to avoid prosecution, then whisked out of the country. For example, a former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh was dispatched by his Saudi bosses to Miami in April 1982 to keep a Saudi prince from being jailed for altercating with the police by winning him retroactive diplomatic immunity. Or after Princess Buniah al-Saud, a niece of King Fahd, faced charges of battery for having pushed her Indonesian maid down a flight of stairs in her Orlando, Florida house, the maid was conveniently denied a visa by the State Department to return to the United States to testify against the princess. More spectacular was the planeload of bin Ladens permitted to leave the United States immediately after September 11, 2001, before U.S. law enforcement officials could question them.
It bears noting, too, that although these examples are limited to individuals and do not touch directly on high policy, they have more than symbolic importance because they set a tone with potentially large implications. In effect, the U.S. government is abetting a profound challenge to American ways by the Islamic mores of Saudi Arabia. McSally, the fighter pilot, explains that putting her in an abaya, requiring that she be escorted and placed in the back seat, has a real psychological effect on military life at U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, implying that women are inferior and subservient to men.
The same obsequiousness that exists on the level of the small-bore and the personal also holds on the grander scale of international politics. Some examples:
A Matter of Give and Take
What lies behind this pattern of obsequiousness? Where is the normally robust pursuit of U.S. interests? It is one thing when private companies bend over backwards to please the Saudis (Starbucks in Saudi Arabia does not show the female figure that normally graces its logo), but why does the U.S. government defer to the Kingdom in so many and unique ways?
"Oil" is likely to be the most common explanation proferred, but it does not hold. First, the U.S. government has never cringed before any other major oil supplier as it does to Saudi Arabia. Second, U.S.-Saudi ties have been premised since 1945, when a dying Franklin D. Roosevelt met an aging King Ibn Saud, on an enduring bargain in which Riyadh provides oil and gas to the United States and the world and Washington provides security to Saudi Arabia. Because this deal has even more importance for Saudis than Americans-survival versus energy supplies-oil cannot explain why the U.S. side has consistently acted as a supplicant.
Another possible factor is the proclivity of many Americans to strive to tolerate other people's customs and religious beliefs, which in the Saudi case involves such matters as the total covering of women, public executions and the absence of any pretense of democratic rule. But the lack of reciprocity from the Saudi side, decade after decade, suggests that something else besides an open spirit is at work; no matter how liberal, no one can endure such a one-sided relationship for so long unless there is a payoff.
A hint of that payoff lies in the pre-emptive quality of some U.S. government measures. Note two cases: The requirement that female military personnel wear the abaya was imposed by Americans, not Saudis; the latter did not even raise the subject. Saudi law only requires Westerners to dress conservatively, not to wear Saudi garb. Likewise, the investigation of the Air Force-Justice-caci directive excluding Jews from Saudi Arabia found "no evidence that the restriction was specifically requested by, was required by, or was even known by the Government of Saudi Arabia."
The same behavior exists among private institutions. Again, note two cases: in the 1959 ARAMCO case, it turned out that the oil company was not compelled by the Saudi government to exclude Jews, but did so anyway as a result of what the court termed "informal statements of State Department underlings." Similarly, the judgment regarding the Baylor College of Medicine found that while college officials informed the two Jewish doctors of problems securing visas for Jews, "Baylor never attempted to substantiate that 'problem'", leading the court to doubt "the veracity of those assertions." The court also found no evidence supporting the college's contention that the aversion to Jewish doctors in Saudi Arabia "represented the actual position of the Saudi government." To the contrary, it concluded that Michael E. DeBakey, the school's renowned chancellor, failed to obtain "an authoritative statement of the position of the Saudis" until 1983, more than a year after the doctors had initially filed suit. It observed that there was "no evidence that Baylor even attempted to ascertain the official position of the Saudi government on this issue."
In all four cases, an American in a position of authority over-eagerly imposed regulations he imagined the Saudis would be pleased with-but without checking with them, much less being required to take these particular steps. Why does such a pattern of behavior exist? What could prompt government or hospital staff to run out ahead of the Saudis themselves?
The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, helpfully hinted at an answer in a statement boasting of his success cultivating powerful Americans. "If the reputation then builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office", Bandar once observed, "you'd be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office." This effective admission of bribery goes far to explain why the usual laws, regulations and rights do not apply when Saudi Arabia is involved. Hume Horan, himself a former U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom, is the great and noble exception to this pattern. He says this of his former colleagues:
Over-the-top support of Saudi interests by former ambassador James E. Akins (who has criticized Arab governments for not being tougher with Washington and despaired that Arabs did not withdraw their money from U.S. banks) has caused him to be described as occasionally appearing "more pro-Arab than the Arab officials."
Several surveys of the post-government careers of ex-U.S. ambassadors to Riyadh all raise eyebrows. Steven Emerson characterizes their behavior as "visceral, overt self-interested sycophancy." National Review finds that the number of them "who now push a pro-Saudi line is startling" and concludes that "no other posting pays such rich dividends once one has left it, provided one is willing to become a public and private advocate of Saudi interests." A National Post analysis looked at five former ambassadors and found that "they have carved out a fine living insulting their own countrymen while shilling for one of the most corrupt regimes on Earth." If you closed your eyes while listening to their apologies, "you would think the person talking held a Saudi passport."
A Washington Post account gives some idea of the nature of the "rich dividends" reaped by former officials:
Nor is this a new problem. Many ex-Washington hands have been paid off by the Kingdom, including not only a bevy of former ambassadors but also such figures as Spiro T. Agnew, Jimmy Carter, Clark Clifford, John B. Connally and William E. Simon.
The heart of the problem is an all-too-human one, then: Americans in positions of authority bend the rules and break with standard policy out of personal greed. In this light, Hunter's report on the three main U.S. government goals in Saudi Arabia begins to make sense: strengthen the Saudi regime, cater to the Saud royal family, and facilitate U.S. exports. All of these fit the rubric of enhancing one's own appeal to the Saudis. So, too, does Hunter's comment that "the U.S. mission is so preoccupied with extraneous duties-entertainment packages for high-level visitors, liquor sales, and handling baggage for VIP visitors" that it has scant time to devote to the proper concerns of an embassy. Likewise, his long list of high-profile ex-officials who visited Saudi Arabia during his sojourn (Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Colin Powell, Mack McLarty, Richard Murphy) and "who were feted and presented with medals and gifts at closed ceremonies with the Saudi monarch" also fits the pattern.
This culture of corruption in the Executive Branch renders it quite incapable of dealing with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the farsighted and disinterested manner that U.S. foreign policy requires. That leaves Congress with the responsibility to fix things. The massive pre-emptive bribing of American officials requires urgent attention. Steps need to be taken to ensure that the Saudi revolving-door syndrome documented here be made illegal. That might mean that for ten years or more after having extensive contacts with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an official may not receive funds from that source. Only this way can U.S. citizens regain confidence in those of their officials who deal with one of the world's more important states.
 Quoted in "Statement by Patricia M. Roush before the Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives", June 12, 2002, p. 3.
Nov. 21, 2002 update: Hume Horan, the former U.S. amambassador to Saudi Riyadh whom I praised above as "the great and noble exception" to the general pattern of graft, read this article and responded thus in a letter to the editors:
Dec. 1, 2002 update: Writing the above article, I missed "U.S. Companies Support Gender Segregation in Saudi Arabia," by Nicole Manning in summer 2002 issue of the National NOW Times. Excerpts:
July 25, 2004 update: Hume Horan died on July 22 at age 69, a special misfortune for me because he and I were in discussions for him to become the next editor of the journal I publish, the Middle East Quarterly.
Oct. 1, 2011 update: This article has just appeared in a book, Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Terrorist Network: America and the West's Fatal Embrace, edited by Sarah N. Stern (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), ISBN: 978-0-230-11208-7, 288 pages.
Reader comments (135) on this item
Comment on this item
You can help support Daniel Pipes' work by making a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes