Rachel Bronson, Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)
Fittingly, if still sadly, the first page of the latest book on US-Saudi relations from the blue-chip Council on Foreign Relations reproduces a racist trope from the days when Americans working for the US oil company Aramco called their Saudi Arabian partners “boy.” Rachel Bronson lifts her epigram—about a book being like a little stone “in the stream of history”—from a terrible memoir by the American oilman Phil McConnell, who she misidentifies as “one of Aramco’s first ‘Hundred Men.’” The adjective “first” makes absolutely no sense. The time of the “Hundred Men” is how McConnell and others in the 1950s referred to the World War II years when the company temporarily shut down production, cut back its work force and sent its American dependents home. The number of, as they described themselves, “white” personnel dropped from 300 to about 100. But Bronson thinks the phrase refers to the earliest oilmen to arrive in the kingdom rather than those left in country for a short while to endure the hardships of life without their wives and children. The phrase is racist because the total number of full-time employees during the years of the so-called hundred men included over 1,000 Saudi Arabians, other Arabs and South Asians who were all but invisible then and remain so now. Unfortunately, Thicker Than Oil never recovers from its early unsure grasp of the facts and caricature of Saudi Arabian society.
Bronson’s book sacrifices the scholar’s primary objective of producing new knowledge to the goal of influencing the debate on the future of the so-called special relationship with Saudi Arabia that has been a mainstay of US Middle East policy for the last half-century. She ought to have thought harder. As is well known, following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon in September 2001, which were carried out mainly by Saudi Arabian nationals in al-Qaeda, headed by Osama bin Laden, another Saudi Arabian in exile, America’s alliance with one of the world’s most reactionary regimes and biggest exporter of oil—and also of fundamentalist Islam—came under attack. Elites in Washington, Orange County and New York called publicly for rethinking policy toward the Al Sa‘ud, while the outrage of tens of thousands of ordinary Americans fueled sales of “Saudi-bashing” books (Sleeping with the Devil, Hatred’s Kingdom, House of Bush, House of Saud) and made millions for populist filmmaker Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11). It is not the first time citizens have protested Washington’s ties with the Al Sa‘ud, but Bronson says they have never done so with as much force, thus threatening to undo a vital strategic partnership.
Bronson chronicles what she sees as the woefully unappreciated “ups” and fewer, not very serious “downs” (until now) in the course of the decades-old and evolving alliance between Washington and Riyadh. What the book does best is refute the idea that the only motivation for deepening the US-Saudi partnership by 11 successive administrations across 60 years is oil. Sure, the story starts with oil—and with Aramco’s 30-year long run in (and of) the kingdom—but it develops additional dimensions over time. The problem is, in Bronson’s excitement to make her point she barely touches on the story of oil policy, particularly in the period after 1973. It is as if US policymakers stopped caring about these matters.
She prefers instead to tell the story of the role that Saudi oil dollars came to play in the US economy, particularly after the first 1970s oil price increases and the staged nationalization of the American oil company. Bronson alludes to the growing significance of the kingdom’s massive military purchases for the Pentagon (but also for the Gun Belt and its representatives in Congress, although she misses the significance of American political geography). But she lavishes real care on recounting the efforts of the Al Sa‘ud and its intelligence arm in covert operations in Latin America, Africa and Asia on behalf of some of the world’s most gruesome thugs and against leftist insurgencies and various Soviet and Cuban clients during the Cold War. Doing “America’s dirty work” is how many of her own friends inside the kingdom put it.
The brief in each of its particulars is unfortunately all too familiar to anyone who read this magazine regularly over the years, where such analysts as Alain Gresh and Fred Halliday dissected what Gresh called the “most peculiar dictatorship” and Halliday the “curious and close alliance” with the United States. I built on these accounts in my own first published pieces on the kingdom, “Gun Belt Versus Beltway” and “The Closing of the oil Frontier and the Future of US-Saudi Relations” in Middle East Report in 1995 and 1997. Yet Bronson writes as if she were the first to discover these other dimensions of the US-Saudi relationship.
The real crime, needless to say, is that for myself and the analysts mentioned above, Saudi complicity in Cold War covert interventions was to be exposed in order to discredit the routine professions by US leaders that their administrations adhered to the rule of law, complied with Congressional bans on secret wars, and were committed to advancing democracy and respecting human rights. These were in reality the dark days of advancing dictatorship worldwide. If both the US and the Saudis are paying the costs for arming Afghan fundamentalists (“freedom fighters”), Bronson wants us to recognize the “successes,” too. She would toast the Saudis for their part in securing the rule of men like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and Jonas Savimbi in Angola. When you come right down to it, she would return to these thrilling days of yesteryear for inspiration in repairing the US-Saudi strategic relationship now.
Leaving her value preferences aside, the argument fails for at least three reasons. The first is that all the hand wringing by the friends of the kingdom after September 11, with their predictions of a fatal breach in the relationship, looks to be no different from other moments in the past 60 years when the same kinds of claims were made. Bronson’s purpose in writing the book—to identify and thereby rescue America’s true national interest from hijacking by the Saudi bashers—hardly matters at this point. Does anyone even remember, let alone care, about all those charges leveled after September 2001 at Wahhabi extremists, the kingdom’s hesitancy to admit its subjects’ role in the terror attacks, the shocking discovery of anti-Semitic and anti-Christian dogma in Saudi textbooks, and the like? The great thing about structural relationships is that they do not need as much tending as their self-proclaimed guardians say they do.
But say Bronson is right: The alliance might still collapse unless US elites take immediate steps to shore it up. It is not clear why the fact that the two governments were once comrades in arms in the war against world communism matters. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as any prospectus on foreign policy alliance behavior will tell you, and the identity of the threats to US hegemony in the post-Cold War era have changed. Mutuality of interests is hardly assured, even in the case—not foreseen in the book, by the way—of a rising “Shiite crescent.” About the best that anyone who places a premium on a meeting of minds in the two countries on matters of world order can count on is the Al Sa‘ud’s abiding conservatism, as befits one of the most reactionary cliques of the twenty-first century, which still does not guarantee much.
Even where King ‘Abdallah and his advisers might share a broad view in common with President George W. Bush or whoever takes office in 2008 regarding the threat posed by the next anti-systemic movement or revolutionary insurgency or rising superpower, the two countries have often disagreed sharply about the best way to confront the threat to their interests. This kind of tactical disagreement will continue to rock the relationship, particularly when a US patron expects fealty to the self-evidently smarter course that it prescribes for its dependencies, and the Saudi client just as routinely finds the choices it is offered misguided and, almost as often, humiliating. Bronson does not pay nearly enough attention to the record of serious Saudi challenges to US interests, from how oil was to be transported to closing down the first US base in the kingdom. Typically, successive US administrations have either chosen to take the hit or, where the Saudis have gone too far, forced them to back down, which brings us to the third and fatal flaw in Bronson’s argument.
She concludes Thicker Than Oil with a warning to US elites about what might happen if they press the Saudis too imperiously, from facing higher oil prices to losing out on weapons sales to seeing the kingdom grow closer to China. She politely ignores the factor that keeps Washington’s client in line, namely, the ruling family’s dependence on the US for its survival. This is not to say that the kingdom is in imminent danger of collapse, as Americans have never tired of predicting since, roughly, 1950. Bronson is right about this one. But the ruling family cannot afford to gamble away its only real insurance policy, even though it has never fully trusted the US commitment either. Bronson is all but silent on the kingdom’s acute security dilemma and how it works in America’s favor.