U.S.-Saudi Relations: Changes Are Overdue

The United States enjoys a handful of "special relationships" around the world, associations that go far beyond normal bilateral ties. Britain, Israel, and Taiwan come to mind. But few are as long-standing and as unusual as the seven-decade-old special relationship between America and Saudi Arabia. Since 1932, when Standard Oil of California paid the impoverished founder of Saudi Arabia 35,000 pounds in gold sovereigns for an exclusive 50-year oil concession, the U.S. has been in tight alliance with the Al Saud family dynasty. SOCAL found oil in 1938, a discovery that handed to the U.S. "the greatest commercial prize in the history of the planet," as one State Dept. envoy put it. Generations of Saudis would be educated in American universities. And Saudi petrodollars would help to finance the fight against communism, from Nicaragua to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.

The depth and longevity of that relationship is now causing Americans to feel profoundly hurt, even betrayed, by the Al Sauds in the aftermath of terror attacks on September 11. Americans are discovering that many of the terrorists were Saudi and that Osama bin Laden, himself a Saudi, is being largely financed with Saudi money. The Al Sauds may have torn up Osama bin Laden's Saudi passport in 1994, but they have been less than cooperative with the FBI in its anti-terror investigations. They have clearly done little to rein in Islamic charities funding the Al Qaeda network. And one of the Al Sauds' most U.S.-oriented scions, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, appeared to legitimize the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center by attacking American Middle East policy. His $10 million "humanitarian" donation to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was roundly and rightly rejected.

What must the U.S. do now? It should throw its weight behind the efforts of 77-year-old Crown Prince Abdullah to root out widespread royal family corruption. Tens of billions of dollars that should have gone into stimulating economic growth and jobs have been siphoned off and wasted by dissolute Al Saud family members. The U.S. should privately demand that Abdullah and the top five senior Al Saud princes formally and publicly disassociate the regime from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network and other Islamic extremist movements. Above all, Washington should encourage Saudi Arabia to open up its almost hermetically closed society by, in the first instance, radically reforming an educational system utterly dominated by religious instruction. Saudi youth--almost half the population is under the age of 18--desperately need the skills and knowledge to find a place for themselves in a modern, interconnected world.

The U.S. and the Al Saud family go back a long way. If this relationship is to continue to the benefit of both nations, a great deal has to change.

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