The tangled web of ties between America's First Family and Saudi Arabia's ruling dynasty surely wasn't a topic President George W. Bush wanted highlighted in an election year. But OPEC's Mar. 31 oil production cut could soon drive record gas prices past the politically explosive $2 mark across the U.S. And that could focus attention on troubled U.S.-Saudi relations with an intensity unmatched since the September 11 attacks.
The Saudis argue that OPEC's oil squeeze is needed to make up for disappearing revenues in the face of a sharply declining dollar. And there is no evidence that $37 a barrel oil -- far higher than the recent $30 target -- is crimping the global economy. But some longtime Middle East watchers wonder whether unhappiness with Bush Administration policies has the Saudis sitting on their hands as a potential problem for the President develops. "The incentive for [them] to cooperate has weakened on a political basis and a market basis," says Jamal Qureshi, a market analyst with PFC Energy, a Washington consulting firm.
Higher energy costs could hurt Bush's reelection by squeezing corporate profits, delaying hiring decisions, and riling voters. Some experts even speculate that Riyadh backs regime change -- in Washington. "While the conventional wisdom is that Republicans, especially Bush, are better for Saudi interests than Democrats, perhaps they've decided their interests are better served by somebody else in the White House," says former Bush State Dept. official Jon B. Alterman.
This provocative thesis elicits flat denials from both governments. Washington praises the Saudis' cooperation in the war on terrorism, which improved after a bombing in Riyadh in May. And Saudi spokesman Nail Al-Jubeir calls the relationship "solid," while conceding "healthy disagreement" on issues such as democracy in the Middle East, which the President called for again in his Apr. 13 news conference.
Saudi Royals have long expressed frustration with Bush's strong pro-Israel tilt. Experts say the Saudis take offense at repeated reminders of Saudi citizens' participation in the September 11 hijackings. And monarchical Saudis figure that however Iraq turns out -- with an Arab democracy or a radical theocracy -- they'll still have an unsettling neighbor. That's why Riyadh is "not disposed on general grounds to help this Bush Administration," says Saudi specialist F. Gregory Gause III of the University of Vermont.
That's a far cry from the Saudis' warm relationship with Bush's father. A new book, House of Bush, House of Saud, by journalist Craig Unger details the long links with George H. W. Bush dating back at least to the 1980s and the Iran-Iraq war. And in the beginning of the second Bush Administration, the Saudis still had enough clout that right after September 11, according to Unger, the only private flight permitted carried 140 Saudis out of the U.S. Attitudes toward Riyadh have hardened since then, and now the question is: Have White House-Saudi tensions spilled over into the oil market? Only the Saudis know for sure.
By Stan Crock
Edited by Richard S. Dunham