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To stay healthy, US-Saudi ties need attention

Daily Star, Beirut

5 November 2004

To stay healthy, U.S.-Saudi ties need attention


Editor’s note: What follows is a commentary by the Saudi-U.S.-Relations Information Service (SUSRIS) on President George W. Bush’s policies towards the Middle East and, in particular, Saudi Arabia.This presentation first appeared on

Over the past year, the George W. Bush administration has prepared a comprehensive political and economic reform initiative aimed at promoting democracy in the Middle East. Taken as a whole, this plan is referred to as the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI).

President Bush presented this proposal in November 2003 during a speech given at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He discussed America’s commitment to democracy worldwide then narrowed his focus to the Middle East in particular.

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe - because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," said President Bush. "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo.

"Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East," continued President Bush. "This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace."

Although details of the GMEI remain vague, two pre-existing programs - the Middle East Partnership Initiative and the Middle East Free Trade Initiative - are components of the GMEI that are already at work.

The Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) is a program supervised under the U.S. State Department. MEPI was founded to support economic, political and education reform efforts in the Middle East. This initiative incorporates the use of global private sector businesses and non-governmental organizations. MEPI is the administration’s primary diplomatic policy and program development tool to support the new U.S. policy of a "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."

MEPI’s economic focus is to improve region-wide economic and employment growth driven by private sector expansion and entrepreneurship. In the political realm, MEPI supports democratic participation in the political process, where people have a choice in governance, and there is respect for the rule of law. MEPI also supports programs that promote full and equal opportunities for women in society.

The Middle East Free Trade Initiative is another component of the Greater Middle East proposal. This trade initiative aims to help reforming countries become members of the World Trade Organization. The trade initiative also seeks to negotiate bilateral investment treaties and trade and investment framework agreements with governments determined to improve their trade and investment regimes.

In the final weeks of the campaign, President Bush stepped up his rhetoric about easing American dependence on foreign energy sources, which would directly include the Middle East.

At an event in Brecksville-Broadview, Ohio in early September he said, "Congress will get an energy plan to my desk that encourages conservation, that encourages the use of renewables, such as ethanol, biodiesel; that explores for ways to make sure that we use technology to leapfrog the current problems we have like hydrogen-powered automobiles, that works on clean coal technology; that says we’ll explore for natural gas in environmentally friendly ways. It’s a plan, though, that recognizes that we must become less dependent on foreign sources of energy if we want to keep jobs here in America."

President Bush’s plan for energy independence, as outlined on his campaign Web site (, seeks to increase domestic energy exploration and production and promote conservation. One of President Bush’s key points is to "promote environmentally sound domestic oil production in just 1 percent of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which could provide up to 1 million barrels of oil a day for nearly 20 years."

Another part of President Bush’s plan is to improve vehicle fuel economy. He plans to "foster development of new technologies, provide a $4,000 tax credit to purchase hybrid gasoline-electric and other fuel efficient vehicles, and improve the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program to increase fuel economy in a way that saves lives and American jobs."

However, many experts and analysts agree that such campaign talk about energy independence from foreign sources is an unrealistic goal. Paul Roberts, author of the book "The End to Oil," said in USA Today on Oct. 24, "You need to understand that when they discuss energy independence, it’s a rhetorical gimmick.

"It sounds good, but the truth is there is no such thing as energy independence for a country that uses as much oil as we do in the United States. They’ve been saying it since Nixon’s time. You have to say it. It’s like mom and apple pie," said Roberts.

This analysis may be correct. According to the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Energy Department, in 2003, the United States only produced 5.7 million barrels of crude oil per day, while it imported 9.7 million barrels per day. Of that number, the top U.S. crude oil supplier is Saudi Arabia with 1.7 million barrels per day. The U.S. depends on imports for 56 percent of its petroleum needs.

President Bush has been a vocal supporter of Saudi Arabia’s efforts in fighting the "war on terror" and in the kingdom’s progress in the area of political reform. He and members of his administration have affirmed that Saudi Arabia has been effectively going after militants and extremists in its own country following a series of terrorist attacks within the kingdom. They have also commented positively on the announcement that the kingdom plans to hold the first of its municipal elections in February 2005.

"Three years ago, terrorists were well-established in Saudi Arabia," said President Bush in remarks given at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in July. "Inside that country, fundraisers and other facilitators gave Al-Qaeda financial and logistical help, with little scrutiny or opposition. Today, after the attacks in Riyadh and elsewhere, the Saudi government knows that Al-Qaeda is its enemy. Saudi Arabia is working hard to shut down the facilitators and financial supporters of terrorism. The government has captured or killed many first-tier leaders of the Al-Qaeda organization in Saudi Arabia - including one last week. Today, because Saudi Arabia has seen the danger and has joined the war on terror, the American people are safer."

In November 2003, President Bush praised Saudi Arabia’s commitment to political reform at the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy when he said, "The Saudi government is taking first steps toward reform, including a plan for gradual introduction of elections. By giving the Saudi people a greater role in their own society, the Saudi government can demonstrate true leadership in the region."

President Bush has remained a supporter of Saudi Arabia’s progress despite recent attacks and innuendos that the president is too closely associated to the Saudi royal family. These attacks on the Bush family’s relationship with Saudi Arabia have been the subject of books, such as "House of Bush, House of Saud" by Craig Unger, and the film "Fahrenheit 9/11" by documentarian Michael Moore.

Rachel Bronson, a senior fellow and director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a July 6 Slate article that, "The Saudis have been close friends of many Republican administrations. The Republicans, after all, are a party of big business, and oil is a heck of a big business ... In the 1980’s, Saudi Arabia had extraordinarily good relations with the Ronald Reagan administration. Saudi Arabia has been closely involved with U.S. politics for decades."

The recent publication of the Sept. 11, 2001 Commission’s final report has put to rest many of the rumors and mistruths that fueled attacks against President Bush and the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Thomas Lippman, author of "Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia," said in an August 13 interview with SUSRIS: "Probably the single most beneficial thing that has happened to this [U.S.-Saudi] relationship in some time - was the publication of the Sept. 11 report. You can now stand there with the Sept. 11 report in your hand and say, ’The Saudi Arabian government is not financing or promoting acts of terrorism against the United States. And, by the way, George W. Bush didn’t sneak murderous criminals out of the country through closed airspace after Sept. 11 to the profit of the Carlyle Group.’ The Sept. 11 Commission report has helped to set the record straight."

The claims that President Bush and the Saudi royal family are inappropriately too cozy were challenged by former American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman, who told SUSRIS on Oct. 26: "Even if critics don’t take as extreme a line as Michael Moore in ’Fahrenheit 9/11,’ there are those who hold to the position that Bush is in bed with (Saudi Ambassador) Prince Bandar, and the Saudi royal family calls the shots in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. This is a ludicrous parody of reality and has no credibility at all with anyone who knows anything."

The prospects are good for a second Bush administration’s government-to-government relationship with Saudi Arabia. In April 2002, President Bush hosted Crown Prince Abdullah at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. In remarks after the meeting, he responded to a question by noting, "Well, first of all, one of the really positive things out of this meeting was the fact that the Crown Prince and I established a strong personal bond. We spent a lot of time alone, discussing our respective visions, talking about our families. I was most interested in learning about how he thought about things. I’m convinced that the stronger our personal bond is, the more likely it is relations between our countries will be strong."

However, the strains in the U.S.-Saudi relationship overall are apparent, and will require the attention by whichever candidate wins the presidency. As Ambassador Freeman told SUSRIS last week:

"There’s a great deal of suspicion by Americans of the Saudi royal family, a lack of understanding of Saudi society and a fundamental misunderstandings of Islam ... After the election, whoever wins is going to have to govern. And whoever governs is going to have to deal with the interests I mentioned. This means energy security in which Saudi Arabia is an important factor; a relationship with the Islamic world in which Saudi Arabia plays a key role; the management of security issues in the Persian Gulf and adjacent regions in which again Saudi Arabia is a key; and of course the question of cooperation against terrorists, many of whom focus their attention on Saudi Arabia as much as, or even more than they do on the United States.

There is a real danger, given the negative trends that I’ve outlined, that if there is not intelligent intervention by the new administration in the United States, whoever leads it after Nov. 2, that is some sort of effort made to sit down with Crown Prince Abdullah and with his brothers to reassess and redefine the relationship along all of the axes that I have discussed, that the relationship will in fact drift permanently into a mutually disadvantageous mode."