Daniel Pipes: We Need a New Relationship with Saudi Arabia

Roundup: Historians' Take

An interview with Daniel Pipes, the Australian Broadcast Corporation (May 31, 2004):

TANYA NOLAN: Well this is the 10th deadly attack in Saudi Arabia in the past 12 months. And many are wondering what the desert kingdom is doing to try and stop terrorism and protect the world's largest oil reserves.

And many wonder what America has been doing to try and encourage the Saudi Government to be more proactive in the so-called global war on terrorism.

Daniel Pipes is the Director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia and author of the book Miniatures: Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics, which was published last year.

He believes the United States Government has been"weak-kneed" when it comes to applying pressure on the Saudis to stamp out terrorism.

And Mr Pipes says the terrorists have the ability to inflict serious damage to the world oil market by trying to drive foreigners out of Saudi Arabia.

I spoke to him from his home in Philadelphia a short time ago.

DANIEL PIPES: Certainly disrupting Saudi oil would be a powerful message, would hurt the Government acutely, but I think it's more difficult than what the terrorists are presently doing, which is striking randomly at foreigners, and particularly Westerners.

Because that is going to have an effect, if it succeeds, in causing westerners to leave the Kingdom, and that will have a variety of effects, some of them material – it will make it more difficult to sustain the economic machine, but also diplomatic, psychological and more broadly will serve as a large victory for the Taliban-like forces that are on the attack.

TANYA NOLAN: Well there has long been a special relationship between America and Saudi Arabia, and it's largely been based on the accessibility of cheap oil, the political stability in Saudi Arabia, and America providing the voracious oil market for Saudi oil. Does that mean America turns a blind eye to terrorist attacks and terrorist funding within Saudi Arabia?

DANIEL PIPES: Well, I would somewhat disagree with the term" cheap oil". It's not always been cheap; it's certainly not cheap at the moment. But a substantial flow coming out of Saudi Arabia has been crucial, not only to the United States but to the entire world economy.

A crisis in Saudi oil production would have severe economic and political implications. The most dangerous prospect is not a quick coup d'état or revolution, which would replace the current Government with another one. The most dangerous prospect is an extended period of unrest, in which strikes and attacks debilitate the Saudi oil output.

TANYA NOLAN: But that dependent relationship effectively that exists between America and Saudi Arabia has done America little good in being able to influence Saudi Arabia to do something about the growing number of terrorist attacks in its country that have targeted Americans, has it?

DANIEL PIPES: Well the US-Saudi relationship has been a very interesting one. It's now just about 60 years old. It began at the tail end of World War II. And it has been what I call the European relationship of American foreign policy, in that whereas in general, American foreign affairs is, as your listeners are no doubt aware, is a kind of raucous decision-making process, in which the President, the State Department, the Defence Department, the Congress, the media, the lobbies and others have their say.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, it is a small group of people, it's a cosy arrangement with a few politicians and some ex-politicians and ex-diplomats, ex-military figures, some business leaders, get quietly together and decide what the nature of that relationship is going to be, and where it's going.

That close, cosy quality is now under challenge, in a way it has never been before, not even 30 years ago when Saudi Arabia was at the centre of our economic concerns. And the great question for the American foreign policy point of view is,"Will it sustain itself, or will this relationship be open to Congress, to the media and to others to influence?"

TANYA NOLAN: Well, we've not seen Saudi Arabian officials prosecute any of the associates linked with the September 11 hijackers, 15 of 19 of which came from Saudi Arabia. We've not seen anything done about Saudi institutions and companies helping fund terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, and the old Afghani regime, the Taliban. Do you really think that America has any leverage over Saudi Arabia?

DANIEL PIPES: What I meant to say is that we could have leverage if we had a different approach, if it was not this cosy approach then the US Government, which is normally not very shy about exerting influence, would do so.

TANYA NOLAN: Does America need to have a different approach though?

DANIEL PIPES: I believe so, yes. I believe that we need a much more robust representation of our interests in Saudi Arabia. That has not been the case going back for 60 years.

TANYA NOLAN: But how would Saudi Arabia respond to that?

DANIEL PIPES: I believe they would note it and act accordingly. I mean they would pay attention to it. They would not thumb their noses at it, they couldn't. It's too important them. But we have been weak-kneed for all these decades, and are still at this time as you pointed out, the Saudi's haven't really made any real changes.

Now, they are being attacked, as you pointed out at the beginning of our discussion, once a month, or almost attacked… I mean there are attempts to attack them with great regularity. But there is a very telling quote – some weeks ago there was major blast and the policeman looked around and he said, What kind of Jihad is this? There are no foreigners here.

In other words, if foreigners are being killed in Saudi Arabia, well you know it's bad but not that terrible, but if it's Saudi's who are being killed, it really is something terrible. And it is Saudis being killed, to some extent, and this is prompting the Saudi authorities to wake up to this menace in a way they wouldn't so long it was just foreigners, even thousands of foreigners.

TANYA NOLAN: So you think we will see a change in the Saudi Government's approach to these attacks?

DANIEL PIPES: I think there is a lot of soul searching going on in the Saudi leadership as to what to do, because as you noted earlier, there is a history going back some time of appeasing the most radical elements, and yet now these have come back to bite the Saudi leadership and they're not quite sure what to do.

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