Don't forget how the US-Saudi romance began

Once upon a time, the US government was notm interested in supporting Saudi Arabia. Despite oil company importunities and warnings, the Department of State took three years (1928-1931) to recognize the Saudi monarch and was even slower to set up consulates and official representation there.

Why? One reason was that the department, for all its intellectual and personal affinities with the oil industry, had enough integrity (and fear of embarrassing publicity) to make it averse to the industry's special pleadings. Another was the department's implicit acceptance that Saudi Arabia was in the British sphere, much as Latin America was in the American sphere. A third reason was uncertainty as to the quantity, quality, and usability of Saudi oil.

Such standoffishness withered rather rapidly beginning in the early 1940s as a result of a consensus of estimates which proved to the government's satisfaction that Saudi oil was an enormous bonanza. Given the special concessionary role of ARAMCO, the corollary followed that the oil should be under direct American influence.

Soon the State Department took the lead in promoting the thesis that the well-being of the feudal monarchy was coterminous with the well-being of the United States. The ousting of British influence, munificent wartime lend-lease, special gifts, special missions, "Great and Good Friend" letters from Roosevelt to Ibn Saud -- all were material and symbolic examples of a growing special relationship. This, notwithstanding the fact that not one drop of Saudi oil was used during World War II to fuel the allied war machine.

Today of course, relations are thicker, and one speaks of billions, not millions, of dollars of oil exports, investment, and trade.

However, it is important to recall the premises on which the department of the 1940s, for all its kindled ardor, rested its case of support and placation of the Saudi monarchy. One premise was that Saudi oil (by being marketed in Europe by ARAMCO) would enhance America's corporate profits and, presumably, the economy at large. A second was that Saudi/ARAMCO oil would be available on a low-cost, first-option basis for America's own needs, in the event of an emergency or if Latin American and domestic oil were insufficient for military and commercial purposes.

To be sure, the articulated justification of aid to Saudi Arabia usually sought higher, less mercenary grounds, even as it romanticized Ibn Saud and played on actual anxieties, e.g., the fear that the monarchy would fall apart or revert to the British, or even to the Nazis, if America did not rush to help. Whatever the stated or assumed premise, however, it was understood that our material aid to Saudi Arabia (and support for ARAMCO) was not an act of charity, nor was it an eternal dogma, as the pre-1941 history of US-Saudi relations showed. Rather, our support represented a quid pro quo of aid in exchange for oil, presumably available and affordable.

Today, the US-Saudi deal is becoming increasingly imbalanced. On the one hand, American advanced military aid and economic investment remain gargantuan. On the other, our domestic recession is also deepening -- but the oil producing states, "moderate" Saudi Arabia fully included, continue to gouge the consuming world, thus contributing profoundly to that recession. Also, until recently, the Saudis consistently frowned on our stockpiling of a strategic oil reserve -- a vital necessity to us which made their displeasure an extraordinarily unfriendly act.

Another instance of unrequited love is seen in America's deep commitment to antiterrorism and to the Camp David peace process. Saudi Arabia, however, has yet to deplore Palestine Liberation Organization extremism and terrorism, to reduce its funding for that organization, to signify that it will join the Camp David peace negotiations, or even to encourage fellow monarchist Jordan to do so and thus test the waters for Saudi Arabia.

There are other areas of disharmony: conflicting ideas on freedom and women's rights, as the recent "Death of a Princess" flap illustrates.

The foregoing suggests that American policymakers today have scant recall of the past and particularly of the key historical fact that the original understanding with Saudi Arabia, romantic accretions-apart, was based on the common-sense idea that Saudi/ARAMCO oil would help the American national interest.The case can be made that today the monarchy is increasingly and seriously hurting, not helping, the US -- and that the US government is doing very little about it.

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