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Doubts are cast on the viability of Saudi monarchy for long term

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 3/5/2002

Last of three parts

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - A classified CIA report undertaken after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States depicts the ruling House of Saud as a fragile monarchy facing instability in the long run, according to senior US intelligence sources.

The document does not predict a near-term crisis, but paints a picture of the monarchy as dangerously ''isolated,'' and expresses ''serious concerns about long-term stability,'' said one source, who was consulted on the report by its authors and was recently briefed on its conclusions.

Palace officials in the oil-rich kingdom and some Saudi experts dismiss such predictions, saying similar assessments have been made before and have consistently been proven wrong.

But now, with US-Saudi relations at a crossroads after the terrorists' strikes, a growing number of former and current diplomats, federal investigators, and intelligence officials say that Washington has for too long ignored deep problems in the kingdom that, if unattended, will threaten vital US interests by leaving a key ally in the Middle East vulnerable.

President Bush with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal in December. (AP)

Bin Laden, the US,
and Saudi Arabia

Why bin Laden plot relied on Saudi hijackers

Before oath to jihad, drifting and boredom for hijackers

Saudi schools fuel anti-US anger
Doubts are cast on the viability of Saudi monarchy for long term
Coverage of the
war on terror

The core issue, they say, has been the monarchy's partnership with the fundamentalist religious establishment. The puritanical Wahhabi clerics provide the palace with its legitimacy to rule, but in return they are permitted to rail against the West, with some firebrands among them openly calling for ''jihad'' against ''infidels'' (read America) in mosques, schools, and the public airwaves.

The House of Saud - the 30,000-member ruling family headed by 3,000 princes - has long been so riddled with corruption that even Crown Prince Abdullah has said the culture of royal excess has to come to an end. It has ruled over the kingdom with documented human rights abuses and, as one Western diplomat put it, a form of ''gender apartheid'' for women. Democracy has never been part of the equation.

These palace indulgences have been tolerated by Washington for far too long, critics say, because of a US policy dependent on Saudi Arabia's vast oil reserves, Riyadh's purchase of an estimated $4 billion a year worth of US weapons, and its pivotal role as host to 5,000 American troops.

Since Franklin Delano Roosevelt agreed a half century ago to defend the kingdom in exchange for ready access to oil, the balance between US interests and US ideals in Saudi Arabia has always tipped in favor of Washington's economic and strategic interests.

''No one has wanted to rock the boat,'' said Edward Walker Jr., the former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and the former deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia.

''It's time to recognize that they [the monarchy] have a problem. If they don't expand their base beyond the royal family and recapture their education system, they are in serious trouble,'' said Walker, now president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank. ''I don't expect the corporate world to take up the lead for women's rights in Saudi Arabia or even for democracy. But I do expect our government to do it.''

Added James Woolsey, the former CIA director: ''The Saudi monarchy has had a bargain with the Wahhabis - if you leave us alone, we will help you set up mosques and radicalize young people to your way of thinking. Well, it is a bargain that is not in our interest. That deal, and what it produced, deserve a very large part of the blame for September 11th.''

Woolsey said the United States has for too long played what he described as ''realpolitik'' in the Middle East, allowing American business interests, predominantly big oil companies, to ''cloud thinking'' and to shape US policy.

''We need to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to change, but we will not have the leverage to do that as long as we have a reliance on them for oil. We have to diminish that reliance,'' said Woolsey. ''This will allow us to change our approach and think about bringing democracy. That is going to make people like the Saudis worry. Well, I say let them tremble.''

Diplomats and analysts in Riyadh and Washington say this is precisely the strain Saudi exile Osama bin Laden sought to put on the awkward US-Saudi alliance when his Al Qaeda network recruited 15 young Saudis to be among the 19 hijackers who crashed four planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and rural Pennsylvania.

One of the unavoidable truths after Sept. 11, they add, is that the attacks did, in fact, succeed in forcing the United States and Saudi Arabia to question - with unparalleled intensity - the terms of their partnership.

''All I can think is that Osama bin Laden is smiling when he hears Washington talk like that,'' said one high-level palace official in Riyadh, referring to Woolsey's criticism.

Washington's rethinking of its relationship with Saudi Arabia has required US intelligence officials to reassess the stability of the kingdom.

The recent classified study was ordered by the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence, said one intelligence source, soon after Sept. 11, amid criticism within the CIA that a full-blown ''National Intelligence Estimate'' on Saudi Arabia had not been done for several years.

The roughly 25-page document was completed approximately a month ago and is being circulated at the National Security Council and the State Department.

The report describes the House of Saud as an ''anachronism'' that is ''inherently fragile.'' One intelligence source said that ''serious concerns about long-term stability'' of the country are based on strains within the kingdom caused by a steadily shrinking economy and a rapidly growing population.

''The House of Saud is depicted as `the boy in the bubble,''' said the source, quoting a phrase used in the report. ''What that means is the kingdom is too isolated and too coddled. It has become an entity that requires insulation from the biogens in its environment because if it were exposed to them it would become deathly ill.''

He said the kingdom is left insulated by a clerical establishment that wants to drag the country backward, and is too far removed from a relatively liberal, more educated merchant class which is impatient to advance the nation democratically, but is given no means to express its views.

The report also expresses concern about the future succession of the crown among the gerontocracy that is the House of Saud. King Fahd, the nominal head of the royal family, suffered a stroke several years ago. His half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, is effectively running the country and is widely assumed to be the next king. But Abdullah, thought to be 78, has not made it clear who his successor would be.

The ''path of least resistance,'' as one intelligence source said, would be to name the next half-brother in line, Prince Sultan. But palace watchers say Abdullah sees Sultan, now minister of defense, as the embodiment of a culture of corruption that Abdullah wants to end. Abdullah is therefore leaning toward a younger brother, Prince Salman, who is in his early 60s. The report states that squabbles over the looming succession could ''cause real strain within the kingdom,'' one of the intelligence sources said.

A CIA spokeswoman, Anya Guilsher, declined to comment on the existence of the report, saying, ''We have not issued anything publicly of our analysis of Saudi Arabia.''

The report has been met with anticipation in Washington, where previous attempts by the CIA to delve into the stability of Saudi Arabia have been discouraged by one administration after another. The concern has always been that a leak of such a report's contents could undermine the world's oil markets. Intelligence sources add that powerful energy companies have over the years convinced Washington that it was not worth the risk to be too probing in its analysis of the House of Saud.

''It has long been the diplomatic equivalent of `Don't ask, don't tell,''' one former diplomat in Saudi Arabia said.

Pessimistic assessments, such as the CIA report's, about the long-term stability of the kingdom have almost always been met with skepticism by those with a stake in US economic or strategic interests here.

''I don't buy it, and history will not bear it out,'' said Frank Anderson, who was chief of the CIA's Near Eastern Division until 1995 when he became vice president of Foreign Reports, Inc., a Washington-based firm that offers political analysis of the world's oil markets.

''People have been predicting the collapse of the House of Saud for decades,'' he said. ''OK, the situation isn't ideal, but it is more stable now than it has been in any time in the past. I think all of the trend lines are going in their favor, not against their favor.''

A persistent criticism of US policy by some diplomats and reform-minded Saudis, is that it has for too long been shaped by a relationship of the corporate and government elites of both nations. Critics say this cozy partnership of elites has perilously ignored a surging disaffection among youth in Saudi Arabia, and a puritanical Wahhabi clerical establishment that has channeled that anger toward the West.

The calculation by the House of Saud has been that as long as the anger was directed at the West, then it was deflected from the ruling monarchy.

Dr. Abdoulah Al Fawzan, an associate professor at King Saud University and host of a popular radio talk show on the Middle East Broadcasting Company, says that the anti-American rhetoric - even when it is crudely expressed as support for bin Laden - should not be taken too seriously, that it must be seen as a kind of ''pressure valve'' that releases internal tensions.

''The leaders use the emotion of the Palestinian issue to direct all of that anger outside against America and Israel, rather than allow it to be turned inside against the Arab regimes. That is true. I could get in trouble for saying that, but it is true,'' he said.

The United States does little to question this, critics say, because it wants the House of Saud to survive for its own economic interests. This tolerance of the militant fundamentalists - their charity networks and calls for ''jihad'' in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya - goes back many decades and served America's interests in the Cold War when fundamentalists were seen as a bulwark against communism.

But now Washington seems to be questioning the wisdom of that policy since the 15 Saudi hijackers emerged out of the milieu it produced.

''They have been playing with fire in doing that.... I think you'd have to say it was a mistake to allow [Riyadh] to do it,'' said James Akins, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

To Adel Al-Jubair, a foreign affairs adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah, criticism of Saudi Arabia in the US media has been unfair, adding, ''Everyone could have done more. That is true of the United States, and of Europe, especially Germany. ... There were failures everywhere on this. We all should have seen it coming.''

Business, government

lines blurred by money

The lines between America's most powerful corporate interests and Washington powerbrokers have long crossed in the Saudi sands. The kingdom's vast oil wealth has brought the Saudis political access and leverage in Washington. And top former US policy makers and defense officials have often left their posts and gone on to reap enormous profits for themselves and the corporations they joined by trading on their personal connections to the kingdom.

A prominent Saudi professor of political science at one of the country's leading academic institutions, said, ''Your policy with us has been shaped by your elite and our royalty. It is a dialogue which reflects the Middle East culture, but not the American culture. This has been tolerated in Washington because it is good for the American political and corporate elite, the arms manufacturers and the oil industry.''

The professor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said such candor can cost academics their positions, and perhaps even a jail term, added that the policy, ''is tolerated here because it is good for the Saudi elite, the royal family, and the merchant families who profit from their connections to the palace. But it is not good for the Saudi people. And they have grown to hate America for it.... I think after September 11th you would have to say it is not good for the American people either.''

When discussing where American power and Saudi money come together, one corporate name frequently emerges - the Carlyle Group. It is a Washington-based investment firm that specializes in buyouts of defense companies and so-called ''offset deals'' which facilitate the global arms trade. The group, which holds an estimated $12 billion in a wide range of investments, is chaired by former secretary of defense Frank Carlucci. Its senior counsel is former secretary of state James Baker, and former president George Bush is paid to consult on its behalf. Defense industry watchdog groups say Carlyle has profited handsomely by trading on the influence and contacts of its powerful employees to get a portion of the roughly $4 billion a year that the Saudis spend on US-manufactured defense systems.

These men who once shaped US foreign and defense policy now travel to the kingdom facilitating business deals and investment strategies. According to the Wall Street Journal, they have in recent years made visits to the Saudi Binladen Group, the multibillion-dollar construction empire from which Osama bin Laden inherited his fortune. When bin Laden's citizenship was revoked by the Saudi government in 1994, his family disowned him. (Carlyle announced it would be ending its business relationship with Binladen Group in late October.)

Charles Lewis, director of the Washington-based, nonprofit think tank the Center for Public Integrity, a sharp critic of Carlyle, said, ''Carlyle is a case study of a foreign policy that too often reflects commercial concerns at the expense of the policy concerns of the country.''

Lewis has also been critical of what he calls a ''glaring lapse in judgment'' by the Bush administration to permit the ''appearance of conflict of interest'' that arises in having Bush's father representing one of the leading defense firms in the country.

Chris Ullman, vice president of communications for Carlyle, dismisses such allegations as baseless, saying the elder Bush ''has said he never discusses business related to Carlyle with his son.''

There are other prominent examples of where Saudi money meets American power in the oil fields. Halliburton, the Texas-based oil-supply business formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, has several subsidiaries operating in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also awarded $25 billion in gas and infrastructure projects this summer to three consortia dominated by US firms and led by Exxon Mobil Corp. The deal culminated many years of lobbying by US oil giants, who have been assisted by Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

Both nations' needs keep

image makers at work

The increasingly strained US-Saudi relationship presents a daunting challenge for Washington's post-Sept. 11 public relations campaign to push the American point of view more clearly in the Middle East. The effort is being headed by Charlotte Beers, who has been named undersecretary of state for public affairs and public diplomacy.

Beers, a former Madison Avenue executive who once marketed Uncle Ben's rice, is now being asked to market Uncle Sam's ideals. How hard can she sell America's brand of democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia?

After all, this is a place where Bibles are strictly banned. Public executions and floggings are still held in town squares. The monarchy has stifled - at times brutally - any dissent. Women are not provided official identity cards, not permitted to drive, or even to leave the country without a man's permission. Such Wahhabi strictures are enforced by the ''mutawaa,'' or religious police.

Not only is the kingdom resistant to change, but the ''ulemma,'' the clerical establishment, would see many US concepts as heresy to Islam. So Beers's campaign for American values has high stakes - possibly, some analysts say, even toppling a kingdom that holds 25 percent of the world's available oil and provides the US military its primary base in the Middle East.

Critics of Beers, of which there are many in the Middle East diplomatic corps, observe with irony that in her first trip through the region she avoided Saudi Arabia. Beers declined to be interviewed for this article.

The Saudis, for their part, have employed small armies of public relations firms for decades to manage their image in the United States.

The New York-based public relations giant, Hill & Knowlton, has had a 17-year history of involvement in the kingdom, and maintains a corporate office in the port city of Jeddah. The company has long been at the nexus of Washington power and Saudi money. For example, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke was general manager of Hill & Knowlton before joining the Bush administration.

Howard Paster, Hill & Knowlton's CEO since 1994 and the former head of the Clinton White House's Office of Legislative Affairs, traveled earlier this year to the Jeddah Economic Conference. There he announced that he had secured a contract with the massive Saudi Basic Industries Corp., an account that he described to the Financial Times of London as ''a nice, big piece of business.'' But Paster insists that Hill & Knowlton's involvement with the Saudis has been ''greatly exaggerated'' and that the Saudi piece of the company's more than $300 million in annual revenue is ''only a fraction.''

Paster, who has become something of a legend in the public relations business for plain speaking, said in a telephone interview from New York, ''The fact is Saudi Arabia has got to explain to the American people that those 15 [hijackers] don't represent the Saudi attitude to the US.... The burden is on them to do that.''

When asked about the Washington culture of quietly avoiding confrontation with the Saudis because of oil and other strategic interests, Paster said, ''People aren't going to shut up after September 11 and that's good news. Friends tell friends when things aren't right.''

As Washington rethinks its relationship with the Saudis, it has already put pressure on the kingdom to change. Some observers feel this pressure produced the Saudis' recent vague, but perhaps important, peace initiative in the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The United States has expressed interest in the Saudi offer as a way to break the cycle of violence and perhaps get the two sides negotiating again. Many diplomatic observers suggest that the Saudis only moved now because they knew, as one senior intelligence source put it, that the United States was ''fed up with the kingdom'' after Sept. 11.

F. Gregory Gause III, a specialist on Saudi Arabia at the University of Vermont, cautions Washington not to shift its policy toward Riyadh too abruptly, or out of anger over Sept. 11. He defends the current US approach toward the kingdom, saying, ''Personally, I would say our hands-off policy has been better than any alternative. Drastic political change could go very badly for us. We might end up, and the Saudis might end up, with a worse regime.

''It all depends on what you think our foreign policy should accomplish, or can accomplish,'' Gause said. ''The truth is the more democratic the Saudis become, the less cooperative they will be with us. So why should we want that?''

This status quo has dominated US-Saudi relations for more than 50 years. Ever since FDR first cemented the relationship, the only US president to ever directly challenge the kingdom was John F. Kennedy.

In a 1962 meeting with former King Faisal, Kennedy presented a plan of reform that demanded an end to the kingdom's practice of slavery and a start to participatory democracy, civil rights, economic transparency, and freedom of speech.

''The only thing that has changed since Kennedy is that they have ended slavery,'' said Said K. Aburish, author of ''The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud.''

Anderson, the former CIA official-turned oil industry analyst, strongly disagrees, and said the success of the Saudis has been ''slow and deliberate modernization.''

''The fact that we are talking about women's right to drive, and not slavery, says a lot. The measure of their success has to be made within their own context of time and space,'' he said.

Anderson said the best way to understand Saudi Arabia is to liken it to a large oil truck navigating one of the steep, winding roads in the northern reaches of Asir province in southwest Saudi Arabia. The United States has been in the passenger seat making sure it is braking and downshifting.

The challenge of the kingdom has been to ''ride the brake,'' Anderson said, to keep it from going out of control as Iran did in 1979 when the monarchy there pushed to hard and too fast for modernization and sparked the Islamic revolution.

''It is a very big truck going down a very steep grade,'' he said, ''and everyone understands the need to be very careful.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/5/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.