In my Washington Post colleague Charles Krauthammer’s May 21 op-ed column, “You want hypotheticals? Here’s one,” former Saudi Arabian intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal was quoted approvingly as complaining: “We were America’s best friend in the Arab world for 50 years.” Note the past tense.
If my arithmetic is correct, that would date the beginning of Turki’s cherished Saudi-U.S. relationship to 1965. But “best friend”?
As Oscar Wilde is credited with saying, “True friends stab you in the front.”
America’s back was turned in 1973 when Saudi Arabian-led oil producers imposed an embargo against the United States in retaliation for U.S. military support of Israel in that country’s 1973 war with Egypt and Syria.
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America’s “best friend” instigated a doubling, then a quadrupling, of the price of oil. Our good buddies in the Middle East watched as long lines formed at U.S. filling stations and consumer costs skyrocketed. The Saudi monarchy showed no regret as the pain it inflicted on the U.S. economy set in.
That’s because the Saudis, in their piety, sought to teach their American “best friend” a lesson: namely, that they could yank our chain whenever they wanted.
The Nixon White House got the message. It started negotiations with the Saudi-controlled oil producers to end the embargo and began putting pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights and the Sinai.
Manipulation of oil prices has been a handy Saudi weapon.
George W. Bush knows.
With oil at more than $127 a barrel in May 2008, then-President Bush appealed to Saudi Arabia to increase production and bring down the price. The Saudis said no. That was the second time. The Saudis had rebuffed Bush that January when he made the same request.
And what, pray tell, has America’s “best friend” done over the past four decades as all of that petrodollar loot, once estimated at $116 billion a year, poured in, as noted by a PBS “Frontline” report? Besides spending like mad on airports, hotels, highways, hospitals and schools – much-needed domestic projects and infrastructure – Saudi billions also found their way to other channels, such as religious charities that funded networks of madrassas: religious schools steeped in the conservative anti-Western Wahhabi strain of Islam that laid the groundwork for the creation of al-Qaida. All those billions did little to erase the repression of Saudi women or end inflammatory teachings about Christians and Jews.
Where did the cash and arms that helped create the Taliban come from? Yep, you guessed it, the kingdom.
In fact, after the Taliban took over the Afghan capital of Kabul in September 1996, Saudi Arabia was among the three countries to establish diplomatic relations. That relationship ended on the rocks in September 2001, however, when the Saudis concluded, the kingdom said, that the Taliban was up to no good, attracting and training Muslims, including Saudi citizens, “to carry out criminal acts” against Islamic law.
Throughout Prince Turki’s fabled 50 years of best friendship, the Saudis, when piqued, have never hesitated to publicly snub U.S. presidents. King Salman’s last-minute decision to pull out of this month’s Arab summit with President Barack Obama at Camp David is only the latest such no-show.
In 2001, then-Crown Prince Abdullah, then the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia and a backer of the Palestinian intifada, didn’t think the United States was doing enough to oppose Israeli action in the Palestinian territories. So when he was invited to visit the White House to meet with newly elected Bush in May 2001, Abdullah chose to stay at home, haughtily announcing, “We want (the United States) to consider their own conscience.”
A few months later, Abdullah fired off a letter angrily warning Bush that “A time comes when peoples and nations part. We are at a crossroads. It is time for the United States and Saudi Arabia to look at their separate interests.” Remember that, Prince Turki?
Today, the Saudis are in a tight spot, but it’s not because of the United States. The roiling Islamic struggle, pitting the Sunni Saudi and Persian Gulf states against their Shiite rivals in Iran, is of the Islamic world’s own doing. The United States can’t save them from themselves.
Still, some good has come out of the Saudi oil blackmail. It woke us up to the vulnerability caused by dependence on foreign oil. The oil shocks forced a succession of U.S. presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon, to initiate efforts to raise fuel-economy standards, increase conservation measures and double down on other power sources.
Now, shale production has propelled the United States way up the ladder as an oil producer, making us far less dependent on the kingdom than we were when we got blindsided in ‘73.
And the response from our “best friend”?
The Saudis have been pumping up oil production to cause prices to fall, preserve their market share and thus undermine U.S. shale oil development.
What a friend we have in Saudi Arabia.
King is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist.