Footage of the President of the United States holding hands with another man is the stuff of late-night American TV monologues. So Tonight Show host Jay Leno couldn’t resist asking First Lady Laura Bush if she was jealous at the sight of her husband and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah walking hand-and-hand at the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas on April 25.
Humor aside, the show of fraternity between President George W. Bush and the de facto Saudi ruler and his bow to Middle East customs signaled a return to the warm strategic relationship the United States and Saudi Arabia enjoyed before Saudi nationals flew American commercial airliners into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
A communique issued after the three-hour Crawford meeting spoke of a mutual desire “to forge a new relationship between the two countries”. One key brick in the reconstituted friendship, DEBKA-Net-Weekly has discovered, is the US president’s consent to endorse Abdullah’s bid for the throne after the long-dying King Fahd passes away. US administrations have long done business with Abdullah as the top man in Riyadh but never formally recognized his pretensions to the succession. The king is reported to have taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks.
Turning the clock all the way back to pre-9/11may not be possible; anyway, Washington-Riyadh differences over the Iraq war are an irritant that will not go away. That said, our sources see a dramatic upturn in relations in the near future, with a strong ripple effect on the oil kingdom’s domestic politics and Washington’s policies in the Middle East, Iran and the Persian Gulf.
In Crawford, Bush and Abdullah struck several arms deals which were far larger – and with no attempt at concealment – compared with the hole-in-the-corner US-Saudi contracts signed in the past three years. Saudi capital will flow back to the United States for investment and the purchase of US government bonds. Saudi businessmen and students will also find their entry to the United States less encumbered by restrictions.
Reforms now, boost oil production later
Bush came away with Abdullah’s pledges to press ahead with the crackdown on al Qaeda-led terrorism and to continue pursuing, albeit very cautiously, democratic reform in the kingdom.
Bush, who is taking political heat at home over high gas pump prices, was widely reported as failing to talk Abdullah round to boosting Saudi oil production from 10 million barrels per day to 12.5 million bpd, and 15 million long-term.
“There was no Saudi commitment to increase oil production,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal told reporters.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources say he did not end the meeting empty-handed. The Crown Prince did consent to pump up oil production to 15 million bpd on the understanding that the increase would be long-term and 12.5 in the short term. He made it clear that the Saudi kingdom would be faithful to its role as the free world’s main oil supplier, but raising production to 15 million bpd involved substantial investment in upgraded drilling infrastructure and the development of new oil fields. For the moment, Abdullah insisted his immediate priority was not to undertake these projects but to spend royal cash on promoting reforms and improving the kingdom’s education, health and social welfare systems. Therefore investment in expanding oil production would take some time.
Bush was sympathetic to the Crown Prince’s argument and refrained from pushing him too hard on oil.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s strategic experts point out that the two leaders may have a tacit understanding on the virtues of high oil prices for both their interests.
Abdullah differs from King Fahd, whose shoes he is filling pro tem, in that he regards high prices as the best source of income to offset the Saudi deficit and fund his reform program.
As for Bush, he would never come out and say so in public, but he believes skyrocketing oil prices are more detrimental to the economies of China, Japan, South Korea and other Asian countries than to the American economy.
All the same, their conversation ended with a personal commitment by Abdullah to boost output to 12.5 million barrels and more if necessary. But he made two requests of the US president in return.
Saudi oil priced in Israeli currency
One, that Bush make Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ demands. Two, that he bring all his weight to bear to force Sharon to swallow his resistance and enter into negotiations with Syria.
Abdullah put it this way to Bush: We helped you move Syria out of Lebanon, but we insist that he is not humiliated in any way and that the Assad regime in Damascus is not brought to collapse. If you comply with both these wishes and open the Syrian-Israeli track, I promise you that the Saudi royal house will ascertain that Syria will in no way hinder the formation of a new regime in Beirut.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has thus far not found out how Bush responded to Abdullah’s ploy. But Thursday, May 5, Abdullah suddenly took off from Riyadh for urgent talks with Arab leaders. That same day, he first met Mubarak at Sharm al Sheikh, Friday he was due in Damascus to see Assad and then on to Amman for talks with King Abdullah. The Saudi Crown Prince has never been known for shuttle diplomacy; the Arab world always came to him. This unusual behavior indicates he must have received some sort of positive signal from Bush that encouraged him to go ahead with his diplomatic effort.
The momentum for opening a new chapter in US-Saudi relations was set off by five developments:
1. The notable Saudi victory in its war against al Qaeda in the city of al-Rass, which wiped out almost all the organization’s top commanders in the kingdom, some of whom were also central figures in its Moroccan networks. The victory also resulted in the elimination of some of the Saudi terrorist cells harbored in Sudan.
Anti-terror crackdown is on the level
None of this could have achieved without close cooperation between Abdullah and his main adversary, interior minister Prince Nayef, one of the heads of the powerful Sudairi royal clan. Before the April operation, Nayef had been half-hearted about fighting al Qaeda, turning this way and that according to his own and his clan’s political interests. Al-Rass finally convinced Washington of the Saudi royal house’s determination to crack down on al Qaeda – even in defiance of the all-powerful state clergy. The religious establishment chose its moment to signal its displeasure by a morals raid of a private Christian celebration in Riyadh while Abdullah was in the States. The imams were reminding him that he still had to contend with certain realities at home.
2. Abdullah pulled the rug from under Syrian president Bashar Assad over Lebanon. Had the Syrian ruler won a helping Saudi hand for standing up to US pressure when he visited Riyadh in March, he would have dug in his heels and Syrian troops might still be in Lebanon. Certainly, Assad would have been in no hurry to pull them out. But the Crown Prince denied Assad a prop. He also favors free elections for Lebanon, an independent ruling system and the disarming of the Shiite Hizballah terrorists. Therefore, for the first time since US Iraq war preparations in mid-2002, the Saudi ruler and the Bush administration are on the same wavelength on a key Middle East issue.
3. The Saudis are less nervous about Washington’s regime change aspirations for the region. The biggest nightmare in Riyadh was an overzealous American push for democracy to the point of diminishing returns – in other words, the rise to power of radical groups. The House of Saud felt badly threatened and saw the entire Middle East degenerating into a flaming battlefield. The Lebanon crisis taught the Saudis that the US government was not as intransigent as once thought and would accept a gradualist, localized approach to democratic reform. And so the Crown Prince and additional princes came to believe that reasonable understandings with Washington were possible.
4. The Bush administration’s support for the Intifada-rebellion mounted by local tribes in Iranian Khuzestan (See DNW 203, April 22, 2005).
This insurrection is ignored by the world media – with the exception of DEBKA-Net-Weekly. (A separate article in this issue discusses Washington’s deepening involvement). But Saudi princes are deeply impressed by this cautious, well-planned US maneuver. They are watching the campaign to try and subvert the ayatollahs' Shiite Muslim regime in Tehran, or at least cut down Iran’s influence and operational resources in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Here again, Riyadh sees eye to eye with Washington on a goal it has cherished since 1979 when Khomeini established the Shiite Islamic Republic in Tehran.
Bush’s pro-Palestinian tilt appreciated
5. The switch in the Bush administration attitude on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Saud rulers are rethinking their perception of the US president in the light of his vision of a Palestinian state based on Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank after its evacuation of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005. They have come to see Bush as more partial to the Arab conception of a solution to the conflict, which depends on a full Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 War, and less committed than Ariel Sharon claims to his plan for retaining major Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.
The Americans have made a point of informing Riyadh that all Bush gave Sharon was a statement that the demographic reality on the ground should be a factor in any final peace settlement, but it must be negotiated between the parties. When the Saudis were assured that Palestinian demographic reality must be addressed as well as the Jewish one, Abdullah decided the time had come to press for more American pressure for Israeli concessions.
Despite the improved climate between Washington and Riyadh, some arguments are inevitable. To keep relations running smoothly, a US-Saudi committee has been set up for the first time with a mandate to iron out misunderstandings as they arise. It is headed by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Saudi Arabian foreign minister Saud al Faisal.
A potentially profitable sideshow took place right after the Crawford summit. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington learn that before he left, Abdullah met the heads of the Dallas-based Hunt Private Equity Group to discuss private investments in the company. More than 20 years ago, Abdullah and other Saudi princes were heavily invested with the group and suffered major losses when the price of silver collapsed. His conference with Hunt’s directors aimed at displacing some of these bad memories with advantageous Saudi investments in the United States.