Juan Cole on U.S.-Saudi Relations

StoryAugust 30, 2005
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We play Part 2 of our discussion with Middle East expert Juan Cole looking at U.S.-Saudi relations. Cole is a Professor of History at the University of Michigan and runs a widely-read blog called “Informed Comment.” [includes rush transcript]

Earlier this month, on August fifth, Cindy Sheehan announced at the Veterans for Peace annual convention that she would begin a vigil in Crawford Texas on the next day that would last until President Bush met with her. Although President Bush has refused to meet with her, her vigil would go on to reinvigorate the anti-war movement across the country.

On that same day, Vice President Dick Cheney was nearly 8,000 miles away in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was leading an American delegation to meet the newly installed King Abdullah and to pay condolences on the death of his half brother, King Fahd. The delegation also included Former President Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Cheney’s meeting with Abdullah came just months after the Saudi leader visited Bush at his ranch in Crawford. That visit made international headlines when Bush held hands with Abdullah as they walked by the bluebonnets on his estate.

To look at U.S.-Saudi relations we return to part two of our conversation with professor Juan Cole.

  • Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan and runs a blog called “Informed Comment,” which can be found at JuanCole.com.
    - Go to Part 1 of our interview with Juan Cole discussing his 10-Point Plan for U.S. Troop Withdrawal From Iraq.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To speak about U.S.-Saudi relations, we return to part two of our conversation with Professor Juan Cole. Juan Cole is Professor of History at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and he runs a blog called “Informed Comment,” which can be found at JuanCole.com. He joined us last week from a TV studio at the University of Michigan campus. And I asked him to talk about the significance of Vice President Cheney and former President Bush’s meeting with the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz.

JUAN COLE: Well, we don’t know what was discussed, but we do know that there are a number of very important issues facing the United States and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s population, as opposed to its government, has been relatively favorable towards the radical Muslim movements. Many have run off to fight in Iraq against the Americans, among the Saudis. And there have been substantial numbers of terrorist actions inside Saudi Arabia itself, in Riyadh, against the U.S. embassy in Jeddah, against foreign workers at oil facilities. And the Saudi government initially was slow on the uptake, did not perceive the danger to the kingdom itself in these. I think now it is increasingly effective in cracking down, as becoming an effective partner in fighting the spread of this radical extremist rightwing terrorism. And I’m sure that those issues were at the forefront of the Bush and Cheney consultations with Fahd.

But it should also be remembered that the price of petroleum is now in the $63 a barrel and more and less, in that range. Since Saudi Arabia produces something on the order of nine million barrels a day and is the largest, by far the largest, exporter of petroleum in the world, enormous amounts of U.S. capital are going into the Gulf. And the way that this has been arranged in the past, so as to not bankrupt the U.S. economy, has been to insure that the Saudis recycle the funds into U.S. investments. And there have been problems about getting the Saudis to do that in recent years. A lot of them are angry about the punitive U.S. attitudes towards Saudi Arabia in the wake of 9/11, with which the Saudi government was not involved. But certainly, Osama bin Laden is a Saudi, and some of the opprobrium fell on the government in Riyadh. And so there have been Saudi investors who have been pulling their investments from the United States, putting them in Europe and elsewhere [inaudible] that Bush and Cheney were pressing the new King Abdullah to keep that sweet deal going, whereby they sell us petroleum and then they take the money that we give them and reinvest it in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cole, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the new Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington, replacing what many have called Bandar Bush, or certainly what the Bush family have affectionately called him. And his relationship with Osama Bin Laden, can you talk about that?

JUAN COLE: Well, former U.S. national security or terrorism czar, Richard Clarke, alleged in his book that Turki al-Faisal recruited Osama bin Laden for fundraising in the Gulf private sector for the Mujahideen or the fighters against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan; and certainly Turki al-Faisal has had a number of meetings with Osama in the eighties, and the last, I believe, was 1997 in Kandahar in Afghanistan when, as we understand it, he went there to attempt to convince the Taliban to extradite Bin Laden. By then, he had broken with him.

But there was a relationship earlier on apparently between Saudi intelligence and the Arab Afghans, the volunteers like bin Laden that went to work for the resistance against the Soviets in Peshawar in Pakistan. That’s a troubled history, and I think it makes the new ambassador’s job very difficult to come into the United States with that kind of history. Of course, it is a history that is shared with many Reagan administration figures who also supported the radical Muslims against the Soviets back in the 1980s.

But I think the important thing is that clearly, King Abdullah has confidence in Turki al-Faisal; he is the son of an assassinated former king and therefore a prince in his own right, and feels that he has the weight and the experience to deal with Washington. And so, I think there are some troubling aspects of this appointment; but in diplomacy, access is everything. So if Turki al-Faisal comes in and he has good access to King Abdullah, he has good access to Bush, then that will grease the wheels of the relationship.

And while that relationship is problematic in many ways, it should be noted that Abdullah, when he was crown prince, was really running things for the last few years, on foreign policy actually has taken some good steps and is much better than Fahd in that regard. He opposed the Iraq war. He thought it would be a disaster. He was right. He put forward a comprehensive plan for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which he got adopted by the Arab League. It did call on Israel to go back to 1967 borders and give up the occupied territories and was rejected by the Sharon government out of hand, but here you have a king of Saudi Arabia who is adopting positions on foreign policy in some regards that I think would be welcomed by many on the American left. So that part of the relationship could be positive.

AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t Prince Turki al-Faisal also named in the 9/11 lawsuit of family members of those who died; and didn’t Baker Botts, of course the law firm of James Baker, aren’t they representing, not the 9/11 family members, but the Saudi regime?

JUAN COLE: Sure. Well, there were allegations of Saudi officials being involved in 9/11. In my view, they’re baseless. The Saudi elite has enormous amounts of money, as I said, invested in the New York stock market, and the last thing they would want is to see the value of their portfolios badly damaged. So just, even if, you know, one set aside their human feelings about civilians being killed, which they have, it makes no sense that someone high in the Saudi government would be involved in that. That was a terrorist action. It was by a radical fringe. And, I mean, there may have been low-level Saudi government officials who supported bin Laden without knowing what he was planning to do, but I simply do not believe that the Saudi government or high Saudi officials and princes had foreknowledge of this event or were in any way involved in it.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, runs a blog called “Informed Comment.”

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