An expert on the Middle East explores the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Since World War II, the U.S. has enjoyed a reliable ally in an Islamic theocracy dominated by a fundamentalist clergy intolerant of Western values. This oddball friendship receives a cleareyed if disturbing account by former CIA analyst and senior Middle East adviser Riedel (JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War, 2015, etc.). He begins with a historic February 1945 meeting between Franklin Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud (1875-1953), an impressive figure who, over a lifetime, united most of the Arabian peninsula under his rule. Penniless and surrounded by hostile rivals mostly supported by Britain, which he detested, the king granted generous oil concessions and permission to build the first of many bases. Roosevelt aimed to persuade him to tolerate Jewish immigration to Palestine. Failing, he promised that America would “take no action…which might prove hostile to the Arab people.” Students of history know how that turned out. Saudi Arabia remained a backwater until the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when it led an oil embargo that quadrupled prices and introduced Americans to a Middle Eastern powerhouse. The alliance endures despite other “near-death” experiences such as America’s long preference for Iran, a bitter rival. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War salvaged the partnership; both nations supported Iraq. The 1990s were a golden age when President George H.W. Bush sent troops to repulse Saddam Hussein; under Bill Clinton, the U.S. aggressively pursued a peace policy in the region. Serious strains arose after 9/11; 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, revealing that terrorism has long flourished in the kingdom.
Political histories are often a snooze, but Riedel is a lively, opinionated writer whose sympathy with his subjects’ viewpoints will enlighten most readers.