The answer, it may seem, is simple: yet another cover-up, yet another scandal brushed under the rug, more nasty men in the halls of power getting away with the terrible things they do.
Such a narrative gives us a simple good versus bad tale of morality, with evil Saudi princes laughing behind closed doors. As always, that simplicity belies the complicated nature of the entire situation.
So, a review is in order
It didn’t take long for people to wonder aloud why America was bombing Afghanistan when fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi. On the face of it, this seemed irrelevant: Al Qaeda was not a Saudi but Sunni supremacist terror organization. The guilt of the kingdom lay in its wretched education system and backward state religion, the sinews that provided the structure to such thoughts, but not in outright collusion. This was, as much, the findings of the publicly released form of the 9/11 Commission Report.
Minus 28 pages of material that remained classified. These pages were hardly on the media radar until a few weeks ago when suddenly, propelled by legislation in Congress that would allow 9/11 victims to sue foreign governments, the long-simmering secret material burst into the public consciousness.
It is still not fully clear what is in those pages: some state that it’s only a fleshing out of what we already know, others allege greater bombshells. What is known is that the Saudi royal government threatened to sell some $750 billion in American assets in retaliation for the lawsuit bill.
But let’s step back further and understand Saudi-American relations
Since World War II, the United States has, for better or worse, seen Saudi Arabia has a linchpin in its ever-changing Middle Eastern strategies. During the Cold War, it was a reliable anti-communist bastion, useful to push back against Yemeni, Bahraini and Omani communists. After the energy crisis, it became a gigantic gas station: the modern equivalent of how ancient Rome once treated Egypt.
Saudi’s rulers understood this quite well and sought to make themselves indispensable to the superpower. Providing reliable oil was one tactic; so too was reinvesting much of their oil wealth in America itself. This was meant to provide leverage in the United States with none of the liabilities of an oil boycott, which Riyadh saw as both a failure, since it did not change American policy, and a threat, since it encouraged the United States to look elsewhere for its energy.
Additionally, Riyadh sought to be a compliant, useful partner in whatever goals the United States had in the region. In the euphoria of the post-Cold War 1990s, the United States tried to repeat its success by transforming the Middle East into a European-style alliance system, with American power slowly strangling and overwhelming local holdouts like Syria, Iraq and Iran. Saudi Arabia was fine with this set of priorities: Shia Iran threatened its eastern flank, Saddam’s Iraq its northern one and Assadist Syria continued to espouse an ideology that could, given enough time and space, overthrow the royal regime.
9/11 convinced the United States, briefly, that these holdouts would go down fighting in all too deadly a fashion: fear of an Iraqi suitcase nuke, among other things, compelled the United States to take swifter action against Iraq. But the priorities had not changed. Rather than slowly strangle the holdouts, America decided to smash them. The Iraqi insurgency put paid to military ambitions and Washington, in tandem with Riyadh, continued the slow-but-steady strangle of Syria and Iran.
But beginning in 2011, the ground started to fall out from underneath this alliance
Which happened because of three things: the shale oil boom, the Arab Spring and the Iran nuclear deal.
The shale oil boom transformed the energy world and made Saudi’s light crude just a bit less sweet. For the first time in decades, America could make do with what was already in North America. The terrifying realization of this has caused the Saudis to flay about, splashing gluts of oil across the planet in hopes of driving fracking out of business permanently. If America doesn’t need Saudi oil, one gigantic pillar of the relationship falls away.
Second, the Arab Spring neutralized once formidable anti-American foes: Syria and Libya both collapsed into a morass of civil war, removing them as threats to American interest. The solutions to both civil wars lay far beyond the power of Saudi Arabia, a fact that is painfully clear to both American and Saudi diplomats. The United States has, moreover, concluded its scheme of a regional Middle Eastern alliance system is not worth the expense: America under Barack Obama has increasingly sought to let local problems stay local.
Moreover, while Saudi once provided a fine staging area to put pressure on both Iran and Iraq, Iraq, Shia and Iran-leaning though it is, is far from booting American power from its borders. Other Gulf Cooperation Council states, like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, have fewer strings attached to their bases: They’re happy to keep the Americans in if it means keeping the Iranians and Saudis out. In other words, as America bombs terror groups and tries to destroy the Islamic State, it does so without much need of Saudi Arabia.
Finally, the Iran nuclear deal has weakened the last pillar of the alliance. Once the United States desperately needed a counterweight to revolutionary Iran: Saudi Arabia, a fellow Muslim power just as conservative, fit the bill. But if Iran and America go from foes to friends, what good is Saudi Arabia?
Worse, what if it becomes obvious that Iran and America have more in common politically and culturally than do America and Saudi? While there are still many years to go before Iran can be taken off the list of rogue states, the door is wide open: as Tehran gains stock in DC, Riyadh’s will slide.
But this doesn’t really explain why the Saudis are so upset by the idea of being implicated in bits of 9/11
This is not because the Saudis think America will suddenly bomb the kingdom. Even if high-level Saudi officials did help carry out 9/11, that’s super unlikely: the kind of force necessary to occupy Saudi Arabia would simply be unacceptable to America.
Rather, it’s a two-fold fear: fear of pushing America further away and fear of having to hold people accountable.
The first fear is perfectly understandable: you don’t upset your arms dealer, especially when you’re fighting a war. But the second? This goes to the heart of Saudi Arabia’s dysfunction.
Saudi Arabia is a tribal monarchy. The Saudi royal family are just the tribe at the top of the heap. They hold the kingdom together through formal and informal alliances between the kingdom’s many tribes. Conquest back in the 1920s did not bring annihilation but demands for fealty. This is very much a pattern of human development: tribes conquer one another and one tribe declares themselves royals to hold all the other tribes in check.
Typically, the royals game the system so they have access to the best weapons and most troops. On occasion, they crush rebels who invariably rise up. Over time, with enough risings and suppressions, they wipe out tribalism.
But Saudi Arabia as it exists today has not done that. Rather than destroy tribalism through cycles of violence, the royals have instead frozen it in place through bribery. This comes in many fashions. Sometimes, it’s outright checks. Other times, it’s plush, pointless jobs for tribesmen in some ministry or that (ghost workers, as they’re called, who collect salaries but never show up).
This is a remarkably fragile system. It requires generational oneupmanship: what bribe was given to the father must be doubled for the son for the same level of loyalty. It has become quite expensive and Saudi’s leaders understand that they tackle it if they are to survive. But they cannot face it down head on. To do so could cause the kind of social collapse best illustrated by Somalia in the late 1980s and 1990s.
The expense of this bribes-for-loyalty political regime is another reason Saudi’s rulers might well like to sell off their American assets: their sovereign wealth funds are draining at an alarming rate and even if they were forced to discount some stuff, the hundreds of billions they’d invariably earn would help stem the red for at least a year.
If even rogue members of the Saudi government helped the 9/11 hijackers, it means Saudi Arabia must arrest and punish people with powerful connections (or wasta, in the local parlance). This is to upset the tribal applecart in a dangerous time. Already royal political capital is wearing thin, as Yemen’s battlefields drain Saudi blood and economic and educational reforms crack the pillars of the old society. Accountability for the powerful now could cause ripple effects that are dangerously unknown. The bribery needed to get Saudi elites to turn on their own might be beyond the royal budget.
So the Saudis make sense, but why then are the Americans fighting to keep those 28 pages secret?
And this is where it gets interesting. It appears, on the face of it, to make so little sense: If America doesn’t really need Saudi, why not be honest about what two-faced scumbags the royals really are? Why not just drive a stake through the heart of it and be done with it?
While it is certainly true that Obama’s disdain for Saudi Arabia is no secret, neither has the situation changed so fundamentally that he could totally wash his hands of Saudi Arabia. Like it or not, the Saudis remain a major oil player: they have driven prices down, and could drive them back up again. Their war in Yemen isn’t precisely top priority to the Pentagon, but the Houthis are hardly pro-American (their flags have “Death to America, Death to Israel” scribbled on them).
Moreover, there is a strong realization that to abandon the Saudis is to give Arabia over not to democrats but to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or something like it. After the experiences of the Iraq occupation and the Arab Spring, nobody has any illusions that there is some secret cabal of Arab democrats ready to propel the region into the twenty-first century. Arab liberals, such as they are, are still a decided minority. Even within that minority, factionalism, tribalism, sectarianism and all the other ills of the Arab world remain.
No one, in other words, should expect anything but horror after the Saudis. The model here is Bourbon France, whose similarly arrogant, dysfunctional absolutist monarchy went bankrupt and gave way not to a nice, friendly republic but to the battle hymns of Napoleon’s armies. Imagine if an Islamic State franchise grabbed power in a Saudi province as the royals fled the scene. Imagine their forces infused with US-trained airmen, sailors and soldiers. The only solace is they’d capture no great defense industry to rearm. But in the meanwhile, the damage would be great.
The United States will continue to drift away from its friendship with Saudi, but that outcome is so far from American interests that American officials will continue to hold their noses even as they shake hands.
Will they release the pages? It’s possible. But whatever happens, it won’t be because this spat alone caused it.
This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, April 20, 2016.