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The 28 Pages & Saudi-American Relations

Obama and Saudi King Abdullah

Late last week, a mysterious portion of the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Actions Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of the September 11th, 2001, which had been classified since the report’s release, was declassified following a two-year long declassification review. Know colloquially as the “28 pages” (the count is wrong but the name stuck), the document describes what the inquiry found regarding possible links between officials from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and individuals known to be involved in 9/11.

This revelation, which is likely to irritate Saudi officials, comes at a time where Saudi Arabia is feeling the heat from all sides. On the international strategic front, Saudis are confronted with increasingly overt meddling of Iran in Syria and Iraq, a move which bolsters an Iran already empowered by the nuclear deal and corresponding lifting of the sanctions.

Just next door in Yemen, a drawn-out conflict between Houthis and Saudi-backed regime forces drains what little military capacity the Kingdom has, all the while stoking fears of even more foreign involvement.

The domestic security situation is also problematic, with three recent attacks on highly important mosques during Ramadan causing hundreds of dead, and the threat of ongoing attacks lead by elements of terrorist groups active in neighboring conflicts being a serious concern.

The economic situation is not any better, with the now two-year-long plummet of oil prices seriously hurting the Kingdom’s bottom line and hence it’s ability to deliver on its social contract. Drastic measures are being taken, including the public offering of shares in the national oil company Aramco, which amounts to partial privatization, all the while Saudis are ostensibly losing their grip on OPEC and hence the control over the commodity that makes up the vast majority of their income. Economic uncertainty for the Royal Family is one thing, but the economic dissatisfaction which it is likely to provoke amongst the Kingdom’s population is another; one that is an important risk factor for domestic security.

Throughout these troublesome times, Saudi-US relations have also been suffering. From the very beginning, the Saudi government was very unhappy with the Iran nuclear deal, which it sees as a move which empowered it’s biggest and most credible regional foe. Fallout from the deal is still felt today as a pattern of mutual diplomatic snubbing has set in. Statements made both inside and out of the ongoing primary campaigns by a why variety of candidates and political insiders regarding Riyadh were less than flattering: Donald Trump assesses US-Saudi relations as a “rip-off”as does Barack ObamaHillary Clinton’s call to action to Gulf States to help stop terrorist funding was also very ill-received. The US senate passed legislation enabling legal action against the Kingdom for damages incurred by the families of 9/11 victims, a move which the Saudis received sourly, promising to retaliate with massive liquidations of US bonds. All this while the usual onslaught of criticism of the Saudi regime from human rights NGOs continues undisturbed.

It seems obvious that US-Saudi relations have seen better days, but what does that all that bad blood mean for practical collaboration between the two countries for the near future? Probably not much at all. The relations between US and Saudi Arabia were born through overlapping interests in stability during the Cold War, a time where other Arab nations were rather around the USSR’s orbit. Realpolitik dictated that despite the post-WWII push for democracy and human rights, the US would conveniently overlook their autocratic friends in the Gulf and their abysmal record on the matter, preferring an autocratic, pro-American form of stability to the values it otherwise championed. Tensions have been high at times, notably during the first oil crisis of 1973, but subsequent events, like the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the corresponding turmoil, made those tensions easy to forget.

The Saudis hosted American troops on many occasions throughout the Cold War and the US has played a crucial role in providing training and weapons to Saudi forces, with the whole ordeal being subject to more than half a dozen treaties and agreements. When matters of hard power are at play and susceptible to affect both parties, Saudis and Americans play nice; on other matters, both countries have hugely divergent points of view.

While not providing any damning evidence of direct Saudi support to anti-American terrorism, the report does show that collaboration between the US and the Kingdom has never been as rosy as the ever-frequent mentions of “friendship” make them out to be; it’s a harsh reminder that in such relations of convenience, interest is king. Several parts of 28 Pages confirm Riyadh’s interest-seeking behaviour never really changed. Even before 9/11, the Kingdom denied the US assistance on their hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This excerpt from pages 437-438, under the title “Lack of Saudi Cooperation in Counterterrorism Investigations” highlights how bumpy the relationship actually was:

In testimony and interviews, a number of FBI agents and CIA officers complained to the Joint Inquiry about a lack of Saud cooperation in terrorism investigations both before and after the September 11 attacks. For example, a veteran New York FBI agent stated that, from his point of view, the Saudis have been useless and obstructionist for years. In this agent’s opinion, the Saudis will only act when it is in their self-interest.

[…]

The Former Chief of Alex Station thought that the U.S. Government’s hope of eventually obtaining Saudi cooperation was unrealistic because Saudi assistance to the U.S. Government on this matter was contrary to Saudi national interests.

While opinions of two agents aren’t necessarily rock-solid proof of Saudi wrong-doing, their testimony combined with intelligence on money transfers from the members of the royal family to known Al-Qaeda sympathizers and operatives certainly points to the idea that the Saudis had dealings that were contrary to US interests. That’s the takeaway from these newly declassified pages: Saudi Arabia isn’t an unconditional ally, and it has pursuits of its own which might conflict with US interests.

However, this souring of the relationship doesn’t change the strong incentives to cooperate on regional issues. The Saudis are dependent on American ordinance, logistics and military assistance to continue its campaign in Yemen, and the latter is not about to cut off their help. The old adage says that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t; this is particularly true for stability-seeking powers like the US. With the turmoil of Iraq and Syria, Lebanon suffering from the fallout, and Turkey going through its own problems, the Gulf and Israel are the last bastions of stability, and all parties are better off keeping it that way.

Public discontent against Saudi Arabia can only grow if the “28 Pages” gets any significant kind of attention, and in time, this might be something an elected official might have to answer to. For now, expect more of the same: collaboration where it counts.

Maxime Rousseau
Maxime Rousseau is a freelance international relations analyst. He is a recipient of a BA in Political Science from Université Laval and his academic interests include the Middle East and defence. On his off time, he dabbles in technology and building stuff.

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