The close, cozy relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia began with Ronald Reagan, not George W. Bush as some filmmakers and journalists contend.
When Reagan came to office in 1981, he inherited a turbulent Middle East. Oil prices had jumped from $3.39 per barrel to more than $21. The zealously anti-American Shiite leader Ayatollah Khomeini had recently replaced the American-friendly shah of Iran. The Soviet Union was reinforcing its position in Afghanistan and one step closer to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. In the words of Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the Soviet Union had “progressed from a continental power to a global one.”
What few realized at the time was that these events would set the stage for the next two decades of U.S.-Saudi relations.
Reagan wanted not only to contain the Soviet Union but to “reverse the expansion of Soviet control and military presence throughout the world.” The goal of the Reagan doctrine was to raise the costs of Moscow’s foreign policy by championing democracy, outspending the Soviets on defense and supporting anti-Soviet insurgencies in the developing world.
The problem for Reagan was that his doctrine was expensive and America was exhausted. Still recovering from Vietnam, there was little public support for adventures in the Third World. But Reagan believed that his predecessors’ failure to turn back Soviet advances in Angola and Ethiopia and elsewhere in the mid-1970s had only emboldened the Soviet Union.
To high-level administration officials, it became clear that to roll back the communists would be costly. CIA Director William J. Casey set out to find others to provide arms and money. The possibility of Saudi Arabian assistance dawned on the administration very early on. Not only could they provide the help Reagan wanted, but with the shah of Iran gone, the Saudis could also play a more prominent role as an oil-rich ally in a turbulent region.
Saudi Arabia had its own reasons for helping America fight the Soviets. First, the United States was instrumental to protecting Saudi oil fields and was a country with which the Saudi leadership wanted to stay on good terms. Second, Saudi Arabia was gravely concerned about the advancing Soviet Union. Riyadh interpreted Moscow’s Afghanistan adventure as part of a Soviet-directed campaign to encircle the Arabian Peninsula with radical regimes and subvert the oil-rich monarchies. Soviet involvement in Yemen and Ethiopia bolstered that view. And third, it was awash in petrodollars, and could afford to help.
So the Reagan administration figured out how to integrate Saudi Arabian global concerns and surplus cash into U.S. foreign policy. In Afghanistan, the kingdom matched U.S. contributions dollar for dollar. Eventually, Washington and Riyadh poured about $3 billion into that broken country. Saudi Arabia also put $32 million into Nicaragua to fund the Contras, a fact that emerged in the Iran-Contra scandal. Saudi Arabia funneled money into Ethiopia’s neighbor, Sudan, in order to pressure Ethiopia’s pro-Soviet Mengistu government. Saudi Arabia assisted Angola’s rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, in support of U.S. goals, by providing Morocco with money for a UNITA training camp. Yet Saudi Arabia provided more than just funding. The kingdom provided an ideologically compatible partner in the battle against godless communism. In a neat division of labor, America attacked communism and Saudi Arabia targeted godlessness. During his tenure, Reagan regularly rattled off a list of countries of concern: Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia and Nicaragua. What few realized was that Saudi Arabia was either directly or indirectly involved in four of these five cases. The close partnership inspired Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, to confide to a journalist in 1981 that “if you knew what we were really doing for America, you wouldn’t just give us AWACS, you would give us nuclear weapons.”
Why then the sudden interest in the connections between the House of Bush and the House of Saud? Clearly the two families have a number of overlapping interests. But exclusive attention to the Bush family misses the longer history of the American and Saudi Arabian contemporary relationship. For that, we have to look back to Reagan and his determined desire to rid the world of the Evil Empire.
Rachel Bronson, a senior fellow and director of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of the forthcoming “With Us or Against Us? The Making of U.S. Policy Toward Saudi Arabia, 1945-Present” (Oxford University Press).