The Honeymoon’s Over for Bush and the Saudis

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

April 29, 2007

What has happened to the love affair between Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and President Bush? Two years ago, down on the Texas ranch, they were photographed walking hand in hand. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship: Bush dropped his demand for democratization in the puritanical kingdom, and Abdullah did his best to moderate oil prices. The dowry was a new U.S. arms deal for the Saudis. A second honeymoon was scheduled for this month, when Bush planned to host Abdullah for his first state visit.

 So the White House was mightily perplexed when it was informed that the king’s schedule didn’t allow for a spring visit to Washington. Then, at an Arab League summit in Riyadh last month, Abdullah denounced the U.S. war in Iraq as an “illegitimate occupation.” He also used the occasion to make up with Bush’s bete noire, Bashar al-Assad, the brash Syrian president who had previously denounced the Saudi leader as “a dwarf.”

What was going on? Simply put, the Bush administration had been listening to the wrong Saudi. Keen for any signs of hope in the region as Iraq spiraled downward, Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior U.S. officials had grasped at a grandiose regional game plan being pushed by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, formerly the Saudi ambassador in Washington and now Abdullah’s national security adviser. But Bandar wasn’t calling the shots; Abdullah was, and he has a very different way of doing business.

Last summer, Bandar came knocking on the White House door, selling a new strategy for countering the threat from Iran, which had been made vivid when the radical Hezbollah militia, Iran’s ally, triggered a full-scale war in Lebanon and fought Israel to a standstill. The Arab world’s Sunni leaders, Bandar argued, were ready to forge an unusual alliance with Israel to confront their common foe: the Shiite mullahs in Tehran. Working in tacit cooperation, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel would roll back Iran’s regional influence by taking down the extremist Hamas Palestinian government in Gaza, containing Hezbollah’s bid to control Lebanon and destabilizing Iran’s main regional ally, Syria.

To kick off his grand anti-Iranian design, Bandar encouraged the weak but moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to confront Hamas. But Bandar’s boss, Abdullah, had another idea: Instead of sending Abbas the fat aid check that Bandar had promised, Abdullah invited Hamas’s leaders to Mecca to forge a new Palestinian unity government, to include the moderate Abbas and his challengers in Hamas. Bandar’s plan was in shambles. The Bush administration, which had led a year-long boycott of the Hamas government, felt as though it had been sucker punched.

And that was just the first blow. Abdullah also nixed Bandar’s idea for direct engagement with Israel. For years, Israel had coveted such a relationship with the Saudis, which would have been an enormous psychological breakthrough and a rare Middle East achievement for the Bush team. Bandar promised to open Saudi-Israeli talks under the umbrella of an Arab League plan, in which all Arab states would offer Israel full peace if it pulled back to its pre-1967 borders and solved the problem of the Palestinian refugees. Rice hoped to convene a peace conference at which the Saudi foreign minister would announce this plan — with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in attendance. But Abdullah wasn’t buying. He believed that he had done his bit for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking by producing a Palestinian unity government; now it was Bush’s job to press Israel to negotiate a deal with it. Until then, Abdullah wouldn’t be doing Washington any more favors.

The Bush administration was furious about this seeming reversal, but it had largely itself to blame. It had been taken for a ride by the freelancing Bandar, and it should have known better. In Riyadh, at least, the king is still the decider. And the king’s worldview differs importantly from Bandar’s.

Abdullah agrees with Bandar that their main challenge is the Iranian/Shiite threat to Sunni dominance of the Arab world. But where Bandar wants to confront Iran’s Arab proxies, Abdullah seeks to wean them off their dependence on Tehran. That dictates engagement, however distasteful, with Hamas in Gaza and Assad in Damascus. It also requires distancing Saudi Arabia from Bush’s ill-fated Iraq adventure, which in Abdullah’s view is only strengthening a pro-Iranian Shiite government at Sunni Arab expense.

If Bush wants to rekindle the U.S.-Saudi love affair, he needs to deal with the Saudi leader we have, not the one we’d like.

That needn’t mean total despair on the Arab-Israeli front. Peace with Israel is essential to Abdullah’s anti-Iranian game plan because Tehran exploits the conflict to build its influence in the Arab world. But the Saudi king is not going to get into bed with Israel for a mere photo op. Abdullah will be ready to go to Washington — and, eventually, perhaps even to Jerusalem — when Bush, Rice and Olmert signal that they will accept his terms for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement.

His opening price is Bush’s accommodation of Hamas and Syria as players in the peace process, and he’ll settle in the end for Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the West Bank. If Bush wants that second honeymoon with Abdullah, he is going to have to renegotiate the terms of endearment.