Middle East Balancing Act

In a conversation just before the flare-up of violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Robert Jordan '67, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, discusses the complex relationship between the two nations.
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June 1, 2002

 

Ambassador Jordan: sensitive to Saudis

Ambassador Jordan: sensitive to Saudis.

Fifteen Saudis took part in the attacks on September 11, private Saudi charities reportedly contributed to financing Osama bin Laden, and hundreds of Saudis fought with al-Qaeda against Americans in Afghanistan. Given that range of involvement, is it hard to see an alliance of interests between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?

Oil is what we think of the most, but Saudi Arabia is strategically located in a part of the world that is pivotal to our national interests. We would need to be able, for example, to fly over Saudi airspace to reach any other part of the Middle East to project military force. The Saudis are a major voice in the moderate Arab world. They're also our largest trading partner in the Arab world.

In trying to balance conflicting interests or trying to manage different constituencies, the Saudis are like many other governments. One thing that is quite interesting is that the Crown Prince has called in business leaders, academics, clerics, and tribal leaders, and he has said to each of them, be careful what you say--particularly to the clerics. He has said that there is no place for political discussion in the mosque, that they should weigh their words carefully because those words have a profound influence on the population.

There is widespread belief that Iraq is the real target of the president's message about the "axis of evil." How does that possibility play in Saudi Arabia?

It's a very complex equation. The Saudis were targets in Saddam Hussein's incursion into Kuwait; they are no friends of Hussein. But they certainly do not want to see a lengthy, inconclusive ground war in Iraq waged by Americans. From that standpoint, they are very, very concerned about our intentions. It is entirely possible that if we're able to demonstrate to the Saudis a plan that could be successful--a plan that showed resolve and that showed an end game--then the Saudis would be more inclined to be supportive, or at least to not interfere with that objective. They will be concerned about any military operation that will cost Muslim lives. But in Afghanistan, once we explained what we were doing, once they saw the resolve with which we were approaching it, and once they saw the successes we were having, the Saudis' concern abated substantially.

Seymour Hirsch writing in The New Yorker perceived a growing instability in the Saudi regime. How well-founded is that fear?

I would say that over the next five-plus years, the regime will remain strong. The Saudi people are not a revolutionary kind of people; over their history, they have preferred only gradual change. But the education system does not appear, at least at present, to be teaching job skills sufficient to allow young Saudis to compete for jobs. The religious overlay in the schools has come to some degree at the expense of academic courses, and there is a degree of religious intolerance that over the long term could lead to an insular, inward-looking approach to the world--one that would not allow the Saudi population to compete economically or to develop the political structures that could respond to these growing demands of their population. I should add that Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of population growth in the world; something like 60 percent of their population is under age eighteen.

The Saudis historically have been a tribal and nomadic society. They represent a conservative strain of Islam and they're the protectors of Islamic holy sites. So they have both a cultural and religious uniqueness. It's important for us to realize that they've really only been in existence as a nation for about seventy years.

Scholars like Bernard Lewis point out that, from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire onward, Islam has been on the losing side of history and has often taken solace in conspiracy theories and blaming outside forces. Do you see any active process of self-reflection among the region's scholars and leaders?

There is a certain degree of churning right now in Saudi society that hopefully is going to accelerate. They haven't simply pulled up what some newspaper columnists have called another iron curtain; they haven't simply stuck their heads in the sand. The foreign minister, for example, has said that they have looked through their textbooks to see what needed to be addressed. We also see, particularly in the private sector, a tremendous effort in women's rights. There is a new university being developed that will for the first time have coeducation in the classroom. Now, this is going to be through the device of a balcony in which the women will sit so they won't be visible to the men. But given the almost glacial pace of change in the Middle East, this is revolutionary.

Human Rights Watch and other groups have accused the Saudi government of suppressing civil liberties and have noted the absence of elected legislatures or other institutions that might counter-balance central authority. What is the U.S. doing to promote democratic processes?

It's a part of my charge to express to the Saudis our concerns about civil rights and individual liberties. It isn't necessarily my charge to impose a democratic regime on Saudi Arabia, but we do address these issues. I was encouraged to hear, for example, that the Saudis have been willing to have some of these international human-rights organizations come to the kingdom and take a look at how they're treating prisoners. I'm personally concerned about the situation with regard to women's rights and religious liberty. There's a tribal culture in the kingdom that has been resistant to any kind of change at all. So you have these competing forces, and there's going to be some arm-wrestling on these issues.

Does the Saudi peace proposal point to a meaningful shift in that government's role in the Middle East, or is the proposal just reiterating a familiar formula?

The vision of peace expressed by Crown Prince Abdullah is significant in many respects. Although we have heard "land for peace" suggestions before, the fact that someone with the stature and influence of the Crown Prince has made this proposal is important. He has invested much of his prestige in gaining acceptance of the proposal by the rest of the Arab world, both in the Arab Summit in Beirut and in his diplomacy following the meeting with President Bush in Crawford [Texas]. This broad consensus among Arab states will be valuable in developing the details of the plan and in persuading the Palestinians that their interests are served by reducing violence in the region.

How has the role of ambassador changed in a complex international environment and with the technology of instant communication?

I had an interesting conversation with [former Secretary of State] Jim Baker about that. I was seeking his advice on whether I should take this job. And he said, in a way it has changed. In the old days, the ambassador was really the pivotal means of communicating with the host country. Now it's so easy for Colin Powell to pick up the phone or for the president to pick up the phone and talk to the head of state.

But Baker also said that personal relationships, particularly with people like the Saudis, are so critically important. The president and others simply don't have the time to develop a personal bond with every head of state around the world. So they rely on ambassadors to develop those personal relationships. And particularly as the American ambassador in Saudi Arabia, I have instant access. Anytime I need to see the Crown Prince I can see him; I've woken up the foreign minister to talk to him.


Jordan was nominated as ambassador by President George W. Bush on September 12 and approved by the Senate shortly thereafter. A senior partner and one of the founder partners of the Dallas office of Baker Botts LLP, he was personal attorney to Bush. He was president of the Dallas Bar Association and a member of the board of directors of the State Bar of Texas, and he has served on the boards of numerous charitable and civic organizations.