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The close relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia goes back 60 years, but what engendered its special intimacy was the oil crisis of 1973. Starting in 1970, American oil production began to fall and the country was increasingly dependent on foreign oil. Saudi Arabia became critical to the maintenance of the American way of life. A large proportion of the petroleum dollars that flowed into the bank accounts of the Saudi royal family because of the oil price hike, were invested in the United States. Unger estimates that since the mid 1970's, 85,000 extremely rich Saudi Arabians have invested a total of at least $860 billion dollars in American companies. Houston Texas, the oil capital of the United States, has benefited more than any other city and now has a significant Saudi presence.
The Bush family has had connections with oil industry for years. George H. Bush bought an oil company in the 1950's and sold it, at a striking profit, a decade later. His confidant and lifetime collaborator, James Baker, is similarly connected with the oil business. Being a partner in Baker Botts, a big Houston law firm that represents oil-industry interests. When Bush began to put together his presidential team in 1978, it was based on a new political network in Houston, that of Big Oil. His son George W. Bush's administration has taken this much further, nakedly representing the oil industry like never before.
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George W. Bush had a similar path, establishing his own oil company in the late 70s, until bought out by Harken Oil. When Harken acquired it, he became a director and ironically, it was saved from extinction by a very wealthy Saudi investor. The same wheels within wheels were turning. Unger is interesting on the differences between father and son. George Sr. was a product of the East Coast establishment and later adopted Texas as his home. In contrast, George Jr. was unashamedly, a Texan, born and brought up in American's oil state. The misperception of what he would be like as a president had much to do with his father's reputation and experience, which was largely to prove a false lead.
The United States - Saudi Arabian relationship blossomed in the period of two crucial wars, both of which the US fought by proxy. The Iran - Iraq war and the Afghan war. The American administration was deeply concerned about the impact of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran, previously the US's most powerful ally other than Israel. It used Saddam Hussein, in strategy well detailed by Unger, as a means by which to counter the Iranian regime, secretly supplying him, for a decade or more, with weapons and cash. The Saudis, who effectively replaced Iran as America's regional ally, were intimately involved in the intricacies of American policy. They even came to the aid of the Americans by secretly funding, at the Reagan administration's request, the Contras in Nicaragua after Congress had blocked presidential support.
Unlikely as the American - Saudi alliance might seem, during the cold war there was a mutual sympathy. Of course, the central component was, and remains an elemental interest. The US depended on a reliable supply of cheap oil, while the Saudi regime needed a military guarantor for what was a deeply insecure regime in a profoundly unstable region. They both had very strong interests in each other. Both regarded the Soviet Union as the infidel, albeit for the Americans a secular one, and for the Saudis religious. These interests coincided most closely in Afghanistan.
The Saudis became enthusiastically involved in the American - inspired covert funding of, and support for the Mujahideen war against the newly installed Soviet - backed government. Strangely, 10 years before the end of the cold war, the conflict was to predict the future course of events. On the one hand the collapse of the Soviet Union and on the other hand, the emergence of Al - Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, a member of one of Saudi Arabia's elite families. The Afghan war was to be the Soviet Union's Vietnam, while for Bin Laden; Afghanistan became the Islamic equivalent of the Spanish civil war. A mobilizing cause across the Muslim world, especially the fundamentalist part, and above all in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the House of Saud found the Mujahideen crusade a useful way of asserting its own militant Islamic credentials and appeasing domestic opinion.
Bin Laden was an authentic product of Saudi Arabia, not simply a rogue child. His family was one of the most powerful in the country. The House of Saud owed its very existence, and perpetuation, to Wahhabism, a fundamentalist school of Islam. He was not an aberration. Now, propelled by his experiences in the Afghan war, he became increasingly disillusioned with the corruption and westernization of the House of Saud. The breach came in 1990, during the first gulf war, when the Saudi regime agreed to allow American troops to be stationed on its soil. Having defeated one infidel, the Soviet Union, Bin Laden now turned on another, the United States. He resolved on the removal of American troops in which he eventually succeeded, and the overthrow of the House of Saud, now weaker and more vulnerable than ever before.
The Saudis never enjoyed the same kind of intimacy and ease with the Clinton administration as they did with the Bush administrations. The connections, cultivated over a quarter of a century, are complex and varied, starting in Huston, centered on oil, embracing both the public and private sector activities of the House of Bush, lubricated and driven by money and power. Unger estimates that $1.476 billion dollars has made its way over time from the Saudis to the Bush family, and its allied companies and institutions. He writes: "It could safely be said that never before in history had a presidential candidate - much less a presidential candidate and his father, a former president - been so closely tied financially and personally to the ruling family of another foreign power. Never before had a president's fortunes and public policies been so deeply entwined with another nation."
September 11th placed the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US under extreme pressure. Unger catalogs the tensions in intimate detail. He describes how the Bush administration has sought to safeguard the intimacy, failing to ask or pursue vital questions about the involvement of leading Saudi figures in 9/11. However, the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, one of the cornerstones of American policy since 1973, is now closer to breaking point than ever before. Can the Bush administration continue to turn a blind eye? Will the House of Saud survive? What will the Americans do in response to its likely successor, an aggressively anti-American, fundamentalist regime? The future is, indeed, uncertain.