April 26, 2005 | Commentary on International Organizations

W's Saudi BBQ

Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Ab dullah bin Abdul Aziz, visits President Bush's Crawford ranch today. The trip couldn't be more timely - and not just because of record gasoline prices.

Saudi Arabia's terrorism struggles, reform prospects and influence with Syria make this meeting - the first of the two leaders since 2002 - a heck of a lot more than a run-of-the-mill Texas BBQ.

Oil: Skyrocketing prices will top the agenda. Rising energy costs helped trigger the recent stock market slide, and Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil producer - and the only country capable of increasing production in the short-term.

The president will push for increased Saudi oil production to help ease short-term prices. But America has to do its share by boosting refining capacity and exploiting alternative energy sources such as nuclear, hydrogen, clean coal, etc.

And the grim truth is that $50-a-barrel oil is here to stay. Some analysts even predict a $75 barrel during the peak summer driving season - and a $100-a-barrel "superspike" could come if Chinese and Indian energy consumption continues to soar .

Syria-Lebanon: Saudi Arabia is an ally of Syria, but also has strong ties to Lebanon. Riyadh played an important role in getting Damascus to begin its withdrawal from Lebanon.

Bush will likely ask Abdullah to press the Syrians to truly follow through: a total pullout, spies and other "intelligence assets" included, and non-interference in future Lebanese elections.

The Saudis should also push Syria to end its support for the Iraqi insurgency: It's not working, and Damascus doesn't need to buy more ill will. "

Terror: Saudi Arabia has made significant progress in fighting terrorism since the kingdom was rocked by a spate of al Qaeda attacks, beginning in May 2003. Experts (generally) agree that (for now) the government has the upper hand in stemming al Qaeda's attempts to topple the House of Saud.

But the struggle hasn't been without cost: Terror attacks have killed over 90 Saudis and foreigners (including Americans), causing over $250 million in damage.

Three days of gun battles with al Qaeda earlier this month were the bloodiest yet. There was another clash with al Qaeda near the holy city of Mecca late last week.

And the struggle is far from over; some estimates indicate that there are as many as 5,000 members and supporters of the "deviant group" (the Saudi sobriquet for al Qaeda) in the kingdom.
Continued attacks are sure to affect world oil prices, even though the Saudis insist that the oil industry, concentrated in the eastern part of the country, is well protected.

Reform: President Bush has (rightly) made the democratic transformation of the Arab/Muslim world, as part of the terror fight, the administration's top foreign-policy priority.

Though the president has urged Saudi Arabia to expand "the role of its people in determining their future," the "Arab spring" hasn't sprung in the Saudi kingdom.

In Saudi Arabia, there is no separation of "mosque and state." The Koran is the country's constitution and the intolerant Wahhabist movement dominates religion, culture and social policy.

An experimental round of local municipal elections concluded last week - the first elections in 40 years. But Saudi political liberalization hasn't advanced very far: Women couldn't vote, half of the council's seats are appointed and the next round of voting is four years off.

Reform is also needed for the Saudi economy. Despite its vast oil wealth, Saudi Arabia suffers from 25 percent unemployment. Its closed economy stifles opportunity, especially among its frustrated young, where the jobless rate hits 35 percent. On a positive note: An economy-opening bilateral trade agreement may be announced today.

The Saudis should be encouraged to move forward with serious political, economic and social reform . Free political systems, markets and societies are the best antidote to extremism - and terrorism.

The president will also undoubtedly address: Saudi support for the Middle East peace process and rebuilding Iraq, and recent IAEA concerns about Riyadh's nuclear intentions.

Sixty years ago, FDR met with Saudi King Abdul Aziz aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal, launching a unique relationship - and significant American involvement in Middle Eastern affairs.
The relationship has moved well beyond its "oil for security" origins. The U.S.-Saudi partnership is increasingly pivotal in reshaping the Arab/Muslim world and beating al Qaeda in its own backyard.

Today's meeting provides the perfect opportunity for recasting a troubled partnership - and striking a blow for change in the Middle East.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: International Organizations

First appeared in the New York Post