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Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia par [Bronson, Rachel]
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From The Washington Post's Book World/

Eight sheep and 42 courtiers followed King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia aboard the USS Quincy, afloat in the Red Sea in February 1945, to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The war in Europe was ending, and the oil age had arrived. On his way home from the Yalta summit with Stalin and Churchill, Roosevelt met the Saudi king to secure landing rights in Arabia so he could rush war materiel to the Asian front. More farsightedly, he also wanted to construct a postwar alliance based on oil production and a shared antipathy to Soviet communism. What happened aboard the Quincy during those several wintry days would define the terms -- and the misunderstandings -- at the heart of America's partnership with Saudi Arabia for more than five decades, until Sept. 11, 2001.

Roosevelt was charming and empathetic; he and Abdul Aziz, an erstwhile desert warrior who limped from disease and old battle wounds, bonded immediately over the wonders of the wheelchair. On the main issues -- "oil, God, and real estate," as Rachel Bronson puts it in her well-documented new history of U.S.-Saudi relations -- they also fell into easy, warm agreement.

Crucially, from Abdul Aziz's point of view, FDR sympathized with the king's opposition to a Jewish state in British-ruled Palestine. Aboard the Quincy, Roosevelt promised that before the United States changed its policy toward Palestine, it would consult with all sides; America, he added, would never do anything hostile to the Arabs. President Harry S. Truman, of course, embraced Israel at its birth three years later, to Abdul Aziz's fury. Still, the aging king was much too practical to sever ties with the United States, which was pumping his oil and plying him with gold, and so he forged on with the U.S.-Saudi alliance, more sullen and mistrustful than before.

The same pattern prevailed, to varying degrees, with his sons and successors. Pragmatic self-interest and visceral anticommunism bound the United States and Saudi Arabia together during the Cold War, but persistent, emotional disagreements -- usually about Israel, and often vented in private -- infused the alliance with rancor and doubt. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the two governments drifted apart until the shock of 9/11; the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis forced a new reckoning -- one that remains far from settled.

This is the narrative that Bronson, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, unfurls compactly and intelligently, if a little dryly, in Thicker Than Oil. Bronson's title emphasizes that there has always been more to the partnership than the two sides' cartoon imagery would allow, be it the American caricature of Saudi Arabia as a self-satisfied gas station or the Saudi caricature of the United States as a self-satisfied Humvee nation. The best sections of her impressively researched book explain the complexity and ambition of joint U.S.-Saudi undertakings against communist governments and guerrilla movements during the Cold War -- not only in Afghanistan, where they famously worked during the 1980s to support the mujaheddin fighting the Soviets, but also in the Middle East, Africa and Central America.

Bronson wants her book to be read as a sober, balanced counterweight to "recent books [that] seem more intent on feeding public outrage than on seriously probing" the U.S.-Saudi relationship. She lists as offenders such provocative recent bestsellers as Robert Baer's Sleeping With the Devil and Craig Unger's House of Bush, House of Saud, which accused Washington of selling its soul for crude. Both of those authors railed, on behalf of at least some of the American public, against the individual greed and shady deals that they argue shaped U.S.-Saudi relations at the highest levels before 9/11.

Were those authors utterly wrong? It is hard to tell what Bronson thinks about the emotional core questions, such as whether America's energy-for-security pact with Saudi Arabia is corrupt or corrupting, what values we actually share with the puritanical kingdom and what alternatives to the House of Saud there might be. She slaps the bestsellers aside but never really wrestles with their critiques, disqualifying them as recklessly argued (which, to be fair, they are). As her very conventional list of policy recommendations makes clear (she urges mutual understanding and pragmatic engagement), Bronson is not interested in upending the status quo, and she does not explore the implications of what even an old wildcatter like President Bush has come to acknowledge as America's unhealthy "addiction" to imported oil.

Still, Bronson writes with some verve and skepticism about Saudi Arabia's financial support for radical Islamist groups -- the main irritant in the relationship since 2001. Overall, she has produced a reliable, efficient book that policymakers and regional analysts will find useful. In doing so, however, she has extended a pattern in the bibliography of post-9/11 books about Saudi Arabia (and Saudi journalism about America) in which there seem to be only two categories of authorial voice: the outraged shout and the slightly condescending corrective lecture.

Perhaps that reflects the fact that, between the two publics, the U.S.-Saudi relationship today is colored by mutual disdain as well as mutual dependency. Ordinary Americans and Saudis alike recognize that the alliance that FDR and Abdul Aziz forged aboard the Quincy is in serious trouble. Saudis fume about Guantanamo Bay, Israel and the invasion of Iraq; Americans fume about individual Saudis' funding for al-Qaeda and the Saudi suicide bombers who keep crashing into our troops in Baghdad, apparently funded by $3-a-gallon gasoline. The two governments, however, are loath to address this deterioration of public attitudes too openly, and since they have yet to discover a plausible alternative to their long union, the old ship just rocks along, however queasy its passengers may feel.

Reviewed by Steve Coll
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

Présentation de l'éditeur

For fifty-five years, the United States and Saudi Arabia were solid partners. Then came the 9/11 attacks, which sorely tested that relationship. In Thicker than Oil, Rachel Bronson reveals why the partnership became so intimate and how the countries' shared interests sowed the seeds of today's most pressing problem--Islamic radicalism.
Drawing on a wide range of archival material, declassified documents, and interviews with leading Saudi and American officials, and including many colorful stories of diplomatic adventures and misadventures, Bronson chronicles a history of close, and always controversial, contacts. She argues that contrary to popular belief the relationship was never simply about "oil for security." Saudi Arabia's geographic location and religiously motivated foreign policy figured prominently in American efforts to defeat "godless communism." From Africa to Afghanistan, Egypt to Nicaragua, the two worked to beat back Soviet expansion. But decisions made for hardheaded Cold War purposes left behind a legacy that today enflames the Middle East.
Looking forward, Bronson outlines the challenges confronting the relationship. The Saudi government faces a zealous internal opposition bent on America's and Saudi Arabia's destruction. Yet from the perspective of both countries, the status quo is clearly unsustainable.

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  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 367 pages
  • Pagination - ISBN de l'édition imprimée de référence : 0195167430
  • Editeur : Oxford University Press (5 juin 2008)
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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) HASH(0x978c22b8) étoiles sur 5 22 commentaires
19 internautes sur 20 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x97a6bea0) étoiles sur 5 Stunning and Insightful 25 avril 2006
Par J. Michael Adams - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
Every so often a book comes along that sheds so much light and understanding on the events and people who shaped world events that the reader can honestly say; "Now I understand." Thicker Than Oil is one of those books.

Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, Iran-Contra, the rise of Muslim fundamentalism, the seeds of 9/11 sown at the end of World War II: each turns out to be the logical effect of a cause put into play over many years by presidents, kings, generals, entrepreneurs and ambassadors, all appropriately greased by oil, money and a mutual distaste for communism.

Rachel Bronson follows the trail, adds the insights, and uses the voices of the people who were actually there to document the U.S.-Saudi partnership over the last sixty years. It is the most clear and most compelling history available yet of the "uneasy" partnership.

Enjoyably readable, impeccably researched, interspersed with humor and understanding, Thicker Than Oil is everything you want a book to be. If only the future could be as clear as the author makes the past.
15 internautes sur 16 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x97935108) étoiles sur 5 The non-oil connection 4 juin 2006
Par N. Tsafos - Publié sur
Format: Relié
Reducing bilateral relations between America and Saudi Arabia to oil alone is a mistake, argues Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East and Gulf Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, in this provocative book. Contrasted with recent titles on US-Saudi relations, her target is not the malevolence of the House of Saud or the supposed infesting character of America's alliance with the sentry of the Muslim faith; instead, Ms. Bronson asks: how could two countries as different as America and Saudi Arabia forge such a close alliance for so long?

Two parts form the answer: the first is that the alliance has not been airtight, much less free from squabble. Over the years, America and Saudi Arabia have clashed repeatedly, not least over America's position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ms. Bronson's thorough research elucidates the ups and downs of America's rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, clarifying times when America's leaders have wanted closer ties with the kingdom and others when distance was warranted. Dispelling the myth that America and Saudi Arabia have always been close, Ms. Bronson pulls together the different strands of the story and highlights the conditions under which the two states have been attracted to one another.

From the close examination of history comes the second part to the answer: that the alliance was always about more than oil. Anti-communism and real-estate were equally important factors that brought the two countries together. America's anti-Soviet agenda found an natural partner in a devout country that was awash with money; time and again, America would turn to Saudi Arabia to finance anti-communist struggles the world over. The Saudis often obliged, for their own anti-communist reasons. Saudi Arabia's attractive location also led policy makers as early as World War II to pronounce the fruits of partnership with the kingdom.

From this tripod--"oil, gold and real estate"--a strong alliance emerged, one that went awry after September 11. For many Americans, this is not an alliance worth saving; Ms. Bronson disagrees. By bringing to light the history of bilateral ties, she illuminates both why this alliance could prove conducive to American interests and how it can be made so today. A book worth reading, especially given the poor scholarship of many of its competitors.
16 internautes sur 18 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x97935348) étoiles sur 5 Hard to Criticize, But . . . 24 octobre 2006
Par Dianne Roberts - Publié sur
Format: Relié
I honestly find this book very hard to criticize and give "only" a 4 star rating to. As far as a work of history goes this is pretty impressive. The author clearly researched the living heck out of her subject and has more than ample footnotes to prove it. There's no reason to doubt any of her facts as anything but 100% true, and mostly comprehensive. She has a dispassionate writing style letting the facts she has uncovered speak for themselves, untempered by either leftist or rightist interpretation. And although her topic itself can be a bit dry at times, she writes quite well and the book is not a chore to finish. All of these things are like rare sparkling gems in most works of history geared towards popular audiences (i.e. as opposed to textbooks . . . in which case the above traits would probably be even more precious.)

You will learn some good information in this book. It has a brief review of Saudi Arabia's history, but the focus of the book is really on the relationship between the US government and the Saudi government so it doesn't really start until the '20's or '30's where America first begins exploring for oil in the peninsula, and doesn't get meaty until the '40's when official government relations are upgraded to embassy level and FDR and Abdel Aziz met onboard the USS Quincy. True to her title the US Saudi relationship has been about more than oil, and has taken on an air of surprising friendship in many cases, where both sides really are genuinely helping themselves out by helping out each other. On the oil front Saudi Arabia has used it as a weapon against America far less so than it's neighbors and other OPEC nations, being a reliable source to counterbalance what OPEC is doing, and covertly supplying the US military even during periods of embargo. On the geographic front they are key to American access to the gulf, and have generally been more reliable than is reported in allowing military operations from or through their territory. On the economic front Saudi Arabia has invested largely in America, and on the political front we were true allies in fighting communism. However, with the end of the Cold War this anti-communist bond dissolved, and as many know the infrastructure built to channel radical islamist fighters into Afghanistan didn't, setting much of the stage for 9/11 and our current war on terror. The info in this book regarding these events is very good.

Where this book falls short is that it seems to be missing the forest for the trees. It's so focused on the intergovernmental relationships and on presenting mostly a chronolog of what's happened, that as you read you feel there's an 800 lb guerilla in the room that no one's talking about: mainly Saudi society and the population at large. Because much of this book is sort of chronolog, there's very little satisfying analysis of why the things she's reporting are happening, and little attempt to understand this. A happens, then B happens, then C happens, and that's about it. Many would argue this is a good thing since it lets the reader make up their minds, but I would counterargue that because Saudi society (as well as practically any mention of American society) is mostly left out there's not enough comprehensive information for readers to make a truly well grounded opinion. Much allusion is made to the house of Saud's fear of being deposed and that it can't alienate its population too much, but what really IS the Saudi population like? What are the major camps of political and religious thought? Just how radical or pragmatic are they? What do they believe? How educated are they? How much grassroots support for terror is there, and how much can the government really feasibly curtail local "charitable" giving? Unfortunately you won't get much on the above type of questions.

Ultimately the author believes, and says so early on in the book, that the world is practically driven by government policies and the world's problems can thus be solved with government policies. Thus the nearly singular focus on governmental relationships without delving into the makeup of Saudi Arabian society seems natural, but just as much to be tragically missing the overall big picture. Last her "solutions" to the strains on current Saudi-US interactions sound like a UN debate on what to do about Darfur, and about as effective. We need a more "nuanced" this to "promote stability", a "smarter" policy that to "reduce radicalism", a "laser-like focus" on this issue. But it's all very non-specific and general, with little analysis on whether a US governmental change of tract can actually change Saudi popular behavoir. When she does mention specifics of policies they're incredibly weak. She lauds, for example, how great a $100,000 grant is to a Women's university in Jeddah is to help them work with Duke university, and how this was some huge public relations victory in the kingdom. But I highly doubt anyone in the kingdom even knows about the program, or in what appears to be a very fundamentalist Islamic nation barely cares even if they did hear. WTO membership is another one of her big solutions. Again I find it hard to believe that those supporting the terrorist (who rarely seem to be in it for economic gain as far as I can tell) will throw in the towel when they see that the US has paved the way for Saudi participation in a complicated worldwide uber-bureaucratic entity which may or may not make the general Sauid population a little bit richer.

There's good info in here, its meticulously researched and completely fair, it just seems a bit too myopic to be as useful as it could have been.
17 internautes sur 20 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x979356a8) étoiles sur 5 Best Current Book on Saudi Arabia 17 avril 2006
Par J. Burgess - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
As one very familiar with Saudi Arabia--and who blogs about it at Crossroads Arabia--I find Rachel Bronson's book to be the current best on the topic.

Without shying away from problems in Saudi Arabia, or within the US-Saudi relationship, Bronson treats all parties involved fairly. I lived and worked in Saudi Arabia in the early 80s, and then again from shortly after 9/11 'til October of 2003. Much of what she writes about, I experienced from within the US Embassy in Riyadh and my travels around the country. Her observations and assessments almost exactly match my own.

She carefully points out that for most of its history, Saudi Arabia and the US had mutual interests, primarily in fighting the Cold War against the Soviet Union. These mutual interests overrode differences. For example, using religion as a weapon in that war was something both the Saudis and the American governments--from Eisenhower through the early Clinton administration--saw as desirable and useful. But due to domestic political pressures, as well as those from a revolutionary Iran, the Saudi government let things go too far.

After jointly chasing the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the US government--as well as the Saudis--largely forgot about all the people who were sent there on a mission, both religious and military. We are all still facing the consequences of that negligence today.

Bronson also points out that Saudi reforms are real; that the Saudis provided far more support to the US government in its wars against Afghanistan and Iraq than it's generally credited for; and that pressuring the Saudi government to pick up the pace of reform requires something more careful than simply shouting at them from a newspaper or Congressional hearing.

If you're interested in what's going on in Saudi Arabia right now, there's no better place to start than with this book.
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x9793545c) étoiles sur 5 a very useful book on relations between the American and Saudi governments 12 février 2007
Par lector avidus - Publié sur
Format: Relié
Rachel Bronson, who works at a prestigious New York City think tank dedicated to Foreign Affairs, has written an excellent book on the history of the relationship between the governments of the United States of America and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The thesis of her book is that contrary to what some say, this friendship has been based on more than oil, that is also on shared antagonisms of Communism and Colonialism, and mutual strategic benefits. If you're a diplomat or political scientist, this well researched and meticulously documented book, which includes little tidbits that are rarely discussed, such as Mussolini's bombing the Dhahran oil installations at the beginning of the Second World War, will prove immensely useful to you.

But if you approach this history as a history buff, sociologist, or interested citizen, Bronson's almost pedantic focus on the political aspects of this long relationship and her emphasis on brevity are such that this book probably won't meet your needs. In distilling the history of this relationship to its bare bones, Bronson elides fascinating historical details that greatly help to understand the history. Bronson, for example, mentions that after they had helped him conquer his kingdom, King Abdul Aziz fell out with his Islamic shock-troops, the Ikhwan, who were only subdued with British help. Had she written that one of the straws that broke the camel's back was King Abdul Aziz's use of the radio, which the Ikhwan took as proof of that their King was an "idolater" and hence illegitimate, and the British Royal Air Force had to be called in to restore order, this book would have more local color.

I agree completely with Bronson that the Saudis were rightfully wary of allying themselves with the British, who at the time wielded an inordinate amount of influence in the region, and that an alliance with the Soviet Union was inconceivable; hence the alliance with the US. But I think she omits one of the reasons why this partnership worked so well for so long: strong cultural similarities between many of the Americans who worked in Saudi Arabia and the Saudis themselves. Texas was one of the hubs, if not the hub, of the American oil industry, and a disproportionate number of the American expatriates in Saudi Arabia were Texan. The Texas of the 1940s shared much more history, topography and culture with Saudi Arabia than Britain or any other European country keen on good relations with Saudi Arabia: many Texan preachers and Saudi mullahs were equally fond of alcohol and (often) intellectuals; both societies had had large populations with a nomadic tradition, Bedouins and Cowboys, a history of gunfights, a patriarchal and clan-based culture, a history of racial inequality (Saudi Arabia outlawed slavery at about the same time the United States ditched their Jim Crow laws, etc.) Neither Odessa, Texas nor large swathes of Saudi Arabia are quite as verdant and lush as the Garden of Eden was.

These similarities and tensions even played off of each other. Abdullah Al-Tariki, a Saudi petroleum minister, studied at the University of Texas, and was said to have left Austin with a chip on his shoulder because as a student he had been denied entry into some Austin bars by bouncers who thought he was of Mexican origin. When he returned to Saudi Arabia, he set out to found a Saudi equivalent of the Texas Railroad Commission, which the world came to know as OPEC.

To sum up, as a concise and heavily documented summary of the relationship between the American and Saudi governments this book is easily worth five stars. It is not, nor was it meant to be, a deeper, wider, and more thoughtful look at the shared history between these two nations.
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