James Akins, former US Ambassador, Saudi Arabia
Gary Sick, Professor of Political Science,
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
GARY SICK: I think it’s been pretty shameful at times the way we have gone to Saudi
Arabia and just openly, unequivocally twisted their arm to buy American to do something. So
they’re in a very peculiar position and viewed from their position they can’t say no to us and
we’re taking advantage of that. But in the meantime we’re making them look like vassals of the
United States and that hurts them very badly. And actually it adds to the problem.
KEITH PORTER, producer: A look at the US relationship with Saudi Arabia on this edition
of Common Ground.
SICK: We have real interest there. It’s not because we love the big brown eyes of the
Saudi monarch. It’s because we have real interests and we’re there to defend these interests and
it has nothing to do about preserving integrity of the country or preserving the royal family.
And everyone knows that.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter. Saudi Arabia is ruled by a
royal family, the house of Saud. That government is very important to protecting US interests in
the Persian Gulf. But is that government stable? Giving us one answer is James Akins, former US
Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
JAMES AKINS: Yes, it’s quite stable. To say that it’s going to last forever would be
naive, but I’m not expecting any dramatic change in the power structure in the next five years.
That doesn’t say that I think there’ll be in six years, but we can’t see that far in the future,
but I think for the time being we can count on stability in Saudi Arabia.
SICK: My take on it is somewhat different. I’m not nearly as much of an expert as
Ambassador Akins is on this subject, but I’ve been looking at what I see as sort of structural
distortions in the system.
PORTER: Joining the conversation is author and Professor Gary Sick, of Columbia
University. Sick served as a National Security Council Advisor during the Carter Administration.
SICK: What I detect is that there is a slow accretion, an accumulation of problems that
are not being dealt with effectively and that those are going to have their effect at some point
in time one way or another. And I certainly am not, I can’t put a date on this, I simply think
that the structure of the system being what it is, is fundamentally flawed in a way that is going
to mean serious trouble at some point later on. Either that the government is going to have to
undertake rather substantial reforms that are going to be themselves costly and dangerous or is
going to be faced with a reaction from some other side that will also be dangerous. But again, I
see this as a very slow motion crisis, not as something that is sort of lurking beyond tomorrow’s
PORTER: Ambassador Akins, that sounds a little more ominous.
AKINS: No, it’s not really. I don’t disagree except on one point and that is that this is
an inevitable progression which will lead to a violent change in government. I think that there
are enough people in Saudi Arabia, including members of the family—senior members of the
family—who understand these problems, know that they have to move and they know that if they
don’t move, then the progression will be exactly as you said Gary. But I think that they will
take these. The House of Saud has shown great flexibility over the last 250 years or so and I
think that there are going to be some fairly substantial changes in the makeup of this society in
the next half decade or so.
PORTER: Is there dissent in Saudi Arabia?
AKINS: Dissent? You mean people who don’t like the government?
PORTER: Yes. We don’t hear about this very often.
AKINS: No you don’t hear about. I mean you hear about them from London and there are
people in Saudi Arabia who talk fairly openly about the excesses of the family and nepotism are
subjects of conversation when you get together with Saudis and it… the situation in Saudi
Arabia is not like it was in Iran before they overthrew the Shah. Then, if you knew an Iranian
very well, he’d take you out in the garden behind a tree where there would be no witnesses and no
microphones, and he might tell you some things about what was going wrong with the family and
with the Shah. In Saudi Arabia it’s not like that. You get together with a large group of Saudis
and there will be considerable more or less open talk about the necessity for reforms, about
Prince X doing this, and Prince Y doing this and this minister not being held accountable for his
corruption. No, there is dissent, very definitely there is, but do these people who are
dissenting want to change the government violently? They really don’t. They say we saw what
happened to Egypt, we saw what happened in Iraq when the monarchy was overthrown and we don’t
want that to happen. We want to have a gradual and evolutionary change, but change there must be.
PORTER: Okay. Gary Sick, anything you wanted to add to that?
SICK: No, I think that the dissent is there. One of the things that I’ve been struck
by—a friend of mine, a Saudi, who at that time lived in the States—made a lengthy trip out to
the region and he went to see all of his old college friends and they talked and had the same
sort of conversation that you’re talking about. And he said that not only was he surprised at the
openness of the people complaining about the regime in various ways was, you know, not hidden at
all, but he said that there were enough people who were frustrated, younger people, who spoke
openly of the fact that maybe violence was required to do this. Now he wasn’t predicting again a
violent coup in the near future, but the fact that they would even talk about this was
But then very shortly after having that conversation with him, I had a conversation with a senior
American official who had just been to Saudi Arabia and he said, oh everything is completely
under control, there really isn’t any problem at all and this is very much what we used to hear
in Iran also. Two stories, you’ve got one official story that is coming out and then you’ve got
the other one going on and sometimes it’s very hard, especially for official Washington, to find
out what’s going on in that second group.
AKINS: There are several things that we seem to turn a blind eye to and one of them is
the pervasive corruption in the country. It is widespread and it’s very serious and it cannot be
ignored. I’ve talked over the years with several top officials in the American government about
this, the necessity of our taking this up at a high level with some of the very senior princes
and with the monarch, and the reaction has generally been corruption isn’t important in Saudi
Arabia. Everybody in Saudi Arabia recognizes that the family built the kingdom and they have a
right to the public purse. It’s a distressing attitude, and it might well have been true 50 years
ago when there were no Saudi university graduates and there was also no money in Saudi Arabia.
But now with literally tens of thousands of Ph.D.s from American universities, a high level of
general education in the country, it’s not true. And there’s nobody in the kingdom who says, they
have a right to take this because of the color of their blood—nobody.
PORTER: That raises the one more question I wanted to ask on this topic to you Ambassador
Akins, and that is, talk about revolution, who knows, what about the House of Saud though, within
the royal family? We know that there’s health problems. Will succession there continue as it has
for the last decades or is there a problem within the family?
AKINS: Well for the time being, it will continue. That is, the heir apparent is Abdullah.
Abdullah is the head of the National Guard. The next man in succession—presumed succession—will
be Sultan who is now the Minister of Defense. But that doesn’t mean that when Abdullah takes over
that he’s going to have to name Sultan as heir apparent. He will be King and he can do whatever
he wants. It very likely, I might add, will be Sultan but it’s also irrelevant. Sultan
and Abdullah are exactly the same age. There’s a three month difference in age. Abdullah’s in
very good health, he’s thin, he exercises, he doesn’t smoke or drink and Sultan has one of the
House of Saud problems, that is overweight. He is… you cannot call him trim and healthy. And I
strongly suspect that Abdullah will outlive Sultan. In which case the next person in line mostly
likely would be Selmon, who is much younger. He’s a good 12 years younger than Abdullah.
PORTER: What ages are we talking about?
AKINS: Abdullah is in his early 70s, 72, and Selmon I think is 59. So you have quite a
big difference there whereas I say Sultan is exactly the same age as Abdullah. And so after that,
then well, if you continue the old system it will be run on down the list. There are much younger
sons involved in this. You can go down, stretch it out for another twenty years beyond Selmon.
But I think at that time there probably would be talking about the next generation.
PORTER: A passing of the torch?
AKINS: Very likely. And there are some very good princes in the second generation. Selmon
is very good too. Abdullah is very good. I’m not… actually I don’t think that Sultan would be a
disaster for us, I just don’t think he’ll be a King. He would certainly be much closer to Fahd’s
view of the world scene than Abdullah or even Selmon. Abdullah will have a very different
attitude toward us and toward the world and toward Arab causes. He feels strongly about
Palestine, he’s very close to Prince Assad of Syria. The younger princes are… there’s some
very, very good people in the next generation. And that gives a good deal of reason for optimism
in the country. The younger princes understand the problems and know that there have to be
changes and when they take over, they will. I don’t think that Abdullah is going to make any
strong important changes in the society or in the powers of the rudimentary Parliament which they
have, or allowing the people to hold ministers responsible for their actions. But that could
happen under Selmon and it almost certainly will happen under the successor, the next generation,
and if it doesn’t happen then I fear that Gary’s scenario might be correct.
PORTER: Gary, anything you want to add about the family?
SICK: I obviously don’t know the family as well as Jim does, but my impression is that
Abdullah, if he does in fact take over, will represent a slightly different point of view. I
mentioned the idea that he would not have quite the same close relationship, the automatically
close relationship with the United States. Not to say that he would break with the United States,
but that might be a very healthy thing right now since there is, in fact, a lot of criticism of
the closeness with the United States and the recent bombings that took place in ’96 and ’96 were
clearly aimed at the United States and the US presence. Having somebody there who is at least
marginally more skeptical about the US relationship might, in fact, be a very healthy thing and
take some of the steam out of it.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with former US Ambassador
to Saudi Arabia, James Akins and Columbia University Professor Gary Sick. Printed transcripts and
audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details.
Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan
organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage
dialogue on world affairs.
AKINS: The attacks on us that Gary mentioned last November and a few months ago in the
Eastern province I think probably had two goals in mind. One was to embarrass the family, hurt
the family and the targets were American targets of course and that’s scarcely a coincidence. You
could have embarrassed the royal family much more by blowing up the oil installations. They
wouldn’t do that, that would be extremely unpopular in the country if you were to do that. They
haven’t touched the oil installations, which are extraordinarily vulnerable. But we are closely
associated with Israel and we are seen as a protector of the House of Saud as well as the
protector of Israel and Israel or Palestine and most particularly Jerusalem are matters of
extreme importance to Saudis. Not only the extreme religious elements, but all Saudis, more or
less by definition. Jerusalem is the third holy city of Islam, the King of Saudi Arabia calls
himself the Protector of the two holy shrines. But everybody in Islam knows there are not two
holy shrines, there are three. And the third one is Jerusalem.
And the other reason, of course, is that they think that we are in constant. That is, President
Reagan said that we had vital interests in Lebanon, which of course was scarcely true but he said
that. And then we had the Marine barracks incidents and with unseemly haste we withdrew from
Lebanon. Well there is a difference of course, and we didn’t have vital interest in Lebanon and
we still don’t. We do have vital interests in Saudi Arabia. And I would hope that we will not be
driven out of Saudi Arabia if there is another attack which there surely will be. If it’s very,
very serious it’s going to be debated without any doubt in the United States and I have a
horrible feeling that there will be people who will call us to withdraw. Is it worth it? You’ve
already seen the analysis. If you count in the cost of defending Saudi oil into the economic
package, the oil from the Middle East is costing us $100 a barrel, and is it really worth it?
There will be those arguments that we should withdraw. It’s very difficult to predict what will
happen. I think we will not withdraw. I think it would be a disaster if we were to withdraw. But
I suppose it’s a possibility. In any case the people who are bombing us count on our withdrawal.
SICK: I think we have to think about what withdrawal actually means from Saudi Arabia. We
could certainly reduce our presence there which might be seen as a withdrawal by some people but,
in fact, would not change our capacity much at all. And we could operate much more offshore than
we do now and reduce our disability in the kingdom. So that is at least one possibility that
would be not really withdrawal, not certainly withdrawal from the region.
PORTER: Let me turn this issue around to where I see sort of American public opinion.
Americans, at least those who pay some attention to these matters, are I think legitimately
confused. I mean they say that we certainly have made security guarantees to Saudi Arabia. We’ve
proven our resolve on those guarantees in the Gulf War. And we are a major customer of their #1
export. Yet Americans have been killed. Americans you know, doing their duty for God and country
have been killed during those bombings. And the Saudis won’t let us run military operations or
they drag their feet or they’re reluctant to let us run military operations where we claim at
least that we have legitimate security concerns. We’re doing what we think we need to do to
maintain our position and yet they stand in our way.
SICK: This is of course the way we look at it.
PORTER: Exactly, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to… by here, the way we look at it.
SICK: It’s not exactly the way the Saudis look at it, or anybody else in the world I
PORTER: So what you say is it’s just Americans who are confused.
SICK: We are protecting Saudi Arabia because we have real interests there. It’s not
because we love the big brown eyes of the Saudi monarch. It’s because we have real interests and
we’re there to define these interests and it has nothing to do about preserving the integrity of
the country or preserving the royal family. And everyone knows that, and at the same time we are
defending another country and we’re responsible in the eyes of many people in Saudi Arabia and
elsewhere in the Middle East for Israel’s intransigence. If America really wanted Israel to move,
it has the power to cause Israel to move. And we don’t try to do it. We go along with everything
that Netanyahu wants.
You know, after the first attack on Saudi Arabia in Riyadh last November…
PORTER: First attack on Americans.
AKINS: Attack on Americans in Riyadh, there was general condemnation of that. People were
appalled by it, this is not Saudi, it’s not the way we handle things in Saudi Arabia, it’s a
horrible thing to do. After the attack on the barracks in it was quite a different reaction.
People didn’t approve it, don’t misunderstand me, but they said, you know you have to understand
how these people are looking at it. Last year we thought the peace process was moving forward, we
thought there really was going to be a just peace and we thought there was going to be a
Palestinian state and there was going to be a compromise in Jerusalem. We can’t believe that
anymore. And yet we are still supporting Israel’s intransigence, and therefore these people say,
we have to attack the font of all of our troubles, which is the United States.
PORTER: Is that your response Gary, to people who are confused and the American public?
SICK: I think for many, many years it’s been a tentative US policy starting back almost
as long as we’ve been in the Gulf, that we had a problem there as far as presence was concerned,
that it attracts attention. It attracted attention at the time of the Gulf War. They did it, King
Fahd invited us in, but he did it with great misgivings because he knew there were going to be
repercussions from this and there were, almost immediately. There were people preaching in the
mosque, there were people attacking him as being really unIslamic. I mean bringing in the
infidel, the heretic to live in and operate in our country. And they did what they could to
minimize the friction between the two—the military people that were there and the regular
population. But it is real, and I think that this is not a reason for us to withdraw but it’s not
reason for us… we shouldn’t kid ourselves about this, that this friction is not going to go
PORTER: Ambassador Akins, you say we’re there to protect our interests. Some would say
that it doesn’t matter who’s in power, that the oil will continue to flow.
AKINS: A lot of people say that. We’ve heard that for a very long time. It would continue
to flow, but how much and in what conditions and at what price? These are the questions you have
to ask. There are a lot of people in Saudi Arabia, including some highly educated technocrats,
who think that Saudi Arabia is producing much too much oil, that they’re producing now eight
million barrels a day with their capacity to produce ten. We’ve been urging them to increase
their production capacity which they have now, after the sickness of Fahd, have decided not to do
and all plans to increase production capacity are now on hold. But there are people who say that
production should be cut because we have too much money, the money’s being wasted and the only
way of disciplining ourselves is to reduce the amount of money we have coming in and they don’t
talk about lowering the price of oil by doing this, they talk about reducing production. That
would hurt us. If they cut their production in half, say. It’s not going to hurt them financially
at all because the price of oil is going to go very, very high, at least for a while, until
alternatives started to come in. But there’s a long lead time before that happens. There would be
extraordinary disruption of the world economy, not just ours but the entire world, if the price
of oil doubled.
Now there are some people who say fatuously that we don’t get any oil from Saudi Arabia, we get
our oil from the Western hemisphere, we get our oil from Canada, from Mexico, Venezuela and so
on, which is true but also totally irrelevant. Oil is fungible, there’s a world market in oil and
if the price of oil doubles, and Japan has no oil coming from Saudi Arabia anymore, that doesn’t
mean that Japan is going to close down its market at all, close down its industry. It’s going to
go and buy Venezuelan oil. And they’re going to offer $50 a barrel for the oil or even more and
we’re going to have to pay exactly the same price. Simultaneously, the price of domestic oil will
also skyrocket. It will have tremendous effects on the United States. No, it does matter who’s in
control and what we’d like to have continue in control are people who are reasonable, sensible,
nonradical and friendly to the United States. The ideal situation, which is what we have now and
we hope it continues.
SICK: The other thing that I think should be mentioned is the fact is that to keep the
oil flow going requires, in fact, investment, long-term investment in building capacity, in
setting up the structures that you mentioned. These things don’t happen overnight. You don’t just
go out and stick a pipe in the ground in Saudi Arabia, though it’s a lot easier than it is in
other parts of the world, and suddenly the oil starts flowing and you take it right into the
tanker and that’s that. All sorts of infrastructure has to be created to make that happen and
it’s an expensive proposition opening up a brand new field and putting in all that infrastructure
is expensive. And at a minimum, if we use the Iranian model, yes Iran was talking about cutting
its oil production when the revolution took place and they did. They soon decided that that
wasn’t a very smart thing to do, the price of oil came back down, they were losing market share,
and they decided to go back into the market. But then it was very difficult in both the chaos and
the lack of investment capital for them to build their fields back up to where they had been. And
so they’re still producing less oil today than the Shah was producing in his time by a
So there is a cost and the world has certainly absorbed that thought it was one of the price
spikes that kicked the prices up very high in 1979, 1980, and had tremendous impact among other
things contributed to the fall of an American president because the world economy was in such
desperate and we were paying high interest rates. That wasn’t the only problem but that was very
much part of it. So these things have tremendous repercussions and I think we should not minimize
the fact that what happens in Saudi Arabia does in fact impact very directly on the United
PORTER: All right, this is my final question, I’ll start with you Gary Sick. What is it
that the US should be doing to make sure that US policy toward Saudi Arabia is being formulated
clearly, that we are looking at all of the options? We know how they feel about us, what they
like about us, what they don’t like about us, what we know about the internal situation in Saudi
Arabia. What are the steps we should be taking now to make sure that we’re formulating clear
SICK: There are different emphases in people who are specialists working in this region
about the nature of the problem. Just how severe it really is. But even if we agree on the
severity or nonseverity, it’s very difficult then to go on to the next step and say what can we
in fact do about this. And I wish I had a nice neat… there’s no magic bullet, there’s no neat
solution that we can say, this is what we ought to do and everything is going to turn out well.
It just doesn’t work that way. This is a very slow… both I think the crisis itself is a slow
motion crisis, the dealing with it is also slow motion and so the first step is looking reality
in the face and the second step is then taking a hard look at our own policy to see if we can’t
solve the problem, at least not to make it worse. And so we have certain things we can do in the
way we deploy and the way we act.
I think it’s been pretty shameful at times the way we have gone to Saudi Arabia and just openly,
unequivocally twisted their arm to buy American, to do something. They’re in a very peculiar
position and viewed from their position, they can’t say no to us and we’re taking advantage of
that. But in the meantime we’re making them look like vassals of the United States and that hurts
them very badly. And actually it adds to the problem.
PORTER: Ambassador Akins, I’ll give you the final word.
AKINS: That point is extremely important to them and I don’t think that most Americans…
I doubt very much that most Americans in the administration have understood it at all. Three
times in the last year and a half our President has gone on television with the Saudi Ambassador
standing at his elbow saying, I called my good friend the King of Saudi Arabia and he has done
these things for us. The first time he said they were going to split their defense purchases
among the United States and Britain and France and now because of my call they’re buying only
American. The second time he said that Saudis were going to buy new airplanes for their national
airline, half Boeing and half Airbus. After my call they’re buying only Boeing. And the third
time he said they have a new telecommunications system, there were a number of contestants for
that deal and it was going perhaps to somebody else but after my call it was given to AT&T.
Now this looks great on American television and the view in Saudi Arabia was intense anger. The
American President gets on American television and he says I snap my fingers and the Americans
and Saudi King danced. And they found that extremely humiliating and I’m not saying that the
President shouldn’t act like a commercial officer in an embassy. The President of France does all
the time, Prince Charles does it for the U.K. but it should be done discreetly and you shouldn’t
crow about it.
This is another problem in our relationship with Saudi Arabia. We can’t keep secrets. I think
there are a number of places think that we should take up with the Saudis some things that they
really have to do. But the Saudis would be absolutely terrified if we did this because they would
assume that within weeks, if not days, there would be a leak from the American government and
some official would be taking credit for his putting screws to the Saudis. You can’t do that.
There has to be absolute discretion in dealing with the Saudis. There’s never any leak from the
Saudi side in our relationship ever. Ever. There never has been. But there have been a lot of
leaks on the American side. Obviously we have a problem with leaks in government and it’s not
only in our relations with the Saudis that’s the problem but lots of other places. But if we
can’t deal discreetly with the Saudis, it’s going to make our dealing with them much more
difficult in the future.
PORTER: That is Ambassador James Akins, the former US representative to Saudi Arabia. Our
other guest was former National Security Council advisor, Professor Gary Sick. For Common
Ground I’m Keith Porter.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security