Opening Our Skies to the Saudis?
The kingdom is still a blind spot of American foreign policy.


Elise Jordan

In the ten years since the attacks on Sept. 11th, 2001, we’ve been at war with al-Qaeda, fighting the outfit in Afghanistan and Iraq, while keeping up the pressure on their networks with drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. (Libya remains a “humanitarian intervention,” and al-Qaeda has yet to plant its flag there.) Those countries all have a long record of supporting terrorism, or harboring terrorists, or, as in the case of Iraq, becoming hotbeds for terrorism after we arrived. But there is one country conspicuously absent from the list of nations we’ve aggressively targeted — Saudi Arabia.   

Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 al-Qaeda hijackers, has remained our friend and close ally. (Had 15 of the hijackers been from Iran, we’d have 150,000 troops celebrating Christmas in Tehran; had 15 of the 19 been from Iraq, we’d have been in Baghdad on September 12.) Osama bin Laden himself, of course, was a Saudi citizen whose prominent family had close ties with the royals. The Saudis, along with Pakistan, were just two of the three counties that recognized the Taliban government. Yet officially the country remained above reproach. In the past ten years, the Saudi government has never been even verbally attacked by the State Department or the White House. The most stinging rebuke, in fact, was from Rudy Giuliani, who famously rejected a $10 million gift from a Saudi prince — and he got away with it because our anger was still so raw after the attacks.

In respectable foreign-policy circles, bringing up Saudi Arabia immediately marks one out as something akin to a Truther or a Birther — it’s just not a serious topic of discussion for serious people. It’s not that anyone in government, in private, will deny the Saudi’s government’s active and well documented hostility towards the United States; nor will they deny the public and growing record of the Saudi’s complicity in the September 11 attacks, or the jihad it supported against American troops in Iraq (the majority of foreign fighters in Iraq were Saudi citizens; Saudi citizens also provided critical funding for the Sunni insurgency in Iraq); or, as the Arab Spring has swept the region, the Saudis distinctly unspringlike form of government.  

The Saudis seem to make up the glaring blind spot of American foreign policy. 

There are still plenty of lingering questions surrounding the Kingdom’s involvement in the most deadly attack on American soil – like the 28 redacted pages of the 9/11 report. There’s also the matter of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing gender apartheid — women are excluded from public life and are required to have a male guardian for any movement outside the home.  The 2010 World Economic Forum Global Gender Report ranks the status of women in the Kingdom at the bottom — 129 out of 134 nations.  

The Saudis haven’t been exactly friendly to U.S. interests lately, either. In June, former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Turki al-Faisal published a strongly worded op-ed decrying American favoritism to Israel. “I’d hate to be around when [Israel] face their comeuppance,” Turki al-Faisal wrote.  

It was for all these reasons that an agreement the United States is negotiating with Saudi Arabia caught my eye. Last year, we approved $60 billion in arms sales to the Kingdom. This year, we’re arranging something called an “Open Skies” agreement. On the tenth anniversary of September 11th, the words “Open Skies” and “Saudi Arabia” set off a few alarm bells — it sounded like some program to make it easier for Saudis to come to the United States (which it is in part, though not in the way I initially thought), something that I found particularly odd given Saudi underground support for terrorism and their very restrictive attitude toward visiting Americans.