Politics & Policy

Opening Our Skies to the Saudis?

The kingdom is still a blind spot of American foreign policy.

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.


The goal of this “Open Skies” agreement is to prohibit governments from setting ticket prices, and from regulating how and when specific airlines can fly specific routes. This appears to be a positive move — bringing free-market principles to the international aviation industry is ostensibly a good thing. Further, the State Department assured me that it’s a blanket policy that the United States offers to any interested country — although Iran and North Korea apparently don’t make the cut, we’ve signed 103 Open Skies treaties with all sorts of countries, often with very positive results. An Open Skies agreement with the Netherlands, for example, created some 2,000 jobs and over $120 million in yearly revenue for American airports. But Amsterdam and Rotterdam are not Mecca and Medina, and the agreement with the Saudis has already created controversy. 

A few months ago, Allan Mendelsohn, a former Clinton administration State Department Open Skies negotiator, began a quiet campaign, opposing the signing of any such agreement with Riyadh. He sent a series of letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking an important theoretical question: If Saudi Arabia had a visa policy that denied African  Americans entrance, would the State Department still make the deal? His main objection was that Jewish Americans aren’t allowed into Saudi Arabia, and neither are Americans with Israeli stamps on their passports. (Nor, for that matter, are unaccompanied women, or Americans carrying Bibles or wearing crosses around their necks.) “The agreement is a gift to the Saudis,” Mendelsohn, a Washington transportation attorney, told me. “There’s absolutely no reason for it.” 

So, if it is so one-sided, why are we doing it? The State Department claims that the previous agreement with Saudi Arabia limited Saudi government airlines to only ten direct flights a week to the United States, whereas the new agreement would allow Saudi Airlines to schedule dozens more flights into the United States. Aviation experts I spoke to considered that this would be a boon for the Saudi government run airlines, but likely wouldn’t much benefit American airlines since there is not high demand for flights to Saudi Arabia. Regulatory economist James Reitzes, from the Brattle Group, explained: “There are a fair amount of advantages that can accrue for Saudi Arabian airlines. I am skeptical whether  U.S. airlines are going to say, now that this market is open, we should start flying there.”   

Nonetheless, the executive agreement is likely to be signed later this year or in early 2012. Saudis have already added new flights to the U.S., a State Department official who worked on the negotiation told me. In return, we’re asking almost nothing  It remains highly unlikely that the Kingdom is going to open up entrance requirements — let alone tourism — in the near future. In fact, the State Department warns prospective travelers of the religious and gender persecution they may face if they do venture to the Kingdom.  American women must be met by a male “sponsor” on arrival — and are subject to arrest by the religious police for association “with a male to whom she is not related.” We may have Open Skies agreements with unlikely tourist destinations, such as Pakistan and Nigeria, but those countries at least allow all Americans entry.  

The question remains: Why are we giving Saudi Arabians more freedom to come to the United States without asking for reciprocal measures? It looks an awful lot like diplomacy for the sake of diplomacy, a way of showering rewards on an ally that’s rich in oil money and short on human rights. But in the long run, policies like this — where we give and get nothing in return — only serve to bestow credibility on Saudi Arabia’s brutal status quo of gender apartheid, Islamic fundamentalism, and the modern-day slavery of human trafficking. As the State Department notes in the 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report: “The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.”

Open skies, perhaps, but certainly not very friendly. 

Elise JordanElise Jordan is a journalist, political speechwriter, and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008 and 2009.


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