Crawford Summit Perspective: A Conversation with Thomas Lippman

Published: May 9, 2005

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Editor’s Note:

Mr. Thomas Lippman, author of “Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Relationship with Saudi Arabia,” is well known to SUSRIS readers as a keenanalyst of the ebb and flow of events that mark the US-Saudi relationship. We were, therefore, very pleased to talk with him about the meeting between President George Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah at the Western White House in Crawford Texas on April 25, 2005. Mr. Lippman was in attendance at the reception held in Dallas by the US-Saudi Business Council honoring Crown Prince Abdullah on April 26, 2005.

Mr. Lippman last spoke with SUSRIS in February about: the significance of the 2005 Jeddah Economic Forum; social and political reforms in Saudi Arabia; development of relations with other major powers; the state of US-Saudi relations; the image of Saudi Arabia in the United States; Saudi Arabia’s role in the global war on terror; the historic meeting between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz, on the occasion of its 60th anniversary; and problems, progress and perceptions in the US-Saudi relationship.

Mr. Lippman talked with SUSRIS about the Crawford summit by telephone from his home in Washington, DC on April 29, 2005.

INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS LIPPMAN
Friday, April 29, 2005

SUSRIS: Thank you for joining us today to talk about the meeting betweenPresident Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah at the Western White House in Crawford, as well as other aspects of the Saudi leader’s US visit.

What is your assessment of the summit?

Mr. Thomas Lippman: As with any meeting of this nature we don’t know what was said other than what has been officially released. We do know they talked for a long time and there may have been things discussed in side meetings. Secretary Rice was there. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal was there. The Saudi Commerce Minister was there. There were a lot of things that could have been said that we don’t know about. There were certainly enough people in the respective parties. According to the Dallas Morning News, Abdullah’s entourage filled five airplanes. So a lot of things could have been said that we don’t know about. But let’s start with what we do know.

Based on what I saw in Texas and in the joint statement this event was more important for atmospherics than it was for substance. I say that because the joint statement was more interesting for what it didn’t contain than for what it did in a lot of ways.

Yet it was clear from Abdullah’s personal performance and from the way he wasreceived at the ranch that a lot of the clouds that hung over the relationship the last time he was here have largely dissipated. That was partly because of the 9/11 commission report, and partly because the Americans now believe that the Saudis have cracked down on domestic terrorism and incitement. Also the American side understands that the oil price increase is not Saudi Arabia’s fault.

On the personal performance side there was the fact that Crown Prince Abdullah was willing to go into the diner in Crawford and chat up the locals. I was told that he did the same thing on the way from Crawford to Dallas, visiting a 7/11 store. Then at the business council dinner in Dallas the Crown Prince stood in a reception line and shook hands with about 600 people and made very gracious remarks.

He wasn’t here as someone who was under suspicion or was nursing a grudge or anything like that. It seemed that a lot of the bad things that were going on three years ago are not going on now. Also, it’s not 2004 any more. Nobody’s watching Fahrenheit 9/11 now, and John F. Kerry is not running for President on a platform of Saudi bashing.

So things are much better.

SUSRIS: What were some of the things you referred to as not being contained in the joint statement?

Lippman: One was the fact that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has been making a lot of noise demanding the White House take action, as required by law, to impose some sort of sanction on Saudi Arabia on the religious freedom issue. The deadline for the President to do that expired on March 15 and nothing has happened. I don’t know what the White House response to that will be. I certainly wouldn’t have expected them to do anything while the Crown Prince was in the country.

Another item missing from the joint statement, one that the Americans wanted from the Crown Prince, that they didn’t get, was an immediate increase in Saudi Arabia’s cash contribution to the Palestinian Authority. The Americans feel, I think, that Mahmoud Abbas needs to be able to deliver some visible benefits and some jobs in the Palestinian territory or he risks losing the Parliamentary elections to Hamas this spring.

SUSRIS: What about things that weren’t missing?

Lippman: A joint statement is often drafted before the meeting actually takes place. But there were some interesting things in this one. There was the statement that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recognizes the principle of freedom and that the kingdom appreciates the United States’ historic role in working to end colonialism and imperialism and promoting the right of self-determination.

I read that as a message from Crown Prince Abdullah to the people of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Muslim world saying that contrary to what Osama Bin Laden tells you the United States is not an imperialist power. It is an anti-imperialist power that has worked for their benefit.

I also thought it was important that the Kingdom specifically signed on to the two state solution to Palestine.

“The United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia desire a just, negotiated settlement wherein two democratic states, Israel and Palestine live side by side in peace and security.”

That essentially means the game is over as far as the Kingdom is concerned. The question whether Israel has the right to exist from the Saudi perspective is now over.

I think that’s important. It was also interesting that in the joint statement the US went out of its way to endorse Crown Prince Abdullah’s plan, the so-called Abdullah Peace Plan, although it did not specifically include that as part of the roadmap process.

SUSRIS: How would you characterize the summit’s outcome in other areas, such as energy supplies and Saudi Arabia’s accession to the World Trade Organization?

Lippman: The news that Saudi Arabia is going to expand, to increase capital investment to expand its oil production capacity — that had been determined previously and fully discussed by [Oil Minister] Ali Naimi the week before.

As for the WTO accession, the target date at the end of 2005 for Saudi Arabia to get into the WTO was already on the books. US trade officials briefed Congress about that last week. There is a big international trade meeting in Hong Kong in December and that is the target time for Saudi Arabia to sign the accession agreement.

I think on balance this was one of those meetings where the two societies are very different but both leaders, Bush and Abdullah, were willing to take some political heat at home to stand up for a relationship that they believe in. You know, there is a certain liability for Abdullah to stand up in front of the world television cameras and say that the United States is Saudi Arabia’s friend. And I salute Crown Prince Abdullah for doing that.

SUSRIS: Among the outward signs of amity between the leaders was the hand-holding when President Bush greeted Crown Prince Abdullah at the start of the meeting. That seemed to get most of the buzz from the media.

Lippman: I have to say — if you read the transcript of Adel al-Jubeir’s meeting with the press afterwards – it was a pretty sorry performance by the news media. All they asked about was the price of gasoline. If they were prepared they would have known the answers in advance. And the only thing they have reported on since the meeting is the handholding. Anybody who has ever spent three minutes reading Middle East 101 would know about that. There has been very little media analysis of this event.

SUSRIS: Let’s talk a little about the focus on gasoline prices that seemed to shape the media coverage and political commentary on the summit. Last night Senator Dick Durbin was being interviewed on MSNBC before President Bush’s press conference. On the topic of gasoline supplies Durbin said Bush should have taken Abdullah into some dark corner of the ranch, sat him down and told him we weren’t going to take it anymore. How should people interpret those characterizations?

Lippman: The President could have done any number of things in the meeting and it wouldn’t make a difference in the price of gasoline.

On the question of refining, [Oil Minister] Ali Naimi, speaking for the government of Saudi Arabia, has been on the record for some time as saying that Saudi Arabia is willing to finance and construct a major new refinery in the United States if someone will tell them where it can be built.

SUSRIS: In the post-meeting press briefing Adel Al-Jubeir had this to say about gasoline prices and American refining capacity:

“We believe that the price of crude oil does not reflect the fundamentals of supply and demand. There is no shortage of crude oil in the world today. What we see is a shortage of refining capacity, as well as shortages in infrastructures, and so forth, that drive the price of product up. It will not make a difference if Saudi Arabia ships an extra million or two million barrels of crude oil to the United States; if you cannot refine it, it will not turn into gasoline, and that will not turn into lower prices.”

It doesn’t seem as if anything has come of the Saudi offer to build refineries in the United States or any other initiatives for that matter. The last refinery built was during the Ford Administration. Yet the Saudis get the blame for high US gas prices.

Lippman: I think Naimi knew when he made the refinery offer a year ago that there wasn’t going to be any site available. That gets us to the President’s interesting comments about using abandoned military bases as refinery sites. I don’t know how people in the refining business will react but something might actually result from it.

I read in the paper the other day that the US is importing a million barrels of gasoline a day. Putting on one of my other reporter’s hats from the days when I was covering the energy business, its infinitely more difficult and dangerous to transport gasoline than to transport crude oil. Who would want to work on a gasoline tanker?

You know the Crown Prince made the announcement at the business dinner that they were going to have the producer-consumer oil conference in Riyadh in December. This is a longstanding theme of Saudi oil policy, as you well know. It was restated by Adel al-Jubeir in his press briefing. It is the philosophy that the producers and consumers are in this together; it’s not us versus them. I know a lot of people in this country find it politically convenient not to believe that, but that has been Saudi policy for a long time.

SUSRIS: What other elements of the summit joint statement did you find noteworthy?

Lippman: A statement that raised more questions than it answered was, “The United States and Saudi Arabia continue to support efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and the technology and material needed to develop and build nuclear weapons. Efforts to develop and acquire nuclear weapons run contrary to efforts to promote peace and stability in the region.”

Notice that no country is named. You might assume that this is about Iran. On the other hand, by not specifically naming Iran you accommodate the long standing Saudi position that a nuclear free Middle East means Israel too. I think the recent security accommodation between Saudi Arabia and Iran would probably mean the Saudis didn’t want to specifically limit this issue to Iran. This has room for the formulation of a nuclear-free Middle East. Again, I think the Saudis did pretty well with the joint statement.

SUSRIS: Some observers were calling it a new day for US-Saudi ties, a milestone. Will there be any changes in the trappings of the relationship.

Lippman: It should be reflected in an up tick in the number of Saudi students and military officers coming here. There’s more in the joint statement on this issue, “The United States recognizes we must exert greater efforts to overcome obstacles facing Saudi businessmen and students.” I was talking to a senior media person from Saudi Arabia who told me that the last time he came to the United States it took him seven hours to get out of the airport.

So, I think the world is the same today as it was last week but we now have a clear statement from both countries that the worst is behind us and the partnership is important and will continue. It needs some bolstering and we are going to do that. We share a lot of views as to what should go on in the region.

By the way, the United States recognized, in the summit statement, that in the process of expanding individual rights and political participation in governmental openness, each country has to do it in its own way. That means we are not going to start excluding the Saudis because women can’t vote. We are not going to beat up on the Saudis on this issue. Again in the joint statement I think Saudi Arabia did very well.

SUSRIS: The joint statement also called for getting more Americans to the Kingdom to work and study. How will that be done?

Lippman: There have been interesting developments on that front even before Crawford. I have been told that for the first time the Saudis have a system of multiple entry visas for journalists, so somebody like Neil MacFarqhar, the [New York] Times correspondent in the region, can go there more or less on demand. That’s new. Second, the Saudis appear to be setting up an organized tourism program. That would expose the country to people who are not going there to work. I don’t have any reason to think that all those tourists are going to be Muslims because from what I have seen the tours don’t include Mecca and Medina.

The opening of society seems to be increasing and the idea that Americans would go there to study is an intriguing one. The fact is that now the library and archive materials of the King Abdulaziz Foundation and the King Faisal Foundation are being made accessible to external scholars. This is an interesting development in parallel with the broadening of Saudi Arabian contact with the outside world. I think it is very encouraging.

SUSRIS: We touched briefly on the question of Saudi accession to the World Trade Organization. Were the Saudis hoping for more on WTO from the Crawford meeting?

Lippman: My understanding of the state of play on the WTO is that in order to get into it you have to reach bilateral agreements on whatever issues come up with any WTO member that wants a bilateral agreement with you. In the case of Saudi Arabia, 149 member countries — I believe was the number — wanted bilateral agreements with Saudi Arabia. 148 of them are done; the last one is with the United States.

One of the senior Saudi trade officials, Dr. Al-Alamy, has been here negotiating and he gave this example of the kind of thing that Saudi Arabia still has to do. In the US when a regulatory agency is going to implement a new regulation it is first published in the federal register a couple of weeks in advance and everybody gets to weigh in. They don’t have that kind of transparent regulation system in Saudi Arabia. That’s among the issues they still have to work on.

His boss, Mr. Yamani [Minister of Commerce and Industry] was here the entire week before the Crawford summit. They got to the point where the acting US Trade Representative notified Congress that there was light at the end of this tunnel.

They expected to resolve all issues in time for Saudi Arabia to come in by the end of the year. At that point Senator Lincoln, a member of the Trade Subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee, objected because she didn’t want Saudi Arabia to get into the WTO until they have resolved one of the child custody cases.

I don’t think there was any reason to believe any big announcement was due in Crawford and that everyone understood there are some months of work to go. However, at the business dinner in Dallas Crown Prince Abdullah said, “We are determined to create an environment that encourages investment and investors. I urge you to invest in the great Saudi market.” He called the partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia “a unique success story.”

SUSRIS: Do you have any last thoughts on the significance of the summit?

Lippman: Yes. It’s still not entirely clear to me why this particular meeting was held at this particular time. It’s a long way for an 81 year old man to come to issue a statement that seems, to me, could have been issued from anywhere.

The other thing that was interesting, speaking of things that didn’t happen, was news while Abdullah was in Paris that Saudi Arabia was buying 96 French fighter jets. You know there wasn’t even a hint or a suggestion that they might consider seeking a bid on this deal from McDonnell Douglas.

SUSRIS: The same thing could be said about the announcement, about the same time, of a purchase of commercial aircraft from Brazil’s Embraer aircraft company.

Lippman: Right, why? The last big commercial jet purchase was the huge purchase form Boeing about ten years ago. But why? Maybe in the case of the fighter deal they get a better arrangement from the French. Maybe they just decided it would be politically out of the question to try to get an American company to bid on it and get the Pentagon to sign off on the deal. I don’t know, but I was struck by that.

SUSRIS: There’s always your theory that Saudi Arabia wants friends on the UN Security Council who are also nuclear powers. You said China fit the bill, but France meets those conditions.

Lippman: France fits that description too, absolutely. Some observers tried to make something of the fact that Abdullah spoke very effusively in praise for the character and nobility of Jacques Chirac and hasn’t said similar words about Bush. But, in the end, he came here, they had a cordial meeting and they did issue a very positive joint statement. So I don’t make so much of that. There hasn’t been much analysis of that aspect of the Crawford meeting. It’s disappointing that the press didn’t take the time to ask those questions.

SUSRIS: Well, we appreciate you taking the time to explore these issues with us. As always you have provided a rare insight into the mechanics of the Saudi-US relationship. Thank you.

About Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman, is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. In four years as the Washington Post’s Middle East bureau chief, three years as the Post’s oil and energy reporter and a decade as the newspaper’s national security and diplomatic correspondent, he traveled extensively to Saudi Arabia. He is the author of Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia, Madeleine Albright and the New American Diplomacy, Understanding Islam, and Egypt After Nasser. A writer and journalist specializing in U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern affairs, he lives in Washington, DC. He has recently returned from a week-long visit to the kingdom.