America is disengaging from Saudi Arabia. To many observers this seems shocking, to others it is unthinkable, but all the evidence points to a dramatic change in relations. A few weeks ago, the last of America's bases, Prince Sultan Air Base, was closed and the 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing deactivated. This coincides with claims that there are direct links between the House of Saud and America's arch enemy, Osama bin Laden. The current issue of Time magazine says that Abu Zubaidah, the leading al-Qa'eda terrorist captured in Pakistan last year, was supported by members of the Saudi royal family.
While it lasted, the alliance worked well for the two countries. It was an unlikely relationship – between a nuclear power with a $9 trillion GDP and a traditional Persian Gulf monarchy whose GDP is exceeded by Connecticut – but a lucrative one. Forged 30 years ago, during the struggle against Soviet expansion, it grew out of the domestic political fallout of the 1973 oil embargo. The result has been that since the early 1980s the United States has used its extraordinary influence over the House of Saud – and, by extension, over Opec – to keep oil prices down.
The excuse was that the American consumer needed a cheap, secure source of crude oil. So under the catch-all rubric of 'oil for security', a series of protocols was constructed to define the relationship. The reality was more complicated: a Faustian bargain that exchanged Saudi oil plus Opec moderation for all-encompassing US security assistance to maintain the rule of the Al-Sauds. The Saudi royal family readily provided a $100 billion market for big-ticket US goods and services, on condition that the Americans refrained from commenting on or in any way investigating the internal dynamics of the kingdom or its pursuits. Among these were the purchase and deployment of Chinese CSS2 intermediate-range missiles; the funding of the Pakistani nuclear programme; and the creation of a Saudi-Wahabi zone of influence stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Balkans into East Africa and South-east Asia.
The success of the US