Former Saudi Ambassador Shares Insight
Published: Sunday, October 20, 2013
Updated: Sunday, October 20, 2013 20:10
Ford Fraker, the former U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, gave out his first-hand diplomatic insight on U.S.-Saudi relations on Thursday at the Cadigan Alumni Center.
Prior to his diplomatic posts between 2007 and 2009, he served as a banker for over 30 years in the Middle East. With this long-time experience in the region, Senator John Kerry at the time evaluated the ambassador as “someone [actually] qualified for this position,” according to Fraker.
Fraker said this ambassadorship in Saudi Arabia was different from other limited, institutionalized U.S. diplomatic missions—this diplomacy is highly personalized, as the king prefers the “one-point contact” with the president only through the ambassador. Such characteristics led to a heyday of diplomacy during the late Bush administration and to the cooled diplomacy during the Obama administration.
He told a story of when Bush invited the Crown Prince Abdullah at the time, who was upset and disappointed at a White House meeting, to his personal ranch in Crawford, Texas. While Bush drove a jeep with the prince, they saw turkeys across the road.
“The president said, ‘You know, as long as I’ve been in this ranch, we’ve never had turkeys,’” Fraker said. “The king looked at him and said, ‘This must be a sign from God.’ They turned off the road, and sat there for an hour and a half, talking about their mutual belief in God, families, values, royalty, [and] all the important things that are important when you are developing a relationship. [This personal bond] trumped all the arguments about policy and disappointments Saudi had.” On the other hand, the relationship between the king and Obama lacks this kind of personal bond, Fraker said.
Throughout the lecture, Fraker emphasized the strategic significance of the U.S.-Saudi alliance and the public perception of the U.S. interest in oil. In terms of the size of the country, the kingdom “completely dwarfs other Gulf states.” Two bodies of water, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, through which 20 percent of the global oil supply passes, attract American strategic interest in the country. Despite informal acknowledgement, the U.S. security guarantee of the kingdom promises undisrupted global oil supply, as Saudi Arabia is the largest oil supplier in the world.
“Over the last 10 years, only [about] 11 percent of oil from the Middle East comes to the U.S.,” Fraker said. “We are not dependent on the Middle Eastern oil.”
More importantly, he emphasized that the U.S. security guarantee in Saudi Arabia is to secure the oil supply into the international markets, answering a question about the possible policy change in the region after the U.S. discovery of the large domestic shale gas reserves.
In fact, he alluded to his support for hard power policy in the region when dealing with countries like Iran.
“The only time in [its] last 10 years or so that Iran raised [its] hands and said that they wanted to talk to us was in 2003 when we invaded Iraq,” Fraker said. “They thought we’re going to the other side and invade Iran as well. These are the hard realities of what works and doesn’t work in that part of the world.” Although he admitted the conflict-deterrent effect of the U.S. military presence in the region, he didn’t necessarily support any military action that could destabilize the regional peace and the global oil price.
Talking about the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia, he expressed his specific concern about the structural unemployment. His concern largely comes from the ratio of limited job opportunities to the largely growing intelligent “youth bulge.”
Currently, there are 70,000 Saudi Arabians studying at advanced American institutions. These students have extended their education to M.A.s and Ph.D.s because there are no jobs in Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, Fraker said such a large number is a temporary policy result while the king is reforming the education system for the long-term. Although Abdullah has shown efforts to reform, Fraker expressed skepticism because educational reform in the long-term could eventually destabilize the leadership of the country.