Navigate to News section

The Arab Lobby

A new book explores the ‘petrodiplomatic complex’ and Saudi influence on U.S. foreign policy

Lee Smith
September 01, 2010
A meeting of Arab foreign ministers at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., 2007.(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
A meeting of Arab foreign ministers at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., 2007.(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the characteristic laments of the Arab intelligentsia in both Washington and the Middle East concerns the inability of Arab nations to make their cases to the U.S. public. If only the Arabs weren’t so divided, the refrain goes; if only they better explained themselves and the plight of the Palestinians; if only the Arabs were as clever as the Jews; if only there was an Arab lobby as powerful as the Israel lobby.

But there is an Arab lobby in the United States—one as old as, if not older than, the Israel lobby, and it has helped to shape U.S. foreign policy and economic life since the end of World War II. Mitchell Bard’s The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East describes how this Arab lobby—from U.S. foreign service officers, oil companies, Christian anti-Zionists, and Ivy League universities to Gulf Arab states, Arab-American activists and Islamist ideologues—exercises its influence in U.S. politics. The book is already being dismissed by critics as a slapdash attempt by a former AIPAC employee to answer Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s 2007 book, The Israel Lobby. But those who actually read the new book will find a serious and timely look at a powerful and remarkably under-studied influence on U.S. foreign policy.

“Unlike Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, I don’t think it’s illegitimate to lobby for one’s interests,” Bard told me on the phone last week. The executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, Bard wrote his dissertation at UCLA on the limits to domestic influence on U.S. Middle East Policy. “I’ve been writing for more than 20 years about this issue,” he said. “The point of my book is to inform the American public that an Arab lobby exists despite the claims of others that it does not and to explain what its interests are.”

In describing AIPAC’s Arab cousin, Bard draws some useful comparisons between the two lobbies, which are not as similar as one might imagine from his book’s title. AIPAC is a grassroots organization funded by U.S. citizens that represents the broad sentiment of Christians and Jews who are interested in one issue—protecting and promoting the U.S.-Israel relationship. The Arab lobby, by comparison, has little organic U.S. backing and divides its efforts between two causes—oil and Palestine. The former is managed in Washington by what Bard calls the “petrodiplomatic complex” of former U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers, politicians, and defense executives. Funded by oil companies, the weapons industry, and Arab energy producers, mainly Saudi Arabia, it enjoys virtually unlimited financial resources. For instance, AIPAC’s annual operating budget is $60 million a year—pocket change to a Saudi prince, like Alwaleed Bin Talal, who in 2005 gave $20 million apiece to Georgetown and Harvard.

The Palestinian issue is paramount to the Arab-American sector of the Arab lobby. However, just as the Palestinians are divided against themselves—between Hamas and Fatah, among contending Fatah factions, as well as among competing clans—it is not the Palestinian cause that unites the Arabs or Arab-Americans but anti-Israel sentiment. The same goes for many of the Arab lobby’s domestic anti-Zionist partners, some of whom are motivated by religious conviction, especially the Presbyterians, and others by political ideology, but all of whom can agree on disliking first the idea and then the reality of a Jewish state.

The Arab lobby’s Palestine agenda, then, tends to be negative and, as Bard writes, “aimed at undermining the US-Israel relationship,” only rarely promoting a positive vision of a Palestinian state as a regional beacon of social justice or economic development, or defending the rights of Palestinian journalists, Christians, or other endangered social groups against the threats of the Palestinian political leadership. This part of the Arab lobby, writes Bard, “is small and mostly impotent.”

The real power is in the hands of the Arab lobby’s oil sector, the role of which is to keep the Arab oil producers happy by ensuring that Americans stay addicted to oil, that the defense industry keeps its production lines open, and that the image of Arab states stays polished, even for state sponsors of terror, like Saudi Arabia, and states whose rule is founded on flagrant social inequalities, the torture of dissidents and unbelievers, and other practices that most Americans rightly find abhorrent.

Surely the most depressing aspect of Bard’s book is his depiction of the craven subservience of so many U.S. diplomats and officials to the Saudi royal family. “Even when the Saudis had no money, and they only started to pump oil,” Bard told me, “a fear permeated the State Department that if we didn’t give in to them, we would lose our interest there. And the Saudis were clever about exploiting our fear. First they said they’d go with the British instead of us, then they threatened that they’d go with the Soviet Union, even as they portrayed themselves as anti-Communist and said they needed U.S. weapons to defend themselves against Moscow.”

Bard says that the Saudis are using the Iran threat now in similar ways. “The U.S. knows that in the end we have to defend the royal family,” he said. “The Saudis just want the latest toys and act like petulant children until they get them. Then the U.S. tells the Israelis not to worry when they sell the Saudis weapons because they can’t use them, but we go to Congress and say Riyadh needs these arms for their defense.”

With all the demands for U.S. presidents to pressure Israel, it’s worth noting that U.S. officials have rarely done anything but accommodate the Saudis. The one striking exception, as Bard notes, was John F. Kennedy’s demand that Saudi Arabia abolish slavery. Typically, U.S.-Saudi relations have been conducted in the dark, a trend that started in July 1945, when President Harry Truman approved construction of the Dhahran air base using existing War Department funds to evade congressional oversight. This became a precedent for keeping most of the U.S.-Saudi relationship secret, or at least beyond public scrutiny. For years, the U.S. government acceded to the wishes of the Saudis and other Gulf states to conceal information about Arab investments in the United States, and even U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia were classified between 1950 and 1972.

Today the unspoken issue is Saudi support for terror. Were U.S. officials to complain about how the kingdom funds jihad against the United States and its allies, “there’s a fear,” says Bard, “that the Saudis may punish us by withdrawing some of their billions of dollars in investments, cut U.S. companies out of deals to explore for gas or oil, or take other measures to damage our interests.”

Nor are the Saudis shy about promising to unleash jihad against those who cross their path, as when they threatened the British government when it was investigating the unsavory details of a Saudi arms purchase from a British weapons maker.

Given the nature of the Saudi regime, it is little wonder that the oil lobby prefers to work in the shadows. As one publicist explained in laying out his PR strategy for Riyadh: “Saudi Arabia has a need to influence the few that influence the many, rather than the need to influence the many to whom the few must respond.”

“This is a fairly smart lobbying tactic,” Bard told me. “It is very difficult to take a democratic approach, when most people don’t take your position.”

The story of the Arab lobby is also a story about Washington, more specifically an influential segment of the U.S. political elite that has contempt for the rubes who don’t understand that it is in the U.S. national interest to lean on the Zionists in order to make the Middle East’s Muslim Arab majority happy.

Bard believes that the Arabs and their Washington handlers were spitting in the wind of a post-World War II history that had turned in favor of the Jews. The Arabs, Bard writes, were “convinced that the United States supported the Zionists because of their propaganda. … Consequently, [the Arabs] never understood the depth of Americans’ feeling for the justness of the Zionist cause.”

Perhaps that is true, but it’s worth remembering that at the same time the Zionists succeeded in lobbying the Truman Administration to support a Jewish state, there was still widespread anti-Semitism throughout America, even as the horrors of the Final Solution were becoming known to the general public. It is comforting to believe that the 63 percent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, who side with Israel rather than the Palestinians are now and will always be stalwart friends of the Jews. But in the end all we know for certain about Americans is that they can smell what stinks. The Saudi lobby pays Washington power-brokers to talk over the heads of ordinary Americans because the latter have enough horse sense to know that a regime that withholds the rights of women as well as those of its Shia minority, outlaws the practice of Christianity and Judaism, and promotes anti-American causes is not in any meaningful sense of the term a U.S. ally.

As Bard’s book documents, the Saudis’ well-paid American agents have been making the same arguments for 60 years. The reason their message is not getting through is not that Americans are stupid and susceptible to Zionist propaganda or that the Jews who “control” Congress and the media are blocking access to the truth. The majority of Americans haven’t yet joined in the chorus led by Walt, Mearsheimer, and their cohort because Americans simply do not like to be threatened by extortionists who warn that if you don’t do what we say we will turn off your lights and shut down your car engines, and if you don’t change your position on Israel, we will kill you.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.