From Newsday — 2 May 2004
HOUSE OF BUSH, HOUSE OF SAUD: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties, by Craig Unger. Scribner, 356 pp., $26.
BY JAMES RUPERT, STAFF WRITER
Amid the rain of books from this year’s stormy convergence of war and election, Craig Unger’s work bids Americans take note that our ruling family has been comfortably and dangerously in bed with the Sauds, owners of oil supplies on which we depend.
This is dangerous, in part, because at home the Saudi royal family is in bed with the leaders of the puritanical Wahhabi sect, which helps the family keep power and which heavily favors the militant jihadism of Osama bin Laden.
The Saud-Bush relationship is “an open secret that in some ways … [is] as obvious as the proverbial elephant in the living room,” Unger writes. In other words, it is as clear as the Saudi role in the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan-Bush years, the 1990s BCCI scandal and the roaring success of the Washington-based investment firm The Carlyle Group.
This elephant has been visible only in disparate pieces, half understood and two-thirds forgotten from a knotty tangle of newspaper stories, corporate scandals and congressional investigations. In America’s political living room, it’s an animal so much a part of the background that we’ve stopped noticing it, if indeed we ever really started.
Unger, a former deputy editor of the New York Observer and an investigative magazine writer, painstakingly assembles the scattered public facts and fills in blank spots with new reporting. Suddenly, the Bush-Saud entanglement is a readable story, an elephant visible and odorous.
In the end, it should come as no surprise to Americans that the House of Bush (including family friends, allies and appointees such as former President George H.W. Bush’s right-hand man, James Baker) is a big, if always indirect, business partner of the Saudi royal family. We’ve fretted for decades about our domestic problem of revolving doors between government and big business, between the wings of the military-industrial complex. In a globalized economy, this practice simply won’t remain a purely at-home issue.
Unger recalls that in the 1970s, Texas’ tiring oil fields were finally giving up their role as the world’s “swing” producer of petroleum, the one always able to pump a little more when the market needed it. Saudi Arabia inherited that position, and Saudis flocked to Houston to learn the business and to invest – for profit and for influence.
Saudis close to the royal family bought into businesses with Texans close to the Bush family – always maintaining that degree of separation but starting a broad, deep pool of partnerships and financial favors that can only amount to a conflict of interest for the presidents Bush, their allies and appointees.
One example: As he led a string of troubled oil-exploration companies in the 1980s, George W. Bush was repeatedly bailed out by investors eager for face time with the son of a sitting vice president. The influence-seekers were at first Americans but soon included Saudis close to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), the kingdom’s favorite bank for its secret dealings. By 1990, with his company, Harken Energy, pumped up by help from Saudis and Bahrain (and in the face of Harken’s lawyers warning against insider trading), Bush made a killing by selling $850,000 in stock.
Unger’s digging – through press clippings, government documents, congressional investigations and interviews with players in this game – is assiduous, and at 3 1/2 footnotes per page, he is careful to let the reader follow his sourcing. The effort yields no smoking guns, no singular revelations about Harken or The Carlyle Group or other partnerships that connect U.S. and Saudi political elites. But it documents the conflict of interest and its dangers.
Unger is reaching to prove more: “that, horrifying as it sounds, the secret relationship between these two great families helped to trigger the Age of Terror and give rise to the tragedy of 9/11.” Here, Unger’s success is not so clear. He argues that President George W. Bush’s family interest in keeping good relations with the Saudis, and his personal friendship with Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar, blinded Bush to the possibility that the Saudi nation was breeding terrorists and led the president to treat Saudis with excessive deference even after Sept. 11, 2001.
Unger hopes to drive the point home with this story: In the days after the 9/11 hijackings, when all civilian air traffic was grounded in the United States, top U.S. officials approved a series of flights to fly out 140 Saudis, including more than 20 members of Osama bin Laden’s family. “A global manhunt of unprecedented proportions was under way. Thousands of people had just been killed by Osama bin Laden. Didn’t it make sense to at least interview his relatives and other Saudis who, inadvertently or not, may have aided him?”
The clincher, Unger says, is that Passenger No. 1 on those flights, Prince Ahmed bin Salman, later was fingered by a key al-Qaida leader, Abu Zubaydah, as the royal family’s liaison with bin Laden – and as a man who had known in advance that there would be an attack on America on 9/11.
But this stunning tidbit is one of several places where Unger’s carefully built case has strayed onto thinner ice. The Abu Zubaydah account (published only by author Gerald Posner, relying on two unidentified U.S. government sources) is deeply controversial, as Unger concedes. At other spots, Unger relies on a bin Laden biography by Yossef Bodansky, a writer who doesn’t bother identifying his sources at all.
Unger has performed a clear public service by laying out the Bush-Saud relationship and demanding that we see it as a problem that requires an accounting. If the book didn’t stretch to the (possible but unproven) thesis that the relationship helped cause 9/11, it would be a more uniformly impressive piece of investigation. And it would sell fewer copies.
Copyright © Newsday, Inc. 2004