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Given the stakes, both countries need to figure out a way. Hundreds of Saudis fought alongside the Taliban against the U.S. in Afghanistan last year. More than one-third of the 350 hard-core fighters being held by the U.S. in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are Saudi nationals. Billions of dollars from wealthy Saudis have funded anti-American and anti-Israel terrorist groups and helped establish radical schools worldwide that foment Islamic militancy, including the madrasahs in Pakistan that produced the Taliban. Americans hardly expect that kind of treatment from their worst enemies--let alone their oldest strategic partner in the Arab world, which has relied on U.S. soldiers for more than a decade to protect it against Iraq's Saddam Hussein. But Saudi Arabia controls 30% of the world's known oil reserves. And so for years, in the interest of maintaining the world's supply of crude, Washington has ignored evidence that the ruling Sauds are allowing the country's powerful religious leaders to propagate anti-Western hate. "If the Saudis sold onions instead of oil," says Gregory Gause, a Saudi expert at the University of Vermont, "we would be talking about how to isolate them."
Should the U.S. not be talking about that anyway? In the aftermath of Sept. 11, it's worth asking whether America truly still needs the Saudis. In economic and strategic terms, the U.S. can probably manage without them. Saudi Arabia today provides only 8% of the oil consumed by Americans. It accounts for 15% of the U.S.'s crude-oil imports, less than half the amount the U.S. imports from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela. That's a far cry from the 25% figure for 1973, when the Saudis, piqued by Israel's victory in that year's war, embargoed oil sales to the U.S. and prompted a 70% rise in crude prices. The Saudis' vast reserves give them the power to manage the worldwide price of oil, making them critical to the smooth running of the global economy. But with promising new oil sources opening up in Russia and Central Asian states like Kazakh- stan and Azerbaijan, the U.S. has alternatives it didn't have in 1973. Oil-industry analysts believe that cutting the flow of Saudi oil to the U.S. would be painful--but far from fatal--to the U.S. economy.
Because of its size and clout in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia is capable of playing a role in the Middle East peace process. President Bush consults regularly with Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the Saudis' influence is limited. Though Abdullah has dangled normalized relations with Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state, only Washington has the credibility to drag the two sides to the negotiating table.