Saudi Arabia has long been a paradox. Although the country is a primary oil supplier to the U.S., many Americans cannot find it on a map. It is still governed by medieval political institutions and Wahhabism, an obscurantist and often anti-Western doctrine of Islam. Yet American military support remains crucial to the survival of the Saudi dynasty.
A soon-to-be-released congressional report on 9/11 is expected to detail U.S. knowledge of Saudi financial backing for terrorists. The fact that Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens has focused attention on the kingdom's role as a breeding ground for religious extremism. So former CIA agent Robert Baer's new book, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude (Crown; 226 pages), is nothing if not timely. It offers a picture of the Saudi royal family as degenerate, dangerous and doomed.
To Baer, the clan is "as violent and vengeful as any Mafia family," and the monarchy is "hanging on by a thread." There are alleged kickbacks by bin Laden family businesses to Saudi overlords and princes living large as the kingdom's 23 million people endure a steady decline in their living standard. Baer cites data indicating that the Saudis funneled half a billion dollars to al-Qaeda over a decade, while Wahhabi-controlled religious schools indoctrinated a new generation of fanatics.
Baer catalogs the Saudis' bipartisanship in spreading their cash around Washington. Attempts to cozy up to Bill Clinton and Al Gore are exceeded only by financial ties to George H.W. Bush and attempts to win favor with his son's Administration.
According to Baer, the Saudis can do no right. Even when they sink a trillion dollars into U.S. banks, he sees only potential blackmail and warns of dire consequences if the money is ever withdrawn. Or when the Saudis help the U.S. by keeping a lid on oil prices, he labels the assistance nothing more than blood money. Baer argues, somewhat implausibly, that the monarchy's demise is imminent. In that event, he suggests--even more implausibly--that the U.S. seriously con-sider a military takeover of the oil fields.
The CIA, which routinely reviews books written by former employees (and feels no great love for Baer, whose best seller, See No Evil, excoriated the agency), says the author has violated his secrecy oath by revealing such pieces of information as the alleged attempt by the Saudi Interior Minister to have a prominent dissident assassinated.
Baer dedicates the book to murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, for "his courage and relentless search for the truth." But truth contains many more shades of gray than Baer is prepared to acknowledge. The Saudis are not the first useful but troubled American ally. And they are unlikely to be the last. --By Adam Zagorin