- Desert Diplomat: Inside Saudi Arabia following 9/11 by Robert W. Jordan
The attacks of September 11, 2001, presented a serious challenge to the longstanding and close relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Not only were 15 of the 19 hijackers Saudi nationals, but the mastermind, Usama Bin Ladin, was Saudi too. Many Americans continue to believe that Saudi royals were complicit in the attacks either through their funding of al-Qa‘ida or by promoting the radical Islamic ideology in whose name the attacks were undertaken. The memoir under review is by Robert Jordan, a political appointee who served as the US ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from October 2001 until October 2003. In this memoir, he details his role in salvaging the relationship between the two countries after 9/11, and provides a personal account of what was entailed in representing the United States in Riyadh during this turbulent period. Until his appointment, Ambassador Jordan had been a successful lawyer and partner at the renowned Texas law firm of Baker Botts LLP. He is a friend and admirer of the extended Bush family and had successfully represented George W. Bush in a federal securities investigation prior to the 43rd president’s embarking on a political career.
President George W. Bush needed someone like Ambassador Jordan whom he could trust to serve in Riyadh as a “point man” during this tumultuous time. This became all the more important once President Bush decided to invade Iraq and realized that this required Saudi logistical and political support, in particular the use of the Kingdom’s territory and military bases. The Saudis, for their part, have always insisted that the serving US ambassador in Riyadh be a personal friend of the president — person who could pick up the phone directly to the White House, or in Ambassador Jordan’s words “someone who has the president’s ear.” The Saudis realize that the ambassador must be capable of short-circuiting the Washington bureaucrats [End Page 164] to be certain their views are being conveyed. That President Barack Obama’s ambassadors to Riyadh have not been such personal friends perhaps explains in part at least why US-Saudi relations have not been good during most of his presidency.
In Ambassador Jordan’s account, the Saudis were initially in denial about al-Qa‘ida’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks, but they soon came around to becoming full partners in the fight against Islamic extremism, especially after al-Qa‘ida’s terrorist attacks in Riyadh in 2003. He asserts that no senior Saudi official or royal had anything to do with 9/11, and urges the publication of the 28 redacted pages of the congressional report on the events (pp. 121, 128). On the Saudi side, the prince leading the counterterrorism effort was (and still is) Muhammad bin Nayif, who is now both crown prince and interior minister. Prince Muhammad is depicted as a highly competent and sympathetic person, interacting positively with US intelligence officials on a variety of matters from counterterrorism to terror financing. Ambassador Jordan provides colorful portraits of other royals, including the late King ‘Abdullah, the princes Saud Al Faisal, Bandar bin Sultan, and Khalid bin Sultan, as well as the tycoon Al-Waleed bin Talal. The ambassador delved into the world of Saudi politics and became friends with a number of leading businessmen. He provides many revealing and at times humorous anecdotes. The late Prince Saud Al Faisal, who was foreign minister, comes across as particularly brilliant and prescient in that he gave dire warnings about the dangers of the invasion of Iraq and predicted the country’s eventual fall under Iranian influence (pp. 81–83). What emerges from all the stories is a portrait of a political system in which the personal connection remains paramount for getting anything accomplished, and institutions matter little.
More revealing still is Ambassador Jordan’s description of the dysfunctional and highly divided Bush Administration. He takes sides...