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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1991, Page 57


Charles W. Freeman US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

By Richard H. Curtiss

By moving rapidly to increase its own oil production after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last August, Saudi Arabia prevented the US recession "from becoming far worse," says US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles W. Freeman Jr. "The Saudis did it with remarkable speed and efficiency, to such an extent that the war ended with world oil supplies in a state of glut," the US envoy declared in a March interview in the Saudi capital.

"They did it at great expense and they did it largely on their own. We all ought to be grateful because, by doing that, they prevented the recession which currently is in progress from becoming far worse than it would have been had they chosen to maximize their profits from higher oil prices."

Remarkable Successes

Instead, Freeman adds, "Saudi Arabia probably extended somewhere between $8 billion and $10 billion in emergency economic assistance" to countries economically damaged by the Iraqi invasion and the resulting embargo, such as Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Morocco, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The US diplomat said such Saudi-US cooperation is "one of the most remarkable success stories" of what he calls "Saddam's War."

"Most people don't realize that the Royal Saudi Air Force, which operated right alongside the US Air Force from the beginning of the air war in mid-January, actually flew the second largest number of sorties—twice the number of sorties flown by the British," Freeman said. It is just one of the little-known facts he is pleased to report at the war's conclusion.

Another is the extent of responsibility assumed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when the US asked it for "host nation support." Saudi Arabia provided the fuel, water, accommodations and transport needed by US forces on Saudi soil.

"Probably, that cost them something like $3 billion in 1990 alone," Ambassador Freeman estimates. "By the time the air war began, Saudi Arabia had become one of the world's largest, if not the largest, importer of refined petroleum products in order to supply jet fuel for the coalition air forces.

"And, when we asked them to defray the costs of the combat situation, they agreed to provide $13.5 billion for the first quarter of 1991 for the US treasury," the ambassador adds. "Now I would like to think that the embassy, and the good working relationship we have with the Saudis, the confidence we have in each other, helped to produce those results, although they were achieved principally during visits by Secretary of State James Baker and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney."

Freeman, considered one of the "whiz kids" of the State Department after he entered the foreign service in 1965, is brilliant at painting the big picture by sketching in the details. They reveal an embassy under such pressures as visits by both the president and vice president, but determined that the extraordinary burdens of Desert Shield and Desert Storm should strengthen, not fray, traditionally close bonds between Saudi Arabia and the US.

"Over the same seven-month period in which we were dealing with all of those other issues, we became the world's most visited military theme park," he notes. "The secretary of state came in and out seven times, of which four were periods of intensive activity; the secretary of defense visited four times; the secretary of the treasury came once; something on the order of 40 percent of the Senate visited, many of them coming back for several visits; and nearly a third of the House of Representatives visited, some of them coming three or four times during that period. There were also hosts of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, and Bob Hope and Steve Martin, among others."

Clearly such extraordinary events did not faze Charles ("Chas.") Freeman, whose foreign service career was remarkably varied even before he arrived in Saudi Arabia in November 1989. In fact, because of an unusual education and his family's emphasis on learning foreign languages, he might have seemed "over-qualified" at the time he chose a diplomatic calling.

Born in Rhode Island, his elementary schooling was in a newly established and highly innovative school in the Bahamas, where his father was in business.

"One of my teachers was an avowed communist, a World War II Royal Air Force flying ace taught me Greek and Latin, and another of my teachers was arrested as a Nazi war criminal while I was present in his classroom," Freeman recalls. When he returned with his family at age 13 to the United States, he was admitted to the 12th grade of an American high school. He chose to drop back, however, and as a result had two complete secondary educations, one British and one American. They qualified him for four years on scholarship at Yale University, studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and the Harvard Law School.

After foreign service assignments in India and Taiwan, Freeman was assigned to the State Department's China desk. He was the principal interpreter during President Richard Nixon's ground-breaking visit to the People's Republic of China in 1972. After a year as resident scholar at Harvard's East Asian Legal Research Center, he served as State Department Deputy Director for Republic of China (Taiwan) affairs; and in two directorships in the State Department's Bureau of Public Affairs.

This led to a year with the US Information Agency as Director of Program Coordination and Development, then to his assignment as Deputy United States Coordinator for Refugee Affairs. This was followed by two overseas assignments as deputy chief of mission in Beijing and then Bangkok. In 1986, he was named principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, where he served until he was named US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Along the way, Ambassador Freeman acquired formal ratings in Chinese, French and Spanish and a working knowledge of Portuguese and Italian. "I've always made a practice of trying to learn the language wherever I've been," he explains. "I didn't do as well as I would like to have done with Tamil, in South India, but I did learn Mandarin at the interpreter level, Taiwanese, and Thai, although I've lost much of it, and I've worked hard at Arabic."

He offers several reasons for his success at languages: "I like languages and I'm interested and I just worked hard at it. There's also a tradition on my mother's side of the family of speaking a foreign language at the dinner table a couple of nights a week, and that's gone on for six generations. I've tried to continue it with all of my children." Ambassador Freeman and his wife, the former Patricia Trenery, have three children and a granddaughter.

Even before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait last Aug. 2, the US Embassy in Riyadh, in the ambassador's words, "had its complexities. In addition to the normal agencies that you would expect to find in a major capital State, USIA, Foreign Commercial Service, Foreign Agricultural Service, Defense Attache's office, etc., we have three prominent military commands which are under the authority of the chief of mission here. The US Military Training Command, which is numbered in the hundreds of officers, has been engaged for some time in training different elements of the Saudi armed forces.

"In addition, we have a long-standing training relationship, again with officers numbering several hundred, with the Saudi National Guard, which is a distinct service based upon a tribal levy, which has a modernized component and which is in many respects the very successful creation of Crown Prince Abdulah Bin Abdel Aziz. Finally, we have a small project office for he Corps of Engineers which, over a period of about a dozen years, did $17 billion or so worth of military construction business here during an earlier era, and which now assists the Saudi Ordnance Corps.

"We also have the Federal Aviation Agency, and that is engaged in working with the Saudi civil authorities on a variety of projects ranging from airport security to air traffic control to the building of a civil aviation academy in Saudi Arabia. We've also had a long-standing presence of three to four dozen geologists from the US Geological Survey based in Jiddah, working with the Saudis to map the geology of the Arabian peninsula.

"We have also the joint economic commission, which has shrunk from its earlier days, but which continues to be involved in about 20 projects in Saudi Arabia."

Startling Discoveries

Asked what was his most startling discovery upon assuming direction of the complex US diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia, Ambassador Freeman answers readily:

"I think it was the dissonance between the scale of our interests here and the degree of complacency about them in Washington. On one hand Saudi Arabia has, as we've been reminded recently, about a fourth of the world's oil reserves. We have a relationship going back to 1945, based on energy and security cooperation.

"We have played a key role in the modernization of the Kingdom. Over 100,000 Saudis have studied in the US. At one point, around 1980, there were as many as 80,000 American civilians working here. Now it's fallen to about 27,500. That's still a very substantial presence. This is not the sort of place that people generally choose to come to for idle purposes. They're all here doing serious work and making serious money doing it.

"But, if you looked, as I did when I arrived at the end of 1989, at the relationship from a perspective of 20 years, you could see a kind of underlying erosion of the relationship which I find, personally, disturbing. For example, in 1980, the US had a little over a third, 34 percent, of the Saudi commercial market. By 1989, that had fallen to 16 or 17 percent, or approximately to half of its previous level. Business relationships are, of course, a measure of the health of the broader relationship.

"More disturbing was the extent to which defense cooperation had eroded. In 1980, we had over 60 percent of the Saudi military foreign procurement. By 1989, this had fallen to around 10 percent ... One has to mention also the lost business that went to the British and others who were not strained politically as we had been.

"But more disturbing still was the looming possibility that we would cease to be interactable with the Saudi armed forces. in many respects, we are fortunate that the crises from Aug. 2, 1990 to March 2, 1991 occurred when they did, because three or four years later, in the process of the erosion of the Saudi defense relationship, we would have found it far more difficult to set ourselves up here and operate so efficiently with the host nation ...

"The final point which struck me was that with the tremendous construction of universities which had gone on and the turn away from undergraduate education abroad, you had a very large university-level student population here not being exposed to the United States, or to Western values in general, and which was in many respects more inward-looking, more conservative, more traditional in its mentality than its parents, who had been educated primarily in the US and in Europe.

"So, on the other hand, the generation which is rapidly moving up into top positions here, people in their late 30s, 40s or early 50s, were educated in the US and, as I said, there were 100,000 of them. Since my arrival, I've been casting around, interrupted by the war, for ways of building on this human connection to ensure that our societies don't lose contact with each other, and that the understanding that this generation has for the US is communicated to R. Curtiss the next generation.

"I think there is the basis for some very innovative cultural exchange and institution building—by Saudis, not by Americans. But, inevitably, we have to play a role in stimulating, assisting, and facilitating the emergence of those institutions.

"I think the Saudi private sector has a great deal to offer. There's no reason we have to have a government institution ... This is a country with 100,000 alumni of American universities, many of them quite wealthy, and many of them with very fond feelings for their alma maters ...

"I'm hoping that, before I leave, if the Saudis are interested in this kind of thing, we can develop that kind of linkage on a more organized basis than exists. One shouldn't overstate this because of course the Saudis overstate this because of course the Saudis who went to school in the US in many cases have houses there, vacation homes, and they take their kids to the US for vacation ... They certainly have a knowledge of and affection for the United States, its people and its places which they're proud to pass on to the next generation."

Asked about the effects of the war on the relationship, Ambassador Freeman first pays tribute to the "model " relationships between the embassy and the US Central Command at all levels. They "probably deserve to be studied as one of the great success stories behind the scenes of this entire seven-month period of Saddam's war," he says.

Similarly, he reports, "The friction between Saudis, either at the government or on a private level, and Americans in the military has been phenomenally low and almost non-existent ... One area of great concern when the deployment began was to avoid friction between people of very different outlooks and religious heritages and backgrounds.

"We managed to find a basis by which what we needed to have done for our troops could be done without offending the Saudis, and vice versa. That is a major achievement and probably unique in the history of American armed forces overseas deployments. I knock on wood and hope that the redeployment out of here is as smooth as the last seven months have been. "

A major problem for the embassy's relationship with the large American community was the "extreme stress for everyone here" over "the possibility of chemical and biological warfare—not simply against troops but against civilian targets in the Kingdom, " Freeman says. The issue "culminated in the 42 Scuds that were fired at Saudi Arabia from Jan. 17th through the end of February. "

High Praise for the GCC

The US envoy has high praise for the role of all six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

"When you look at the performance of the Saudis and the other Gulf countries, the Kuwaitis and the Emirates in particular, it was an essential ingredient of the success of the coalition, and they provided this unstintingly."

As for the future, the US ambassador says that Saudi Arabia is "the principal member of the GCC, which everyone seems to see as the core of regional security, financial and economic assistance. Working with the Saudis, therefore, to define post-crisis security and economic institutions and relationships is going to be a main focus of our work here ... I have every reason to believe that we share a broad range of interests with the Saudis, and that we will be breaking new ground in many respects as we define relationships for the remainder of the '90s, and into the next century.

"I think it is extremely important that the goodwill we have gained by demonstrating our reliability as a security partner of the Saudis be consolidated and capitalized on by trying to rebuild the business relationship which has languished in the 1980s ... I think we need to find ways to ensure that the victory that we and the Saudis have achieved in this war with Saddam bears commercial fruit. A great deal of my time during the coming year or so is going to be spent trying to do that.

"A key area of challenge is that Saudi Arabia has spent around $60 billion on this war effort, which is the equivalent of around 60 percent of its gross domestic product ... This leaves the Saudi public sector temporarily strained ... The basic economy, however, is sound. There is a lot of liquid capital available to the Saudi private sector. This should help the Saudis through this period of public sector restraint, and what I hope will be private sector exuberant expansion ...

"There has to be some re-examination by the Saudis and other Gulf countries of some of the impediments to trade and investment with the region. These include areas like dispute settlement mechanisms, which are not satisfactory by international standards. They include greater respect for international intellectual property rights, and they include streamlining procedures for approving investment and identifying opportunities for investment. These are all things in which perhaps the private sector can take the lead, but in which the government must play a very important supportive role."

Asked whether Saudi Arabia has expressed to the US government the need for renewed efforts to settle the Israeli-Palestine problem, Ambassador Freeman noted:

"These concerns are very much apparent across the board and at every level of Saudi society. Clearly, one of the lessons that the Saudis have drawn from the whole experience of Saddam's war is that they have to be careful in picking their friends in the Arab world. Many countries to which they have been extraordinarily generous over the years with foreign assistance and political support turned out to be ... hostile to their basic national survival as a state, and as a deeply religious and traditional polity ...

"But fundamental concerns which Saudi policy has tried to address over the years have not gone away. And, specifically with reference to the Palestine issue, or related issues like the status of Jerusalem, which is a religious question of great concern to pious Muslims, I don't think the concern is any less. In fact, in some ways Saddam's war may have brought out an even greater concern, although it can be addressed in a different way ...

"I think it will be addressed by the Saudis in the future not in terms of the shibboleths of Arab unity and not in terms of identification with some lowest common denominator position in the Arab world, but in terms of Saudi national interests. Most of the Saudis seem to me to recognize that if conciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians could be achieved, and if Israel could find a respectable place in the region with its neighbors—that is, a peace with its neighbors one of the major beneficiaries of this would be the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its people.

"This is because it would then no longer be possible for one Arab country to invade another and claim it was doing so on the road to liberating the Palestinians from Israeli occupation ... I expect the Saudis, in their own discreet and clever manner, will be active partners with other members of the coalition, Syria and Egypt in particular, who are equally concerned to see the issues of peace between Israel and its neighbors, and peace between Israelis and Palestinians, achieved ...

"I guess I would conclude this answer to the question you asked by saying it is a mistake to assume that the collapse of confidence in the current Palestinian leadership means any less dedication on the part of the average Saudi or the government of Saudi Arabia to addressing basic Palestinian grievances and the basic issues of Palestinian nationalism. These issues are going to be pursued by the Saudis in the future as they have been in the past. "

Returning again to the lessons of the Gulf war, Ambassador Freeman stresses that "we cannot afford to lose any operability with the Saudis. We have to work out new arrangements to backstop their ability to deter aggression and defend against it, and we will be redefining the Saudi defense relationship even as we work on the broader Gulf security issues to ensure that if, God forbid, we ever have to do anything like this again, we can do it with greater ease and less wear and tear on both of us.

"So we will be looking hard, with the Saudis, at how we can assist them to raise the threshold at which they have to call for help, and then make it easier for the help to get here if it comes to that."