House of Saud and Fog

Dallas oilman Jim Oberwetter, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has been keeping a low profile; a Lexis-Nexis search of U.S. newspapers and wire services for the last 90 days shows little mention of him. "That's probably a good thing," says Rachel Bronson, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If he was very vocal, he wouldn't have the trust of anybody."

Bronson appeared in town yesterday at a World Affairs Council luncheon to talk about her new book, Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia, published by Oxford University Press. Just the day before, Oberwetter's counterpart, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the new Saudi ambassador to the United States, let loose with his opinion that the U.S. hadn't devoted enough resources to the capture of Osama bin-Laden. "The Saudis have been very concerned about Osama bin-Laden," Bronson says. "They see Iraq as a distraction." (At this point, who doesn't?)

Hunt Oil exec Oberwetter was appointed by Bush in 2004, even though he didn't speak Arabic. Bronson met him early in his tenure. "He was clearly very determined to learn a lot about the kingdom," Bronson said. "He had good people around him."

In her book, Bronson discusses how the end of the Cold War and the kingdom's previous support of radical Islam has frayed the long-standing relationship between the House of Saud and the U.S. Those power shifts and the rise of al-Qaeda make Oberwetter a key player in Middle East foreign policy.

"He's had a lot of hot-button issues to manage to make sure splits don't emerge between the U.S. and the Saudis," Bronson says. "There's been a big flap around visas. He's been real involved in that. I'm sure he's very active in some of the Iran discussions between the U.S. and the Saudis."

But it's been impossible for Oberwetter to be as visible as his predecessor Robert Jordan (also from Dallas) because of security fears. "Ambassadors in many ways are the eyes and ears on the ground to understand what's going on in the kingdom for the White House," Bronson says. "But it's very hard now for any U.S. ambassador to get out and about." --Glenna Whitley

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