Washington Ambassadors come and go like the seasons along the Potomac. But the arrival in a few days of Prince Turki al Faisal as Saudi Arabia's new envoy should not pass you by, Mr., Mrs. and Ms. America.
Turki's views will interest not only Condoleezza Rice's State Department and the Bush White House but also ordinary Americans angry over soaring energy bills, anxious over the war in Iraq and perplexed by the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The prince will have something to say - or at least he will have to say something - about these problems.
American-Saudi relations are again at one of their perpetual turning points, it is being whispered along Embassy Row: Choices have to be made, strategies implemented, institutions at last emphasized over personalities - that is, over the cozy, subtly corrupting intimacy that Turki's predecessor, Bandar bin Sultan, practiced with consenting American presidents for two decades.
It will not be that simple. This strategic relationship has become as tangled, as dangerous to both parties and as inexorable as a deadlocked marriage in which the needs of survival have long since replaced values or sentiment as the binding force. Divorce is as impossible as reconciliation.
The kingdom provides abundant supplies of oil that help keep American (and European, Asian and other) cars running and houses warmed. It is also the original home of bin Laden and his al-Qaida ideology. There is no way to avoid either the oil need or the consequences of the destructive Wahhabi Islamic ideology that spins from Saudi Arabia to fuel terrorism throughout the Greater Middle East.
And Turki - as austere, enigmatic and complex as Bandar was flamboyant, gregarious and boisterously manipulative - will have to navigate his way through a spreading global energy crisis, which outwardly recalls the tensions triggered by the 1973 Saudi-led Arab oil embargo against the United States.
Today's energy squeeze differs fundamentally from the scares of 1973 and 1979 and will be harder to resolve - even if it poses the same fundamental choice for the United States: Is it better to cooperate with or confront the oil producers, led by Saudi Arabia?
Three decades ago, the United States chose confrontation. It led a campaign to unite industrial nations in stockpiling crude oil reserves and pressed developing countries to shame the OPEC cartel into recycling huge waves of petrodollars flowing to its members. The confrontational strategy is clearly and proudly described in Henry Kissinger's diplomatic memoir, "Years of Renewal."
That strategy helped produce a 30-year fix that only now is breaking down. The proliferation of billionaires on Wall Street and of gas-guzzling SUVs and other energy-wasting luxuries in American cities testify that gasoline and energy in general remained all too affordable in the long period of relative calm in world oil and financial markets that the strategy of confrontation helped produce.
The earlier energy crises were tests of political will in which confrontation was a useful tool. This time the shortages that have driven gasoline and crude oil prices to record levels stem from multiple sources. They include the laws of global supply and demand being bent out of shape by the industrialization of China and India and natural disasters on the Gulf Coast. But paramount are the failures to build new refineries in the United States, and the failures to practice conservation and to develop alternative energy sources.
Out of necessity and temperament, the Bush administration is exploring new cooperation with oil producers rather than forging a new consumer cartel or encouraging alternative energy sources. The White House is discussing with at least one wealthy oil-exporting nation new joint-venture refineries that might be located on abandoned military bases on U.S. soil or possibly abroad.
Heard this song before? Yes, this is a variation on the "oil for industry" plan outlined in 1972 by Saudi Arabia's then-oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani. It also echoes Yamani's later efforts to strike a global North-South compact of consumers and producers to stabilize prices and investments. At the time, the U.S. rejected both.
Now, a cooperative broad vision on energy may be an idea whose time has finally come. It could provide an opportunity to welcome Turki al Faisal to his new post.
But the prince must also be reminded that oil alone cannot be the answer. The relationship will remain troubled and imperiled as long as Saudi Arabia fails to eliminate the sources of the global terrorism that springs from within its archaic social conditions and its access to vast hidden stores of petrodollars that, ultimately, only his family controls.