The United States and Saudi Arabia : a long-lasting, awkward relationship between continuities and breaks

"Secretary Kerry Meets with Saudi King Abdullah (15024220949)" by U.S. Department of State from United States - Secretary Kerry Meets with Saudi King Abdullah. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The refusal from Saudi Arabia to be a temporary member of the UN in the fall of 2013 illustrated the complexity of the relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, this bilateral relationship was strained by the Arab Spring during which Saudi Arabia criticized the Obama administration’s handling of those events. America supported the spread of democracy in the Middle-East, while that spread was not such a good news for Saudi Arabia which is usually criticized for its lack of democracy. However, this does not mean the diplomatic links are about to collapse because it would hurt both countries.

In the light of the recent event that is the death of King Abdullah, this article will explore the ruptures and continuities in the relation between the United States and Saudi Arabia, while putting this relationship of  80 years in a historical perspective, as to get a better sense of the changes that occurred. This article will first show how the relation was constructed over 80 years ago and consolidated; then it will focus on King Abdullah’s reign, which corresponded to a major moment in the strengthening of the relationship, and finally that his death is putting a big question mark over this relationship and that some major new events are questioning the sustainability of the strong diplomatic link between the two countries.

From a sandcastle to the black gold Kingdom: the establishment of a strategic relationship with the US

    At the end of World War I, in the upheaval created by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Ibn Saud – son of Abdul Raiman Bin Faisal, the last rulers of the second Saudi State (1819-1891), struck an agreement with the British that would protect what is the current Saudi territory. Thanks to its diplomatic consent, he avoided any involvement in World War I and thus built a strong army: the Ikhwan. In 1924, the British abandoned Hussein Sharif  for his lack of tolerance on religion, and he abdicated. Ibn Saud subsequently obtained hegemony and the whole sovereignty of Saudi Arabia.

           In 1932, the kingdom of Ibn Saud, henceforth called Saudi Arabia, became the first entirely independent country of the region with a powerful rank-and-file group of supporters from the Wahhabi Clergy. During the thirties, a permanent feature that survived up to now saw the light of the day in the young State: the link with the United States about oil. Indeed already in 1928 the “red line” agreement split oil exploitation between four firms from the USA, the UK & France. However in 1932, the US broke the agreement by establishing a bilateral treaty with the Saudis. It thus obtained the oil monopoly based on cooperation with the Saudi Arabian Oil Company created in 1933. Exploitation started in 1939.

World War II and mechanization made Americans fully aware of the stakes behind oil supplies.  In February 1945, a meeting was organized between Ibn Saud and Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) on the USS Quincy. FDR obtained Ibn Saud’s insurance on the American oil monopoly in exchange for American protection of both population & territories against the projects of the Arab World, that writhed the Arab elites of the time, and was rejected by Ibn Saud. With the opening of the Dhahran US military base east of Riyad, along the Persian Gulf, it was the beginning of another permanent feature of the US-Saudi Arabia relation: the American protection of Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War, Saudi Arabia became a priority beneficiary of the containment policy. Consequently, Saudi Arabia was protected against both pan-Arabism and Soviet threats. In 1951, a military agreement strengthened this link by providing training support and military construction, while in parallel,  the emergence of the post-war boom in the US made the Saudi oil income increase from five million in 1945, to 260 million in 1954.

FDR Meets with King Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia, on board USS Quincy (CA-71) in the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt, on 14 February 1945.

FDR Meets with King Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia, on board USS Quincy, on 14 February 1945. Public Domain

A break could have been said to occur at the beginning of the reign of King Saud (1953) when, the USA struck alliances with many Saudi foes as part of its anti-communism strategy. In reaction Saudi Arabia and its new King Saud got closer to Nasser’s Egypt. They replaced US forces established on the Saudi territory by Egyptian troops. Despite that cold interlude, the US-Saudi Arabia relation endured. It was even renewed and strengthened with the opposition of Dwight Eisenhower against Israel and the US’s intervention against France & the United Kingdom during the Suez crisis. The military partnership was reinforced and achieved on the field, when in 1963, Egypt invaded Yemen and attacked Saudi Arabia because the Saudis supported Yemenite royalists during Yemen’ civil war. John Fitzgerald Kennedy sent warplanes to stop the invasion. Paradoxically, the 1974 oil embargo of the Saudis on the USA obviously cast a chill between the partners, but it increased the oil income of the Saudis with which they bought American military technologies. In 1975 they signed two billions worth of military contracts with the US.

This partnership was strengthened over and over again until it reached its paroxysm during the second Gulf War (2 August 1990 – 28 February 1991). Considering that oil supply was a matter of homeland security, G. Bush Sr. started the Desert Shield operation to protect Saudi Arabia, then built the Desert Storm coalition to attack Saddam Hussein’s army. Ever since this four-day victory, 5,000 US troops are permanently based in Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah from the regency to the crown: a strong leader committed to maintaining of the bilateral relation

    King Abdullah can be regarded as a key actor of the relation between the US and Saudi Arabia. Although he officially ascended to the throne in August 2005, after the death of King Fahd, Abdullah had been ruling Saudi Arabia since 1995, when he became the regent of the country, after the King, his half-brother, suffered a major stroke. In power since 1995, King Adbullah has thus been in charge in the crucial period following the end of the Cold War, marked by a series of important events and redefinitions in the relation between Saudi Arabia and the US.

    Abdullah was a strong supporter of the relation between the United States and his country for at least two main reasons. First, King Abdullah was supporting the economic liberalisation of Saudi Arabia. Second, the United States was, and still is a key ally of the Saudis regarding defense and military armament. In exchange, the US is granted both oil and a strategic passage in the Middle East, which helped engineer the success of the 1990-1991 Gulf War. However, King Abdullah did not support the United States-Saudi Arabia relation at all cost. Indeed, the conflict between Israel and Palestine gave way to some tensions: King Abdullah, who was invited to visit Washington in May 2001 thus refused to come, to show the US that he strongly condemned the support that was granted to Israel in the Second Intifada.

    However, the most important events of the whole reign of King Abdullah were the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. Those unprecedented attacks can be considered as a major turning point in the US and could  have spellt the end of the relation between Saudi Arabia and the US. Indeed, 15 of the 19 hijackers responsible for the attack were Saudis, including Osama Bin Laden, their leader. While both Saudi Arabia and the United States did not deem it necessary to end to their privileged relations, especially regarding the strategic importance of their shared interests, their relation was put under a tremendous amount of pressure, emerging from the public spheres of both countries.

 In a letter addressed to President George W. Bush in September 2002, Abdullah even said that he hoped that “with [the Americans’] cooperation and leadership, a new world will emerge out of the rubble of the World Trade Center […]”

Especially in the US, the 9/11 attacks were followed by a strong backlash against that bilateral alliance, presented as a ghastly mistake by many observers and public opinion leaders, who wanted to reassess the “oil for security” strategy binding the two countries. This backlash against Saudi Arabia in the US mainly targeted the Al Saud family and the Wahhabi Islamic branch, seen as the root cause for Saudi Arabia’s appalling disregard of human rights (exemplified by the maintaining of judicial corporal punishments such as amputation and flogging), let alone the fact that it was also funding Al-Quaeda. The two years directly following  the 9/11 events saw a dangerous escalation of pressure on both sides. Indeed, problems related to Israel came to add fuel to the fire already brought about by the terrorist attacks.

    However, King Abdullah and the US government worked hard to maintain their relation, however controversial it has been. In a letter addressed to President George W. Bush in September 2002, Abdullah even said that he hoped that “with [the Americans’] cooperation and leadership, a new world will emerge out of the rubble of the World Trade Center […]” according to a press release of the Saudi embassy dated from September 10, 2002. After 2003, both Americans and Saudis made several significant moves toward cooperation in the face of the terrorist threat, especially after terrorist attacks targeting US public places and citizens in Saudi Arabia, such as in December 2004 with the invasion of U.S. Consulate in Jeddah which resulted in the death of four hostages, or with the kidnapping and assassination by beheading of US citizen Paul Johnson in June 2004. The military side of their partnership was tremendously reinforced as a consequence, . Indeed, the US provided the latest technologies and anti-terrorist strategies to the Saudis, while also selling them weapons and military supplies. Moreover, starting in 2003, together with other decision-making elites, King Abdullah engaged in a fight against the terrorist forces on the Saudi soil. In doing so, King Abdullah helped creating a national dialogue, bringing together leading religious figures, Wahhabi, Sunni and Shi’ite as well. However, there are still some lasting tensions and dissensions between the two countries. On the one hand, the several opening attempts under King Abdullah (such as the participation of women in the 2012 Olympic Games) cannot hide the fact that human rights are often trampled there. For instance, the fight against homegrown terrorism in Saudi Arabia included raids, arrests, torture and public beheadings. On the other hand, the US is uncomfortable with the fact that Saudis contribute to the financing of terrorism through the Zakat, an act of charity, the third pillar of Islam. While some Saudis think that their money goes to good causes, others are strongly aware of the fact that they are funding terrorist organizations.

    After the death of King Abdullah in January 2015, Obama saluted him as an important leader according to a press release from the White House, while also insisting on the importance of the privileged relation between their countries regarding “the stability and security in the Middle-East and beyond”.

The death of King Abdullah and the rise of new issues in the Middle East: withdrawal or redefinition of the relation with the US?

    Saudi Arabia’s king Abdullah died on January 23rd 2015, putting an end to a long reign, 10 years  being king, but 15 years at the head of the country. That was a crucial time in the diplomatic relationship between the Kingdom and the United States. His 79-year-old half-brother, Salman, became the new king. How is this new ruler going to affect the bilateral relation? Well, the new King quickly affirmed his will to carry on the work of his predecessor, showing a desire to put himself in the follow in the footsteps of previous Saudi kings. Indeed, as the Washington Post reported, King Salman stated on his first address : “We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment”. However, in spite of this statement, things are moving fast between the US and the kingdom, and the former is somehow distancing itself from the other step by step.

    King Salman’s desire to follow previous steps includes the continuation of a close bilateral relation with the United States. In that sense, the US-allegations of the Saudis’ state-sponsored terrorism may imperil the relation. However, the two countries still need each other to fight against the Islamic State of DaEsh. Counter-terrorism relations have always structured the diplomatic link between the two countries and it seems like it is going to remain that way under the new king. Indeed, he called for a joint action against DaEsh showing how the Saudi government positioned itself in the face of the allegations of funding terrorism. The kingdom wants to show that the country has always fought terrorism and that it is going to keep on doing so, the purpose is to try to invalidate those allegations of funding terrorism that have been going on since 9/11. That strong military link between the US and Saudi Arabia against terrorism is very important to the kingdom because the country is where some of the major places of the Islam faith are like Mecca, and therefore could be a country that might be targeted by DaEsh later on. Military, defense, training and counter terrorism represent a big share of the relation: Saudi Arabia is the biggest foreign military buyer of the United States. In a way, military spending from the US and US military presence and training of local soldiers is a guarantee of Saudi Arabian security, a security that is strategic to maintain for both countries.

    Despite continuities in the relationship, some givens are moving and are being challenged. Saudi Arabia remains a strong source of oil imports for the US, the Americans being the first country for oil import from Saudi Arabia. According to the US State Department, between 1 and 1.5 million barrels are exported everyday from Saudi Arabia to the United States. However, this specific trade that has always been at the heart of the relations between the two countries is being challenged. Indeed, the ground is shifting as the United States is becoming less and less dependent on foreign oil exports with the production of its own source of energy: shale oil. Even though the Energy Information Administration reported that the American production of shale oil is supposed to shrink a little (from 5,62 million barrels a day in April 2015 to 5,56 million a day in May 2015 mainly due to the price reduction of the barrel of oil), the American shale oil remains a major source of energy, automatically making the country less dependent on Saudi oil imports. Indeed, the exportation of oil from Saudi Arabia to the US has fallen both in quantity and in value. In addition to that potential shift in the bilateral relation, Iran could be on the edge of becoming a new strategic ally of the United States, maybe one that could challenge the relation with Saudi Arabia. For about 40 years Iran faced serious sanctions by many foreign countries, including the United States, stifling its economic growth. However about two years and a half ago negotiations opened between the countries and finally concluded in a framework agreement in early April 2015 to keep Iran’s nuclear development peaceful. That agreement plans restrictions on Iranian nuclear development and in exchange the sanctions that existed over Iran would be lifted. This new historical agreement between the United States and Iran could really bring some major economic benefits to both countries and re-open the space for economic relations. In a way, the newly agreed upon nuclear agreement could lead to a shift, or at least a distance, of the United States in the Middle-East, from Saudi Arabia towards Iran. Nevertheless, the tortuous historical background between Iran and the US still weighs a lot in the relation, and Saudi Arabia could benefit from it. It is a story yet to be told.

However complex and even sometimes odd, the relation between the US and Saudi Arabia has proven its strength and durability over the last 80 years. The study of the historical path of this unique alliance however shows that it was paved with many ruptures, such as divergent points of views regarding strategy and intervention on the global scene. Those ruptures put the continuities forming the basis of this relation at stake. In that sense, one may regard the death of King Abdullah as a real rupture. After having been a key actor in securing the relation in the restructured multipolar world and in the face of  Middle-Eastern terrorism, the death of King Abdullah puts a big question mark over the relation between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, with the rise of the Islamic State and the strengthening of the relations between Iran and the US, the diplomatic link between the US and Saudi Arabia may face another area of turbulences.

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