The United States and Saudi Arabia continue to share several common strategic interests, including regional security cooperation in dealing with threats from Iran and al-Qaida affiliates, but how the two countries work together to navigate the complicated forces reshaping the Middle East in the coming months will help define their future state of relations.
This November marks 80 years since the United States and Saudi Arabia first established diplomatic relations. Oil was the initial foundation for this relationship, and Saudi Arabia’s importance as the largest oil producer in the world has been an enduring factor in the relationship. For decades, the United States has made considerable investments, in the form of security efforts aimed at stabilizing the region, to ensure the free flow of oil.
The overall strategic context in the first seven decades of the U.S.-Saudi relationship was much clearer than it is today. During the Cold War, the United States viewed Saudi Arabia as a partner in Washington’s efforts to check Soviet influence in the Middle East and places like Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia saw the United States as a country it could turn to during the periods when Arab nationalism produced regional tensions and competition for monarchies such as Saudi Arabia’s.
After the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, both countries saw a common interest in containing Iranian influence. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and threatened Saudi security, the United States led an international coalition that protected Saudi Arabia and ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
During the past decade, U.S.-Saudi ties became more complicated as the overall geopolitical environment and regional dynamics witnessed more multipolar competition and the emergence of new transnational threats. The 9/11 attacks produced new questions in some quarters of the United States about Saudi Arabia’s links to terrorist networks. The 2003 Iraq War and its aftermath contributed to the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East, heightening Saudi Arabia’s sense of insecurity and raising new questions among Saudis about the overall U.S. strategy for the region.
The Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda” of attempting to support democratic transitions in the Middle East raised further suspicions among Saudi leaders. Also, the Arab Peace Initiative, a proposal with parameters for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict led by Saudi Arabia and first introduced in 2002, gained no traction, and the unresolved conflict remained a source of Saudi complaints in the bilateral relationship. Despite these tensions, the United States and Saudi Arabia forged closer ties in cracking down on the al-Qaida network from Afghanistan to Yemen, and they worked to continue to contain Iranian influence.
The 2011 uprisings in the Arab world have opened the door to a new phase of an intense, multipolar competition for influence among countries in the region, impacting America’s role and how it is viewed. Saudi Arabia, like most countries in the Middle East, has been forced to respond and adapt more quickly in its foreign policy than it had before. The February 2011 ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak led to vocal Saudi criticisms that the United States was not standing by its close partners. Bahrain’s crackdown on its own domestic opposition, with clear backing from Saudi Arabia, drew criticisms from the United States.
Despite these divergent views on some regional issues, the United States and Saudi Arabia worked closely on implementing a political transition in Yemen. They also continued to enhance their counterterrorism cooperation, with the United States reportedly setting up a drone base in Saudi Arabia to enhance its operations against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The two countries also boosted their military cooperation, with U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia reaching new levels, including more than $30 billion in sales in 2010 alone.
In the past few months, however, two major disagreements between the United States and Saudi Arabia have emerged:
First is a dispute over the July ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia backed Morsi’s removal and is supporting the current efforts to isolate the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement Saudi Arabia views as a threat to its interests. The United States has argued for a more inclusive and pluralistic way forward and tried to stop the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Second, the two countries have major tactical disagreements on the way forward in Syria. Both want to see President Bashar al-Assad leave the scene, but Saudi Arabia has been disillusioned by the Obama administration’s reticence to become deeply engaged militarily in Syria. The U.S.-Russia deal on securing chemical weapons put the brakes on possible U.S. military strikes, disappointing the Saudis.
Another point of divergence that may emerge in the coming months in the U.S.-Saudi relationship is the way forward on Iran. The Iranian leadership’s recent public overtures calling for new engagement have elicited a skeptical response in Riyadh. The United States shares some of that skepticism, but seems more willing to test the possibilities of engagement. The new round of Iran's nuclear talks in Geneva, which will be finished today, it is not welcomed in Riyadh.
In this period of complicated change in the Middle East, the United States and Saudi Arabia still have enduring strategic interests. Though the shale gas revolution in the U.S. has reduced American dependence on imported energy, Washington will remain committed to the Middle East, as no other country is likely to play the role of strategic security guarantor for the Gulf region anytime soon.
Counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries will also continue to deepen. But how the two allies work together in dealing with the wave of change being generated by the demographic, political, social and economic pressures facing every country in the region, including Saudi Arabia, will continue to serve as a significant test of U.S.-Saudi ties.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst
Photo-Credit: AFP- Barack Obama & King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in White House-Photo