Few countries are as different as the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Even fewer have as much history of successful relations with each other within the context of fundamental differences. Yet, decades of successful trade and relations signify how two nations can put their economic and security interests above ideological differences. By no means does this imply that the United States and Saudi Arabia have never had conflicts, as both countries had and still have points of contention? Yet, history shows that strategic priorities can reconcile even the most controversial disputes. Understanding what constitutes the essence of the relations between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is essential in ascertaining what prospects lie in front of both countries.
History of Relations Between USA and KSA
The starting point of US-Saudi relations was in 1931 when the US recognized the Kingdom. It was not until 1940 that the two countries established diplomatic relations. The major reason why the US was interested in the Arabian Peninsula lay in the abundance of oil fields. As the US entered World War II, its oil demands multiplied, and power projection capabilities increased so much that they now included the possibility of deploying military facilities in Saudi Arabia (McFarland, 2020). It was a matter of time before the US would approach the newly created state.
The first US president who started cooperation with Saudi Arabia was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a Democrat. Roosevelt’s goal was to ensure a stable supply of oil from the Saudis. At the same time, King Abdulaziz had an aggressive attitude toward the Jews, who were migrating to Palestine. Roosevelt secured the Saudis’ loyalty by promising that “he would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs” (McFarland, 2020, p. 40). This statement would become a point of contention when the US recognized Israel three years later.
Roosevelt’s negotiation with the Saudis transpired weeks before his death. His vice-president, who was also a Democrat, Harry S Truman, was sworn in as the new President. In 1948 the US recognized Israel as an independent state, which undermined the security of US-Saudi relations. Following this step, Saudis warned of sanctions against American oil concessions, which never took place (McFarland, 2020, p. 50). Ultimately, the kingdom needed the US technology and protection too much for a foreign event to disrupt the alliance.
Meanwhile, Cold War was taking shape, and the position of Saudi Arabia was evident. King Abdulaziz declared openly declared intolerance of any Communist movements in Saudi Arabia (McFarland, 2020, p. 57). It should also be noted that aside from the military overseas, the US did not rely on Saudi oil imports in the forties and fifties because Canada and Venezuela provided for American needs (McFarland, 2020, p. 58). However, as oil consumption grew exponentially, American allies in Western Europe became dependent on Saudi oil. The same was also true of America itself, where energy consumption was also increasing at an unprecedented rate.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia experienced multiple threats to its national security. The kingdom was situated close to nations with a negative view of the Saudis. The US interfered in Saudi conflicts with Iran and Egypt, helping the kingdom. Yet, Saudi Arabia was also distraught by internal contradictions. Issues such as slavery, human rights, labor policies, unequal distribution of wealth, and other social problems predetermined negativity towards the House of Saud both in Saudi Arabia and in the US. The US faced a dilemma in which it could not ignore the repercussions of the Saudi regime while being dependent on its oil exports.
The crisis became especially evident in 1962 when a military coup in Yemen led to the establishment of a pro-Egypt republic. Saudis started to support rebels in Yemen while expecting the US to intervene as well. However, Kennedy’s actions showed restraint regarding the conflict in Yemen. He did not wish to engage in military conflict. This course of action changed dramatically with Kennedy’s assassination. Lyndon Johnson saw Egypt as an ally of the Soviet Union. It compelled the US to sell arms to the Saudis, thus further solidifying the alliance.
The foreign policy of Saudi Arabia concerned all Arabic nations. One country that Saudis were particularly opposed to was Israel. In 1973, a war erupted between Israel and Arabic countries, specifically Egypt and Syria. When Israel received the support of the US, Saudi Arabia implemented an oil embargo on all countries that provided support to Israel. Such a decision put the US in an extremely vulnerable position as “even before the October 1973 embargo, the United States was already suffering from shortages of gasoline and other fuels” (McFarland, 2020, p. 122). Saudi embargo led to a substantial increase in oil prices around the world as well as an energy crisis in the US.
In reality, the oil embargo was a self-defeating move for Saudi Arabia. Although it accentuated the pressure on the US economy, it also meant that the kingdom could lose a major customer. The lack of revenues from the US would undermine the Saudis’ economy and security. It was disadvantageous to both sides, which predetermined their continued relations. At the same time, the Soviet Union benefited from high oil prices. In 1974, the embargo was lifted, and the US and Saudis resumed and expanded their relations with more military contracts. The US managed to support Israel while being allied with Saudi Arabia, which denounced American commitments but could not prevent them.
The US-Saudi alliance proved particularly strong during the Gulf War of 1990-1991. In August 1990, Iraq launched an invasion of Kuwait, which was immediately condemned worldwide. The US started Operation Desert Shield, during which hundreds of thousands of military personnel were deployed to protect the United States ally and Iraq’s likely next target (McFarland, 2020, p. 242). Iraq’s invasion was repelled, yet the US maintained a military presence in Saudi Arabia.
The end of the Cold War marked the US as the only remaining superpower. Yet, the Saudi population was not united in its support of the alliance with the US. Non-Muslim presence in the kingdom fueled such attitudes, some of which were extremist in nature. The world’s most notorious terrorist organization Al-Qaeda was founded by radical critics of the United States, the prominent of which was Osama bin Laden. By the time of the Gulf War, bin Laden had already fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which was “part of the jihad encouraged by the Saudi and U.S. governments” (McFarland, 2020, p. 246). The Saudi decision to favor American forces over Islam propelled bin Laden to depose the alliance altogether.
The high point of Al-Qaeda’s jihad was the 9/11 attacks of 2001, which also had long-lasting repercussions for the reputation of Saudi Arabia. Following the attacks, “a majority of Americans held negative views of the kingdom,” while many “accused the Saudi government of supporting the 9/11 attacks” (McFarland, 2020, p. 246). Overall, Islamophobia was on the rise, which is still a commonly held belief. At the same time, Anti-American sentiment rose in Saudi Arabia. However, public criticism of each other does not seem to make a difference unless it is supported by an economic and security basis.
Starting with the 2000s, the economic foundation of the US-Saudi alliance began to change. Both the Saudis and the US realized that new technology could implement fundamental changes. Technological advances allowed the US to perform hydraulic fracturing, which gave access to shale oil deposits beneath the US. In essence, it is the same oil that the US imports from petroleum exporters, the only difference is how it is collected (Kilian, 2020). Not only did shale oil production reduce the US dependency on Saudi imports, but it also made the US one of the major oil producers in the world.
Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia also became nervous about its economic prospects. 2014 collapse in oil prices further highlighted the vulnerability of nations dependent on petroleum exports. Saudi leadership responded with a project to completely overhaul the economy by 2030, which is known as Saudi Vision 2030 (Grand & Wolff, 2020). Proposed reforms range from downsizing the public sector to empowering the private sector. Most importantly, however, is the goal to triple non-oil revenues from taxes and fees. To accomplish it, the government intends to cut public subsidies and attract investors in the private sector by improving infrastructure, healthcare, tourism, mining, chemical, and other industries.
As such, the current state of affairs between the US and KSA is the alliance. Oil still serves as the economic basis for the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the US. The US still needs oil to fuel its economy, armies, navies, and air forces. To generate revenues from it, Saudis need to export oil to foreign countries. The fastest way to transport oil overseas is by sea. This implies that Saudi Arabia is highly dependent on the safety of trade routes.
Geographically, Saudi Arabia is situated in the Arabian peninsula, which is characterized by vast desert expanses. Although they form a geographical barrier to any outside forces, Saudi Arabia does not control Bab-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz. Both straits are strategic choke points, which are essential for naval trade. Any vessel leaving the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf has to pass through a corresponding strait. If any foreign power closes the straits, Saudi exports will be severely jeopardized.
The United States protects because its naval forces are the largest and most powerful in the world. Saudi Arabia does not have the naval strength for such a task, which forces it to rely on the US to keep Bab-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz open. The US Department of State specifically states that “The United States and Saudi Arabia have a common interest in preserving the stability, security, and prosperity of the Gulf region.” Gulf region is important precisely because it has significant sums of proven oil reserves. This configuration persisted for the entirety of the Cold War and remains true today.
Difference Between Democratic and Republican Parties’ Foreign Policies Toward KSA
Although the overall foreign policy of the US regarding KSA stayed the same, partisan differences still exist. Historically, republicans tended to favor US military and economic strength, while democrats were more open towards allies and were considerate of their interests, even if it meant upsetting the leadership of Saudi Arabia. As such, it stands to reason to suggest that Republicans are more approving of ties with Saudi Arabia than the democrats are, even if circumstances force both parties to adapt.
1933-1953 was the longest period that any US party was in power. As Roosevelt and Truman served their terms, democrats determined foreign policy. During this exact period, US relations with KSA were established. However, the US showed more flexibility in its dealings in the Middle East, as it also tried to favor Jews and the newly formed Israel. Not surprisingly, Saudis objected but proceeded to intensify economic ties with the US.
After Truman’s presidency, republicans came to power, and Dwight Eisenhower became the 34th President of the US. The most distinctive action was the adoption of the Eisenhower Doctrine. Unlike democrats before them, the republicans were now committed to providing support to Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, against the Soviet Union (Riedel, 2019). The doctrine also set a precedent for the republicans’ view of the importance of the Middle East for the security of the US. Considering that Saudi Arabia was a major ally, it also became preferred among the Arab nations.
1961-1969 were marked by the presidencies of democrats Kennedy and Johnson. Kennedy was extremely cautious regarding military assistance to Saudi Arabia during the war in Yemen because he believed that the US should promote Israel (Riedel, 2019). Johnson proceeded to passively help Israel, thus angering the Saudis, although he did authorize arms sales to Saudi Arabia in its war with Egypt-backed rebels in Yemen (Riedel, 2019). As a result, the Democrats continued to maneuver between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The next eight years saw simultaneously both the peak of US-Saudi tensions, as well as the realization of the US dependency on Saudi oil. The Republican administration was forced to acknowledge the effect that the Saudi oil embargo could have on the US economy (McFarland, 2020). The oil crisis served as an important lesson that the US needs to diversify its oil production. However, at the time, it meant rapprochement and further economic trade with Saudi Arabia. Following the unsuccessful attempts of Carter’s democratic administration to mediate the conflict between Arabs and Jews, Reagan’s republican administration further deepened military and economic ties with the Saudis (Riedel, 2019). These measures bore fruit during Gulf War when the US used its infrastructure to deploy military personnel in KSA.
In the 1990s, democrats under Clinton resumed their attempts to mediate peace between Israel and Palestine, which was also not successful. Bush’s Republican administration was faced with a dilemma regarding Saudi Arabia – on the one hand, it was a strategic ally, on the other hand, the public demanded justice for the 9/11 attacks. The Republicans responded with a war on terrorism and investment in shale oil technologies, which would prevent another oil embargo.
Under Obama, the tensions between the US and KSA worsened as he pushed for cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, to which the latter was opposed. Trump attempted to diffuse the tension by taking Saudi-friendly steps, such as arms sales (Riedel, 2019). However, these actions were undermined by the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi leadership. Although Trump attempted to defend the Crown Prince in front of Congress, that event further deepened the rift between the countries (Riedel, 2019). Finally, Biden’s administration took advantage of the Crown Prince’s damaged reputation and ceased support for the Saudi war in Yemen.
The Impact of the Assassination of Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi was a journalist and writer for famous online periodicals. He was a public figure criticizing the policies of the US and Saudi Arabia. Aside from the political implications following the assassination of such a prominent figure, the matter was more complicated by the nature of the murder. Not only was Khashoggi killed, but his body was also mutilated. Subsequent statements from the Saudis did not alleviate the situation, as contradictions have highlighted the ulterior motive.
Publicly, many countries have criticized the way Saudi leadership handled Khashoggi’s murder. The US Central Intelligence Agency has “concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination” (Harris et al., 2018, para. 1). This conclusion has put the then-incumbent President Trump in a predicament. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is a proclaimed strategic ally of the US, with whom Trump started to intensify cooperation. On the other hand, the US could not ignore the fact of assassination.
Khashoggi’s assassination has highlighted a deep ideological controversy between the US and Saudis. Being a country that bases its ideology on human rights and freedom, the US should not cooperate with or support an autocratic monarchy, which as Saudi Arabia. However, the fundamental reason why the US maintains close relations with KSA is more important than a one-time event, even if it involves the death of a person. Trump has acknowledged it as much by saying that he “does not want the controversy over Khashoggi’s death to impede oil production by the kingdom” (Harris et al., 2018, para. 21). In other words, the US publicly criticized the Saudi leadership while, in reality, changing nothing in their economic relations with the Saudis.
However, the Biden administration did react politically by imposing a “Khashoggi ban” policy. This measure bans the entrance to the US of individuals who are in any way related to the persecution of journalists by governments (Reuters Staff, 2021). Naturally, this sanction does not extend to the Crown Prince himself, as he is too important for the relations between the US and KSA. As such, Khashoggi’s murder damaged Saudi reputation but did not change anything fundamentally between it and the USA.
The immediate future of US-Saudi relations is likely to stay the same. However, in the long-term perspective, both countries might drift apart. Both the US and Saudis actively seek new ways of implementing technology to reduce their dependencies, which determines the basis for their cooperation. If such a course is successful, it is reasonable to suggest that in several decades, the relations between USA and KSA will change dramatically.
The United States is investing heavily in the development of its oil production facilities. Shale oil production has already revolutionized the oil industry for decades to come. As the US produces and exports more of its energy resources, it gradually shifts from the partner of Saudi Arabia to its direct competitor. Naturally, the change will not be momentary, as the American economy is still heavily dependent on oil and Saudi oil, in particular.
The Saudi leadership intends to reduce its oil dependency by boosting non-oil revenues. If Saudi Vision 2030 succeeds, the KSA will be able to use its empowered private sector as a source of finance for its budget. If the reforms are successful, the KSA will increase its investor attractiveness. The US companies may use the newly created opportunities to conduct business in Saudi Arabia. Combined with the planned increased participation of women in the workforce and their subsequent emancipation, it may mark a new era of cooperation between the US and KSA, which is not based solely on oil and security (Grand & Wolff, 2020). If diversification is not successful, the US will likely stop viewing KSA as an economic partner and form relations with the kingdom purely on a security basis.
Altogether, it should be evident that two major factors underscore the relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia – oil and security. Historically, both countries needed each other, with the same overall policy persisting through decades. Although Democrats were more inclined to push for the balance of power in the Middle East, they always agreed with republicans that Saudi Arabia is important. Recent decades and technological breakthroughs have opened the possibility of the two countries no longer depending on each other, but this prospect is still decades away. The ability to reform will determine how the US and KSA will behave towards each other in the future.
Grand, S., & Wolff, K. (2020). Assessing Saudi Vision 2030: A 2020 review. Depth Research & Reports. 1-80. Web.
Harris, S., Miller, G., & Dawsey, J. (2018). CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination. The Washington Post. Web.
Kilian, L. (2020). The impact of the shale oil revolution on US oil and gasoline prices. Review of Environmental Economics and Policy. 1-48. Web.
McFarland, V. (2020). Oil powers: A history of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Columbia University Press.
Reuters Staff. (2021). U.S. announces ‘Khashoggi ban’ for 76 Saudi individuals. Reuters. Web.
Riedel, B. (2019). Kings and presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States since FDR. Brookings Institution Press.