While it’s one of the largest and most powerful players in the modern Middle East, Saudi Arabia is not well covered in American media. As a result, many Americans do not have an accurate or complete idea of the country. Most imagine Saudi Arabia as a desert landscape owned by wealthy royalty who exploit vast oil reserves, and that’s about it. Most people also believe that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is built on a codependency: The U.S. cannot survive without Saudi oil, and the Saudis cannot survive without selling it.

But oil is only one drop in a sea of factors that contribute to the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Defense interests, economic promise, and shared political goals have also kept the U.S.-Saudi relationship intact for decades. Yet as the political realities of the Middle East begin to take new forms, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has become very troubled—Disagreements about human rights, Israel, the Arab Spring, and Iran have created numerous stumbling points within the two countries’ special relationship.

In this feature, the Collie will look beyond oil to discover why exactly Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have become such close partners. From there, we will look at how Saudi Arabia, a country that for so long has dodged change, may now face its inevitability.

The U.S. is not reliant on Saudi oil but it has been subject to Saudi oil pricing.

credit: nyt.com

What is Saudi Arabia’s most well known export? The prevailing notion of Saudi Arabia in the U.S. is based on its status as the chief exporter of oil to the United States. In fact, many refer to this trade relationship as the U.S.’s “dependence on foreign oil.” But when we begin to unpack the truth of Saudi oil, we discover something strange—it’s not the quantity of oil that the U.S. is reliant upon.

There’s no doubt that Saudi Arabia is rich in oil. The Americans discovered this in 1933, when Standard Oil “won a concession to explore in eastern Saudi Arabia and discovered oil in 1938.”[1] ­­This wasn’t the first time that foreign corporations pursued oil in Arabia. Since World War I the European powers had controlled, with difficulty, large portions of the Middle East. It’s therefore somewhat foreseeable that “Saudi Arabia’s founder was wary of colonial powers,”[1] given their reputation for occupation. The Saudis were more trusting of American explorers, if only because the U.S., not yet an imperial player in the Middle East, was not encumbered by a colonialist reputation.

In the beginning, the oil and oil wells in Saudi Arabia were owned by foreign oil corporations under the name Aramco, shorthand for The Arabian American Oil Company. Standard Oil was one founder, with Texaco, Exxon, and Mobil comprising the other three.[1] These companies discovered huge oil reserves in 1944 and “made the country the world’s largest oil exporter.”[1]

But the Saudis grew discontented with having foreign corporations control the bulk of their clearly valuable oil reserves and in 1980 began to gradually buy out shareholders. While these kinds of corporations would never fully stop operating within Saudi Arabia, by 1980 most of the oil industry in Saudi Arabia was nationalized.

In 1959, the U.S. set “oil import quotas” targeted toward lowering oil prices “outside North America while keeping them high for the benefit of domestic drillers.”[16] This aggravated other oil-exporting countries, chief among them Saudi Arabia, who would find themselves in a poor economic position without the revenues they generated from the oil business. As such, five nations (Saudi Arabia among them) founded the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC.

OPEC “holds some three-quarters of the world’s conventional oil reserves and has the lowest per-barrel production costs in the world.”[16] With low costs and an enormous stockpile of oil, OPEC can essentially control the price of oil worldwide by adjusting the amount that it exports. That is, OPEC member states do not go to market with all the oil they have, but instead can choose to sell only a fraction of what they manufacture, which can have a wide-ranging economic impact.

The textbook example of OPEC’s power can be found in the 1973 oil embargo that the Middle East leveled against the U.S. as punishment for the country’s participation in the Yom Kippur War, when it backed Israel rather than its Arab neighbors.[16] Many people saw the embargo as case and point for U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Gas stations were unable to sell people fuel, and obviously, since modern life is so contingent on the energy we need to power almost everything, 1973’s embargo reminded the U.S. of the power the Persian Gulf states had in determining their lives.

But the dependence on foreign oil, as it turns out, is a misnomer for the situation the U.S. finds itself in. While we are told again and again that our oil comes from wealthy Arab countries, it turns out that the U.S. today only imports 9 percent of its oil from the Middle East. Perhaps we dismiss this figure as a new development due to the booming U.S. shale oil industry, but in fact, the U.S. has never imported more than 15 percent of its oil from Middle Eastern suppliers.16

So why is the idea of “dependence on foreign oil” still disseminated? Well, the key is that OPEC, though the U.S. imports relatively little oil from its member states, still controls most of the world’s crude. So, even if the U.S. stopped importing oil from the Middle East altogether, OPEC would still control the price of a barrel of oil in the U.S. But OPEC’s power, and the determinative power of oil, is fading.

New energy ventures are causing tremendous problems for OPEC.

Ali al-Naimi; credit: nationalpost.com

It’s no secret that gas prices have seen a notable drop in the U.S. recently. At one point, a gallon of gasoline cost nearly four dollars, while in February of 2016 it dropped as low as $1.69.[17] But while this is just good news to the U.S. consumer, it represents some momentous changes in the international oil industry.

OPEC has long considered itself a balancer of the world market, dedicated to “making the price

‘fair’ for consumers” at a price of $100 per barrel.[1] And yet, this has rarely been the reality, with the price for barrel rising above this optimal pricing. But, by early 2016, the price dropped precipitously to only $26 per barrel—notably less than OPEC’s desired price.

Why, after so many years of high prices, did the cost of oil suddenly slide so low? It turns out that domestic production in the United States is in part to blame. While OPEC controls most of the world’s crude oil, which has relatively cheap production costs, the U.S. has started to exploit oil sands, deep-sea resources, and most notably, shale.

In 2014, OPEC faced a decision. Instrumental in this was the previous Saudi petroleum minister Ali al-Naimi, who doubles as “the world’s de facto energy czar.”[6] The price of oil was declining quickly, and as a result, OPEC was preparing to call on its classic strategy: They would drastically reduce oil output to drive up the price once more, returning it to a more desirable level.

But al-Naimi rejected these proposals in favor of a wholly new one. While OPEC’s production costs are low, the production costs for manufacturing shale oil are considerably higher. So, al-Naimi would, rather than fix the price of oil, “keep pumping and wait for lower prices to force high-cost suppliers out of the market.”[6] This was the first time since its founding that OPEC would “rely on market forces rather than controlling prices as a swing producer.”[1] That’s not to say it was a popular decision—in economically troubled OPEC states (notably, Iran) the fall in oil prices could be calamitous.

Perhaps it is decisions like these that have prompted analysts to “discount OPEC’s role in the modern energy market, deriding it as a dysfunctional and irrelevant group that long ago lost its sway in setting oil prices.”[16] This is certainly a concern in Saudi Arabia, with top officials worried about a drop-off in oil demand that could instigate an extreme economic downturn. Since alternative oil sources are exploited more and more, and since the cost of alternative energy becomes more tenable, the future of oil becomes more and more unclear.

A note: If OPEC sounds like a cartel, that’s because it basically is. OPEC is essentially an oligopoly, able to fix prices by setting production. Gal Luft and Anne Korin presented a similar situation to OPEC’s, with one small change:

“If investor-owned oil companies such as Exxon, BP, Shell, and Chevron were sitting on top of three-quarters of the world’s conventional oil reserves, they would be supplying something around three-quarters of the world’s oil. And if not, they’d be slapped with an anti-trust lawsuit.”

But this is the key distinction: OPEC doesn’t consist of “investor-owned companies” but rather sovereign governments. Anti-trust lawsuits cannot be leveled against governments. So while OPEC does indeed operate like a cartel, it is not technically a cartel.

It would appear, then, that the mutual interest in oil that for so long constituted a large portion of the U.S.-Saudi alliance is faltering. And yet, the U.S. government seems optimistic that U.S.-Saudi relations will remain strong. While the White House acknowledges the new competition from the U.S. oil industry, it also suggests that “Saudi Arabia works to diversify its energy mix” and that, as a result, the “longstanding bilateral cooperation of energy issues is getting stronger.”[5]

Now, if the oil trade between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is weakening, then it couldn’t possibly be true that the “bilateral cooperation on energy issues” is being strengthened. So what, if anything, continues to keep Saudi Arabia and the United States strongly connected to one another? One narrative of the U.S. involvement in the Middle East to some is that it’s a simple pursuit of oil: The government could say that they’re chasing terrorism or toppling repressive regimes, but in the end, isn’t it all about oil?

The answer, it turns out, is no. Of course, the United States has long had a vested interest in protecting Saudi petroleum, but there’s more to the relationship than that. Oil may be valuable, but it’s not everything worth protecting. And to appreciate what Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have in common, we must look far beyond the modern oil industry.

Saudi Arabia remains a very religious country.

credit: en.wikipedia.org

It’s difficult to write about the history of Saudi Arabia without first addressing the religious aspect, which certainly plays a key role in defining the country’s culture. Saudi Arabia’s religious divides are almost all between different schools of Islam, and one, called Wahhabism, is inextricable from the Saudi government.

Saudi Arabia was not always united, of course. For a long time, it consisted mostly of various nomadic Bedouin tribes who were scarcely united. That changed relatively quickly, and the catalyst for that change was the unity between Muhammad al-Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. al-Saud was the head of his family, the same family from which Saudi Arabia takes its namesake. But ibn Abd al-Wahhab was an itinerant cleric preaching a different form of Islam.

In 1744, ibn Abd al-Wahhab and al-Saud joined forces, and from that moment, the Wahhabis and the al-Saud dynasty have been inseparable. With this alliance, al-Saud was able to take the cities of Karbala, Mecca, and Medina, and install ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s particular form of Islam

At that time, “most of the Islamic world… viewed the Saudis and their clerical allies as fanatics and usurpers.”[2] Many people in the modern world still view the Wahhabis as religious fanatics, perhaps due to the austerity of Wahhabi Islam. Some authors refer to Wahhabism as “puritanical and sectarian,”[2] or hardline Islam, or fundamentalism. Perhaps the less inflammatory word would be “austere.”[9] What ibn Abd al-Wahhab preached can also be referred to as Salafism, a word used to describe other groups in the Middle East.

Wahhabism is really best characterized as orthodox. It’s very traditional, inviting a return to the earliest form of Islam as it was described in the Quran. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab “regarded images, saints, shrines, communal festivals, and secular lifestyles, with music, dance, and socializing, as distractions from true piety.”[9] While the austerity of Wahhabism certainly discourages “any deviation”[2] from traditional Islam, it is important to remember that not everyone in Saudi Arabia is a religious fanatic simply because of the state religion.

That the Islamic world perceived the Wahhabis as fanatics is not surprising, given that their arrival in Mecca and Medina was likely accompanied by the removal of many religious symbols perceived to be “distractions from true piety.” But Muhammad al-Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab didn’t hold their acquisitions for long. Eventually the al-Saud dynasty was expelled from the Arabian peninsula, seeking refuge in Kuwait.[2] But this fall from power would not last forever.

Early in the 1900s, the Saud dynasty returned to the Arabian Peninsula and recaptured its current capital, Riyadh. Heading up this invasion, with an army consisting of Bedouin tribesmen, was Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, also known as Ibn Saud, and the founder of the modern Saudi kingdom.

Ibn Saud faced many of the problems always faced by those seeking to unite the disparate Bedouin tribes. But he managed to do so through the strategic mobilization of religion, “deploying Wahhabism as a religio-political means of uniting the Peninsula’s restive tribes.”[9] Having established themselves as the protectors of the holiest sites in Islam, the Saudis had established their monarchy over the peninsula and legitimized it. But the import of religion didn’t end there, as the United States would soon find Wahhabism to be a very desirable quality in an ally.

The U.S. has long turned to Saudi Arabia for military support.

credit: saudigazette.com

In World War II, the Saudis were officially neutral, and yet, even at that time they leaned more toward the allied powers, given that Saudi Arabia permitted the Allies “to use its airspace.”[1] It was the onset of the Cold War and the expansion of the Soviet Union toward the Middle East that first compelled Saudi Arabia toward an alliance with the United States.

The Saudis were displeased by the encroachment of the Soviet Union for many reasons. In the 1960s and 1970s, many of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors were turning both to nationalism and to Soviet support.[9] Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were all involved in the Arab Nationalist movement, and if Arab nationalism spread to Saudi Arabia, it would by definition be the end of the Saud dynasty. Additionally, the arrival of Soviet ideas and nationalist movements in the Middle East was accompanied by the rising popularity of secularism, another tenet that was necessarily in opposition to the Saudi government’s way of life.

The United States was at that time trying to disrupt Soviet influence worldwide, and the Middle East was no exception. The showdown between the two powers was waged within Afghanistan in in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union occupied that country. The only opposition came from bands of Muslim militia fighters, the infamous Mujahedeen.

It was in support of the Mujahedeen fighters that the United States and Saudi Arabia saw their goals align. The U.S. backed the Mujahedeen fighter’s and their jihad—anything to oppose the Soviet Union. It was, however, the Saudi Wahhabi sect that the U.S. saw as being particularly useful. Afghanistan was a largely Sunni country under attack from a foreign power. If the Saud dynasty and the Wahhabis were truly the protectors of Islam, then they would have to fully back a resistance to any Soviet attack on other Sunnis.

The U.S. “Saw the Saudi desire to weaponize Islamist ideology as tactically useful in the West’s struggles against the Soviet Union.”[9] Yet it’s no secret that this particular idea backfired tremendously, seeing as one of the young Saudis fighting in the war in Afghanistan developed a hatred of any and all foreign powers. The young man’s name was Osama bin Laden.

After the Afghan resistance, U.S.-Saudi military cooperation continued into the first Gulf War. As the United States and the Saudis launched their military endeavor in neighboring Kuwait, problems brewed in Saudi society. A large number of U.S. troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia during the war, which “drew ire from conservatives there and reinforced Wahhabi arguments that the Saudi elite was too accommodating to Western and non-Muslim interests.”[1]

While the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia was entirely different than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, to Osama bin Laden and his compatriots the difference was imperceptible. In 1996, bin Laden announced his fatwa against the “Americans occupying the land of the two holy mosques.”[1] This was the formation of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, and the seed of the atrocities perpetuated in New York City on September 11, 2001.

Aiding Terrorists or Countering them?

Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef salute during a Saudi special forces graduation ceremony near Riyadh

Recently in American media a peculiar story made the rounds: People were suing Saudi Arabia for its involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks. While Osama bin Laden is of Saudi origin, and while many of those involved in the attacks were also of Saudi origin, it seemed that the blame lay firmly in the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists, and not the Saudi government.

The stir regarding Saudi involvement in 9/11 was fueled by the redaction of 28 pages from the 9/11 Commission Report, the absence of which led to speculation that the Saudi government was complicit in, or even a direct sponsor of, the attacks.[1] But these accusations are entirely speculative, and they run counter to both U.S. and Saudi findings.

Within the report, the authors state that “it does not appear that any government other than the Taliban financially supported al Qaeda before 9/11.”[8] This, however, does not discount a Saudi role in the attacks altogether. The report goes on to argue that “some governments may have contained al Qaeda sympathizers who turned a blind eye to al Qaeda’s fundraising activities.”

The Report makes the case that the Muslim pillar of zakat, charitable giving, may entail that certain organizations or powerful officials gave money to al Qaeda without ever knowing it.[9] However, the report is clear that there is “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.”[9]

Adding to this is the fact that in 2006, 2008, and 2015, “lawsuits accusing the kingdom of terror sponsorship were dismissed” in federal court.[7] And if all of this seems inadequate to discount the idea of Saudi government complicity in the 9/11 attacks, consider also that “the Saudi government itself, since 2003, has called for the declassification of the 28 pages.”[7]

Saudi Arabia’s role in counterterrorism has been contested. While it is technically allied with the United States in the war against the Islamic State, many have noted that the Saudi military more frequently targets the Shiite al-Assad regime and, occasionally, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.[1] But even the kingdom’s role in combating al-Qaeda was initially hesitant—an attitude that many U.S. officials are hoping to see change.

It is important to remember that Saudi Arabia is among the last true monarchies in the world and as such, most of the prominent positions in the government are occupied by members of the royal family, and are hereditary.

The previous Interior Minister of Saudi Arabia Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz (Son of the kingdom’s founder and brother of the current King Salman) was often uncooperative with U.S. officials. Nayef was also “conspicuously slow to recognize that al-Qaida posed a threat to the kingdom.”[2] He was clearly wary of the U.S., as when “George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency… warned Nayef that al-Qaida had created an extensive underground infrastructure inside the kingdom, he was skeptical.”[2] Again, Nayef “was reluctant” to share information about the Iranian ties of the “Shiite terrorists bombed the U.S. Air Force base at the Khobar Towers in Dharan in 1996.”[2]

Nayef was no friend to the U.S., and many of his beliefs also didn’t align with U.S. goals in the region. Like many Saudis, Nayef was “horrified by what was happening” in the Arab Spring and “irate” that Barack Obama and the U.S. seemed to be siding with protestors.[2] The U.S. was therefore very concerned when Nayef became crown prince and next-in-line for succession. But Nayef died before he could ever take the throne, and instead, another brother, Salman, succeeded King Abdullah after his death.

In the Interior Ministry, Nayef was replaced by his son Muhammad bin Nayef. Muhammad bin Nayef is now the appointed successor of King Salman due to a shake up of the line of succession that resulted in a member of a younger generation finally being in position to succeed to the throne. U.S. officials hope that this will be the case, since Muhammad bin Nayef is “the darling of America’s counterterrorism and intelligence services.”[2]

Muhammad bin Nayef “went to school in the United States, attending classes at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon… he studied at the FBI in the late 1980s, and at Scotland Yard’s antiterrorism institute between 1992 and 1994.”[2] This experience makes Muhammad bin Nayef a key ally in the fight against terrorism, both within Saudi Arabia and internationally.

So perhaps the Saudi-U.S. relationship is in part preserved by the mutual fight against terrorism, as well as the hope that Muhammad bin Nayef or his cousin, Muhammad bin Salman, will accede to the crown and begin reforming aspects of Saudi Arabia.

But many have noted tremendous problems with Saudi Arabia’s newest ways of asserting its power. Like Bruce Riedel says, the Saudis “are skilled counterterrorists, but they are also accomplished and unabashed counterrevolutionaries.”[2]

Saudi Arabia’s New Policy

credit: wsj.com

In May of 2015, a summit of Gulf countries was held at Camp David, where many prominent politicians from the Middle East met with President Barack Obama. One leader, however, was notably missing—King Salman of Saudi Arabia skipped the summit, in “a move widely seen as a diplomatic snub.”[11] For the U.S. and the Saudis, a snub of this proportion raises questions about the health of the countries’ relationship.

Through the years, the U.S. and the Saudis have had a troubled alliance. Ray Takeyh characterizes this trouble as an “incongruity” that one would expect to find between “an austere Islamist monarchy and a liberal democracy.”[14] The events of the Arab Spring were one such snag: The U.S. had to support pro-democracy uprisings, and the Saudis were of course worried about populist movements challenging their well-established monarchy.

But the Saudis aren’t just talk. The truth of the matter is that Saudi Arabia, the U.S.’s closest Arab ally, pursues a violently repressive program against anyone they perceive to be a threat to their monarchy. A terrible example of Saudi repression can be found in the case of the blogger Raif Badawi. His participation in the creation of a website intended for “peaceful discussion about religion and religious figures”[18] led the Saudi authorities to charge Badawi with apostasy, a crime that still warrants the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. Badawi was fortunately not sentenced to death. His punishment nevertheless consists of 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison,[3][9][18] a condemnable punishment.

Badawi is only one example of a larger trend in Saudi government toward repression. Unfortunately, the line of succession in Saudi Arabia has only made recent years worse in terms of human rights in the country. King Abdullah, the previous monarch, was “cautiously, incrementally, introducing limited reforms”[2] during his tenure, including making higher education and mid-level government jobs available to women. He also recognized women’s right to vote and to “stand as candidates in the 2015 municipal council elections and expanded the size of the national Shura Council to include 30 women.”[3] Though these only constitute small concessions in a system in need of radical reform, King Abdullah was still indisputably the most liberal ruler that Saudi Arabia has ever seen.

The era of incremental liberalization in Saudi Arabia ended with Abdullah’s death and the subsequent ascension of King Salman, who many critics accuse of attempting to “reverse some liberal initiatives launched under King Abdullah.”[3]

In March of 2011, the government of a neighboring country to Saudi Arabia struggled with its branch of the Arab Spring uprisings. A Sunni royal family much like Saudi Arabia’s controls Bahrain, a small island country in the Persian Gulf with a predominantly Shiite population. This family, the Khalifas, asked for assistance from the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, to help suppress a pro-democracy protest that the Khalifas perceived to be a threat to their power.[10][13]

It was in Bahrain in 2011 that the foundation of a new Saudi policy was first laid. The reason for this is simply that the pro-democracy protests in Bahrain were portrayed as Shiite-led unrest against a Sunni government. The Saudis didn’t look kindly on this, in part because they believed that a Shiite victory in Bahrain could allow Iran to “expand its influence and inspire unrest elsewhere.”[13]

Fear of Iran, coupled with the desire to support a neighboring pro-Saudi Sunni monarchy, compelled the Saudi government to a historic decision: intervention. The Saudis “sent their national guard, the Emiratis sent police forces, and the Kuwaitis sent their navy”[10] to the island country and these forces, collectively classed under the “aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council,”[13] suppressed the Bahraini uprising. In 2014, a full three years late, the Saudis still had not left the country.[10]

The invasion of Bahrain was the first of many subsequent foreign interventions, and it marked a definite turning point in Saudi policy. The intervention in Bahrain was “rejected by the opposition” as an occupation, or even (in Iran’s approximation) an invasion.[13] And yet, the U.S. once again supported Saudi Arabia’s decision. It could have been that the U.S. wanted to preserve the naval presence in Bahrain that has existed since 1947,[10] or it could be because the U.S., like the Saudis, perceived the victory of the pro-democracy movement as an opportunity for Iran to seize more power in the gulf.

The Saudi intervention in Bahrain is not an exception to Saudi policy. The more well-known recent example of Saudi military activity is, of course, Yemen. In March of 2015, the Saudis “launched air strikes against the Houthis, the Zaydi Shiite rebels who had deposed the pro-Saudi government in Sanaa… and taken control of much of the country.”[2] Already you can see that this intervention bears remarkable similarity to that in Bahrain: A Shiite group ousting or attempting to oust a Sunni government, with the added benefit of the Houthi war being partly about “Yemeni aspirations for a more inclusive government.”[2]

To take a shallow look at this conflict is to represent it as a sectarian battle between Shiite and Sunni. This is part of the conflict of course—it’s no secret that those in the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia are treated “as second-class citizens.”[2] Indeed, a quick look at Saudi Arabia’s primary rivals—al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Bahraini rebellion, the Houthis, and Iran—shows that Saudi Arabia tends to establish rivalries with Shiite groups. But to classify all of Saudi Arabia’s military interventions as religiously motivated is to ignore the primary reason for Saudi military projection.

Let’s return to Camp David in May of 2015. In the previous month, the Saudis began their aerial attacks on the Houthis. U.S. reactions to the campaign, which Salman called “Operation Decisive Storm,”[2] were mixed in large part due to the unacceptable loss of civilian lives in Saudi-led air strikes.[1] But it was not really the lack of U.S. support for the Saudi effort in Yemen, especially given that the Saudi military relied on U.S. “logistical assistance, and shared intelligence to carry out strikes in Yemen.”[3] No, the impetus for Salman’s diplomatic snub at Camp David was the U.S.’s actions in the Iran Nuclear Deal.

The Two Pillars: Cold War in the Middle East

credit: yournewswire.com

The Sunni-Shiite sectarian struggle in the Middle East is overshadowed by the far larger, and more complicated, conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran for “regional hegemony.”[2] Each nation was at one point considered the U.S.’s most prominent Arab ally, even though the Saudis long ago became the sole pillar of U.S.-Arab cooperation in the Gulf. However, the Iran Nuclear Deal is, in the opinion of the Saudis, a deliberate realignment of power, with Washington making clear that it wants to normalize relations with Tehran while relations with Riyadh deteriorate.

In the U.S., the discussion of the Iran Nuclear Deal was broadly focused on diplomacy with Iran and the question of whether they would truly cease their nuclear production. Hardly any mind was paid to the Saudis, who watched nervously as the U.S. made their deal with Iran.

The Saudis didn’t oppose the nuclear disarmament of Iran, but they did oppose the decision to lift the sanctions levied against Iran. Some believe that the lifting of sanctions will render Iran a “competitive oil producer and responsible regional power”12] capable of challenging and destabilizing Saudi Arabia’s role in the region. Others have argued that an unsanctioned Iran will be economically able to “increase its support of militant groups in the region.”[11]

On the whole, the Iran Nuclear Deal felt like a falling out between the U.S. and Riyadh. King Salman was uniquely positioned to inform public opinion of the deal: If he voiced his support, critics of the deal would have to defend it despite Saudi Arabia, Iran’s greatest rival, seeing no fault in it. However, Salman chose to oppose it, which made it look as if the U.S. was dealing with Iran “without the support of [its] key allies in the region.”[4]

Regardless of whether the nuclear deal will be good or bad for the Middle East in the long run, the Saudis are now directly opposed to the U.S.’s decision to deal with Iran and have only tried to worsen the situation in the wake of the deal. In January 2016 the Saudi government chose to execute the Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr,[12] a move that some have seen as a overt attempt to inflame hostility between Sunni and Shiite. Mohammed Ayoob, writing for Yale Global, noted that Saudi Arabia’s response to the Iran Nuclear Deal has, perhaps more so than the deal itself, destabilized the region:

“The difference between the two countries is that the mainstream elements in power in Tehran are not interested in escalating tensions however much they may condemn the recent turn in Saudi policy. In Saudi Arabia, those who hold the reins of power find it profitable to demonize Iran and escalate tensions to serve their own short-term ends.”[12]

The result of all this is that, while Arabian Peninsula seems to be slowly moving toward change, the U.S.-Saudi relationship will probably not disintegrate. Mutual economic and defense interests persist despite the myriad snags in the relationship, and as such, the U.S.’s foreign policy in the Middle East will necessarily require Riyadh’s participation. But although the relationship may remain intact, it’s public perception in each country that is changing, perhaps for the worse.

Throughout this article we have approached modern Saudi Arabia from many angles, and by now it should be apparent that it is a “troubled country.”[8] Oil was for so long Saudi Arabia’s primary economic agent, and now that seems ready to change. Public pressure for inclusive government and the end of policies specifically intended to repress dissidents seems ready to change. Wahhabism as an institution in Saudi Arabian culture and politics seems ready to change. Even the governance of Saudi Arabia, passing from the older generation to the younger, is ready to change. And yet the change is slow to take effect.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship could be a facilitator for said change, but for that to be the case, the attitude on both sides toward the relationship needs to change as well. Back in 2004, the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report presciently described Saudi and U.S. public opinion of the other side:

“Today, mutual recriminations grow. Many Americans see Saudi Arabia as an enemy, not as an embattled ally. They perceive an autocratic government that oppresses women, dominated by a wealthy and indolent elite. Saudi contacts with American politicians are frequently invoked as accusations in partisan political arguments. Americans are often appalled by the intolerance, anti-Semitism, and anti-American arguments taught in schools and preached in mosques.” Simultaneously, “many educated Saudis who were sympathetic to America now perceive the United States as an unfriendly state. One Saudi reformer noted to us that the demonization of Saudi Arabia in the U.S. media gives ammunition to radicals, who accuse reformers of being U.S. lackeys.”[8]

The alliance between the U.S. and the Saudis is therefore confounding. It seems almost like a grudging friendship: The two states need each other, so they tolerate snags in the relationship even though such snags lead to animosity between the countries. Perhaps, moving forward, what is necessary is the “pragmatic reform”[8] advocated by the 9/11 Commission Report. The report unambiguously recommends that the United States and Saudi Arabia “build a relationship… about more than oil.”[8]

To extend the report’s argument beyond simply oil, the U.S.-Saudi relationship needs to be reinforced by more than just mutual defense and economic interests. These interests may keep the alliance intact, but they don’t account for public opinion in the two countries. The U.S. must directly approach the topic of Saudi human rights abuses, while the Saudis must confront the U.S.’s apparently uncooperative attitude toward Saudi interests in the Middle East.

Every discussion of the U.S.-Saudi relationship that was consulted in the writing of this article addresses the snags, catches, problems, and the detractors from the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But what would happen if the snags weren’t treated as detractors, but rather as issues on the agenda that the two nations absolutely need to sort out for the relationship to move forward? What if the only agent for change is mutual recognition that change is required?

Works Cited

[1] Staff, “U.S.-Saudi Relations.” Council for Foreign Relations, April 21, 2016. http://www.cfr.org/saudi-arabia/us-saudi-relations/p36524

[2] Riedel, Bruce. “The Prince of Counterterrorism.” Brookings Institute, September 29, 2015. http://www.brookings.edu/research/essays/2015/the-prince-of-counterterrorism

[3] Blanchard, Christopher M. “Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations.” Congressional Research Service, April 22, 2016. http://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33533.pdf

[4] Gordon, Philip. “King Salman Comes to Washington.” Politico Magazine, September 1, 2015. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/09/mag-saudi-gordon-213101?o=0

[5] Office of the Press Secretary of the White House, “FACT SHEET: United States-Saudi Arabia Bilateral Relationship.” Whitehouse.gov, March 28. 2014. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/03/28/fact-sheet-united-states-saudi-arabia-bilateral-relationship

[6] Waldman, Peter. “Saudi Arabia’s Plan to Extend the Age of Oil.” Bloomberg.com. April 12, 2015. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-04-12/saudi-arabia-s-plan-to-extend-the-age-of-oil

[7] Pregent, Michael. “Saudi Arabia is a Great American Ally.” Foreign Policy, April 20, 2016. http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/04/20/saudi-arabia-is-a-great-american-ally-not-iran/

[8] The 9/11 Commission Report https://books.google.com/books?id=TjKODEaahVQC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q&f=false

[9] Carol and Jamsheed Choksy, “The Saudi Connection: Wahhabism and Global Jihad.” World Affairs Journal, May 2015. http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/saudi-connection-wahhabism-and-global-jihad

[10] Austin Holmes, Amy. “The military intervention that the world forgot.” Al Jazeera America, March 29, 2014. http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/3/bahrain-uprisinginterventionsaudiarabiaemirates.html

[11] Yeganeh Torbati and Julia Edwards, “Saudi Arabia satisfied with Obama’s assurances on Iran deal.” Reuters, September 4, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-saudi-jubeir-idUSKCN0R42D420150904

[12] Ayoob, Mohammed. “Iran Nuclear Deal Fuels Tension With Saudi Arabia Inflaming New Conflicts.” YaleGlobal, 19 January 2016. http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/iran-nuclear-deal-fuels-tension-saudi-arabia-inflaming-new-conflicts

[13] Ethan Bronner and Michael Slackman, “Saudi Troops Enter Bahrain to Help Put Down Unrest.” The New York Times, March 14, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/world/middleeast/15bahrain.html

[14] Takeyh, Ray. “The New Saudi Foreign Policy.” Council on Foreign Relations, April 17, 2015. http://www.cfr.org/saudi-arabia/new-saudi-foreign-policy/p36456

[15] Myre, Greg. “The 1973 Arab Oil Embargo: The Old Rules No Longer Apply.” NPR, October 19, 2013. http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2013/10/15/234771573/the-1973-arab-oil-embargo-the-old-rules-no-longer-apply

[16] Gal Luft and Anne Korin, “The Myth of U.S. Energy Dependence.” Foreign Affairs, October 15, 2013. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2013-10-15/myth-us-energy-dependence?cid=soc-twitter-in-snapshots-the_myth_of_us_energy_independence-101613

[17] U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Gasoline and Diesel Update.” http://www.eia.gov/petroleum/gasdiesel/

[18] Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia: Website Editor Facing Death Penalty.” December 22, 2012. https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/12/22/saudi-arabia-website-editor-facing-death-penalty

top photo credit: fastcompany.net


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