The United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East for decades. Despite substantial differences in history, culture, and governance, the two countries have generally agreed on important political and economic issues and have often relied on each other to secure mutual aims. Today the relationship is under strain as fundamental changes in oil markets, regional security, and U.S. priorities at times find the United States and its newly assertive ally in disagreement and the alliance beset by a new sense of mistrust.
On May 18, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington hosted a panel discussion on the U.S.-Saudi relationship with F. Gregory Gause, III, AGSIW board member, John H. Lindsey ’44 Chair, professor of international affairs, and head of the international affairs department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
AGSIW Senior Resident Scholar Kristin Smith Diwan opened the discussion by examining how the Senate’s passing of the 9/11 bill, the Saudi-related 28 pages in the 9/11 report, calls in Congress for limiting arm sales to the kingdom, and U.S. opposition to Saudi policies in the region are all manifestations of the current strained relationship between the two countries.
Gause began by noting that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is a remnant of the past; both countries were on the same side in the Cold War and Saudi Arabia depended heavily on U.S. companies for oil. However, he added that the key pillars of this special relationship do not exist anymore; Saudis now control their own oil. The end of the Cold War and the U.S. participation in the first Gulf War strengthened U.S. ties with the Gulf Arab states. However, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria, and other regional conflicts have negatively impacted ties between the two countries. Saudi Arabia prioritizes rolling back Iranian influence in the region by supporting the Syrian opposition and intervening in Yemen. For Washington, Syria is not a central issue and the problems that the Gulf states face are internal and unrelated to Iran.
Gause, however, asserted that neither side wants relations to fray any further, citing common interests between Washington and Riyadh. Both countries view Salafi jihadism as a threat, want to avoid chaos in the oil patch, and neither want one single power to dominate the region, in particular Iran. The immediate tensions in U.S.-Saudi relations do not mean that both sides do not have common interests but rather that they prioritize these interests differently. Yemen encapsulates both the tension and the intention of both sides to sustain relations. For example, unlike the United States, Saudi Arabia views the Houthis as Iran’s fifth column and thus rolling back Iranian-backed Houthis is a priority for the kingdom, while the United States supports the intervention logistically.
Gause additionally refuted three common arguments against U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. The first is that Wahhabism is believed be a gateway to Salafi jihadism and, if pressured enough, the kingdom can eradicate jihadism. However, according to Gause, Salafism is not an exclusive Saudi phenomenon and therefore the country cannot control it. He argues that the United States should instead cooperate with Saudi Arabia in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and al-Qaeda. The second argument is that the United States does not need Saudi Arabia because the former is energy independent. However, U.S. interests in the Gulf are not about securing access to oil but rather oil as a strategic commodity for the world. The third claim is that the Saudi monarchy is a fragile regime and maintaining relations is risky for the United States. Some analysts have predicted the collapse of the regime but nothing has happened. Gause argues that this claim is weak because there are no major splits in the royal family and a younger leadership is now at the helm of the financially stable kingdom.
Gause concluded by examining the improbability of the United States distancing itself from Saudi Arabia. Washington does not provide foreign aid to Riyadh, blocking arm sales will trigger the Saudis to buy arms elsewhere, and discontinuing intelligence sharing is counterintuitive. The United States has interests in the region and maintaining a working relationship with the kingdom advances those interests.
John H. Lindsey ‘44 Chair, Professor of International Affairs, and Head of the International Affairs Department, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University
Senior Resident Scholar, AGSIW
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