Unlike US relations with Israel, Saudi-US relations were never organic, i.e., based on shared religious and cultural values. US relations with the KSA differ even from those with Turkey in that Turkey, although a Muslim country, has had a long relationship with Europe and with the US. This historical relationship contributed to Turkey being accepted as a member of NATO. No Arab country, let alone the KSA, would ever be accepted as a member of NATO.
The KSA’s relationship with the US was largely based on Europe’s need for oil after World War II and especially after 1967.
Second, the conservative, fanatical Wahhabi ideology espoused by the Saudi dynasty and its fervent anti-communism dovetailed with the strong anti-communist ideology of the US after World War II and served both countries well right up to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Its residue is still strong enough to serve both countries’ interests if the strong anti-communist rhetoric can be migrated to anti-Russia sentiments.
The KSA has played a strong role in supporting the US as well as European interests throughout Africa and Southwest Asia. The Arab-Israel wars of 1967 and 1973 and the flaccid Arab oil embargo hardly influenced the strong global geopolitical interests that cemented the alliance.
The KSA supplied the oil and its derivatives and the US supplied the arms, weapons, systems, tanks and aircraft to keep the dynasty in power.
The main reason for the sustaining of this relationship was that after the creation of Israel in 1948, and US support for the new state, the US government turned over the management of the Arab-Israel portfolio to the Arabian American Oil Co., which ably managed the portfolio until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. After the war, Washington took full charge of relations.
The Saudi-US relationship has continued despite strong and documented evidence of Saudi government, group and individual support for fanatical Salafist Muslim groups that support terrorist activities through the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, Europe, the US and elsewhere espousing anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti-West, anti-gay and almost every conceivable intolerance that any civilized person would find abominable.
Why, one might ask. As mentioned above, it was largely to stabilize global energy supplies. It must be added that Arab oil, especially Saudi oil, contributed immensely to the wellbeing and high standard of living of Americans and Europeans from the 1960s onwards.
So one might ask again, what has now changed? What has changed is that the US no longer needs Persian Gulf oil. It is now reliably reported that by as early as 2017 the US may be an exporter of oil. Second, the diminishing of the US footprint in the Middle East compels European nations, as President Obama has stated, “to put some skin in the game.”
These dramatic global changes have of course contributed to immense upheaval and turbulence in the Arab world and in some largely Muslim countries during the last four years. It is turmoil that is bound to continue; this turmoil must be managed.
This is the major reason for President Obama’s visit to the KSA during the last days of March. Obama will stress to the Saudis that despite Washington’s concern for Riyadh and individual Saudis’ support of terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Nigeria, Mali, Tunisia, Libya, Pakistan and even in Afghanistan where the US still has troops, the US will continue to support Saudi military efforts against the Shia Bashar al-Assad regime, and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. But Obama will also stress that Washington will continue to support the Shia Nuri al-Maliki government in Baghdad in order to keep Iraq somewhat intact despite the KSA’s support for terrorist groups attempting to overthrow al-Maliki’s regime.
The Saudi-US relationship is becoming more complex and entangled because the US wants to reduce its footprint but with a lighter boot. An increasingly isolated KSA, now having quarrels with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries over a variety of issues, feels threatened, and Iran looms across the Persian Gulf.
One thing upon which both Washington and Riyadh do agree is that the US will continue to sell the KSA more weapons on top of the $86 billion it has sold it since 2010, including upgraded F-15s (no F-35s as they are intended for Israel), Apache attack helicopters, an array of missiles, Patriot batteries and much more hardware. Because of increasing differences among the Sunni Gulf Arab states, and with Syria and Shia hostility in general, the KSA will be compelled to accept. Washington needs Saudi money to help defray US defense demands in other parts of the globe.
Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst based in Lexington, Kentucky. This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading Turkish newspaper