Sand in Our Eyes: U.S.-Saudi Relations after Iraq

By Sieff, Martin | The National Interest, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Sand in Our Eyes: U.S.-Saudi Relations after Iraq


Sieff, Martin, The National Interest


OSAMA BIN LADEN has certainly achieved one of his cherished goals from the appalling mega-terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that destroyed the World Trade Center and mauled the Pentagon. He has upset U.S.-Saudi relations and effectively wrecked an alliance that had previously endued for six decades to the vast benefit of both parties. Before 9/11, the Saudis had been viewed by U.S. policymakers, especially in the Republican foreign policy establishment, with great favor. Certainly, Democrats tended to be less comfortable with the Saudis--troubled both by the Kingdom's illiberal domestic policies as well as its staunch opposition to the state of Israel. However, all administrations generally found it possible to find a modus vivendi that permitted the smooth functioning of the "special relationship" with the Desert Kingdom.

Within days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, however, the way in which Washington policymakers and pundits viewed Saudi Arabia was transformed. And many of those that for generations had been the most enthusiastic about the "special relationship" with Saudi Arabia became, effectively overnight, its fiercest critics. On the Saudi side, there was no equivalent sudden shift, because Saudi attitudes towards the United States had been inexorably changing over the last several years, and not for the better. The American reaction to 9/11 has accelerated these trends and brought them to a head.

What is at stake is the relationship that was forged, if a single dramatic political event can be said to start it, when President Franklin Roosevelt met the ailing but still potent, powerful and shrewd old King Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud on the cruiser USS Augusta in 1945.

The U.S.-Saudi Compact

FROM THE beginning, the U.S.-Saudi relationship was firmly grounded in realpolitik considerations. FDR and Ibn Saud both opposed continued British hegemony in the Middle East, each for their own reasons. Both saw Britain exhausted by the Second World War and in no real position to block the expansion of Soviet influence and its atheistic ideology (which Ibn Saud loathed) throughout the region. The shield of American protection as well as the lure of limitless U.S. petrodollars beckoned.

On this basis, the relationship flourished for decades. The United States emphasized its role as the protector of a conservative, religious Saudi Arabia against a godless Soviet superpower. Soviet communism threatened both America's liberal democracy and Saudi Arabia's theocratic monarchy. In return for security, America was to have guaranteed access to an inexpensive and steady source of petroleum.

The bargain was interrupted in 1973, in the form of the Yom Kippur War. Along with Iran, another long-standing U.S. ally in the region, Saudi Arabia decided to alter unilaterally the terms of the arrangement. Along with Iran, the Saudis became one of the prime motivating forces behind the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and succeeded overnight in quadrupling the price of oil. The Saudis briefly became, in American eyes, the villains of the piece. But after King Feisal Ibn Abdul-Aziz--the son of the old king who had relaxed with FDR on the decks of the Augusta--was assassinated by a deranged young fringe member of the royal family in 1975, power passed to Feisal's younger brother, the ailing King Khalid and, functionally, to Khalid's self-indulgent but exceptionally bright and pro-American sibling, Crown Prince Fahd. While the Saudis continued to use OPEC as a way to gain more revenue by keeping oil prices higher than their pre-1973 levels, their general demeanor towards the United States became far friendlier. They perceived a renewed threat from Soviet expansionism to their own survival, which was heightened by the development of a Soviet navy able to project power in the region. So, when Ronald Reagan entered the White House, the stage was set to recreate the U.

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