Business as Usual: The Saudi-US Relationship

By Seznec, Jean-Francois | Harvard International Review, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Business as Usual: The Saudi-US Relationship


Seznec, Jean-Francois, Harvard International Review


The Saudi-US relationship has consistently been described as an exchange of oil for security. However, since 1944, when US President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdel Aziz met in Egypt, Saudi Arabia has used more US goods, management systems, technology, medical facilities, and training than those from any other country in the world. The relationship rested on much more than just oil and seemed robust enough to withstand the inevitable strains of relations. However, the development of Saudi-US relations held the seeds of its own destruction and was all but destroyed after the crisis of September 11, 2001.

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Today, Saudis from all ways of life--taxi drivers to merchants, ministers, and princes--will provide visitors with an earful of varied negative aspects of US policy. They speak at length about the perceived shabby treatment of Saudis in the United States: students cannot obtain visas and the ill are denied access to hospitals. The Saudis profoundly resent the controversial treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. They explain the US invasion of Iraq as a neo-conservative plot by Washington and Israel to weaken the Arab world. They perceive the legal suit against senior royal family members in New York as money-grabbing tactics by trial lawyers. They resent the negative press coverage of Saudi Arabia, especially the stories and editorials in the Wall Street Journal. Many Saudis fear US President George W. Bush's pre-emptive policy of first strike, which they see as a possible prelude to the United States invading the oil fields of the Eastern Province. Most of all, the Saudis overwhelmingly resent the Bush administration's support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his policy of developing new settlements in the West Bank and his ruthless, albeit intifada-related, occupation of Palestinian territory.

In the United States, many members of the media, the US Congress, and a number of US think tanks view Saudi Arabia as responsible for September 11, 2001, primarily because of the systematic development of a worldwide jihad against the United States and its values. The problems extend well beyond September 11. Some see Saudi Arabia as using its fabulous oil wealth to maintain a corrupt regime, and through its control of OPEC, blackmailing the United States into overpaying for its oil. They see Saudi Arabia as oppressing women and promoting religious intolerance--both within Islam and between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world. The reports of the arrests of Christians for merely attending a service, the interdiction of owning a Bible, the arrests of Sufis, or the oppression of the Shi'a are all well publicized. Numerous articles on the corrupt and profligate ways of many Saudi princes add to the strong resentment of Saudi Arabia. Of course, the Saudi state was also heavily criticized before September 11, 2001, for not cooperating with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation in the investigation of the Al-Khobar bombing, which killed many US personnel. After September 11, 2001, the Saudis were further criticized for not adequately tracking terrorist funding.

The Common Interest

The Saudi-US relationship started with a common interest in oil. US companies founded Saudi Aramco after British Petroleum had written off the desert kingdom. Aramco, under US leadership, trained the large number of Saudis who now comprise 92 percent of the country's work force. The US oil company's shares in Aramco were eventually purchased by the Saudi government in the mid-1980s. Nevertheless, Saudi Aramco still uses US management and has become one of the world's most respected oil companies. Aramco is largely free of political interference and all of Saudi Aramco's senior managers hold degrees from US universities and speak fondly of the United States.

The United States is also responsible for designing Saudi Arabia's remarkable industrial development. …

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