U.S.-Saudi Relations: Rebuilding the Strategic Consensus

By McMillan, Joseph | Strategic Forum, November 2001 | Go to article overview

U.S.-Saudi Relations: Rebuilding the Strategic Consensus


McMillan, Joseph, Strategic Forum


Key Points

The United States inevitably will look to Saudi Arabia to play a critical role in any effective campaign against global terrorism. For Saudi Arabia to fulfill expectations, the United States must revitalize a strategic relationship that was under serious strain before the attacks on September 11.

Managing this relationship has always presented unusual challenges. In particular, the Saudi Kingdom's unique history and status in the Islamic world create risks that close military cooperation with the United States could damage the House of Saud's political and religious legitimacy.

These challenges were met in 1990 by a common understanding of the threat, shared strategic objectives, and careful accommodation of each other's sensitivities. However, the factors that made the Desert Storm coalition work have deteriorated, while the political environment has evolved to make military cooperation more difficult.

Restoring the relationship will require: addressing grievances that have grown over a decade of American presence in Saudi Arabia; prioritizing what Washington needs from Riyadh; reaching an understanding on the strategic basis of the bilateral relationship and the future of the region; structuring decisions to avoid forcing the Saudi regime to take sides against America; overhauling U.S. military presence in the Kingdom to ensure improved coordination; renewing diplomatic efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front; and articulating a positive American vision for the region--one that is open to political and economic change.

The preponderance of Saudi citizens among the September 11 terrorists and President George Bush's ensuing announcement of a war against global terrorism have again placed the spotlight on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Even before September 11, U.S.-Saudi relations were approaching a crossroads. Despite long odds, America forged a successful military and political coalition with the Saudis during the Gulf war, but over the last several years bilateral ties have been seriously strained. Both sides have been inclined --and for the most part able--to keep these strains hidden from public view, but in the process the United States seems to have lost sight of the unique problems the Saudis face in working with America.

As the United States comes to grips with the aftermath of September 11, it is no longer possible to sweep these issues under the rug, as has been illustrated by the very public controversy over use of Prince Sultan Air Base by U.S. forces for operations against the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

At one level, the contretemps over the reported Saudi refusal to allow the United States to operate out of Saudi Arabia arose from a front-page story in The New York Times, which stated that a senior Air Force general had been dispatched to run the air war from Prince Sultan Air Base. To judge from subsequent reports, the steps reported in The New York Times were taken without top-level consultation with the Saudi government. No government likes to learn from the press that its territory is to be used by a foreign power to conduct offensive military operations against a third country. Although Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld later denied that Saudi Arabia had refused the use of its bases--on the grounds that the United States had not asked to use them--the fact that the issue arose at all highlights the need to keep three key points in mind:

* Military cooperation with the United States has always had the potential for damaging Saudi sovereignty and political and religious legitimacy in ways that have no parallel in most other countries, including the other Gulf states.

* Getting Saudi cooperation in the war against Iraq and the continuing operations to secure Baghdad's compliance with the postwar ceasefire was a diplomatic feat of considerable complexity and skill.

* Changes that have taken place since the deployment of U.

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