With Values Aligned: Improving Saudi-US Relations

Harvard International Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

With Values Aligned: Improving Saudi-US Relations


In April 2005, Crown Prince Abdullah, who would soon become King of Saudi Arabia, met with US President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas, to discuss Saudi relations with the United States. When the meeting concluded, a joint press conference introduced a new initiative: the Saudi-US Strategic Dialogue, created to reinvigorate the strong relationship that had existed since 1945, when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt first met with King Abdul Aziz, the founder of the modern Saudi state.

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The Dialogue called for a meeting between the Saudi Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State every six months, in addition to meetings of various subgroups. This move, intended to institutionalize relations and deepen coordination between the two countries on strategic and political issues, signified that the Saudi-US relationship was officially back on track. Almost four years after the events of September 11, 2001, in which 15 Saudis participated, formal understanding between the two governments was restored.

When I consider the more than 60 years of official relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States, it is obvious that the relationship has fluctuated. But it is also clear that all challenges have been addressed successfully. Although the partnership is often characterized as one based solely on "oil for security," the actual relationship is much more complex. The relationship is deeply rooted and based on personal connections between the people of each country. These connections are strengthened by the two countries' shared strategic interests in geopolitical issues concerning the Middle East and the world.

A Relationship of the People

Individuals from the United States and Saudi Arabia were forming friendships and partnerships long before their respective governments began formally interacting. In the 1930s, US citizens first came to the Kingdom to help develop Saudi oil fields. Engineers and geologists such as Thomas Barger and Max Steineke from the California Standard Oil Company helped to form the oil company Saudi Aramco. These people became a conduit for initial relations between the two governments.

As our oil production increased, more and more US citizens continued to work and live in the Kingdom, helping to introduce our people not only to the science of oil exploration but also to US culture. Over the years, tens of thousands of Saudis in turn have gone to study in the United States, and hundreds of thousands have visited for business, vacation, medical treatment, and family visits, resulting in countless business relationships and friendships.

I first came to the United States when I was 14 years old. From the beginning, I could see that Saudis and Americans had much in common. On my first day of school, a young boy came up to me, slapped me on the back, and introduced himself. I introduced myself in return, and from that point on he began to pepper me with questions: Where are you from? What is it like? How many family members do you have? Can you ride a camel? Do you live in a tent? He was like the Bedouins when they meet in the desert--very engaging, very appealing, and very inquisitive. That interaction made me feel at home immediately and was typical of my experience in the United States. I believe it is illustrative of the reason why the Saudi and US peoples have formed strong bonds over time. Beneath our apparent cultural differences, we are quite similar; we speak openly and are forthright, and we value faith and family above all else.

Shared Principles and Strategic Relations

Such shared characteristics and personal connections have been necessary not only to the formation of basic relationships but also to strategic coordination, which I witnessed as the Kingdom's Chief of the General Intelligence Directorate. They formed the basis of a common cause and unwavering partnership to combat atheistic communism during the Cold War and then to face down Saddam Hussein's aggression during the liberation of Kuwait. …

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