How the Bottom Fell Out of the U.S.-Saudi Alliance
A rocky marriage of convenience that has lasted since World War II could derail as oil markets crash and mutual mistrust reaches new heights.
In late November 1973, just six weeks after Saudi Arabia and OPEC launched a devastating oil embargo on Europe and the United States, U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger railed against the Saudis at a secret meeting in the White House Map Room. He’d already toyed with the “not … so insane” idea of landing U.S. troops that “would have divided up” oil fields in the region, and he decried what he repeatedly called Saudi “blackmail.”
“It is ridiculous that the civilized world is held up by 8 million savages,” Kissinger raged.
Three months later, Kissinger was inside the palace of Saudi King Faisal, paying obeisance and promising U.S. economic, technical, and military aid—before the oil embargo was even lifted. “Our objective is to work with Your Majesty and to strengthen our friendship on a long-term basis,” he said.
The monthslong drama of the OPEC oil embargo highlighted as seldom before the often troubled, yet surprisingly resilient nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Again and again, the unlikely partners would fall out—usually over the Arab-Israeli conflict, much later over the 9/11 attacks. But the fundamental bargain struck by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then-King Ibn Saud in the waning days of World War II that consummated the U.S.-Saudi relationship 75 years ago would never break.
Until, perhaps, now. This spring, as in the early 1970s, the Saudis unleashed their oil weapon, inflicting damage on the U.S. economy by deliberately crashing oil prices at a time of global economic collapse amid the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill already had little love for the Saudis, disillusioned by continued human rights abuses in the kingdom, a brutal Saudi-led war in Yemen, and, perhaps most shockingly, the Saudi state-ordered butchery of a Washington Post columnist.
By unsheathing the oil weapon, the Saudis have finally tested the patience of oil-patch Republicans, who have long been among their staunchest supporters in Congress. Even though the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and other big oil producers reached a deal this month meant to curtail oil output and undo some of the damage, it hasn’t worked: U.S. crude oil prices are at their lowest levels of the 21st century, threatening mass bankruptcies and layoffs in the United States. On April 20, U.S. oil prices utterly collapsed, falling into negative territory for the first time in history.
Now, lawmakers in oil states such as Texas, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Alaska accuse Saudi Arabia of waging “economic warfare” and have drafted legislation to immediately pull out U.S. troops and furl up a decades-old U.S. security umbrella that has protected the vulnerable Saudi state.
“This isn’t how friends behave toward other friends,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican leading the charge on the legislation, told Foreign Policy. “They grossly miscalculated the U.S. response to this.”
More broadly, many in Washington are coming to question the very fundamentals that have underpinned a very special bilateral relationship for 75 years—essentially, U.S. security to ensure the free flow of Saudi oil and Saudi support for U.S. designs in the Middle East.
Even U.S. President Donald Trump, who has largely defended the relationship until recently, is openly questioning whether the United States needs to protect Saudi oil at all. Most of it is now sold to China and other Asian buyers, rather than to Europe and the United States as in decades past. The U.S. energy revolution over the past decade has dramatically reduced U.S. reliance on Saudi Arabia and the Middle East for oil supplies, which has driven many foreign-policy observers to question why U.S. funding must be spent and American lives must be lost to protect a Middle Eastern theocratic monarchy that shares few U.S. values. A shotgun marriage that survived the oil embargo, 9/11, and the Iraq War is now being shaken by seismic geopolitical shifts, and by growing discontent among American lawmakers, the media, and the general public.
“I just have a hard time explaining to my constituents why we’re spending money and risking life to defend a country that’s got a sketchy history with us to begin with, and now demonstrated this type of behavior,” Cramer said. “They’ve just become very difficult to defend.”
Matters could soon grow even worse.
“The only thing holding the relationship together now is Trump—he has a peculiar affinity for Saudi Arabia,” said Bruce Riedel, an expert on Saudi Arabia and 30-year CIA veteran who is the director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. That could change with this year’s election, if presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden prevails over Trump. Biden, the former vice president, has called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and said he’d cut off military sales.
How did it come to this? Today’s tensions stem, in many ways, from the original foundations of the odd-couple relationship: an oil-for-security bargain that always sought, but never fully managed, to bridge the divide between a liberal democracy and a conservative religious monarchy.
Some experts believe U.S.-Saudi ties will ultimately weather the storm, as they always have, because of the need for a large, wealthy, and anti-Iran anchor for U.S. interests in the Middle East.
“It is really difficult, if not unthinkable, to think of a collapse in relations or divorce,” said Bilal Saab, an analyst with the Middle East Institute and former advisor on Middle East issues for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Others are starting to see a potential breaking point on the horizon. “I think this is a very significant and potentially existential moment in the relationship,” Riedel said. “There have been ups and downs, and no foreign country has inflicted as much economic pain as they did in 1973, but the relationship survived and recovered because there was still that basic bargain.
“But we don’t need the Saudis anymore—this comes in a very different geopolitical environment than previous crises.”
The U.S.-Saudi relationship began, for all intents and purposes, with one president, one king, and eight sheep herded onto a U.S. cruiser on Great Bitter Lake in Egypt as World War II wound to a close. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on his way back from the historic Yalta conference and weeks away from his death, held a fateful meeting in February 1945 with King Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al Saud, commonly known as Ibn Saud—the founder of modern Saudi Arabia.
For Ibn Saud, the meeting posed an opportunity to clinch his fledgling country’s spot as a key ally with the clear victor of World War II, just as the postwar map was being drawn. He dazzled Roosevelt with an army of courtiers and sumptuous meals from the slaughtered sheep, hoping the U.S. president could offer Saudi Arabia vital financial support until its fledgling oil industry was up and running. And it worked: Saudi Arabia was one of the only countries in the world that continued to receive U.S. Lend-Lease aid after the end of the war.
For Roosevelt, Saudi Arabia offered the United States two important things: the world’s biggest oil reserves and a central geographic location between Europe and Asia just as the Cold War was dawning. During the meeting, Roosevelt formed a personal bond with the Saudi king—the foundation of 75 years of ties between U.S. presidents and the Saudi royal family.
Within a few years of that first meeting, the United States went from haggling over small-scale aid for Saudi Arabia to essentially underwriting the security of an oil-rich desert sheikdom to keep oil supplies flowing—and to keep the Soviets out of the Middle East.
“No threat to your Kingdom could occur which would not be a matter of immediate concern to the United States,” U.S. President Harry S. Truman told Ibn Saud in 1950. A year later, the two countries inked a mutual defense agreement; two years after that, a U.S. military training mission was established in the kingdom. By 1957, the United States was selling Saudi Arabia massive amounts of arms to enable it to build up its ground forces.
Today, Saudi Arabia is the biggest buyer of U.S. weapons and has basked in U.S. protection, whether in 1990 against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s aggressive military moves or more recently from threatening overtures from Iran.
But from the very beginning, a fissure baked into the relationship threatened to crack it open. Roosevelt had met Ibn Saud hoping for Saudi support for a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, which the king vehemently opposed, and the U.S. president—in Saudi eyes—gave his word not to press the matter. But Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, eventually supported the creation of Israel, sowing years of distrust and cries of betrayal in Saudi Arabia.
Tensions over the Arab-Israeli conflict would repeatedly flare up again, especially after the 1967 Six-Day War, culminating in the 1973 oil embargo, and again in the months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Saudi displeasure at the stalled Middle East peace process came close to derailing the relationship that the terrorist attacks, carried out mainly by Saudis, had already come close to destroying.
These tensions, especially after the 1967 war, which saw Israel’s territory grow at the expense of Arab neighbors, threatened to poison U.S.-Saudi relations at the outset of the Nixon administration. A National Security Council paper prepared for Kissinger in 1969 warned of an “erosion in our position in Saudi Arabia over the past two years” and stressed that “the Palestine question is the chief area of misunderstanding which could seriously damage U.S.-Saudi relations.”
Those tensions escalated over the next three years until the Saudis started raising the threat of an unprecedented oil embargo to force a change in U.S. policy in the Middle East. At the time, the United States and its allies in Western Europe and Japan were growing increasingly reliant on cheap Saudi oil, giving the kingdom a unique chance to leverage its position as the world’s central banker of oil to browbeat the West into doing its bidding.
“The growing financial reserves of Middle East producers have made oil a weapon for coercion or blackmail that we can no longer dismiss,” National Security Council officials warned Kissinger in the summer of 1972. By the end of the year, backdoor U.S. missions to Saudi Arabia brought warnings that the Saudis, for decades a more-or-less reliable partner, were getting ready to do the unthinkable.
“It seems clear,” Kissinger wrote to President Richard Nixon in late 1972, “… that King Faisal is considering the idea of somehow bringing economic pressure to bear on the US to impose a peace settlement on Israel favorable to Arab interests.”
Those fears came true in October 1973, during the war between Israel and Egypt, after the United States rushed arms to Israel to forestall a Soviet threat and prop up its regional ally. Ibn Saud’s heir King Faisal, described in a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Jeddah as being “as furious” as he had ever been, personally ordered an oil embargo on the United States. Kissinger, who hours before had remained dismissive of the oil threat, quickly became furious himself and vowed not to make U.S. policy a hostage to economic coercion.
“I know what would have happened in the 19th century,” Kissinger fumed during a staff meeting. “The idea that a Bedouin kingdom could hold up Western Europe and the United States would have been absolutely inconceivable.”
A month later, he was still bouncing around ideas for a military solution to the oil embargo and Arab pressure. “Can’t we overthrow one of the sheikhs just to show that we can do it?” he asked over lunch in the White House Map Room.
In the end, the United States and Saudi Arabia patched up the dispute, and the oil embargo ended by the spring of 1974. But the scars it left were deep and long-lasting, permanently damaging Saudi Arabia’s image in American popular opinion, and leaving deep-rooted fears that the Saudis could and would use their oil weapon to damage U.S. interests—a fear that has persisted even though the nature of the Saudi oil threat has changed.
“The image of oil sheiks rubbing their hands in glee as we waited to fill up with gas has never made them popular,” Riedel, the Brookings expert, said.
Even before the U.S. energy revolution enabled the United States to wean itself off of foreign—and especially Saudi—oil, the embargo planted a seed in the public mind that the kingdom wasn’t a rock-solid partner.
“The embargo had a long-lasting effect on the relationship that still lasts today,” said Joseph Westphal, who was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2014 to 2017. “It made us aware of our dependence on foreign oil, and it created a whole new attitude” toward the Saudis, he said.
Yet just a few years after the embargo, another momentous event shook the Middle East and had three lasting effects on U.S.-Saudi relations that persist to this day. In 1979, the Iranian revolution toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a fellow monarch and staunch U.S. ally in the region. The Iranian revolution, as well as an assault that same year on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, terrified Saudi leadership, who saw how vulnerable their own position was.
The revolution, by removing the shah and creating permanent enmity with the United States, left Saudi Arabia as America’s main linchpin in the Middle East, all the bad blood from the oil embargo notwithstanding. Within a year, U.S. President Jimmy Carter would declare his eponymous doctrine that made U.S. protection of Persian Gulf oil supplies—and most especially those of Saudi Arabia—the very centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy in the region.
Coming just a decade before the end of communism, the eruption of a revolutionary regime in Iran would conveniently offer the United States and Saudi Arabia a new and much-needed common enemy, one that would provide a glue to cement the relationship that lasts to this day. But the disruption of Iran’s huge oil industry also made Saudi Arabia an even more important player in the global oil market, reinforcing the lessons Riyadh had learned five years before and emboldening Saudi leadership to press for even more concessions.
The Saudi government is “beginning to regard the U.S.-Saudi special relationship, generally defined as oil for security, as being somewhat unbalanced in the U.S. favor and is beginning to expect more consideration and more concessions from the U.S. in return for oil,” wrote U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John C. West in a report for Carter in mid-1979.
But that wasn’t the biggest impact of the Iranian revolution. Fearful of being toppled by religious radicals, Saudi leaders embraced a much more conservative line and empowered hard-line religious leaders in their own country, the first steps toward a decadeslong program to export the austere Wahhabi brand of Islam particular to the kingdom. Soon, wealthy Saudis, including one Osama bin Laden, started funding the Muslim mujahideen who were fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that began the same year as the Iranian revolution.
Two decades later, that Saudi lurch toward a harsher official line on religion would end up creating the biggest crisis yet in the special relationship.
9/11, the worst attack ever on U.S. soil, killed almost 3,000 people in orchestrated suicide bombings by hijacked commercial planes, knocking down the World Trade Center in New York and driving a stake through America’s long-held sense of invulnerability. The attack was carried out largely by Saudi nationals—15 of the 19 hijackers—some of whom had contacts with Saudi officials prior to the attacks. It created the most serious crisis to that point in a seemingly unbreakable relationship. U.S. popular opinion turned even more against the kingdom, while Saudi leadership resented the overwhelming U.S. backlash against what they saw as the work of rogue Saudi citizens, whose actions they officially disavowed.
“That was a really negative time,” recalled Robert Jordan, dispatched as the U.S. envoy to Saudi Arabia just a month after the attacks. The Saudis, stung by the popular U.S. reaction, organized massive boycotts of U.S. consumer products that were normally a staple in grocery stores and new-car lots. “There was a seething unhappiness with the negativity coming from U.S. politicians, religious figures, and more that colored the relationship to a great degree,” Jordan said.
The attacks led not only to two decades of the U.S. military crusading through the greater Middle East, still continuing today, but also to a simmering American resentment against what many believe was some degree of official Saudi government involvement in the attacks. For years, a classified portion of the 9/11 report fueled popular suspicions about Saudi involvement, though the eventual declassification of those missing pages in July 2016 attempted to lay the matter to rest. They hinted at possible, if unverified contacts between some of the hijackers and people connected to the Saudi government, but the inquiry was unable to document any official Saudi foreknowledge of or participation in the attacks.
The Saudi government welcomed the release of those documents. “We hope the release of these pages will clear up, once and for all, any lingering questions or suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s actions, intentions, or long-term friendship with the United States,” Abdullah Al Saud, then the Saudi ambassador to Washington, said at the time.
Fifteen years after the attacks, Congress unanimously passed legislation—and overrode a veto from then-President Barack Obama—that opened the door to lawsuits for damages against Saudi Arabia for the families of 9/11 victims.
“The relationship never really recovered from 9/11,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former longtime career U.S. diplomat who served multiple tours in the Middle East.
A grueling legal battle over the matter continues to this day, with the families of 9/11 victims, backed by powerful members of Congress, pushing for civil suits against the Saudi government for damages. The Justice Department has fended off repeated attempts to declassify more secret FBI files that assess whether Saudi officials had a hand in the attack—the latest in a series of filings sent to a federal judge this month.
If actions by Saudis poisoned the relationship in 2001, the United States returned the favor two years later, when the George W. Bush administration, despite vehement Saudi objections, decided to invade Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. Saudis feared that would open the door to greater Iranian influence on their doorstep, as in fact happened.
If Saudi Arabia had been paranoid about growing Iranian influence since 1979, “that was certainly exacerbated by Iraq and its aftermath,” Jordan, who served as ambassador until late 2003, said. “The Saudi foreign minister told me: ‘You have now turned Iraq over to Iran on a silver platter.’”
But over time, even the 9/11 attacks offered the United States and Saudi Arabia the chance to find a new common purpose, especially after terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, which carried out the 9/11 attacks, began targeting Saudi Arabia itself with a high-profile attack in 2003. Counterterrorism cooperation between Washington and Riyadh went into high gear and continues to this day, acting as one of the biggest sources of ballast in an otherwise troubled relationship.
Building a new counterterrorism relationship was “a turning point,” Jordan said. “The Saudis recognized that al Qaeda was after them as much as after us.”
His fellow former envoy Westphal agreed that the joint fight against Islamist terrorism helped heal some of the wounds of 9/11 and give the relationship fresh impetus. The then-crown prince, soon to be king, “Abdullah was more conservative, in a religious, cultural way, but he was an absolute enemy of terrorism, and made it extremely clear that it needed to be stamped out,” Westphal said.
“We couldn’t have had a stronger relationship on intelligence and counterterrorism and security,” he said of his time in the kingdom.
The common fight against terrorism was a bond that would help preserve the relationship through all the strains about to come—and there were plenty during the Obama years.
From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, the Obama administration couldn’t have dawned more brightly—before dimming disastrously, with clashing views over the Arab Spring, human rights, the civil war in Syria, and especially Obama’s efforts to reach a diplomatic accord with Iran.
“Saudi Arabia has a 60-year history of disappointment with its lover,” said Ali Shihabi, who until last year headed the Arabia Foundation, a think tank, and who is a vocal proponent in Washington of Saudi interests. “But Obama was the first since Jimmy Carter that gave Saudi leaders a heartache,” he said.
Saudi elites greeted Obama’s famous 2009 speech in Cairo calling for a “new beginning” of U.S. relations with the Muslim world with unabashed enthusiasm, U.S. diplomats reported in confidential cables at the time. Yet within two years, the outbreak of the Arab Spring would shake the foundations of countries all over the region, and the American response to the upheaval, to Saudi eyes, was to jettison longtime U.S. partners such as Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak. Worse, for Saudi leadership, was the apparent U.S. embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood—which Riyadh views as akin to a terrorist group threatening its place in the Muslim world—in the person of Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi.
“There’s no question that the Arab Spring unsettled the U.S. relationship with the Saudis. For them, the U.S. response [to calls for reform in the Arab world] was way too sympathetic, and the relationship cooled,” said Riedel of Brookings, who advised the Obama administration on foreign-policy issues.
But the apparent U.S. welcoming of politically threatening reform movements went hand in hand with what seemed to the Saudis a frustrating lack of action on other fronts close to their borders. When the Syrian civil war erupted, the Obama administration called for an end to the violence and eventually talked of the need for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to step down—but it did little to intervene in a fight that the Saudis saw as a core security concern of theirs. At the same time, the Obama administration seemed to have little problem with the very pro-Iranian government of Iraq, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which deeply unsettled Saudi leadership fearful of growing Iranian influence in their northern neighbor.
“King Abdullah was very respectful and liked Obama personally, but there were things they couldn’t understand,” said Westphal, who was present for three of Obama’s record four trips to Saudi Arabia. “‘Why are you supporting Maliki, who is essentially handing over his country to the Iranians? How can you not depose Assad?’”
The biggest threat to the bilateral relationship, however, came from the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize relations with Iran and to secure a diplomatic deal that would minimize the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Since 1979, Saudi leaders had seen Iran as the gravest threat to the region and their own security, and U.S. efforts to reach a nuclear deal while seemingly letting Iran continue its destabilizing behavior in the region unsettled the Saudis.
Saudi unease “was not because of the nuclear piece,” Westphal said. “In my conversations with the king, the crown prince, and the deputy crown prince, they favored the effort to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But they wanted more: They wanted us to push on Iran’s actions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and we didn’t do that.”
If Riyadh had difficulties with the Obama White House, they were set to face even bigger challenges from Congress, even before the passage of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act that opened the door to terrorism-related lawsuits against Riyadh.
Much of it centered over doubts about the Saudi-led fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. “We knew we might be getting into a car with a drunk driver,” one former senior Obama official later said. Still, wary of a Houthi takeover, and sensitive to the frail state of U.S.-Saudi ties after the Iran deal, the Obama administration ultimately lent military and diplomatic support to Saudi Arabia’s efforts in Yemen.
As the war in Yemen dragged on, congressional opposition to U.S. military support for the Saudi campaign intensified, with growing scrutiny of proposed U.S. arms sales to Riyadh. Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat, even warned in 2015 that the U.S.-Saudi partnership could be at risk over the war in Yemen.
By the time of the 2016 U.S. election, Saudi Arabia was fighting a rearguard action to restore its privileged relationship with the United States. With the election of Donald Trump, a Republican who shared Riyadh’s hawkish views toward Iran and never made a fuss about human rights, Saudi Arabia secured a lifeline—but also a potential liability.
Saudi leaders, like nearly everybody else, were caught off guard by Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 election—and quickly set out to build bridges to the new administration, cementing a personal bond between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Trump, and especially bonding with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Recent past presidents had always made their first foreign visit to either Canada or Mexico, the United States’ closest trade partners and neighbors. Trump, bucking tradition, chose Saudi Arabia.
Saudi leaders famously rolled out the red carpet, and a glowing orb, for Trump’s first overseas trip as president. It seemed a surprising about-face after Trump’s attacks on Muslims, and repeated attacks on Saudi Arabia, on the campaign trail, when he accused the kingdom of carrying out 9/11, criticized it for sponging off American protection, and threatened an economic boycott.
Saudi leaders were happy to overlook Trump’s comments, eager to forge ties with an untested and unorthodox president before other foreign leaders could.
“Washington is like Rome in the Roman Empire, and we are like a satellite state—you pay homage to the emperor,” Shihabi said. “You could put a monkey in the White House, and we’d pay homage.”
Those close ties with the White House helped keep U.S.-Saudi relations on track even as Congress intensified its scrutiny over the war in Yemen and ramped up legislative efforts to loosen U.S.-Saudi security links during Trump’s first years in office; Trump vetoed congressional efforts to curb military cooperation.
Congressional anger at Saudi Arabia only intensified after the brutal murder by Saudi operatives of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018. The CIA subsequently concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—the ambitious heir apparent to Saudi rule—ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
But again, Trump ran interference to protect the Saudis, citing in part the economic ties between the two countries and fears of other U.S. rivals’ growing influence in the Middle East. “I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them,’” he told NBC News in a June 2019 interview.
Yet those presidential ties have come at a cost for Riyadh. The playbook that has reliably worked since 1945 to ground the bilateral ties in personal relationships with the president now seems to be backfiring. Mohammed bin Salman, reviled by many in Congress for his alleged role in the Khashoggi killing, as well as other continued human rights abuses inside Saudi Arabia and in Yemen, is seen as being exceptionally close to Kushner and Trump. Riding the coattails of a historically unpopular, already-impeached president isn’t the best way to improve Saudi Arabia’s image.
The overtures to the White House “established a connection, but on the flip side, it identified Saudi Arabia with Trump,” Shihabi said, which in a time of hyperpartisanship in Washington has hurt Saudi Arabia’s cause on Capitol Hill and in the press. “The Trump embrace has cost Saudi Arabia more than it has given.”
Despite decades of close economic ties and military and counterterrorism cooperation, Saudi Arabia never seemed to plant deep roots in the United States that would institutionalize the relationship beyond kings, generals, and presidents. This meant when tensions flared up between the two countries, Riyadh didn’t have many outside allies to come to its defense in Washington.
“It’s been a relationship that’s kind of a mile wide and an inch deep,” said Feierstein, the former U.S. diplomat.
Then came Mohammed bin Salman’s foreign-policy excesses: the disastrous war in Yemen, the bizarre virtual kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister to pressure Iran and Hezbollah, and an embargo on Qatar, its small neighbor and a key U.S. military partner. At home, there was the regular drumbeat of reports on human rights violations, plus a $100 billion shakedown on wealthy political rivals to consolidate power under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign.
Those moves overshadowed Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious drive to reform his country and diversify the oil-rich economy, leading congressional critics to conclude Riyadh was taking a one step forward and two steps back. In 2018, for example, Saudi Arabia finally granted women the right to drive. But some of the most prominent activists who pressed for such reforms were jailed and reportedly tortured.
More than ever, Saudi Arabia has come to rely on its alliance with Washington to shore up international legitimacy as European countries and the wider international community soured on its trajectory.
“As long as they’ve been a country—they’re so young—they really don’t know what their place in the world would be like without the backing of the United States,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, a former head of Persian Gulf issues in Trump’s National Security Council.
Mohammed bin Salman “recognizes that we give him some legitimacy, that the world would probably come down much harder on them if we hadn’t stuck by them, that they would wind up potentially being a pariah, like Iran is,” added Fontenrose, now at the Atlantic Council.
The pitchforks were already out for Saudi Arabia in Congress when, in early March, Russia and Saudi Arabia failed to reach an agreement to curb their oil production, breaking a partnership that had been in place for almost three years and that had kept oil prices relatively high. Russia started the oil price war, but Saudi Arabia finished it, massively ramping up production and slashing the sales price of its oil exports. Coupled with the catastrophic economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, which paralyzed economic activity around the world, the move sent oil prices on a historic plunge.
Unlike in 1973, when Saudi Arabia used the oil weapon to jack up oil prices and hurt the United States, this time crashing oil prices did the trick. U.S. shale producers need oil prices above $40 a barrel to break even; the Russian-Saudi price war sent the price of oil to $25 and then into the single digits, ensuring a wave of bankruptcies and economic hardship from Texas to North Dakota.
Now, it wasn’t just human rights-focused Democrats in Congress who were clamoring for blood: Republicans, too, were questioning the entire basis of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. In late April, powerful Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe urged the Trump administration to “punish [Saudi Arabia and Russia] for their destructive behavior.”
“The Saudis have a deep problem with the Democrats, and that’s been clear for a long time. Now they have spoiled their relationship with Republicans,” Riedel said.
“The strategic alliance that we have with them … I think it is broken,” Cramer, the North Dakota Republican senator, said. “The trust is going to take a long time to rebuild.”
So is the marriage that began on the Suez Canal in 1945 about to end in divorce?
In some ways, the fundamental tenets that have always underwritten the relationship, and especially since 1980, have already been quietly cast aside. For years, the United States vowed to defend Saudi Arabia and to ensure the free flow of oil for the good of the global economy. Declaring an era of great-power competition, the Trump administration is trying to pry away U.S. resources from the Middle East to confront its global rivals Russia and China.
In the summer of 2019, when Iranian attacks on oil tankers near the Persian Gulf threatened the flow of oil, Trump’s response was to tell allies such as Japan and South Korea to protect their own ships, questioning why the United States should continue to carry out a mission it’s done for decades unless other countries coughed up cash. That fall, key Saudi oil facilities were attacked, allegedly by Iran, knocking out 5 percent of global oil production in a matter of minutes. The U.S. response, other than a Trump tweet, was to do nothing.
“We had been told forever that an attack on Saudi Arabia would require a U.S. response, and then everybody just shrugged their shoulders,” said Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy columnist. “The Carter Doctrine didn’t have any exceptions, and yet…”
The bitter recriminations during this spring’s oil price war, coming on the heels of the Khashoggi murder, the continued war in Yemen, and other Saudi missteps, give many observers reason to believe that the relationship is due for a fundamental rethink.
The relationship “may very well need to be reevaluated,” Cook said. “What I think is a problem is that there is so much anger at the way in which Saudi Arabia has dealt with this situation, that it doesn’t bode well for a reconfiguration of the relationship. It bodes well for building up mistrust and division.”
One thing that has changed over the last decade is less U.S. need for Saudi and other Middle Eastern oil. That alone puts the U.S.-Saudi relationship on a different footing than it had at the founding, or in the 1970s, or during the Gulf War.
“The interests of the United States in the Middle East are different than they were in the past,” Cook said. Even if the U.S. energy boom has created a mythical so-called energy independence, where U.S. producers are still very much hostage to Saudi oil might and global market pressures, the vision of an America free after all these decades from Middle Eastern oil makes it easier to imagine a wholesale rewriting of the messy bargain Roosevelt struck with Ibn Saud.
“People discount the political appeal of energy independence: It’s the political appeal of reconfiguring our relations in the Middle East,” Cook said.
Other experts believe that much of the glue that has held the two countries together remains sticky. “Having survived 9/11 it’s virtually unthinkable to think of something worse that could happen that could obliterate the relationship,” said Saab, the Middle East Institute analyst.
And as long as the United States continues to view Iran as a major threat, close relations with Saudi Arabia will have a strong appeal. Upending U.S.-Saudi ties “isn’t just the waving of a wand, given the historical and traditional nature of that relationship,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s hard to come down tough on a partner that has been heralded in other cases as one of the few partners we can rely on against Iran.”
But in this latest crisis, Saudi Arabia’s close relationship with Trump was the one thing that saved it from an even bigger blowback from Congress and kept the eight-decade-old relationship from collapsing altogether. That could change in November.
“I think this time is different,” Riedel said. “If Biden wins, we will likely see a very fundamental reassessment of the relationship.”
Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP