by Thomas W. Lippman
After three months on the road, I returned to work on the eve of President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia to discover that in my absence the decades-long strategic partnership between the kingdom and the United States had vaporized. It had passed into history, finito, kaput, done.
I know that happened because that was the tenor of almost all the coverage of Obama’s trip in the mainstream media. Conventional wisdom, that inevitable guest at every Washington gathering, had taken over the discussion of the bilateral relationship.
In essence, the conventional wisdom held that the Saudis have moved on because they don’t like or trust Obama. For his part, Obama is happy to see the Saudis go because he doesn’t think highly of them and in any case is more interested in pursuing a new relationship with Iran. Obama and King Salman might go through the motions of friendship, the news coverage said, but the relationship could not survive the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s policy in Syria, the 9/11 lawsuit legislation in Congress, or the new reality of the oil market.
In reality, of course, the state of the relationship is much more complicated and goes beyond the events of the moment. Two days before the president left Washington, I was in North Carolina meeting with U.S. Army reservists who are about to be deployed to the Kingdom. Their assignment is to help train and equip the new 35,000-man Facilities Security Force, created especially to provide protection for Saudi Arabia’s vital oil installations, pipelines, and desalination plants. As with the training of the Saudi National Guard and Air Force pilots—and with the deployment of missile defense batteries along the Gulf coast, and with the provision of military aircraft, naval gunboats, and almost all of the kingdom’s weapons— the Saudis turn to the United States for help in keeping their country secure.
Those programs will continue, as will intelligence-sharing on terrorism, cybersecurity cooperation, joint efforts to counter Iranian troublemaking, and massive U.S. private-sector investment in the Saudi economy, even if there is a chill in the diplomatic atmosphere. As the scholars Bernard Heykal and Steffen Hertog wrote, “Whatever the resentments, neither side has a realistic alternative to the other.”
There is no doubt that the relationship is at one of its lowest points in terms of what the leaders think of each other. But there have been many profound disputes and disagreements between the United States and Saudi Arabia over the past 70 years. In the end the two sides soldiered on together despite their disagreements because neither side would have benefited from a permanent breach.
History of Ups and Downs
That history can be traced to 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt forced King Abdul Aziz to abandon Saudi neutrality in World War II and declare war on the Axis powers. That was the price FDR extracted from a reluctant king for granting Saudi Arabia membership in the United Nations. In 1948, the king was furious when the United States became the first nation to recognize the new nation of Israel, in violation of what he thought was a commitment from Roosevelt. Other Arab leaders, including his son Faisal, urged him to cancel the American oil concession, but he declined to do so because only the Americans were bringing in the cash and the technology essential to developing his country.
Then there was Saudi participation in the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, imposed to retaliate against U.S. support for Israel in the 1973 war. The embargo disrupted the entire global economy. Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security adviser, fumed that it was “ridiculous that the civilized world is held up by eight million savages.” Nixon’s secretary of defense, James A. Schlesinger, floated the idea of invading producing countries, including Saudi Arabia, to take over the oil fields. Yet a few months later Nixon was getting the red-carpet treatment on a visit to Saudi Arabia that brought the two countries closer together than ever.
Another incident that could have provoked a split came in 1988, when the United States discovered by accident that the Saudis had acquired long-range, nuclear-capable missiles from China, and that Chinese crews were installing them at a secret desert site. This so enraged the administration of President Ronald Reagan that Washington let the Saudis know that the United States would not interfere if Israel sent bombers to destroy the missiles. The United States allowed the Saudis to keep the missiles only when the kingdom agreed to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which it had refused until then to do because Israel had not done so.
That is hardly a complete list. Americans are still seething over the perception that the kingdom was somehow behind the 9/11 attacks. The Saudis are still angry that the United States ignored their advice and embarked on the disastrous adventure in Iraq.
A Relationship of Rebounds
And yet after every point of stress, the business of mutual interest has gone on, mostly in the form of deep and irreplaceable U.S. involvement in the Saudi security apparatus. That is likely to continue, no matter who wins the U.S. presidential election in November. Even at the time of Obama’s apparently frosty visit to Riyadh, the defense trade press was reporting an impending new Saudi order for U.S. Littoral Combat Ships and submarine-hunting helicopters to protect their Gulf waters against maritime attack.
This is not to say that the bilateral relationship will continue as in the past. Circumstances have changed for both countries. The U.S. dependence on Gulf oil has ended, and mutual antipathy to communism is no longer a unifying factor. Saudi Arabia, recognizing that the United States is unlikely to involve itself in any future large-scale military interventions in the region, is building new alliances and adopting a more muscular security policy.
But as Philip Gordon, a former Middle East adviser to Obama, said in an interview with The Atlantic,
Whatever the president might think of Saudi Arabia, it turns out that it’s important for the U.S. to have strong relations there, and in the broader Gulf. Whatever he thinks personally, he is following a decades-old policy of pursuing strong relations in the Gulf region. And if you think about it, what would challenging the playbook on Saudi Arabia consist of? Promoting regime change? Refusing to sell them weapons or defend them? Would that lead to a better outcome for us? Whatever our differences, it’s not as if there are good alternatives to our partnership.
That realistic view is the same on the Saudi side.