ANALYSIS - The problematic nature of Saudi-US relations
If Saudi Arabia does not reduce the number of its enemies and increase the number of its friends, there will be no change in its security dependence on the US, or in the disturbing tone of US state officials
U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent habit of addressing Saudi Arabia in a manner that violates long-established diplomatic practices and courtesy, even bordering on mockery sometimes, --as is his wont with most other countries-- has sparked fresh interest in the nature of Saudi-U.S. relations. Some of the recent public statements the U.S. president made about Saudi Arabia, such as, “We protect Saudi Arabia. Would you say they’re rich? And I love the King ... King Salman but I said, ‘King, we’re protecting you. You might not be there for two weeks without us. You have to pay for your military’ ”, and “They [Saudis] have nothing but cash, right?”. The Saudi administration’s continued indifference to this undiplomatic manner adopted by the U.S. president raises certain questions.
From its establishment in 1932 to the present day, Saudi Arabia has attached great importance to developing good relations with the U.S., which has been its most crucial security guarantor. Thanks to U.S. support, Saudi Arabia, for almost a century now, has been able to overcome the gravest regional threats confronting it. For the United States, the oversight of the enormous hydrocarbon resources of the Gulf region, especially those of the Saudis, is crucial to the U.S.'s own energy security and claim of global leadership. These mutual interests have been pivotal in keeping the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. very close since 1932. Nonetheless, it would not be right to comment on the past, present and future of Saudi-U.S. relations without fully appreciating two particular facts that determine the nature of this relationship: 1. No global power other than the U.S. has the motivation and capacity to ensure security in the Gulf; 2. Saudi-U.S. relations are based on interests, and not common values.
Firstly, although 1932 was the year in which the official establishment of the state of Saudi Arabia was declared, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud’s (Saudi Arabia’s founder) capturing of Riyadh in 1902 from his most important rival, the Rashidi Emirate, is considered to be the beginning of the third Saudi emirate, namely the modern state of Saudi Arabia. The establishment of the state of Saudi Arabia was completed when the Hejaz region was taken from Sharif Hussein in 1924, and Asir, Jizan and Najran from Imam Yahya in 1934.
The process whereby Saudi Arabia was established lasted from the beginning of the 20th century to the Second World War, and this was realized to a large extent thanks to the support of the British Empire. However, Britain’s weakening during the Second World War and withdrawal of troops from the region, their interventions in Saudi domestic politics and policies to redraw the region’s political map against the interests of the Saudis created a sense of insecurity among the Saudis against Britain .Alliance with the United States has in this process emerged as an alternative to Britain. This reorientation of the Saudis was influenced by the fact that the U.S. had no prior history of occupation or mandate in the Middle East, and --at least in the beginning-- it did not meddle in Saudi domestic politics as the British had done, and focused exclusively on increasing the commercial revenues of U.S. oil companies.
The security guarantor role that the U.S. plays in the Gulf region commenced on Feb. 14, 1945 at a meeting the then U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had with King Abdulaziz ibn Saud on the USS Quincy anchored in the Red Sea, and it continues to the present day. But despite all the years that have since passed, no regional or global power has had the capacity and motivation to ensure the security of the Gulf region, and by extension, that of Saudi Arabia. This forces the Saudis to maintain their alliance with the United States at any cost. Although the Saudi government, in particular Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is keen to sign expensive defense agreements with countries such as Russia, China and India, these initiatives, overall, make little contribution to Saudi security, as the mentioned countries do not have sufficient capabilities and motivation to ensure Gulf security, and do not really help to reduce Saudi dependence on the U.S. with regards to security.
Secondly, that the close relations between the two countries are based on interests rather than common values often forces the weaker ally to make serious concessions to ensure the continuity of the alliance. A brief overview of the political systems of the two countries would be sufficient to understand that the U.S. and Saudi Arabian states do not share common values. We are talking about two allies, one of which is a democratic country that has adopted liberal and libertarian values, and traditionally considers the spread of these values on a global scale as an important foreign policy goal (although this traditional approach of the U.S. has undeniably been shifting of late), and the second one being a country where the ruling family exclusively possesses the privilege of running the state, has a monopoly on the distribution of power and wealth, and a political system in which the people being ruled have limited political and civil rights. And this very fact --that the relations are based on interests and not values-- gives rise to occasional disruption in the relations between the two countries.
Indeed, many incidents in the shared history of the two are therefore merely reflective of this particular nature of relations based on interests rather than common values. For example, when the monarchical regime in Yemen collapsed in 1962 and the country spiraled into civil war, this posed a serious security threat to the southern borders of Saudi Arabia. During this period, the involvement of Egypt in the Yemeni civil war by sending troops under the command of Nasser increased the Saudis’ threat sensitivity, and King Faisal made several attempts at persuading the U.S. administration to establish an air base in Jizan to deter Egypt from conducting air strikes on Saudi villages. John F. Kennedy, accepting the request for an air base, sent a letter to King Faisal in late 1962, assuring him that the United States would do everything necessary to protect Saudi Arabia.
The Americans agreed to establish a military base in Jizan, but continued to keep the majority of their planes at the Dhahran airbase in the oil-rich Eastern Province. For the United States, protecting oil fields was more important than protecting Saudi Arabia's southern borders. The planes deployed to the base in Jizan in 1963 returned to Dhahran again a year later, although the Yemeni crisis persisted well into the 1990s.These and similar other incidents experienced in the relations between the two countries have strengthened the notion that the U.S.'s main interest in the region is oil supplies and that the security of friendly regimes pales into insignificance whenever it can supply oil from alternative sources.
Today, just as in the 1960s, the Yemeni civil war is a high-priority security problem for Saudi Arabia, while the U.S. administration focuses on oil deposits and oil transport routes (namely, the Strait of Hormuz) and issue stern threats to deter attacks on oil tankers, remaining indifferent to the ballistic missiles falling into Saudi territory, which is one of the most telling results of their relations being based on interests, and not on common values.
While statements and attitudes that violate diplomatic courtesy against the Saudi Arabian administration seem to be uniquely Trumpian, they also serve to reveal the weak position of the Saudis in the U.S.-Saudi alliance. As Trump has made it crystal clear, “they [Saudis] have nothing but cash”, and this alliance is based on the Saudis buying security guarantees from the U.S. with their petro-dollars.
The fact that the Saudi administration remains silent in the face of Trump’s statements although it never fails to respond in kind to the slightest criticism from any other country should be seen as a major sacrifice that the Saudis have had to make for the continuation of this alliance. For example, the Saudi administration strongly rejected the statements that the Canadian foreign minister last year made about Saudi Arabia, and responded to Canada with harsh economic and diplomatic sanctions, whereas they prefer to remain silent against Trump’s increasingly disturbing tone.
In fact, a closer look at the Middle East policy of the U.S. after the Cold War shows that the policy it has been pursuing in regard to Saudi Arabia is one intended to continually isolate the oil-rich nation in the region in order to compel it to seek refuge under the U.S. security umbrella. All in all, it is none other than the U.S. that has increased the Saudis’ threat sensitivity by doing things such as giving the green light to Saddam’s entry into Kuwait in 1990 , invading Iraq in 2003 and then withdrawing its troops only to leave the country vulnerable to Iranian influence, providing direct/indirect support to the street movements during the Arab Spring after 2010, thereby contributing to the collapse of the regimes that were Saudi allies (Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia), and signing a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. The increased security concerns of the Saudis during all these periods mentioned above invariably resulted in the ordering of more and more weapons at exorbitant prices from the U.S. defense industry.
As long as Saudi Arabia does not take the path of strengthening the ties between the government and Saudi citizens at home, does not give up the meaningless competitions with the major powers of the region, and, overall, does not reduce the number of its enemies and increase the number of its friends, there will be no change in its security dependence on the U.S., or in the disturbing tone of U.S. state officials.
- Fethi Ozbey writes analyses on regional security and foreign policy issues regarding the Middle East* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency. Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.