The U.S.-Saudi Arabia Relationship: New Challenges and Opportunities

The close strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been vital for the security and prosperity of both countries as well as for regional peace and stability.

This historical relationship has never been more important than it is today, mainly for two intertwined reasons: the change in the complex security landscape of the Middle East and the change within Saudi Arabia.

President Trump’s administration came into office during an unprecedented tumultuous time in the history of the Middle East. The system of the modern nation state is crumbling, states are falling apart, and armed non-state actors are proliferating.

In the face of all this, the Trump administration inherited a Middle East foreign policy quagmire, in which the US plays the slightest role in influencing the events in the region. Due to vital US interests in the region, President Trump embarked on a Middle East foreign policy overhaul to put “America first” on this front.

The major themes of President Trump’s Middle East policy are eradicating terrorism, confronting the danger from Iran, and revitalizing partnerships with stable regional partners. Saudi Arabia appears to be the most reliable and suitable partner for implementing this policy. In addition to being a long-standing traditional partner, Saudi Arabia shares the US concerns on the threat posed by Iran.

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Continuity Amidst Transformation: Reflections on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Visit to the United States

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud begins a visit to the United States today. He is reported to be planning stops in several cities, including Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, Houston, Seattle, and San Francisco. The occasion will mark his second official visit to the United States since Donald Trump assumed the U.S. Presidency and Mohammed bin Salman’s first official visit since assuming the post of Crown Prince in June 2017.

Roots of the Relationship

In considering the modern U.S.-Saudi Arabian strategic partnership, reference is often made to a meeting the Crown Prince’s grandfather, King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, had with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 14, 1945. That historic visit had the two heads of state sitting and exchanging views with one another aboard the U.S. Navy’s U.S.S. Quincy in the Great and Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal. Academics, scholars, media specialists, policymakers, and foreign affairs specialists of all stripes have ever since referred to that visit as “historic.”

Yes, that visit was historic in the sense that it occurred on a certain date in time. Except for the fact that those two outsized heads of state met each other for the first and only time then and there, however, the encounter was far less “historic” in the usual sense of the term than countless commentators have since made it out to be. To be sure, a myth about what transpired at that meeting is deeply embedded in the literature and lore of the American and Saudi Arabian peoples.

King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt aboard the U.S.S. Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal in Egypt on February 14, 1945. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

The truth, however, is that the so-called Saudi Arabian-American love affair dates not from the meeting between the U.S. President and the Saudi Arabian King in 1945. Neither does it stem from the discovery earlier by American engineers, aided by skilled Saudi Arabian Bedouin guides, of a Kingdom-based petroleum bonanza in 1938 the likes of which the world had never seen before and has not seen since.

Rather, the roots of the special relationship date from decades before – from 1917 onwards. The seeds of the extraordinary one-of-a-kind international special strategic partnership of the American-Saudi Arabian alliance that has lasted to this day were laid then by others. None among them were officials of either country’s modern government.

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The Middle East Today: Where To?

Keynote speech by HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal delivered at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ 26th Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference on October 19, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

The Middle East today is in a state of turmoil as never before. I will limit my talk to issues causing disorder and anarchy and on my hopes for a peaceful, secure, and stable region.

Looking into today’s prevailing conditions and state of affairs in the Middle East, particularly, the Arab region, we find no credible signs that call for much optimism: strategically, it is vulnerable on all fronts and is widely exposed to all possibilities. This strategic vulnerability is as old as the establishment of the nation-state order following World War I. However, catastrophic events during the past decades such as the recurring Arab-Israeli wars and conflicts, the Lebanese civil war, the Iraq-Iran prolonged war, the invasion of Kuwait, the invasion of Iraq, and constant foreign interventions have contributed greatly to this vulnerability. Coupled with this is the failure of many of our states in facing the shared and constantly looming threats to our existence and to our people. Poor social, economic, educational, and cultural policies, and the selfishness that characterized some Arab leaders’ foreign and domestic policies for decades are causes of this mess.

All of what we witness nowadays unfolding and that was exposed by what is called the “Arab Spring” is but an indictment of these policies and natural results of it. In Iraq it has led it to becoming a failed state with a collapsing society; the cause of Syria’s free falling into a swamp of blood, destruction, desolation, terrorism, conspiracies and foreign interventions; the cause of the sinking of Yemen into an inferno of conflict and civil war; the cause of the failure of the Libyan state; the unrest in other Arab countries; the cause of the spread of the transnational phenomenon of terrorism within many of our states; the cause of the spread of armed militias that are not under the control of nation states; and the spread of appalling sectarianism and other negative development. All that is a condensed representation of our deplorable state of affairs.

Our unenviable present was the future of our recent past, and the way we deal with our present is the future awaiting us. It is imperative that we must consciously learn from the pitfalls of the past. We must plan our future wisely and be alert at all times if we want to avoid a catastrophic future. We must courageously face the challenges that threaten our existence and attain a visionary approach to the future, if we wish to attain a decent place on the world stage.

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A First Visit: President Trump to Saudi Arabia

As a candidate for the Oval Office, Donald Trump was not shy about criticizing Saudi Arabia. Contexts change, though, and as President his administration has refrained from unjustified, unnecessary, and provocative statements in this regard.

Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam and home to the faith’s two holiest places, is a country that is vital to America’s national interests and strategic concerns. It has been one of the foremost U.S. national security partners for the past eight decades – longer than any other developing nation.

If America is to be “great again,” it can and must be greater in very particular ways. One of which is to be far greater than derogatory and antagonistic rhetoric toward a country central to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who represent nearly a quarter of humanity.

By selecting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on his historic visit, the first official one to any foreign country, President Trump has been prudent to seize an opportunity to turn a new and more positive page towards Arabs and Muslims in the region and beyond. The President’s visit has a chance to begin healing wounds that have been inflicted on Muslims the world over.

A Historic Visit

Selecting Saudi Arabia as the first stop on this historic visit – when the American President could easily and without controversy have selected any one among numerous other countries – sends a strong message to the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world.

The announcement of his visit to the country has already had a powerfully uplifting and relevant symbolic effect. Its impact has been greatest on the Kingdom and its neighbors.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 19, 2017.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 19, 2017. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense.

Peoples of this region include large numbers that have longed for this kind of American leadership for quite some time. The visit speaks volumes as to how vital these countries are to the United States. It underscores their critical importance to America’s friends, allies, and the rest of the world.

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U.S.-Saudi Arabia Relations Returning to Normal Plus

The last ten days were dramatic and, potentially in their own way, historic. The occasion was a visit to the United States by the Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense, HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The setting was at once stirring as was the atmosphere laced with a degree of uncertainly given some of the perceived, media-fed strains in the U.S.-Saudi Arabian relationship over the past several years.

Not least among the reasons the visit was so portentous are the following:

First, only days before the Deputy Crown Prince’s arrival the Trump administration had slapped punitive sanctions on half-a-dozen Muslim-majority countries, of which all but Iran are Arab nations.

Second, the visit came on the heels of ongoing uncertainties over the implications of significantly plummeted international oil prices since 2014. What each side will do about this sea change in the price of the strategic commodity that drives the engines of the world’s economies remains to be seen. One of the key dimensions of the likely near-term outcome turns for a greater extent than ever before on discussions between the Arab-led OPEC nations, on one hand, and key non-OPEC countries such as the United States and Russia, on the other.

Third, the Kingdom’s and America’s leaders convened at a moment when the growing encirclement of ISIS in Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, is fraught with an uncertain finale. More open to question is what will likely follow the eventual routing of one of the most lethal and debilitating scourges to have dominated parts of the Arab landscape in history.

Similar uncertainty underpins any sound analysis and assessment of the near term future of Syria. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, among the foreign forces that have tipped the balance in favor of the Assad regime in Damascus, are undoubtedly riding high at the moment. It remains to be seen, however, what the fate and future will be of the remaining opposition groups, including, in particular, the separatists, or at a minimum pro-autonomy, Kurdish forces in the country’s northeast.

Fourth, the nature, content, and extent of U.S.-Saudi Arabia cooperation in counter-terrorism going forward has, understandably, remained high in the national strategic imperatives of both countries’ needs, concerns, and interests.

Fifth, the two countries remain, for better or worse, locked in an inevitable strategic, national security, and defense cooperation-related relationship of the upmost importance as it pertains to Yemen. This is despite the growing anti-American involvement sentiment regarding this campaign in the media, so-called think tanks, and in rising numbers of members of Congress. Many of those favor, at most, a halt to further U.S. arms exports to the Kingdom, and, at minimum, a cessation of deliveries of munitions and ordnance designated for the two year old multinational coalition campaign to restore the legitimate government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Americans need to know there will be no slackening in this component of the two countries defense relationship. Indeed, there will be likely no slackening in the two countries determination to ensure that the conflict in Yemen, aided and abetted by Iran, does not further threaten the security and stability of the Kingdom. Nor will there be any willingness to further enhance Iran’s Shia-centric objective of expanding Tehran’s appeal to and influence over the region’s Shia Muslim people beyond that which it has already achieved.

Finally, the visit should help to put to rest the unseemly innuendo of the past year in which there were reports that President Barack Obama considered, if not Saudi Arabia itself, then those in its camp “free riders.” In reality, a persuasive argument could be made that the reverse is the case.

For the later perspective, consider those American livelihoods that turn directly on Saudi Arabia’s tens of billions of dollars of purchases of American goods and services. The tens of thousands of full-paying Saudi Arabian students at American universities. The tens of thousands of Americans whose livelihoods are derived from living and working in the Kingdom, versus no comparable number of Saudi Arabians taking money out of the United States. This is in addition to the Kingdom’s rock-solid support, against all competitors, for ongoing reliance upon the American dollar as the instrument of exchange in all of its international economic and financial transactions. The benefits of that alone have aided mightily in the ongoing preeminence of the American monetary banking system worldwide.

These are but a few of the bountiful and poorly-understood American benefits that derive from the eighty-year old, unapologetically special relationship between our two peoples. As Fahad Nazer’s insightful essay thoughtfully illustrates, one ought not to count on any near- or long-term jettisoning of the reciprocal rewards that remain embedded in these extraordinary special ties that remain the envy of practically every other nation in the world.

Dr. John Duke Anthony
Founding President and CEO
National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations
Washington, DC

Over a quarter-century ago, the United States and Saudi Arabia fought side by side in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. They did so to reverse Iraq’s August 1990 aggression against Kuwait. Afterwards, as to whether the United States and Saudi Arabia were friends, both answered “yes” unequivocally.

If the first two months of Donald Trump’s presidency are any indication, bilateral ties might return to their “Kuwait Crisis” heyday. That was when both countries’ officials routinely characterized them as “special.”

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense, HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman, visited Washington. Accompanied by foreign affairs and defense policy advisers, Prince Mohammed met with President Trump at the White House on March 14 and with U.S. Secretary of Defense General (Ret.) Jim Mattis at the Pentagon on March 16. The visit’s timing and the meetings themselves, as well as the statements issued by the American and Saudi Arabian participants, suggest that both countries’ leaders agree on a wide array of political and economic issues and policies. This bodes well for their future relations. To the envy of many, these ties have endured for the past eight decades. What is more, they have broadened and strengthened on many levels.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on March 14, 2017. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

The timing of the visit – less than two months after President Trump’s inauguration – was at once indicative and propitious. To critics, it was too soon. To others, it emphasized yet again the importance that the two countries accord their relations. It highlighted the keenness of both countries’ leaders to establish good personal relations early in the Trump administration.

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