Saudi Arabia remains as important to the United States in 2020 as it was in 1944, when the alliance was birthed. Yes, the relationship also is as important to the Saudis in 2020 as it was in 1944.
The alliance at times strains, but both countries are well served by remaining partners. The reasons are easy to see.
First, and most obviously, for as long as the United States commits itself to oil, it needs the Saudis to deliver it. In exchange, the Saudis rely on the Americans for military aid. It’s been that way since 1944. It’s not changing. Rachel Bronson’s excellent book “Thicker Than Oil” is a must read for anyone interested in learning more about how oil forms the foundation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Next, the Kingdom is a stable country in a chronically unsettled region. Consider that volatility can be found most especially today in Iran, Iraq Syria and Yemen, but other states, including in North Africa, often have trouble bubble up to the surface.
Do not expect those tensions to gravitate to Saudi Arabia. The monarchy remains popular, an inconvenient truth to many in the U.S. In addition, it would be folly to think that a weakened Saudi state would somehow be good for the region. Just the opposite.
Then there’s the aforementioned Iran. Remember, Saudi Arabia is the largest Sunni Muslim nation in the world, and Iran is the largest Shia Muslim nation. Saudi Arabia’s gain often means Iran’s loss, and vice versa. That tug-of-war is one of the reasons the Saudis have worked so hard to convince Donald Trump that the Iran-nuclear deal was a disaster. Riyadh has always envisioned the deal as opening, not closing, the door to Iran becoming a nuclear state.
That justified distrust of Iran also explains why the Saudis have engaged in military actions throughout the region. As two Middle East analysts remind us
Stability for Saudi Arabia no longer means the absence of social and political unrest on its borders and the security of allied governments, but rather the absence of political vacuums that can be filled by Iranian proxies. To this end, Saudi Arabia is now willing to expend huge resources to prevent this from occurring, as has already been the case in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Saudi Arabia’s conservative and religious culture offends many in the United States. It wasn’t always that way. As Bronson notes:
Saudi Arabia’s religious credentials, something Washington once deemed a strategic asset, are today a much more obvious, controversial, and potentially dangerous issue.
Change is happening inside Saudi Arabia, and the pace has increased under Mohammed bin Salman. Consider what one Middle East expert wrote in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera before bin Salman came to the forefront of Saudi political life.
Reform might seem desperately overdue, but it is speeding up as the country changes demographically and young people require society to be managed in a different way.
One of the reasons those young adults are so important is because they’ve studied around the world. Thousands of them come to the U.S., including to Robert Morris University, where I teach. To know these students is to know they retain a deep love for their home country, and they’re eager to share the best of Saudi Arabia with audiences near and wide. Their projection of enthusiasm and knowledge is wonderful to see.
So, yes, at the end of the day, we, the Americans and the Saudis, are better off as allies.