As World War II was drawing to a close in February 1945, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud met aboard a U.S. battleship in the Suez Canal for the first time. For nearly six decades afterward, the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enjoyed an unusually close relationship. U.S. companies, which had discovered black gold in the Saudi desert in the early 1930s, built the kingdom into the world's leading petroleum exporter and a major source of oil for the U.S. market. The Saudis, in turn, made their territory and military facilities available to U.S. forces in order to assure U.S. protection of the House of Saud.
That "special relationship" was buried in the ashes of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who participated in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi nationals, and the mastermind, Osama bin Laden, is the scion of one of the kingdom's most prestigious families -- two facts that exposed Saudi Arabia to withering criticism in the U.S. Congress and the U.S. media. The largest contingent of "enemy combatants" picked up by U.S. forces in Afghanistan as they swept aside the Taliban regime in late 2001 turned out to be Saudi. And many of the suicide bombers who have killed U.S. troops in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003 have been Saudis, too. Unlike many other Arab and Muslim countries -- including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Pakistan -- Saudi Arabia is today not even designated as a major non-NATO ally. Washington and Riyadh speak of a "strategic dialogue," a diplomatic term of art that obscures whether the two governments think of themselves as friends or foes.
After viewing the United States as its primary source of security for decades, the Saudi royal family regards it today as a major cause of insecurity. The Saudi government is struggling to determine how close to the United States it wants,
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