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, or can afford, to be. Since 9/11, Riyadh has become increasingly distrustful of Washington and far more assertive in pursuing its own interests. Above all, it does not want to be branded Washington's moderate ally in the Arab world—a label that the Bush administration sought to apply in order to cast the kingdom as its close partner in a struggle against Iran. Saudi Arabia is seeking to forge partnerships with China, Europe, Russia, and regional powers such as Pakistan and Turkey and no longer grants Washington as much influence in determining its defense and foreign policies. It wants the U.S.-Saudi relationship to be normal, rather than special.


The U.S.-Saudi partnership began to unravel even before the shock of 9/11. Soon after George W. Bush took office, Crown Prince Abdullah—who became king in August 2005—grew angry with Washington for not paying serious attention to the Middle East peace process. In August 2001, he threatened to freeze Saudi political and military cooperation with the United States unless Bush took action to revive the faltering negotiations. In response, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared in November that the United States would pursue a new policy, supporting the Saudi goal of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel—an idea that was later formalized in Abdullah's 2002 peace plan offering Israel normalization of relations with the Arab world in return for a withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. But Bush did nothing to promote that objective until the November 2007 Annapolis conference, and even that belated initiative produced no concrete results.

The Saudis' frustration was compounded by the fallout from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which had an enormous impact on Saudi Arabia. For centuries, Iraq had been a bastion of Sunni power and a bulwark against Persian penetration into the Sunni Arab world. The U.S. intervention installed a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, radically shifting the Sunni-Shiite balance of power in the Persian Gulf—in favor of Iran. As Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, later told an audience at Rice University, the United States had handed Iraq to Iran "on a golden platter." Soon after Saddam was toppled, the Saudi government ejected the U.S. Air Force from the bases it had been using since the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. In June 2003, Abdullah also gave up on stalled negotiations with U.S. oil companies and turned instead to Chinese, European, and Russian firms to join the kingdom's state-run oil company, Saudi Aramco—historically the embodiment of the U.S.-Saudi special relationship—in searching for new gas fields.

The Bush administration's drive to promote democracy in the Middle East further highlighted the fundamental philosophical and strategic differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Bush's "freedom agenda" infuriated Abdullah, who joined Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in denouncing Washington's calls for political reform. To the Saudis, the outbreak of rampant ethnic violence in Iraq after the U.S. invasion exemplified the naiveté of Washington's democracy-promotion agenda. Even after the sectarian killing subsided, in mid-2007, Riyadh was hardly pleased with the fruits of Iraqi democracy.

Although Saudi Arabia shares the United States' goals of preventing civil war in Iraq and holding the country together, it has shown scant sympathy for Washington's man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Abdullah views Maliki as an Iranian agent and has so far refused to receive him. The king has also dragged his heels on reopening the Saudi embassy in Baghdad, despite repeated entreaties from Washington. The Saudis believe that Maliki's Shiite-dominated government is not interested in sharing power with the Sunni minority, and they fear that civil war will resume in earnest once U.S. troops leave—a development that would force Riyadh to provide financial and military support to the Sunni minority in order to offset Iran's aid to Shiite groups.

Although the Saudis no longer support a U.S. presence on their own soil, they have quietly welcomed the continued deployment of U.S. forces to bases in other countries that are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council; they want Iran to see that U.S. military muscle has not gone flabby after Iraq. But Riyadh does not support outright confrontation with Tehran: it worries that U.S. or Israeli military attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities would provoke Iran to retaliate against GCC states hosting U.S. forces or strike Saudi oil facilities. Such a response by Iran would pose an agonizing dilemma for the Saudis: mount a military response and risk a full-scale war or do nothing and concede hegemony over the Persian Gulf to Iran.

This dilemma serves to highlight a basic U.S.-Saudi disagreement over how to construct a collective-security framework to protect the Arab states from Iran. Saudi Arabia constitutes the main military power in the six-nation GCC, which comprises all the Arab states in the Persian Gulf other than Iraq. U.S. efforts to increase military cooperation among the GCC's other members—currently aimed at integrating their air and antimissile defenses—are perennially stymied by petty political disputes, differing security strategies, resentment of Saudi domination, and suspicion of Iraq. When U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told GCC defense ministers and senior officers at a conference in Bahrain in December 2008 that "Iraq wants to be your partner, and given the challenges in the Gulf, and the reality of Iran, you should wish to be theirs," their response was not enthusiastic.

Riyadh met this proposal with deafening silence. The Saudis already opposed Iraqi membership in the GCC during the Saddam era because they feared Saddam's hegemonic aspirations in regard to his oil-rich neighbors—a fear whose validity was confirmed by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Convincing them today that a Shiite-ruled Iraq is not an extension of Iran will not be easy.


The roller-coaster ride of oil prices and Washington's efforts to diversify its hydrocarbon supplies have complicated the relationship further. The old quid pro quo—U.S. security for Saudi oil—that defined the relationship for years no longer works for either party. By mid-2004, Saudi Arabia had lost its ability to significantly influence oil prices. The turning point came at an emergency meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in May of that year, when the Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, tried, at the White House's request, to halt the breakaway from OPEC-fixed prices (then ranging from $22 to $28 a barrel). He proposed that OPEC producers collectively increase production by two million barrels a day in a bid to maintain those low prices. He failed, and an embarrassed Saudi Arabia responded by pumping an additional two million barrels a day on its own in an effort to reduce prices. That failed, too, because much of the Saudi excess capacity consisted of heavy crude oil that was expensive to refine or that existing refineries were not capable of processing.

The price of crude oil rose from $40 a barrel in May to close to $50 a barrel by the time of the U.S. elections in November 2004. It continued its climb thereafter, skyrocketing to $147 a barrel in July 2008 despite Riyadh's increased production. Prices then crashed as the global economy deteriorated, and in November 2008, OPEC's members collectively cut production by 1.5 million barrels a day, with roughly a third of the reduction coming from Saudi Arabia. By February 2009, the kingdom had reduced its production to less than eight million barrels a day (from its July 2008 high of 9.5 million barrels a day) in a bid to meet a target of $75 per barrel, which Abdullah believes to be a "fair price." But Saudi Arabia was unable to influence prices: neither by increasing nor by cutting back its production. Saudi Arabia's much-vaunted excess production capacity, which was expected to reach 4.5 million barrels by mid-2009, proved to be largely useless.

Saudi Arabia nonetheless continues to expand its total oil production capacity based on the assumption that world demand will require all of this, and perhaps more, by 2020. Rather than quenching Washington's thirst for oil, these days Saudi Arabia is increasingly focused on markets in China, India, and other Asian countries. In August 2005, Abdullah made his first official visit to China to sign energy and military-cooperation agreements, and in April 2006 and then again this February, he welcomed Chinese President Hu Jintao to Riyadh with great fanfare.

Saudi Arabia is reaching out for new arms suppliers as well. In September 2007, it struck an agreement with the British company BAE Systems to purchase 72 Typhoon fighter jets, a deal worth approximately $40 billion, dwarfing recent arms purchases from Washington and promising to make the United Kingdom the Royal Saudi Air Force's top supplier of advanced warplanes for years to come. Saudi Arabia is also negotiating to purchase Russian tanks and helicopters for the first time. In early 2007, Abdullah invited then Russian President Vladimir Putin to Riyadh, marking the first time a Russian leader had set foot in the kingdom.


Despite the erosion of their special relationship, the United States and Saudi Arabia still have many common interests. The kingdom remains the world's largest reservoir and producer of oil, and the United States is its biggest consumer. Both states want to make sure that the flow of Saudi oil to the international market remains uninterrupted by Iran or terrorist groups; both face a serious threat from al Qaeda; both want to contain Iran's political ambitions in the region and thwart Tehran's nuclear weapons program; both look to each other to help resolve the current world financial crisis. The Saudis continued to support the dollar through thick and thin in early 2008, fending off pressures from their Arab allies in the Persian Gulf to delink their currency from the dollar and calculate oil payments in other denominations. Their faith in the dollar has been vindicated, as other countries, including China, have recently sought refuge from their own current economic crises by buying more U.S. Treasury bonds. The main Saudi interest now is to see a quick U.S. recovery, which would help revive a depressed world economy and stimulate demand for more oil.

Since al Qaeda began launching attacks inside Saudi Arabia in May 2003, the two governments have begun working closely together on counterterrorism, including through the exchange of real-time intelligence to track, thwart, and apprehend terrorists. The Saudis have also worked with the U.S. government to establish a 35,000-member force to protect Saudi Arabia's oil facilities, which al Qaeda has already targeted twice.

Abdullah is also anxious to rebuild the kingdom's educational ties with the United States. In 2006, he launched a program to expand the number of Saudis studying at U.S. universities, providing scholarships for 17,000 students. Meanwhile, a number of U.S. universities are helping staff new Saudi academic centers, such as the innovative King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, near Jidda, which has broken with strict Saudi religious codes to allow men and women to study together. An agreement on reestablishing multiple-entry visas for Saudis, which were abruptly cut off after 9/11, has helped restore the flow of students, academics, and businesspeople between the two countries.

Although Saudi leaders are reluctant to allow an on-the-ground U.S. military presence in the kingdom, there is still a significant level of military cooperation. This includes joint exercises between the two countries' air forces and armies, the training of Saudi officers in the United States, and $3.7 billion worth of arms deals designed to modernize the Saudi Arabian National Guard and upgrade Riyadh's arsenal of U.S.-built AWACS and F-15 warplanes. Last May, the two countries even signed a memorandum of understanding on nuclear cooperation under which Washington agreed to assist Riyadh in developing "environmentally sustainable, safe, and secure civilian nuclear energy." The Bush administration regarded the agreement as a breakthrough in its efforts to curb uncontrolled nuclear proliferation by Arab nations in response to the Iranian program. Crucially, the Saudis have pledged to obtain nuclear fuel from the international market rather than developing their own capacity to enrich it, as Iran is doing.

The two countries also share an interest in resolving several of the Middle East's most vexing problems. Both Washington and Riyadh want to create an independent Palestinian state and to promote stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. But common concerns do not mean shared strategy. On Afghanistan, the Saudis will likely demur: they regard the buildup of U.S. military forces and Washington's expanded commitment to building a strong central government as foolhardy. In December 2008, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, advised the Obama administration to "get bin Laden, get Zawahiri, and get out." The Saudis are far less concerned than the Americans about the prospect that the resurgent Taliban may secure a role in a newly reformulated Afghan central government. Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries to recognize the old Taliban regime in the 1990s, and the extreme strain of Wahhabism prevalent in the kingdom—which is intolerant of Christians, Jews, and other forms of Islam—is very similar to the Taliban's puritanical brand of Islam.

In Pakistan, Riyadh shares Washington's interest in stability but cares little about the fate of democracy. Like Bush, Abdullah was a strong supporter of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's military regime. Saudi Arabia has invested heavily over the years in Pakistan's economic and financial well-being, mediated its internal political squabbles on more than one occasion, and helped finance Islamabad's military purchases from abroad. It is even believed to have substantially financed the Pakistani nuclear weapons program. With the democratically elected government of President Asif Ali Zardari now facing a threat from militant Islamist groups, the Saudis will have to decide whether their theological affinity with the Pakistani Taliban is more important than their support for a stable, secular central government.

In Lebanon, both Washington and Riyadh have worked in tandem to contain and weaken the militant Shiite group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria. Both governments have consistently supported Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his shaky coalition of Christian and Sunni groups. But the Saudis are also pursuing their own narrow interests there. They are pouring funds into fundamentalist Salafi groups, which are building militias to counter Hezbollah, whose forces went on a rampage through downtown Beirut last May and even sought to kill Saudi diplomats because of the kingdom's support for their enemies. The potential for a U.S.-Saudi clash over Lebanon became clear during the summer of 2007, when the Lebanese army struggled to quash a revolt by the Salafi group Fatah al-Islam, which was holed up inside a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. While the Salafi fighters—including many Saudis—battled government forces, the United States was rushing weapons to the Lebanese army. The army eventually prevailed.

In the Palestinian territories, in contrast to the Bush administration's goal of isolating Hamas, Abdullah's objective has been to bring together Palestinian radicals and moderates. U.S. officials were dismayed when Abdullah invited feuding Palestinian factions to Mecca in January 2007 and pressured the moderate Fatah faction to accept a coalition government under Hamas' leadership. The so-called Mecca agreement undermined the Bush administration's efforts to promote direct peace talks between then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Since then, however, the Saudis have worked with the United States to bolster the embattled Palestinian Authority against Hamas, and they continue to support Palestinian negotiations with Israel, despite Hamas' growing popularity on the Arab street in the wake of Israel's failed attempt in January to break the group's hold over the Gaza Strip. The Gaza fighting led a frustrated Abdullah to condemn the Fatah-Hamas rift as "more dangerous than Israeli aggression" and to push harder for reconciliation between the two factions, a policy the Obama administration has not yet adopted.

Abdullah's 2002 peace plan remains an intriguing possible basis for U.S.-Saudi cooperation on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Abdullah's proposal was endorsed by the entire Arab League at its 2002 summit; Israeli President Shimon Peres and Olmert both referred to it favorably; and Barack Obama, who chose the Saudi-owned al Arabiya television station for his first interview after taking office, praised Abdullah for his "great courage" in making the peace proposal. However, the presumed new Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has strongly opposed the Saudi plan, particularly the idea that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state. One of his right-wing coalition partners, Avigdor Lieberman, has gone further, proposing that the country's 1.3 million Arab citizens be forced to take an oath of allegiance before being allowed to vote in the future, creating a political atmosphere in which adoption of the Saudi plan seems increasingly unlikely.


The Obama administration should prepare itself for an unpredictable relationship with Saudi Arabia, marked at times by a willingness to pursue common interests and at others by sharp disagreement or even openly conflicting objectives. It should not expect, as past U.S. administrations have, that Saudi Arabia stands ready and willing to do the United States' bidding.

In its effort to breathe new life into this old relationship, the Obama administration must put an end to its predecessor's clumsy efforts to promote the kingdom as a keystone of a grand alliance against Iran. The Saudis flatly rejected Bush's efforts to build a coalition of so-called moderate Sunni states—Egypt, Jordan, and the six GCC members—with the conspicuous backing of the United States and Israel. For all its intense distrust of Iran, Saudi Arabia has made clear that it is not going to take part in any U.S. scheme to promote regime change in Tehran, bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, or promote opposition groups in Iran. Riyadh's fear of retaliation, its keen awareness of Iran's ability to choke shipping lanes, and its natural penchant for accommodation all give it reason to keep away from U.S.-designed strategies for outright confrontation. But Abdullah will likely support Obama's recently announced plan to seek dialogue with Iran, even if it causes anxiety among those Saudis who fear that it might lead to a "grand bargain" in which the United States would accommodate Iran's civilian nuclear ambitions and acknowledge its hegemony over the Persian Gulf. The quid pro quo would involve Iran's renunciation of nuclear weapons and the ending of its support for terrorism. One proposal being discussed in Washington is for the Obama administration to extend the U.S. nuclear umbrella to the GCC states to reassure them of a continuing U.S. commitment to their security and to lessen their interest in developing independent nuclear weapons capabilities. The Saudis have not disclosed whether they would welcome this, which, if they did, would in essence mean publicly conceding their dependence on Washington for their security.

Complicating matters further, the kingdom's future leadership is uncertain. Although he is in relatively good health, Abdullah is 86 years old. Crown Prince Sultan, Abdullah's designated successor, is 85 years old himself and is suffering from colon and pancreatic cancer. The third-most-powerful figure in the kingdom, Interior Minister Prince Nayef, 75, is also sick. He is reported to be battling leukemia and is said to have abandoned his ambitions to the throne. Having ended the al Saud family tradition of selecting kings based on seniority among the sons of the late King Ibn Saud, Abdullah has established a council composed of Ibn Saud's 35 sons and grandsons to select the heir to the throne. This process may work smoothly, but it could easily lead to fighting among contending factions with differing views of how closely Riyadh should work together with Washington.

Internal family dynamics and the pace of domestic reform are likely to weigh even more heavily on the choice of the next king. Abdullah has initiated a crackdown on the oppressive Wahhabi religious establishment and a revamping of the education system. He recently fired the ministers of education and justice (both ministries were Wahhabi strongholds), as well as the heads of the religious police and the highest council of Wahhabi clerics, because of their repressive activities and rulings. He also named Noura al-Fayez as deputy minister of education—the first woman ever appointed to the cabinet.

In this atmosphere of uncertainty, the Obama administration should seek cooperation on a piecemeal basis rather than laboring to devise a grand strategic alliance, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab moderates, or a new special relationship. Successful cooperation on any one issue, particularly a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would go a long way toward restoring the trust and confidence that were lost on 9/11.

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  • DAVID OTTAWAY is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C., and the author of The King's Messenger: Prince Bandar bin Sultan and America's Tangled Relationship With Saudi Arabia.
  • More By David Ottaway