U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waits to board his plane at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, September 12, 2014.
Brendan Smialowski / Courtesy Reuters

The United States and Saudi Arabia -- one, the world’s preeminent liberal democracy; the other, a conservative monarchy that declares the Koran to be its constitution -- have never been the most natural allies. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that the relationship has had its ups and downs. It reached an apex in 1991, when Saudis fought alongside U.S. troops to reverse Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, only to hit a nadir a decade later, when 15 Saudis participated in the devastating terrorist attacks in New York and Washington organized by al Qaeda. Since then, the Saudi government has become more suspicious of U.S. foreign policy, bristling at the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the encouragement of pro- democracy protests during the Arab Spring, and the ongoing attempt to strike a nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival.

But the sudden rise of the brutal militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State) could change all that. Riyadh and Washington have both recognized that ISIS poses a serious threat to Middle Eastern security and stability. By working together against the group, they might shore up the region -- and their relationship. But much will depend on the Obama administration’s ability to articulate a clear long-term strategy for the Middle East -- and specifically for the two countries where ISIS rose to prominence.

A NEW CHAPTER IN IRAQ

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq upended that country's political order, replacing the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein with a Shiite-led government that quickly developed a special relationship with Iran. In the years since, Saudi officials have repeatedly chided the United States for the war and reminded U.S. officials of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal’s now famous warning that removing Hussein was akin to “solving one problem and creating five more.” Saudi Arabia dismissed former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as little more than a surrogate for Iran and had rocky relations with him for the duration of his tenure. Saudi officials have not shied from directly blaming Maliki's sectarian policies for abetting the rise of ISIS in Iraq: even in the absence of ISIS, they point out, Iraq's Sunni tribes had been preparing for a “rebellion” against the central government.

The Saudi government was pleased when Washington recently intervened in Iraqi politics and demanded the formation of a more inclusive government. Riyadh is still reserving judgment about Iraq's new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, but his selection seems to have already led to a significant change in tone in both Riyadh and Baghdad. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah was among the first to congratulate Abadi. On the other side of the border, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry lauded an early August address by the Saudi monarch in which he strongly condemned terrorist acts “in the name of religion.” Even more significant was the presence of Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari at an antiterrorism conference last week in Jeddah sponsored by the Saudi government. (The Iraqi government also signed the conference's final communiqué, something that another key attendee, Turkey, did not do.)

Nevertheless, it's unclear what role, if any, Saudi Arabia will play in the U.S.-led military campaign against ISIS in Iraq. It has already offered humanitarian assistance to Iraq. However, Iran’s backing of the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish regional government’s militias makes it politically unpalatable for Riyadh to assume a major role in Iraq. Despite signs of an opening for improved relations between the two countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran are still supporting opposing sides in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. In addition, Maliki’s repeated -- and largely unsubstantiated -- claims that Saudi Arabia supports ISIS could make Saudi military involvement politically costly for Abadi.

PIVOTING TO SYRIA

The potential convergence between the United States and Saudi Arabia when it comes to Syria is much more significant and could hold the key to stronger bilateral relations going forward. The Saudi government has long considered the war in Syria to be the region's defining conflict, the juncture at which the regional ambitions of Iran -- the closest ally of the Syrian regime -- need to be checked. Riyadh has declared that Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of Syria’s Sunni majority amounts to a “genocide” and has come to the aid of its “brethren” by recognizing the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, by providing antitank guided missiles to rebels and by distributing badly needed humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and other countries.

Terror groups, including al Qaeda and ISIS, similarly capitalized on Assad’s brutality to recruit Sunnis around the world (including several thousand Saudis) to fight in Syria. But the Saudi government has not viewed these militants as an ally in the fight against Assad. Rather, it sees them as a threat to the regional order. Abdullah strongly cautioned last month that unless terrorists -- specifically ISIS -- are confronted quickly and decisively, “they will be in Europe in one month, and the United States in two.” Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority has also referred to ISIS as “the number one enemy of Islam” and even enjoined Muslims everywhere -- in what could be interpreted as a religious edict, or fatwa -- to fight the group and repel its advances in the region.

In this sense, Saudi Arabia is a natural ally for the United States in its own battle against ISIS. In announcing his intention to order U.S. airstrikes in Syria in order to “degrade and destroy” the group, U.S. President Barack Obama made clear that it is his desire to assemble a military coalition that includes Sunni-majority Arab states. Sunni participation would enable Washington to avoid having to send U.S. ground troops to the region and allow it to counter ISIS' propaganda about an alleged U.S. crusade.

Securing Saudi Arabia’s active participation would also eliminate any doubt that the United States had launched the campaign at the bidding of the Iraqi government or in order to help save the Assad regime in Syria. In the Middle East, there is still some ambiguity about Obama’s intentions. Although he was unequivocal about his determination to destroy ISIS during his address to the U.S. public last week, his tone changed significantly when he spoke about pursuing a “political solution” for Syria.

SAUDI ARABIA’S RED-LINE

At last week's conference in Jeddah -- which was attended by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States -- Saudi Arabia helped organize what looks like a potential breakthrough in the fight against ISIS. The conference's final communiqué -- which was signed by all the governments in attendance, except for Turkey -- emphasized the attendees' commitment to stopping the flow of foreign fighters to Syria, curtailing the financing of ISIS, and combating the group's “hateful ideology.” The statement also endorsed “joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign” against the group. That these countries agreed to coordinate their actions on any politically risky issue is significant. The fact that they managed to publicly agree to support a U.S.-led military effort to confront Sunni militants in two Arab, Muslim-majority states is a signal that they are all eager for U.S. leadership.

It is no secret that Saudi leaders were disappointed when Obama reversed course on his self-imposed redline against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But Riyadh has signaled that it is ready to move on. When asked about his country's previous criticism of the Obama administration, the Saudi foreign minister chose to focus on “the agreement on the present situation.” Saudi Arabia has reportedly already taken the extraordinary step of agreeing to host a U.S. training program for moderate Syrian rebel fighters.

In other words, it appears that the United States and Saudi Arabia have already taken a significant step toward restoring trust. The reason may stem from the realization that when the two countries are in sync, the relationship can be incredibly -- mutually -- beneficial. The United States has proven its unmatched capability to project its military power in the region, and the security umbrella it provides Saudi policymakers has no substitute. As the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites and the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, Saudi Arabia possesses unique credentials that enable it to assume a “leadership” role in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The United States needs Saudi Arabia to help it navigate what are often very treacherous waters.

In the coming days and weeks, the strength of this new relationship will be tested. The Saudis will be keeping close watch on whether the United States remains steadfast in the fights against ISIS and Assad. If Riyadh senses any backsliding, Saudi officials will feel they have no choice but to develop their own regional strategy, without the consultation of Washington. And it's clear that the last thing the United States needs is another adversary in the Middle East.

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  • FAHAD NAZER is a terrorism analyst at JTG Inc. and a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington.
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