Making Amends in Saudi Arabia

Washington and Riyadh Are Ready to Let Bygones Be Bygones

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.


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

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