international analysis and commentary

The realist pact that keeps the US-Saudi relationship on the road


While it is increasingly easy to draw up a laundry list of all the many areas of disagreement between Riyadh and Washington at present, the fundamental realist strategic bargain struck by Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Ibn Saud in 1945 remains in force, because the brutal truth is that both countries need the other, annoying as that can often be.

“This thing is bigger than both of us, darling”, Keith Richards is quoted as saying to Mick Jagger regarding the continued viability of the Rolling Stones. And indeed, it’s harder to think of a more apt analogy to describe the ever fractious, difficult, maddening, but enduring US-Saudi relationship than to link it to the soap opera that is the 50-year history of rock’s greatest touring band. In the end, despite falling out of love long ago, the Rolling Stones have made their peace, with key members coming to realize that their solo work – doing things on their own – is never going to supplant their troubled but productive alliance. Likewise, the US and Saudi Arabia are stuck with each other.

That is not to say that over many important policy matters US-Saudi relations are not teetering near crisis, for they are. Whether the issue be Syria (where the Saudis want a far more muscular response to President Bashar al-Assad’s murder of 200,000 of his own people), rapprochement with Iran (America is for it, the Saudis are vehemently against it), or the importance of the Arab Spring (Washington was tepidly in favor, with Riyadh acting much as reactionary Tsarist Russia did in 1848), one can find the two countries on opposite sides of the policy ledger.

Compounding these irritants, the recent Saudi move to drive the global price of oil downwards has been at least partly directed at blunting the American Shale Revolution, which has emerged as a direct threat to the Saudi’s long-held pre-eminence in the global oil markets. As drilling in Saudi Arabia is far cheaper than anywhere else in the world, Riyadh is adopting the ruthless technique of American robber baron John D. Rockefeller in the 19th century; drive the overall price of oil down (even if it means short-term economic pain for yourself) in order to drive competitors out of business, thus preserving market share. Once this is done, mastery of the market is retained. The strategy – at least in the short term – may well work, but it is another, and important, source of friction between the two increasingly exasperated allies.

So if they don’t agree about Syria, are at loggerheads over Iran, have a fundamentally different read of the importance of the Arab Spring, and increasingly see each other as fundamental economic rivals, how can one continue to call the US-Saudi link an alliance? The simple but important answer is this: For all the sturm und drang endemic in the troubled partnership, the realist ties that bind the two (for let’s not kid ourselves, Riyadh and Washington surely don’t share common values) outweigh all the irritants. It really is bigger than the both of us, darling.

Even if it is certainly true that Al-Qaeda (initially largely funded by wealthy Saudi donors) is a Frankenstein’s monster at least partly of Riyadh’s creation, the links between the US and Saudi Arabia over counter-terrorism are vital and profound. Newly appointed Deputy Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef is well regarded in both Washington and Europe as a man who as Interior Minister successfully clamped down on Al-Qaeda, both within his own country (surviving an assassination attempt in the process) as well as providing first-rate intelligence of the group’s movements in the region. While it is true that the Saudi government is tracking threats that have been subsidized by the Saudis themselves, as we would say in Washington, we are where we are. And Saudi intelligence is first-rate.

Second, The House of Saud continues to be supported by America because of the realist notion that they are simply all that we have; any other force that might be able to take over the country would be far worse. The House of Saud must be supported because it provides the magic elixir of stability in a vital, and tumultuous, corner of the world. Doing a thought experiment is useful here. Just entertain for one second the terrifying notion that next-door ISIS were in charge of the world’s largest oil supply. Suddenly the irritations that come from dealing with the present petro-kingdom seem worth the time.

Even if America could somehow safely withdraw from both the region and the US-Saudi alliance (which it cannot), given its continued centrality to the global economy how long would it take resource starved China to take America’s place, a state of affairs certainly not to Washington’s liking? No, far better to live with the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

But the most profound link between the two great economic powers has not changed a jot since Ibn Saud sacrificed a goat on the deck of the USS Quincy in FDR’s presence in 1945 to seal the Saudi-American alliance. The Saudis broadly agree to continue to pump oil to keep the world economy humming along and in return the United States pledges to defend them from all comers in what has always been a very rough neighborhood. For all the irritants that have followed, both sides have kept up their end of the bargain, which itself remains pivotal and relevant to the foreign policies of both Riyadh and Washington.

Nor is this likely to change. With the recent death of King Abdullah in January 2015, his half-brother King Salman has been elevated to the Saudi throne. Long a close political ally of Abdullah, Salman has moved quickly to assure friends and foes alike that continuity with Abdullah’s policies will be a hallmark of his reign. As such, expect no Saudi changes over policy regarding energy, Iran, or crucially ties with America.

Even more strikingly, Salman has appointed Muhammed bin Nayef Deputy Crown Prince. Whereas Salman is 79 and in ill health (his heir Prince Muqrin is 69), Bin Nayef – the first of Ibn Saud’s grandsons to be directly included in the succession – is only 55. The Western allies could not hope for a better choice, in terms of both his ability and their interests. Seen as a modernizer, Western educated, and close to both Washington and Europe, Bin Nayef has long been the whispered prayer for the succession of most seasoned Saudi observers. His elevation confirms the centrality the House of Saud still places on ties with America.

For despite everything, US-Saudi ties, much like the Rolling Stones, have endured because each brings something to the partnership the other recognizes it vitally needs – and cannot have – without enduring the fraught relationship. Or, in the words of Mick and Keith, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”