A Special Relationship

Gary Grappo

Despite a semblance of rocky ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, bilateral relations between the two countries remains vital to the U.S. and extremely vital to Saudi Arabia.

Throughout history, there have been various times in the U.S.-Saudi relationship where we’ve experienced inflection points. The first major inflection point was back in the late 1960s, when Egypt sent forces to Yemen and was encroaching on the Saudis. In response, the U.S sent Air Force aircraft as a demonstration of its willingness to defend Saudi Arabia. That was an inflection point in terms of the new security element of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Then, not quite ten years later, there was another inflection point, when the U.S. came down on the side of Israel during and after the Yom Kippur War. The Saudis embargoed oil, driving prices in the U.S. to new heights and creating real tension in the relationship. They eventually got through that. The Saudis realized the real strategic mistake they made, because they surrendered market shares. They’ll never do that again, and I’ve heard that directly from very senior Saudi officials. But this move had put the relationship in a very difficult spot.

And then the inflection point that I personally experienced was post-9/11, when the relationship probably faced its most crucial test. There were even questions about whether it might survive that test. The question was how both the U.S. and the Kingdom perceived the threat from terrorism and specifically, from al Qaeda. Things changed in 2003 when Saudi Arabia was the target of a fairly significant terrorist attack in Riyadh, which occurred right around the time when I arrived in the country. Due to the collaboration that subsequently developed, once the Saudis recognized that both countries faced the same threat, the relationship offered up the potential for even closer cooperation. And it did take a strong diplomatic effort, particularly on the U.S. side, to re-strengthen the relationship. By 2006-7, we were pretty much back on an even keel: very good cooperation on intelligence sharing between the two sides on terrorism and on Iran.

Today, we are at another inflection point, and this will be a very difficult one because of the Iran factor and our dramatically different perceptions of the threat. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as an existential threat, in a similar fashion to Israel’s view, although the Iranians have never made the kind of threats against Saudi Arabia that they have against Israel—no one is talking about wiping Saudi Arabia off the map.

Nevertheless, there is a genuine fear and concern about the threat from Iran. The U.S. doesn’t see it that way, particularly as it negotiated the nuclear agreement with Iran. We think we have that in a box. Initially, I was hesitant to accept the U.S. approach.  But having read the agreement multiple times, I believe it serves U.S. interests, at least for the period of the agreement. That assumes it’s fully implemented in good faith and closely monitored as the agreement itself calls for. That’s not enough to satisfy the Saudis, and I remain concerned about the proliferation potential of that agreement in terms of what the Saudis might do.

The U.S. does share a common concern with Saudi Arabia about Iranian support for terrorism, particularly in Lebanon with Hezbollah, in Syria, in the Sinai, and also in Yemen. Both countries also remain gravely concerned about the rise of Shia militias in Iraq under Iranian influence and questionable Iraqi government control. In that respect, we still have pretty clear interests and grounds for collaboration. Even on the Iran nuclear accord, I would hope that the Saudis could be persuaded to come around to accept our point of view, assuming we are as transparent as we can be with them about how well the Iranians are complying, or not.

That is very important, because there is a potential proliferation repercussion from the Iran nuclear agreement. The Saudis already possess a pretty basic and antiquated ballistic missile system. They’ve looked at modernizing their defense capabilities and have even sought out some suppliers.

There would be the potential of the Saudis reaching out to their good friends in Pakistan and buying some of their technology. There are allegations, and I think they are credible, that Saudi Arabia may have provided some financial support to the Pakistanis in the development of their nuclear program. It’s difficult to put a price tag on it, but nevertheless, it’s clear that there has been close communication between the two countries about the Pakistani nuclear program. If the Saudis decided to call in a chit for fear of what may be happening in Iran, they might find the Pakistanis quite obliging.

Overall, while Saudi Arabia is very much a country with incredible wealth—both tangible and stored—and possesses abundant natural resources, it is also a country that is very vulnerable to all kinds of predators. Saudi Arabia will always be a vulnerable nation and there is really only one country in the world that can protect it—and that’s the United States.

From the U.S. perspective, if America is going to be effective in fighting Islamic extremism, we need Saudi Arabia working with us. Over a billion Muslims everyday turn toward Saudi Arabia to pray. It’s the center of Islam and has considerable sway among Muslims worldwide. Having them working in partnership to fight terrorism is critically important.

Additionally, I still believe that the world is going to be dependent on fossil fuels for some time to come. There are terrific initiatives currently underway, but it will take quite a while to replace all of things oil and gas do today. Although the U.S. is becoming increasingly independent, other countries are not. Oil is still a strategic commodity and therefore a commodity that some nations will go to war over. It is in America’s interest to work with the Saudis, as we have in the past, to keep oil prices stable in order to maintain economic stability worldwide. Saudi Arabia is still the world’s only oil producer that can adjust its volumes up and down, although today, it’s a somewhat different situation.  We need to ensure that the Saudis act responsibly in how they exploit their resources. Having this strategic partnership enables us to work together to ensure stability in global oil markets and, therefore, economic stability worldwide.

There are many problematic areas in the U.S.-Saudi relationship: human rights, Wahabism, Iran. But, those can best be addressed by maintaining a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia.

One of the things that I observed when I was working in Israel in the Quartet was that the U.S. was always far more successful in getting the Israelis to do things that they felt uncomfortable doing when they embraced them as tightly as they could. The U.S. supported them in the UN and did all these other things for them, and therefore they felt that they were truly shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. as they took the kinds of risks that we were urging them to take.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship may be viewed in a similar way. By standing close with them, we are far more likely to get them to do the things we want, whether it be responsibility in oil production or closer cooperation in combatting extremism, both in the actual combat portion as well as dealing with the ideological aspect. We can be far more effective in dealing with Iran, addressing the Yemen situation, and even working toward creating stability in the Middle East if the Saudis feel that they are fairly close to us. It’s hard because the two countries, while they share very few values, share similar interests in the region. That’s the focal point of the relationship and why it’s really vital for both countries to work together to keep it as a strategic relationship. It’s one of those special relationships that the U.S. tends to have with very few countries around the world.

The Author is Gary Grappo

Ambassador Gary Grappo is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for Middle East Studies at the Korbel School for International Studies, University of Denver, and CEO of Equilibrium International Consulting, providing analysis and policy guidance on foreign affairs to businesses, institutions and the media. He served as Envoy and Head of Mission of the Office of the Quartet Representative, the Honorable Tony Blair, in... Read More

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