An expert explains the history of the US-Saudi alliance.
There’s growing evidence that Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed two weeks ago in Istanbul — and that Saudi royalty ordered the operation that led to his death.
The revelations over the past two weeks have threatened America’s decades-long relationship with Saudi Arabia. US lawmakers, including allies of President Donald Trump, have called for a break in the alliance, and for the kingdom to be punished.
But Trump and members of his administration continue to back Riyadh, in part, they say, because they don’t want to jeopardize billions of Saudi dollars flowing into the US economy via weapons purchases and investments. Many Americans have found it unsettling to watch as the Trump administration allows Saudi Arabia — especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, who likely ordered the hit — to sweep the affair under the rug.
To learn more, I reached out to Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC. We discussed the history of US-Saudi relations and why the relationship has remained strong for so long.
It’s also worth noting here that the Middle East Institute has received Saudi money in the past, but its board recently suspended this funding until an investigation into the missing journalist’s disappearance is complete.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
The US and Saudi Arabia are strong allies. When did this relationship start, and what’s the reason or reasons behind it?
It dates back to World War II, when oil became a very strategic resource and Saudi Arabia had a lot of it. Both countries cemented their relationship, which was centered around energy, in a famous meeting on board a US naval ship in the Suez Canal between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Saudi king in 1945.
So energy was a pillar of the early relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia continues to be an essential producer and exporter of oil globally, and has a huge impact on global oil prices. For a long time, the US got many of its energy resources from Saudi Arabia.
Their partnership also centered around global finance and economics. Much of Riyadh’s great wealth flowed into the US economy in terms of investments, arms purchases, or other businesses setting up shop in Saudi Arabia.
As the Cold War took off, Saudi Arabia also became a strong ally of the US in the fight against communism. The Saudis were religious and conservative, and very much opposed the atheist wave led by the Soviet Union.
So to recap: The US-Saudi relationship bloomed early on because of oil, mutual economic growth, and anti-communist sentiment.
Yes, that’s right.
Now let’s jump to the post-1979 period — the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The US and Saudi Arabia cooperated by arming the Islamic and jihadist opposition to the Soviets, which eventually beat back the invasion. That, of course, also created the problems of jihadism, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and all the rest of it.
And 1979 is also the year America lost Iran as an ally, after the Islamic Revolution. Riyadh has sided with Washington as it’s confronted Tehran ever since. That partnership continues.
But then both countries faced a big test with 9/11, right?
Yes, and it greatly shook the Saudi-US relationship: 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudi. Of course, one of their principal goals was to bring down the Saudi government. But nevertheless, they were Saudis, and that created a huge backlash against Riyadh in the US.
When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) came to power, he made counterterrorism one of the main pillars of the relationship with the United States. He admitted that moves by Saudi Arabia since 1979 to use radical Islam as a weapon against the Soviets or against the Iranians backfired, and says he wants to change that policy.
The Khashoggi affair may be the second major crisis in their relationship since 9/11.
Does energy still matter as much as it did in the relationship?
It’s still a very important pillar, though the US no longer imports as much as it did from Saudi Arabia or the Gulf.
Most of those exports go to China, India, Japan, Korea, and so on. But as President Trump has said repeatedly, global oil prices still have a big impact in the US, and Saudi Arabia has a big role in raising or lowering oil prices.
It seems like the US-Saudi alliance is based more on strategic interests and convenience, not values.
Yes, that’s fair. But for Saudi Arabia, the relationship is also about security: defending its airspace, boundaries, and waters.
But yes, the values have profoundly differed for many stretches of the relationship. Saudi Arabia is a different society and it has lived in a different way. So when you have a case like this — a US resident who wrote for the Washington Post [disappearing] — you see that occasionally, these values lead to a clash.
In the past, the US has criticized Saudi Arabia, at least marginally, over its human rights abuses. But America seems to be doing that less now.
It’s a feature of the Trump administration. He says again and again that he believes it’s none of his business or none of America’s business. He applies this to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern, Asian countries, or European countries that have gone rather right-wing and fascist.
President Obama certainly spoke about these issues. But I would say he was a president who, while speaking about it, did not do much to change the issue.
I think the US is moving away from actually protecting human rights around the world. It’s partly because the US is no longer the dominant global power that can just order people around.
Has the relationship been more beneficial throughout the years to Saudi Arabia or the United States?
It’s beneficial to both, is the simple answer. The US certainly gets a lot out of it, and Saudi Arabia certainly gets a lot out of it.
The US gets some leverage over oil prices and supplies, gets a lot of petrodollar investments and huge contracts, and has a stable ally in a very unstable Middle East. For Saudi Arabia, the US was key in its development of building a modern state and providing for its security.
In terms of interests, they certainly both have benefited.
How much has Saudi Arabia’s money in Washington influenced American politics and US views of Saudi Arabia?
Not in any major way. The White House has its own agenda. It’s not terribly influenced by what others in Washington say. And Congress has taken strong stances on the war in Yemen and now certainly on the Khashoggi affair.
In terms of Saudi Arabia’s general image in the United States, it was really impacted negatively by 9/11 and did not quickly recover from that.
Interestingly, it was MBS’s rise a couple of years ago that seemed to be creating a new narrative: a young prince who was letting women drive, bringing in music and culture, liberalizing the economy, and moving against a hard line. That initial narrative was positive for MBS.
But now with the Khashoggi affair and links to other things he’s done — the incident with the prime minister of Lebanon, the clash with Canada, the war in Yemen, the isolation of Qatar — we see that there’s a dark side to MBS.
The Middle East Institute, the think tank that you’re president of, said recently that it would no longer accept Saudi money, ”pending the outcome of the investigation” into Khashoggi’s disappearance. Do you think your organization will accept Saudi money again in the future?
That’s a decision for the board, not of myself or the staff. It’s a decision they did not take lightly. What happened was egregious. Mr. Khashoggi was a colleague and a participant at many of our events.
As always, if we get support, it is unrestricted. We do with it what we want. We maintain our freedom of whatever we want to host and say and whom we want to invite. Our panels, our conferences, our platforms are exactly for discussions among multiple points of view. Jamal was a dear friend and was a participant in those important discussions. That’s what a think tank is about.
The decision was taken by the board not to accept funding from the Saudi government until and unless, as according to the Board’s statement, that this matter is properly investigated and holding accountable those who were responsible. We’ll see what develops and then the Board will review and make whatever decisions it sees fit.
I get that the Saudi-US relationship is about interests. But does it hurt America’s moral standing to be so pro-Saudi?
I would unpack it a bit. The Khashoggi affair is a particularly horrendous violation of norms. It’s particularly troubling to see the US president and secretary of state actively trying to find a cover-up. That is in a class of its own.
The war in Yemen, for example, is yet another issue. It’s a very complicated situation, but the war has been terribly managed, and certainly there’s been massive loss of life. The US could have engaged differently in order to limit the losses and be more active in finding a political solution to that crisis. This administration, through the UN, is trying to end the war — but they haven’t gotten there yet.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Saudi Arabia, in the 1930s, was a hyper-isolated, hyper-conservative desert with tribal kingdoms. It’s been hurtling toward modernity at breakneck speed and certainly had a lot of hurdles to jump over to catch up with the West. To do that only in 60 years is a great challenge.
Many people — many Saudis — would say that Saudi Arabia in 60 years made tremendous progress. There are still a lot of problems. But most Saudis are young and pinning their hopes on the fact that maybe MBS would be the change agent that they’ve been waiting for.
I don’t think there’s a black-and-white answer for the US, in terms of dealing with a country like Saudi Arabia. I would say, however, that there is a very serious crisis of leadership and decision-making in Saudi Arabia that is putting the alliance in jeopardy.
The goals now are to find out what happened to Khashoggi, hold those people responsible, and make changes so that this doesn’t happen again. Only then can the relationship proceed on sounder footing.
If this is not resolved, that puts the US-Saudi relationship in a much more serious crisis.