The Wilson Quarterly

The “special relationship” between Saudi Arabia and the United States that began in 1945 died in the ashes of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, writes David Ottaway, senior schol­ar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and author of The King’s Messenger: Prince Bandar bin Sultan and America’s Tangled Rela­tionship With Saudi Arabia (2008). Today, Washington and Riyadh retreat into the special correctness of ­diplomatic-­speak when they refer to their relation­ship. They call it a “strategic dialogue.”

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Saudis. Mastermind Osama bin Laden is the 17th son of one of the kingdom’s most successful busi­nessmen, and the largest contin­gent of “enemy combatants” scooped up on the battlefields of Afghanistan is of Saudi nationality. Withering criticism of the Saudi royal family has caused it to almost entirely reverse its view of the United States since 9/11—from primary source of security to major cause of insecurity. King Abdullah shuns the role of “moderate ally” in the struggle against Iran, and is busy building ties to Europe, China, Russia, Pakistan, and ­Turkey.

Even before the attacks on the World Trade Center, Crown Prince Abdullah, who became king in 2005, was angry over America’s indifference to the Middle East peace process. In 2002 he proposed that the Arab world normalize relations with Israel in return for an independent Palestinian state and a return to the pre-1967 Israeli bor­ders, but President George W. Bush “did nothing” until a belated and unsuccessful 2007 conference, Ottaway writes. Moreover, the American invasion of Iraq installed a ­Shiite-­dominated government in Baghdad, tipping the balance of power in the Middle East toward ­majority-­Shiite Iran and away from Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi ­Arabia.

The traditional quid pro ­quo—­American security guarantees for Saudi ­oil—­no longer works for either side. It’s been five years since Saudi Arabia could significantly influence oil prices. When Riyadh boosts production in an effort to lower prices, or pumps less oil to try to prevent a global price collapse, it fails. Another potential difficulty is the uncertainty of the nation’s future leadership. Abdullah is 86 years old, and his designated successor is 85 and suffering from cancer. The king has established a council of his 35 half-brothers and their sons to select his heir, but the council is ­untested.

Even so, the United States and the kingdom retain common interests: Saudi Arabia has more oil than any other state, and America uses more. Both face threats from Al Qaeda and want to thwart Iran’s nuclear and political ambitions. And the two nations expect each other to help solve the world’s economic crisis. They manage to cooperate on counterterrorism, to hold joint military exercises, and to educate thousands of Saudis in American universities. They share the goal of stability in Pakistan and the Middle East, but the Saudis regard the buildup of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan as ­foolhardy.

The Obama administration, Otta­way writes, should seek cooperation where it can, and, in particular, strive for a settlement of the ­Israeli-­Palestinian conflict to re­store Arab trust. The Saudis seek a quick U.S. economic recovery to boost a depressed world economy and create a market for more oil. Putting their money where their mouth is, they have loyally sup­ported the American dollar against pressure from other Arab states to calculate oil payments in other currencies. In this instance, their faith has been vindicated, Otta­way says. Other ­nations—­even powerful ­China—­have sought a safe harbor amid the economic crisis by buying more U.S. Treasury ­bonds.

THE SOURCE: “The King and Us” by David Ottaway, in Foreign Affairs, May–June ­2009.

Photo courtesy of The White House

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