At the end of March, US President Barack Obama made his first visit to Saudi Arabia since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in Egypt in 2011. The fall of Mubarak arguably marked the beginning of the current tension between the two allies: the Saudi monarchy was dismayed to see America abandon a long-term ally like the Egyptian president.
Over the last three years, these tensions have grown. The US outreach to Iran has particularly bothered Saudi leaders, who are concerned that their regional enemy has been empowered at their expense. American ambivalence over intervention in Syria has also been the cause of anger in the Kingdom. Last year, Saudi Arabia took the unusual step of going public with its concerns, with Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington, criticising decisions by the US government.
The relationship between America and Saudi Arabia – which CNN has described as "the world's most powerful democracy and the world's most absolute monarchy" – goes back more than 60 years. It began in 1945 when then president, Franklin D Roosevelt, and the Saudi King Abdul Aziz met on the deck of an American warship on the Suez Canal. Over the generations the two nations have remained bound together by common interests such as the free flow of oil and, in more recent years, the fight against Al-Qaeda.
The arrangement whereby Saudi provides oil and America provides security has endured for years. During the Cold War a mutual suspicion of communism shored up the relationship, while recently this has been replaced by shared loathing of the regime in Iran and of Al-Qaeda. These common adversaries – and the mutually beneficial trade of security for oil – have essentially smoothed over inevitable differences in outlook between a theocratic autocracy and an enthusiastic exporter of democracy. The failure of the US to mention the multiple human rights abuses carried out by its ally, while simultaneously criticising other states for lesser crimes, has long been the cause of outrage in the region.
Yet these fundamental differences in outlook do cause problems. If the recent tension began with the fall of Mubarak, it had as much to do with a broadly different worldview as it did with anything else. The west widely supported the Arab Spring and the public championing of democracy, while Riyadh viewed the protests with alarm and promptly intervened in Bahrain to shore up the monarchy against the Shia majority. The US supported the election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a step on the road to democracy, while Saudi saw it as the rise of a dangerous Islamist rival.
In addition to these geopolitical tensions and conflicting regional interests, the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia is also shifting because the fundamental terms of its alliance are changing. As the Economist puts it, "surging oil production at home has sharply lessened America's dependence on Saudi oil", while Obama's emphasis on withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan "has been reducing the American bootprint in the region". The trade of security for oil is no longer looking so sacrosanct.
It is perhaps for this reason that Saudi has been more aggressively supporting its own interests in the region. Academics have predicted that due to the fracking boom, the US could be the world's biggest exporter of crude oil by 2020. For Saudi Arabia, this would mean being displaced from the top spot by its biggest client: a major reversal of roles. Last summer, Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal, a prominent Saudi businessman, wrote an open letter to his uncle, King Abdullah: "Our country is facing continuous threat because of its almost total dependency on oil. The world is increasingly less dependent on oil from OPEC countries including the Kingdom."
But despite these growing tensions and diverging interests, it would be naïve to suggest that the alliance is over. The two countries' mutual need for each other may be less strong than in the past, but in the here and now, it still exists. American oil production is booming, but the country is not yet self-sufficient. Conversely, despite the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, America retains a strong military presence in the Gulf. For the time being, it is difficult to see Saudi Arabia finding a better guarantor of its security. Meanwhile, the threat of extremism and terrorism in the region is not going anywhere, and the US relies heavily on the regime in Saudi to serve its interests and report back.
In the long-term, the two countries may pull back from each other or adjust their relationship in a more significant way, but for the time being the alliance – though shaken – remains mutually beneficial.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.