When President Barack Obama stepped off Air Force One onto the red carpet at Riyadh's international airport recently, he was not greeted by his fellow head of state, King Salman, but by an array of much more lowly officials. Was this a deliberate snub? The king had, after all, greeted a number of other heads of state at the airport earlier that day. Why did he make an exception for Obama who is the leader of his kingdom's most important ally (even if Obama has recently called the Saudis one of the "free riders")? Did this signal a major change in the nature of US-Saudi relations? Did it reveal some deep change between Riyadh and Washington?
Another event, a few days later, seemed to suggest otherwise. President Obama promised publicly to veto the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, a bill under discussion in the US Congress that would allow family members of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue the Saudi government in US courts. The rationale for the legislation is that 13 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were Saudi citizens, as was Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the atrocities.
According to the president, this veto – which would be only his 9th during his two terms of office – is about more than the importance of Saudi Arabia for American interests; it is also to protect the US from similar prosecution. "This is not just a bilateral US-Saudi issue," Obama explained. "This is a matter of how generally the United States approaches our interactions with other countries. If we open up the possibility that individuals in the United States can routinely start suing other governments, then we are also opening up the United States to being continually sued by individuals in other countries."
Different rules apply
While the logic of the president's explanation has some merit, there can be little doubt that the relationship between the US and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the more extraordinary, and particularly special, of America's alliances. It is clear that — according to the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — "There is "no doubt" the US has different standards for its Saudi ally."
This shouldn't really be surprising. As I've argued before, about Britain's relationship with the Middle East, there are often times when states' prioritise what they perceive to be their national self interests over other – often less tangible – concerns, such as "democracy" and "human rights".
Moreover, in the case of Saudi Arabia, the equation is probably clearer than it might be elsewhere. This is because America's (and the world's) tangible interests in the kingdom are enormously valuable and the likelihood of achieving anything like substantive progress towards democracy and a serious respect for human rights is so low. In other words, they're not going to change, so we might as well buy their oil anyway.
As Michael Klare explains in his excellent 2005 book, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Petroleum Dependency, the roots of the US-Saudi alliance are obvious: "It is impossible to overstate the importance of the US-Saudi relationship. Not only is Saudi Arabia the leading foreign supplier of crude petroleum to the United States — accounting for approximately 18 per cent of imports in mid-2003 — [but] it is also the only major supplier we can be sure will significantly increase its deliveries of oil to us in times of crisis."
US relations with Saudi Arabia began some 70 years ago, in the shadow of World War Two, when President Roosevelt – on his return from a meeting of the "big three" at Yalta – met with King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern state. No records were kept of what the two discussed, but it is understood widely that the president and the king established terms for their relationship along the lines that, in exchange for US protection, the kingdom would grant American companies favourable terms in the oil industry.
It was only later, however, as the British withdrew from "East of Suez" that American promises became the only reliable security guarantee for the kingdom. These promises were put to the test on a number of occasions, particularly after the Iranian revolution, when the Saudis and the US found themselves with a common enemy across the narrow Straits of Hormuz. American troops defended Saudi interests, and their Kuwaiti ally, during the Gulf Crisis of 1991 and, during the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the kingdom implemented various important supportive measures, including support for the US military's preparations and using its influence to maintain stability in the oil markets during the crisis.
Under Obama, relations with the kingdom have become tense, like at no other time since 1973, when the Saudis and other oil producers used the so-called "oil weapon" in an effort to influence US foreign policy. This can in part be attributed to the emergence of new competition in the energy industry that threatens to undermine the power that Saudi Arabia enjoys as the "swing producer". However, there are also more obvious political reasons.
For example, during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Washington overlooked what Riyadh wanted when it failed to support fully the ailing regime of Hosni Mubarak and accepted the emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood presidency. Furthermore, Saudi frustration with the US over its pursuit of the nuclear deal with Iran and its reluctance to assert itself more directly against the Assad regime in Syria reached such a peak that the kingdom took the unprecedented step of rejecting a seat on the UN security council in 2013.
The future of the relationship
While all eyes are focused on what awaits the world when we enter the post-Obama years in January, it is perhaps more likely that the future shape of US-Saudi relations will be shaped by what is happening in the kingdom. In particular, under King Salman, Saudi Arabia has begun to build the foundations for greater independence.
Widespread domestic reforms have been introduced to change – albeit, slowly – the country's relationship with oil. These have included plans for the partial privatisation of Saudi ARAMCO, the massive state-run oil company; efforts to diversify away from oil exports as the state's primary source of income (although this plan is enjoying only limited success); and, most dramatically, to create the kingdom's first home-grown military industrial complex.
All of this signals a widening gulf between the world's leading energy superpower and its sole remaining political and military superpower. While those conditions persist, so too will uncertainty over the future of the relationship.
Dr Philip Leech is a Senior Fellow at the Centre on Government at the University of Ottawa. He is the co-editor (with Shabnam Holliday) of Political Identities and Popular Uprisings in the Middle East (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016) and the author of The State of Palestine: A Critical Analysis (Routledge, Forthcoming August 2016). His full profile is online at Academia.edu.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.