“We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price, and make them… the pariah that they are,” claimed President Biden during a 2019 Democratic debate, in reference to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after a US intelligence report found that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the assassination of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives. This report surfaced amidst countless others accusing Saudi Arabia of human rights violations. Saudi Arabia has been widely criticized for its discrimination against Muslim minorities, arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights activists, penalization of homosexuality, and frequent denial of women’s sovereignty. In place of a formal written penal code, the national law is Sharia, or Islamic, law, which subjects detainees to systematic violations of due process and forces peaceful activists to face capital trials. In addition to these domestic violations, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has been widely criticized for airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians since 2015, and many of these strikes could be classified as war crimes and violations of international law according to human rights groups. For President Biden, the issue of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia seemed to reach a head after the intelligence report about Khashoggi’s assassination was released. This July, on an official visit to the royal palace in Jeddah, Biden pivoted; upon exiting his car, bin Salman received him with a fist bump and a smile, sparking outrage from human rights activists.
Biden claims he did not go to Saudi Arabia to meet specifically with the Crown Prince, but rather to “deal with security” and the “needs of the free world.” Immediately after the meeting, the President, Crown Prince, and senior officials on both sides released a joint statement called the “Jeddah Communique,” which began by nostalgically calling upon a meeting in 1945 as the official origin of diplomatic relations, before stressing the “pivotal role” this partnership has played in maintaining Middle Eastern regional stability. Beyond detailing the various arenas for cooperation, the United States firmly stated their commitment to protecting the territory and people of Saudi Arabia, reaffirming a tight-knit security alliance that goes back to World War II-era. President Biden “welcomed” and even “applauded” some of the Kingdom's recent advancements, including the assumption of a task force in the Red Sea and the signing of the Artemis Accords. Beyond serving as a refresher of the countries’ logistical commitments to one another, the Communique was laced with praise.
Biden’s endorsement of the Kingdom is controversial among both human rights advocates and members of Congress who argue that the United States must cut arms sales to Saudi Arabia and re-shape relations to reflect American interests and values. Yet two years into Biden’s presidency, and almost eight decades after the initial alliance was formed, interests and relations between the two countries remain closely intertwined. The fundamental question arises: Why are they still such close allies?
Setting the Stage: the History of the Alliance
Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia began unofficially in 1933 when Saudi Arabia gave the American company Standard Oil exclusive rights to oil in the eastern province, which went on to become a profitable US-Saudi joint venture called ARAMCO. The United States then established official diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia after a meeting between King Abdulaziz Al-Saud and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945.
During President Eisenhower’s administration, US policymakers sought out Saudi Arabia as a partner in combating the Soviet Union’s “godless communism.” Saudi Arabia has the power to speak for Mecca and Medina, two of the most important religious cities in the world, so President Eisenhower sought to make the Kingdom a globally-recognized Islamic leader to secure US interests in the Middle East and prevent the spread of Soviet influence.
In 1951, the United States and Saudi Arabia established the Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement, which was the first formal defense agreement between the two nations. It “approved the desire” of Saudi Arabia to import arms and munitions from the United States, as well as establishing a US-led training program for the Saudi military on the delivery and use of the arms and equipment. Immediately following the establishment of this agreement, Saudi Arabia became engaged in conflict with Soviet-backed Egypt that lasted until 1967. In those years, the United States provided US$218 million in foreign military sales to the Kingdom. It was the beginning of a long history of supplying Saudi Arabia with arms to fight against a Soviet bloc in Middle Eastern proxy conflicts.
The Threats of 1979
In 1979, Saudi Arabia faced security threats that tested the efficacy of these commitments. It was the year of the Iranian revolution, a populist uprising that toppled the authoritarian government in Iran and established a new Islamic Republic. Then, in November of 1979, an armed band of Islamic “cultists” seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, claiming the Saudi royal family had tarnished Islam, and killing hundreds of hostages. These two events were violent reminders that the Kingdom was reliant, at least in part, upon the support of extremist Islamic factions to stay in power: a remnant of the historic alliance between the Wahhabi factions and the al-Sauds that established the legitimacy of the monarchy in the Arabian Peninsula. Absent the cohesion of these factions, the Kingdom risked domestic instability emerging in events like the seizure of the Grand Mosque.
In December of the same year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, which posed two different threats to the Saudis. One was that of the leftist, atheist influence spread by the Soviets that was widely hated in the Muslim world. The second was the potential for the Soviets to exert political control over oil-producing states in the Middle East.
Security Interests Aligning
In the face of the chaotic events of 1979, the United States was still focused on combating the Soviet Union on all fronts of the Cold War. In an echo of the first defense agreement established in 1951, the United States and Saudi Arabia came together in mutual defense of the Middle East against Soviet influence by launching an initiative to fund extremist Mujahideen Afghan rebels to combat the Soviet Union, spending no less than US$3 billion each on munitions, arms, and tactical assistance.
The Saudi government was able to appease Islamic extremists by redirecting jihadists abroad to Afghanistan while also building deep trust with US intelligence sectors. This proved to be monumental in terms of cementing the US-Saudi security alliance. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi intelligence chief at the time, used the conflict in Afghanistan to build extremely close ties between Saudi Arabia and the CIA, the State Department, and the White House.
Meanwhile, the United States was able to spin cooperation with Saudi Arabia as a way of using religion and so-called “freedom fighters” to combat the secular, dangerous enemy that was the Soviet Union. In the Reagan Era, to a politically powerful Christian right, this was a powerful message.
The security interests of the United States and Saudi Arabia were once again conveniently aligned when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, after which the United States deployed troops to Saudi Arabia to attack Iraqi forces. For the next 10 years, about 5,000 US troops would remain in Saudi Arabia, signaling to the world (and more importantly, to Iraq, Iran, and Russia) that the United States was committed to protecting the interests of Saudi Arabia.
Post 9/11, the relationship came under strain when President Bush openly criticized Saudi Arabia for their funding of extremist Wahhabi groups and the public opinion of Saudi Arabia was very unfavorable. However, the Saudis viewed bin Laden as a threat too: he was a product of a larger trend of anti-government extremism in the Middle East that threatened their stability. Once again, the US and Saudi Arabia were able to unite against a common enemy, this time using deep ties within the intelligence sector to pursue joint counterterrorism operations. President Bush was unwilling to jeopardize the security benefits of the US-Saudi relationship by challenging the Saudi relationship with the extremist Wahhabi factions.
The US and Saudi Arabia in Yemen
More recently, Saudi Arabia became the leader of the Arab-led coalition that invaded Yemen in March 2015. President Obama promptly heeded the call for intelligence and military aid in addition to establishing a Joint Combined Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia. But as the military campaign progressed, Saudi Arabia came under fire from human rights organizations, the UN, and other allies due to repeated violations of international human rights law via air strikes that were typically carried out with US-guided missile technology. Obama suspended the sale of arms in an effort to condemn the actions of Saudi Arabia, although the administration continued intelligence sharing, providing logistical assistance, and the sale of “certain arms.”
It didn’t last long. President Trump promptly approved the sale that Obama had suspended, and vetoed bipartisan legislation from the Senate that would’ve forced the United States to withdraw from the conflict completely. Arms and munitions sales increased in both the public and private sectors. In fact, a recent report from the Washington Post found that the United States “provided arms, training or maintenance support to the majority of the fighter jet squadrons in the campaign” since its outset, the majority of which took place during the Trump Administration.
Upon entering office, President Biden halted offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, timed aptly with a UN-led ceasefire of the conflict in Yemen. However, after his visit to Jeddah, the Biden administration approved a possible US$3.05 billion sale of Guided Enhanced Tactical Ballistic Missiles (GEM-T) to the Kingdom. The State Department released a statement about the sale, saying “These missiles are used to defend the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s borders against persistent Houthi cross-border…attacks on civilian sites and critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia.” While support for the Saudi-led campaign has been politically criticized for years, the United States remains entrenched in its security commitments to the Kingdom.
But What About Oil?
Some argue that the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is purely transactional, and is completely dependent on the conditions of oil trade. When OPEC+ announced it would cut oil production by two million barrels a day in October, Biden was openly “re-evaluating” his administration’s relationship with the Kingdom, including a suggestion to private businesses to cut back on their investments and dealings with Saudi companies. Undoubtedly, the Saudi and OPEC influence over oil production is a major factor in US-Saudi cooperation. The decision to cut oil production will cause gas prices to rise and potentially provide Russia with an economic upper hand with respect to its war in Ukraine, both of which conflict with US interests. However, US-Saudi economic involvement is multi-faceted. Only 5 percent of the US’ crude oil imports come from Saudi Arabia each year, which equates to US$6.5 billion. Meanwhile, the United States has about US$126.6 billion in active government-to-government arms sales to Saudi Arabia under the foreign military sales system, which does not include additional commercial arms sales. In total, the United States is responsible for over 73 percent of Saudi Arabia’s arms and munitions imports, a figure which suggests a deep security reliance. Additionally, as Biden re-evaluates the US-Saudi relationship after recent oil developments, he is also openly balancing other core US objectives, namely “uniting Israel and its Arab neighbors against Iran.” The economic aspects of the alliance are necessarily balanced with US security interests in the Middle East, and have been since the early 20th century.
Saudi Arabia, with its leadership role in OPEC+ and its proximity to an unstable region susceptible to proxy conflicts, serves as a convenient ally for the United States, which continually seeks out economic and military dominance in order to subvert Russian and Iranian interests in the Middle East. In the face of a decades-long relationship defined by cooperation in lengthy, bloody, and politically controversial conflicts, the matter of human rights violations seems to have little sway. Not to mention the convenience of the arms sales industry; Saudi Arabia pays billions in advanced US arms, munitions, and tactical support to “defend its territory,” while the US government and private companies like Raytheon make a fortune fueling the attacks and subverting their enemies via proxy conflicts. Whether or not the alliance is morally salient is unclear, but the question about the origin of allyship has an answer: by routinely cooperating in regional conflicts, the US and Saudi Arabia have created an entangled relationship that is not as easy to undo as cutting off a friend. The two countries may be entangled for a while longer, or as long as it takes to defeat other major world powers once and for all.
Cover Photo taken by Alisdare Hickson in London at a protest of the Saudi-Arabian led military campaign in Yemen, on March 7, 2018.