U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Saudi King Abdullah in November, 2013.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Saudi King Abdullah in Ryadh in November, 2013.

As victors of World War II in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union immediately began preparing for a new conflict that would pit the two superpowers against one another in a struggle for global supremacy. Realizing the need for oil and a base of operations in the Middle East, the United States cultivated a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, a monarchy with vast oil reserves and a loathing of communism. The partnership was straightforward: Saudi Arabia provided special access to oil for the United States, and in return the superpower developed military installations across Saudi Arabia to advance mutual security goals.

Though there were moments of tension, the relationship between the two nations functioned relatively well throughout the Cold War. Saudi Arabia ensured that oil prices remained stable for the United States in instances of emergency. During the Iranian Crisis of the late 1970’s, Saudi Arabia boosted production to keep cheap oil flowing to the United States. Reciprocating, the United States helped maintain Saudi security by committing military resources to the defense of the nation. In 1963 when the Yemeni civil war spilled into Saudi territory, President Kennedy sent an aircraft squadron to protect the U.S. allies. Perhaps the high point of cooperation came during the Gulf War, when the United States and Saudi Arabia repelled the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and secured key oil fields in the region.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are still allies today, however the circumstances of the relationship have changed. North American oil production is making the United States less dependent on foreign sources of energy, particularly from the Middle East. Conversely, Saudi Arabia is developing a powerful military that allows the Kingdom to pursue its own security and foreign policy goals. With the United States less dependent on foreign oil and Saudi Arabia less dependent on foreign protection, it’s time for a serious reevaluation of the partnership. Saudi Arabia and the United States both stand to gain from strong economic ties, but continuing an intimate political and strategic relationship is ill-advised.

Changing Circumstances

American natural gas and oil production are booming. The Eagle Ford Shale in Texas now yields over 1.5 million barrels of oil daily. Canada, a close trading partner of the United States, produces almost 2,000,000 barrels of oil per day from tar sands. Though domestic and Canadian producers cannot provide the 19,000,000 barrels per day that the United States consumes, combined they now supply over 50 percent of U.S. demand. These developments mean that the United States is increasingly awash in oil from local sources and less dependent on foreign nations for energy.

At the same time Saudi Arabia is modernizing and expanding its military. The Kingdom now has the fourth largest military budget in the world, having spent 67 billion dollars in 2013 to develop its armed forces. In 2014 the Kingdom flexed its muscles in a military exercise dubbed “Abdullah’s Shield.” The demonstration involved 130,000 troops and showcased powerful CSS-2 ballistic missiles. In an interview with the HPR, Nawaf Obaid, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Special Counselor to the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United Kingdom, asserted that “Saudi Arabia is developing a powerful army and an expansive security service.” Obaid stated that this expanded military infrastructure will allow Saudi Arabia “to ascertain its national security interests in a more overt way.”

A Strategic Separation

As the United States and Saudi Arabia undergo these changes, it makes sense to reassess their relationship with the present objectives of both nations in mind. President Obama recently reaffirmed his foreign policy shift to Asia, claiming that, over the last two years of his presidency, “American leadership in the Asia Pacific will always be a fundamental focus of [his] foreign policy.” The shift toward Asia means drawing resources and attention away from the Middle East, where American foreign policy has centered in the post-9/11 era. In order for the United States to successfully extricate itself from its myriad of involvements in the Middle East, it must first tie up loose ends in the region. As President Obama outlined in a United Nations speech in 2013, this includes containing the war in Syria and developing a nuclear deal with Iran.

A close U.S.-Saudi partnership may confound attempts to develop solutions to these problems. Already, the two nations have conflicted over several policy issues throughout the Middle East. Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal commented that between the United States and Saudi Arabia, “most of the differences are in tactics.” Saudi Arabia typically favors direct confrontation, while the United States, in recent years, has shifted to a reliance on diplomatic measures.

The ongoing conflict in Syria illustrates these tactical differences. 2011 protests against President Bashar al-Assad erupted into an ongoing civil war involving numerous factions. The United States has been resistant to involve itself in the conflict. In 2013 Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that “absent a negotiated solution, we don’t see a lot of ways to end the violence…because we don’t have the legal authority or the justification or the desire at this point to get in the middle of a civil war.” Since a failed peace deal in early 2014, the United States has shipped some weapons to Syrian rebels but not done much else. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been delivering weapons to rebels since 2012 and advocating for more direct U.S. involvement. Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud, chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, felt a “high level of disappointment” with the United States over its perceived inaction in Syria.

Nuclear negotiations with Iran have caused similar tension in the U.S.-Saudi partnership. The Sunni Saudi monarchy and the Shia Iranian theocracy have long been enemies in large part because of sectarian divides. Now, the United States is involved in talks with Iran to limit the latter’s nuclear capabilities and develop a more cooperative relationship. These recent U.S.-Iranian diplomatic proceedings have aggravated Saudi Arabia. Obaid stated that “there was tension because they were done without the official knowledge of the Saudi government.” Many Saudi’s are concerned about a deal between the United States and Iran and would see it as an expansion of Iranian power in the region. Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, prominent Saudi businessman and member of the royal family, claimed that Saudi Arabia is pressuring the United States “not to succumb to the president of Iran’s soft talk.” Because the U.S. government has been reluctant to use force in its negotiations with Iran, Saudi Arabia has acted on its own accord to challenge Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. In 2011, the Kingdom sent troops abroad to quell Shia protests against the Sunni Bahraini monarchy. While it is not clear if Iran backed the protests, a Shia government in Bahrain would presumably be much more strategically favorable to Iran than to Saudi Arabia.

As Saudi Arabia and the United States work to accomplish their common goals in the Middle East, both nations should keep long-term strategy in mind. American desire for involvement in new conflicts after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is limited. In an interview with the HPR, F. Gregory Gause, a political science professor at Texas A&M University, stated that “the whole enthusiasm of the freedom agenda and the democracy push in the immediate post-9/11 world is done.” Saudi Arabia, however, is exerting increasing military force in the region and pressuring the United States to do the same. While in many cases the two countries may have shared foreign policy goals, a continued use of force as a tactic would mire the United States in more conflicts that would make a shift away from the Middle East impossible. To allow latitude for conducting policy in the region, Saudi Arabia and the United States should lessen the political and strategic partnership holding them together.

The Case for Energy Stability

Some fear that a separation between Saudi Arabia and the United States would result in problems of energy instability in the latter country. While Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s state-owned oil firm, has the world’s largest crude oil production capacity and can heavily influence U.S. energy markets, Saudi Arabia is not in a position to use Aramco as a political weapon. Robert Vitalis, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, asserted in an interview with the HPR that state-owned oil companies “tend to adopt over time a model of production [and] investment decisions that mirror those of Western oil firms. They’re disciplined by the financial markets that they’re all dependent on.” Market pressures would likely prevent Saudi Arabia from dramatically changing its oil production or export policy in response to a shift in its political alliance with the United States.

The recent plummet of oil prices, due in large part to Saudi decisions, demonstrates that Saudi Arabian export policy is tailored in response to economic and not political conditions. In early November Aramco lowered the price of oil bound for the United States while raising it for other nations. Later that month, Saudi-led OPEC chose to maintain high oil production levels and let prices fall. Though it may appear that these decisions have some political implication, they were made to protect market share and because Saudi Aramco is closely tied to oil refining interests in the United States. According to Obaid, the recent drop in the price of Saudi Arabian oil bound for the United States is “based on the fact that Saudi Aramco owns 50 percent of America’s largest refining complex, Port Arthur in Texas. They are obliged by default of owning that massive infrastructure to keep supplying it with Saudi crude.”

An Opportunity for Change

As strategic cooperation diminishes, the robust economic bonds holding the United States and Saudi Arabia together could be the foundation of a newly refocused relationship between the two nations. In addition to mutual investments such as the Port Arthur refinery, the United States and Saudi Arabia do considerable trade in oil and advanced military technology, the two commodities which have historically formed the crux of their partnership. The new relationship would cultivate this trade as well as encourage the exchange of ideas and technology. Already, over 50 thousand Saudi students study at U.S. universities, developing novel ideas and benefitting both economies. In years to come, economic and intellectual cooperation could flourish independently of political allegiances. There is a precedent for this sort of relationship. The United States already has strong trading alliances with a number of nations, including Venezuela and China, with which it doesn’t have a close strategic alliance. A U.S.-Saudi relationship of this sort, centered on economic ties, would reflect the realities of the 21st century and allow both nations to move unfettered into the future.

Image source: Wikimedia

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