EDITOR: ADITYA PRAKASH
One is a puritanical Islamic Monarchy, the other world’s oldest Democracy.One beheads the most number of civilians on earth, and the other endows the post of the head of the UN Human Rights Commision to it (because ‘natural allies’). One doesn’t even allow it’s women the rights to drive a car and the other is on the verge of electing a female president.
Seems contrasting? Given the ‘gulf’ of cultural and societal gap, what is it that makes them “natural allies” in this day and age? Well yes, it’s Saudi Arabia and the United States we are referring to, and their bilateral ties which epitomise contrast and a sense of sporadic convolution as well. The links seem obvious on the surface – Oil in exchange for security and diplomatic wherewithal, but today, these comprise just one facet of a rather nuanced relationship which defies most generalizations of commonalities and diplomacy.
Background and a Historical perspective.
As a political entity, Saudi Arabia is of relatively recent origins. Its origins lay with the puritanical 18th century Wahhabi movement, which gained the allegiance of the powerful Saud family of the Nejd, in central Arabia. Supported by the Bedouin majority, the Sauds brought most of the peninsula under their control, except for Yemen and the Hadhramaut in the extreme south. Post the defeat in 1891 by the hands of the Rashid dynasty, it was Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, known as Ibn Saud, a descendant of the first Wahhabi rulers, who laid the basis of the present Saudi Arabian state.
Beginning the Wahhabi reconquest at the turn of the century, Ibn Saud took Riyadh in 1902 and was master of the Nejd by 1906. On the eve of World War I he conquered the Al-Hasa region from the Ottoman Turks and soon extended his control over other areas. Hejaz fell to Saud in 1924–25 and in 1932 was combined with the Nejd to form the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis had first contact with Americans via Christian missionary doctors based in Bahrain. In 1925, Abdulaziz, the founder of the country, commissioned an American, Karl Twitchell, to look around for oil in the Eastern Province, because it seemed close to other oil-bearing regions in Iraq. However, bilateral relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States began in 1933 when full diplomatic relations were established, post the withdrawal of the British from the larger middle eastern region.
As a result of exploration expeditions by the US, Oil was discovered in 1936 by the U.S.owned Arabian Standard Oil Company and commercial production began in 1938, as the Standard Oil of California struck a successful well and the story of the Saudi oil got started. It was delayed by WWII when the Saudis actually imported oil from the US. Post the war though, we have a case study of the magnanimity of wealth and prosperity that exploitation of natural resources can endow you with. Consistently.
Causes for collaboration. And Then 9/11.
Right since it’s inception, Saudi Arabia involved itself into numerous regional conflicts for atavistically diverse reasonings – be it regarding Palestine with Israel, or in opposition to the Nasser regime in Egypt, the Arab Oil embargo of 1973, and, of course, it’s multi-faceted rivalry with Iran, which we shall get back to in a while. The US and Saudi Arabia though managed to find common grounds to collaborate during the cold war, when KSA proved to be a useful ally to have on one’s side, for The US and Saudi Arabia shared the view that “Atheist Communism” was a problem. The US focused on the “communism” part, while theocratic Saudis were most taken by the “Atheist” bit of it.
In 1972, the Saudi-Arabian government along with its OPAEC partners demanded tighter rein on the oil industry as well as participation in the oil concessions of foreign companies. Aramco (a conglomerate of several American oil companies) and the government reached an agreement in June 1974, whereby the Saudis would take a 60% majority ownership of the company’s concessions and assets. King Faisal played an active role in organizing the Arab oil embargo of 1973, directed against the United States and other nations that supported Israel. As U.S. oil prices soared, Saudi revenues increased. Right throughout the end of the 20th century, as a result of Saudi Arabia’s increased wealth, its quest for stability, and its improved relations with Western nations, the country began an extensive military build-up in the 1970s. The Americans in particular had the technology and the wherewithal in terms of experience to help develop Saudi Arabia, which they were pleased to do with massive contracts and fat salaries. Soon, just about all Saudi infrastructures had Americans designing and building it.
KSA and the US always do find a common cause in each conflict or global development they are involved in, and have had in the past identified benefits which were mutual and hence worth collaborating for. Be it in support of stable oil prices, cohesion in the norms and trade practices of the global oil cartel especially of that based in the Persian Gulf or economic stability in the economies of Western countries where Saudis have invested. Also, in particular, the two counties had allied against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the cold war and in the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 wherein thousands of Saudi troops participated in the Persian Gulf War against Iraq and the country took in Kuwait’s royal family and more than 400,000 Kuwaiti refugees
The event which pulsated the equilibrium of US-KSA ties rather dramatically were the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York by Islamic fundamentalists. Outof the 19 hijackers of the planes which bombed the buildings, 17 were Saudi nationals. Now, the Saudis have always worked towards maximizing their global and regional political influence through its financial and Islamic ‘soft power’. What it means is that they have a history of funding the spread of “Wahabbism”- a puritanical version of Sunni Islam- to strengthen their foothold and dominance in the Muslim world.
This led to immense tension between the two countries. Saudi Arabia was in denial that Saudis actually played any role or that Saudi Arabia held any culpability. The US disagreed, not only on the facts of the attack, but also pointing out that Saudi education encouraged religious extremism, that Saudi monetary controls were essentially useless, and that the Saudis had no idea where the money they were contributing to “Islamic charities” was actually ending up, i.e., in the hands of terrorist organizations. The 9/11attacks have put a strain on this relationship and complicated the Saudi calculations. It caused both Riyadh and Washington to re-evaluate their ‘special relationship’. The after-effects of it are stil being felt in both the establishments, with the US senate recently passing a legislation that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia’s government for damages, setting up a potential showdown with both Riyadh and the White House, which has threatened a veto. The Saudis, who deny responsibility for the 2001 attacks strongly object to the bill and issued a rejoinder saying they might sell up to $750 billion in US securities and other American assets in retaliation if it became law.
Global Power dynamics, Iran and Contemporary Prophecies.
As a result of the unpopularity of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan coupled with the continued Israeli occupation of Palestine, anti-American sentiment in the Middle-East has been on a rise. The strain on the relationship with the U.S. was further exacerbated during the protests across the Arab world in the spring of 2011. The differences surfaced strongly in 2011 due to the Saudi king’s anger at Washington’s response to uprisings across the Arab World, especially its abandonment of Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian president and a long-time Saudi and U.S. ally, for the Saudis knew very well that political pluralism will doom the monarchy.
The current Saudi calculations are driven by a deep fear and suspicion of expanding Iranian influence. Saudi leadership has begun to look at all regional security issues through the prism of their fears about growing Iranian influence. They see Iran’s activities as disconcerting and provocative, not only in Iraq, but also in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain, Yemen, parts of Africa, and Southeast Asia. Concerned about a possible rise in Iran’s regional influence and a decline in the status of the so-called moderate Arab camp, the Saudis are pursuing overt diplomacy aimed at leveraging the changes in the Arab world in their favour and ensuring a status-quoist hegemony.
The recent nuclear deal with Iran followed by lifting of most economic sanctions imposed upon it, and the inability to simply coerce it is adjudged like submission on U.S.’s part to a competitive regional power. The fact that Shia-majority Iran has etched together a nice little power block only adds to the discomfort on Saudi’s part, with them having the US to blame in all scenarios.It Reflects a more general disconnect between Washington and Riyadh on the regional geopolitical order. As a feeble rejoinder, Saudi Arabia’s hostility toward the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and its coordinated efforts to block change in the Gulf and in allied monarchies across the region, works directly against the stated American goal of promoting reform.
Over the last decade, Saudi Arabia has diversified its foreign policies by shifting its focus from the West to the East as a response to changing international and regional situations. This is partly a means to neutralize the western political pressure; and partly because Asian economies, especially China and India, have developed rapidly, consequently needing more crude oil. Also as Saudi monarchs take popular sentiments into account, it will become more difficult for the governments to disregard the reactions of domestic audiences on important economic and security issues in order to satisfy the policy demands of the United States. Maintaining a region-specific partnership with the US, which is fundamental to its security and maximizing the economic and geopolitical benefits from being the most important oil producer in the world are KSA’s immediate priorities. However, the unwritten security architecture “oil-for-security” between Riyadh and Washington has become more complex and sometimes contradictory due to many domestic, regional, and international factors, fostering a tectonic shift in the dynamics of power and authority. Expect the November 8th verdict of the US Presidential elections to add to it all, maybe unilaterally so.