Strategic Horizons: How Far Will the U.S.-Saudi Spat Go?

Strategic Horizons: How Far Will the U.S.-Saudi Spat Go?

Though important to both, the security relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has for decades been very peculiar, pairing the world's leading liberal democracy with one of the most conservative nations. Scott McConnell described it as a "protection racket: We provide protection to the Saudi monarchy, and they use their oil wealth to aid the U.S. in other objectives, most importantly keeping the price of oil stable." Recently this has not seemed enough—the relationship has steadily eroded as differences festered and grew.

In a sense, it is less surprising that the U.S.-Saudi partnership has hit a shoal than that it lasted as long as it did. Both nations craved stability in the Middle East but saw it very differently. Americans believed that long-term stability required political inclusiveness. The Saudi elite seemed to conclude that as long as they were awash with oil money, they could buy off discontent. Reform, the House of Saud believed, was a slippery slope and thus should be minimized. What kept the relationship teetering along was common enemies—first the Soviets, then Saddam Hussein, Iran and al-Qaida—plus a shared desire to limit fluctuations in oil prices and assure a reliable petroleum supply. Eventually, though, this precarious comity was pummeled by disagreements over regional policy.

The first big blow was Saudi dissatisfaction with the U.S. response to the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt. Riyadh supported the removal of Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government last July. While the Obama administration considered freezing aid to the Egyptian military, the frustrated Saudis upped their own assistance.

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