The decades-long relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has faced major challenges since the start of the Middle East upheavals in 2011. The past few months have produced new tactical strains in the bilateral relationship: Ongoing political changes in Egypt, Syria’s civil war and the possibility of new attempts at diplomatic engagement with Iran have all brought to the surface divisions between Washington and Riyadh. The United States and Saudi Arabia continue to share several common strategic interests, including regional security cooperation in dealing with threats from Iran and al-Qaida affiliates, but how the two countries work together to navigate the complicated forces reshaping the Middle East in the coming months will help define their future state of relations.
This November marks 80 years since the United States and Saudi Arabia first established diplomatic relations. Oil was the initial foundation for this relationship, and Saudi Arabia’s importance as the largest oil producer in the world has been an enduring factor in the relationship. For decades, the United States has made considerable investments, in the form of security efforts aimed at stabilizing the region, to ensure the free flow of oil.
The overall strategic context in the first seven decades of the U.S.-Saudi relationship was much clearer than it is today. During the Cold War, the United States viewed Saudi Arabia as a partner in Washington’s efforts to check Soviet influence in the Middle East and places like Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia saw the United States as a country it could turn to during the periods when Arab nationalism produced regional tensions and competition for monarchies such as Saudi Arabia’s. After the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, both countries saw a common interest in containing Iranian influence. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and threatened Saudi security, the United States led an international coalition that protected Saudi Arabia and ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait.