Just the Facts

Five Facts on the History of U.S. Relations With Saudi Arabia

By No Labels
October 18, 2018 | Blog

Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia are under intense scrutiny following the disappearance of Saudi journalist and The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Here are five facts on the history of U.S.-Saudi relations:

The United States and Saudi Arabia have been allies for more than 80 years

Modern Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 when Abd-al-Aziz successfully united various kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula. The following year Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) won a concession from the newly formed kingdom to look for oil. Over the ensuing years more and more American companies, particularly those with oil interests, continued to build relationships with the fledgling nation. During this time America became Saudi Arabia’s closest Western ally as King Abd-al-Aziz was particularly wary of giving European countries access to his vast resources due to their long history of colonizing Middle Eastern countries.  The alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia was solidified in 1945 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met personally with King Abd-al-Aziz on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal.

Oil has been one of the most important factors uniting the U.S. and Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia possesses the largest oil reserves in the world, making it one of the most sought-after allies on the globe.  Saudi Arabia is the second leading source of oil imported to the United States,  behind only Canada. This mutual interest in oil is one of the primary foundations upon which the decades long alliance has been built. Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves were originally discovered by Standard Oil of California in 1944, which went on to establish the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) with American companies Texaco, Exxon, and Mobil.  While Aramco bought out all of its foreign shareholders by 1980, it remains a principal source of Saudi wealth and continues to work closely with American oil companies. As Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution states, “No matter what happens with the Khashoggi affair, at the end of the day the U.S. is still going to have a relationship with Saudi Arabia because of oil.”

Saudi Arabia is an important ally for U.S. security interests in the Middle East

Seeking Stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region has been an essential aspect of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. For years the United States worked closely with both Iran and Saudi Arabia to ensure security and stability in the Middle East; however, following Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979 the Saudi’s became the most important U.S. ally in the Muslim world. The U.S. has worked closely with Saudi Arabia throughout some of the tensest years of the Cold War, working with them as a direct ally during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 and during the first Gulf War in 1991. In recent years the two countries have worked together mostly through their intelligence arms, collaborating closely on counterterrorism.

Despite these strong ties nurtured by select mutual interests, the United States and Saudi Arabia have stark ideological differences

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with a legal system based on Islamic law, known as Shari’a. The country has no laws protecting religious freedom, commonly engages in censorship of the press, and until recently did not allow women to drive or attend sporting events. The royal family, which has ruled with an iron fist since the country’s creation often orders the execution of critics, such as Jamal Khashoggi, without any semblance of due process.

The alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has faced bitter tests over the years

In 1973 Saudi Arabia joined other Arab nations in imposing an oil embargo on the United States as retaliation for the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The embargo placed a huge strain on the U.S. economy. While the embargo eventually ended in 1974 it was a stark reminder that the two countries had irreconcilable differences in some areas. The U.S.-Saudi relationship was again put to the test following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.  While each of these members was an opponent of the royal family, the Bush administration’s decision to omit 28 pages from the 9/11 Commission Report fueled speculation that the U.S. government was covering up evidence of Saudi cooperation with the attacks. Most recently, the disappearance and likely murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has once again put intense strain on relations between the two countries. President Trump has vowed “very severe” consequences against Saudi Arabia if it is confirmed that Khashoggi was killed at the order of the royal family.

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