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Saudi Arabia Remains Indispensable U.S. Ally, Argues New CFR Book

January 13, 2012


As the United States confronts a volatile Middle East, Saudi Arabia is "a central player—sometimes in accord with U.S. policy, sometimes not—in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, in the quest for stability in Iraq, in Persian Gulf regional security issues focusing on Iran, and in the global struggle to promote a peaceful vision of Islam over jihadist violence," writes Thomas Lippman in a new book, Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally.

Even when the two countries have serious disagreements, as they did during the Arab revolts of 2011, those conflicts do not threaten the core strategic and economic relationship because each country continues to need the other, Lippman explains.

Making matters more difficult is the reality that Saudi Arabia faces significant domestic challenges. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia "lacks the tools to meet the challenges that confront it: a restless, young population; a new generation of educated women demanding opportunities in a closed society; political stagnation under an octogenarian leadership; religious extremism and intellectual backwardness; social division; a flawed education system; chronic unemployment; shortages of food and water; and troublesome neighbors."

Yet, the future of Saudi Arabia is promising, Lippman asserts, because "over the past decade the Saudis have recognized their problems, acknowledged them, encouraged public discussion of them, and marshaled resources to confront them."

On the Muslim world, "Saudi Arabia's historic primacy in Islam makes it indispensable to a constructive relationship between the non-Muslim West and the Muslim world," he concludes. "The kingdom is a central arena in the worldwide struggle within Islam between forces of tradition and xenophobia, which oppose all change and wish to turn backward, and advocates of modernization who believe that Islam must adapt to a changing world and can do so without surrendering its ideals and values."

On Iran, the Saudis have "made no secret of their anxiety about the prospect of such a rival acquiring nuclear weapons, but they also recognize that for all their wealth they cannot do much to prevent it." The prospect of a nuclear Iran will only make the alliance with the United States stronger, he argues.

If there is one certainty about policy change in Saudi Arabia, "it is that the rules governing female behavior will be relaxed and that women will find new opportunities in the country's workplace and in its social and economic life," he writes. "Saudi Arabia is coming to the collective realization that it can no longer afford to pump vast resources into educating women at enormous expense without recovering the constructive energy and economic productivity of those educated graduates," Lippman explains.

Basing his work on interviews and field research conducted in the kingdom from 2008 through 2011 while an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Lippman, now at the Middle East Institute, dissects the central paradox of the U.S.-Saudi relationship: both countries need each other, yet they both remain fundamentally different.

A related Council Special Report by Gregory Gause, Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East, echoes many of these findings. He suggests that there is no more unlikely U.S. ally than Saudi Arabia, yet despite divergent views on policy, "the two countries have generally agreed on important political and economic issues and have often relied on each other to secure mutual aims."

To order the book, visit

To download the related Council Special Report:

ADVANCE PRAISE FOR Saudi Arabia on the Edge:

"Tom Lippman has done it again. Saudi Arabia on the Edge is a worthy successor to his classic, Inside the Mirage: America's Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia. Meticulously researched, this fascinating book debunks the myths and stereotypes about Saudi Arabia that pervade Western observations. The author shares with us his wisdom honed by decades of experience in Saudi Arabia. He presents a realistic and occasionally alarming picture of an economic and political giant beset by a gathering storm of challenges in a rapidly changing world. I highly recommend this thoughtful perspective."
—Robert W. Jordan, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia

"The consummate inside guide to Saudi Arabia by Tom Lippman, the insider's insider."
—Robert Lacey, author of Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia

"Saudi Arabia weathered the Arab Spring of 2011 without the convulsions of many of its neighbors. But Tom Lippman understands that the country has actually undergone social, economic, and even cultural changes over the last four decades as momentous as the political upheavals other Arab countries are now experiencing. His book is a good introduction to the Saudi paradox of social change and political stability and an invaluable guide to the challenges the country faces."
—F. Gregory Gause III, chair of the Department of Political Science and former director of the Middle East studies program, University of Vermont

"Saudi Arabia on the Edge is an important book by an important writer. It offers a place to start for anyone looking to understand Saudi Arabia and the multiple challenges the country is facing. Lippman shows that Saudi Arabia's leaders are fully aware of them: a demographic youth bubble, increasing energyconsumption at home, an aging leadership, and troubles with Iran, among others. The challenge, of course, is how to manage all of this. One place to start is by reading Lippman's book."
—Rachel Bronson, author of Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia and vice president for studies, Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Thomas W. Lippman, a former Middle East bureau chief for the Washington Post, is an award-winning journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than three decades. He is a former adjunct senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. The author of five previously published books on the Middle East and diplomacy, Lippman has appeared frequently on national television and radio. He lives in Washington, DC.

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.