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The U.S.-Saudi Relationship: A View From Saudi Arabia

June 11, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations


[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

June 11, 2002

Presider: Rachel Bronson, Council on Foreign Relations


  • What are the key challenges in U.S.-Saudi relations?

  • What explains Saudi resistance to America's proposed campaign on Iraq?

  • How can the U.S. encourage Saudi reform efforts?

  • Can the U.S and Saudi Arabia cooperate to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?



  1. U.S. can more productively build public support for an attack on Iraq by focusing on bringing democracy and human rights to Iraq, i.e., by "freeing the Iraqi people."

  • Most Arabs don't believe that Saddam will use WMD against them. American efforts to clarify the threat won't change public opinion.

  • A focus on democracy and human rights would provide a positive view for the region's future that many would support.

  • Pursuing this kind of public diplomacy is not without risks. It will draw attention to the lack of human rights and democracy in the Palestinian territories (Similarly however, focusing on WMD raises the problem of Israel's nuclear program).

  • Such a public diplomacy campaign can also antagonize our non-democratic partners in the Middle East. Would the House of Saud provide overflight rights and allow for logistical support if democracy was America's goal? The public diplomacy strategy best tailored to the public is the one least attractive to the regime.

  • Lack of Egyptian and Saudi support on Iraq is largely due to their concern that they will be the next targets. Either

  1. directly- after American troops invade Iraq, the troops will head south or west or

  • indirectly- if America succeeds in building a democratic regime in Iraq, popular pressure for radical domestic reform throughout the regime would be unstoppable.

  • In the end, Saudi Arabia will support the U.S. in order to be on the "right side" when the shooting stops.

Saudi Reform

Since September 11, the U.S. has stressed the need for reform in Saudi Arabia. It is important to note that even before September 11, Saudi Arabia had its own reform agenda and the U.S. can build on the Saudi agenda.

  • Saudi reform has mostly focused on the ailing economy (unemployment, WTO accession, and oil diversification). Education reform pre-9/11 was directed at increasing Saudi employment.

  • Crown Prince Abdullah is popular, but constrained by the entrenched, conservative religious establishment and the limitations of his position as Crown Prince, rather than King.

  • All reforms in Saudi Arabia are "two steps forward, one step back." They are slow and difficult. It was argued that revolutionary change will not happen with this generation of leaders. However, others countered that the Crown Prince has already pushed through some important reforms, including:

  1. Denationalization of the upstream gas industry

  • Increasing foreign direct investment (FDI)

  • Linking Saudi Arabia to the U.S. economy

  • Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative

  • The best way to induce change in Saudi Arabia is to push change elsewhere such as Egypt and Iraq (after invasion). It should be noted, however, that everywhere else in the region, it is argued that if Saudi Arabia changes, so will everyone else.

  • U.S. pressure for Saudi reform should be pursued in the context of the existing Saudi reform agenda. It should not be focused solely on Saudi Arabia; instead it should encompass the entire Arab world. This would also help in minimizing the power of the religious establishment.

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

  • For the first time the Arab world and the U.S. share a vision of a two-state solution. But American policy is not viewed as being as bold as Crown Prince Abdullah's initiative.

  • U.S. demands for increased Arab pressure on the Palestinians do not sit well in Saudi Arabia because:

  1. The U.S. isn't pressuring Israel to the same extent it wants the Arabs to press the Palestinians and

  • Many don't see what more Arafat can do.

  • Satellite TV is greatly impacting how the average Saudi understands the Israeli-Palestinian issue. There is a growing sense of "Saudi guilt" at their inability to do anything to alleviate the suffering of their "Palestinian neighbors."

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