from Middle East Program

The Case for a New U.S.-Saudi Strategic Compact

The United States and Saudi Arabia both stand to benefit by renewing their central strategic partnership, argue Steven A. Cook and Martin S. Indyk.

Council Special Report
Concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contributions to current policy dilemmas.

The encounter between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz Al Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal on February 14, 1945, launched the unlikely partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The resultant deal was straightforward: the United States needed unimpeded access to the vast reservoirs of oil beneath Al Saud’s desert sands, and Saudi Arabia needed protection from avaricious neighbors and great powers.

Steven A. Cook
Steven A. Cook

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk

Distinguished Fellow

But in recent years, the U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership has frayed. The United States has grown frustrated with Saudi Arabia's human rights record and reluctance to stabilize the oil market, while Riyadh has come to believe that Washington is no longer willing to guarantee the kingdom's security.

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Changes in U.S. economic and strategic imperatives—namely, a boom in domestic U.S. fossil fuel production and the Barack Obama administration’s strategic pivot to Asia—have also deprioritized the relationship. Meanwhile, Saudi officials have grown frustrated with the United States’ lukewarm support for their ongoing war in Yemen.

In the new Council Special Report, The Case for a New U.S.-Saudi Strategic Compact, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies Steven A. Cook and Distinguished Fellow Martin S. Indyk give a thorough history of the special relationship between the world's foremost democracy and the Middle East's preeminent monarchy, up to the present moment. “The United States no longer needs as much Saudi oil, and Saudi Arabia has a new, young leader who does not respect the implicit rules of the partnership,” write Cook and Indyk. “This combination is shaking the foundations of the relationship and clouding its future.” They argue for a reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and envision what a renewed partnership would look like.

“Circumstances may be developing for a reconciliation between the two countries,” writes CFR President Richard Haass in the report’s foreword. “Russia’s war in Ukraine, combined with inflation at home, have contributed to a steep rise in energy prices, thus renewing attention on Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s top oil producers, and the only one to have a significant capacity to increase production quickly. At the same time, Iran is edging closer to putting into place the prerequisites of a nuclear weapons program, raising alarms in both Washington and Riyadh.”

The reconciliation proposed by Cook and Indyk would center on containing Iran’s regional ambitions, with increased security assurances from the United States in exchange for greater Saudi mediation of oil prices, de-escalation in Yemen, and further diplomatic normalization with Israel.

While a new arrangement would require both parties to swallow their pride, it is rooted in a realistic recognition of each country’s strategic priorities.

More on:

Saudi Arabia

Mohammed bin Salman

Iran

Yemen

Persian Gulf

As Cook and Indyk warn, "Seventy-seven years after the original Roosevelt-Abdulaziz pact, the changing circumstances require a reassessment of the relationship’s value to each side, for if urgent action is not taken, the process of separation that is already under way is likely to accelerate, damaging the interests of both sides."

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