Strengthening the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

May 30, 2002



The U.S.-Saudi relationship is based on common interests that are fundamental and critical to both countries. Since September 11, however, many factions on both sides are calling for a divorce. Yet, advocating for a divorce does not take into account the powerful influence a strong U.S.-Saudi relationship has on American strategic interests and regional stability. Rather than a divorce, leaders on both sides must work to strengthen the relationship and reforge common goals.

Since the end of the Gulf War, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been largely neglected. There is no broad engagement of intellectuals, media, foreign affairs experts, and religious figures about the importance or benefit of the relationship. The cultures remain distant and the potential for misunderstanding and misreading is great. Symbols of common purpose have faded. Indeed, September 11 revealed the degree to which the gap had grown. Saudi Arabia is key to U.S. policy and pursuit of interests in the region. The absence of serious dialogue has undercut the fundamental foundations of this relationship.

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Sustained attention to the relationship is urgently required and serious discussion on numerous levels is painfully necessary. Through consultations on political, economic, and military issues, both sides can work toward addressing the wide gaps dividing the two countries.

Now is the time to begin such discussions. The United States has in Crown Prince Abdullah a partner who is committed to positive reform in Saudi Arabia and who understands the benefit of a strong, stable U.S.-Saudi relationship. Abdullah's prominence provides the United States with an opportunity to achieve progress in moving the relationship forward. Within the context of the current escalation of violence among Israelis and Palestinians and the surge of demonstrations in the region, the United States must work with Saudi Arabia as a partner in moving all sides toward peace. Through his initiative, the Crown Prince has demonstrated his willingness and ability to take serious steps and serious risks toward peace in the region. This is an opportunity that the United States should not overlook. As the crisis deepens, Saudi involvement and coordination with the United States is crucial in helping to stop the violence and, eventually, moving the parties toward the peace table.

As the United States addresses the critical components of the relationship, it must avoid further deepening the gap between the Saudi public's perceptions of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the Saudi leadership's perception. A renewed U.S.-Saudi dialogue must work toward sustained communication that enforces the stability and the strength of the relationship.


U.S. Influence

  • The U.S.-Saudi relationship helps further American interests. Given the demands on the relationship, U.S. priorities and leverage must be devoted to primary national security and foreign policy issues. These issues are of pressing importance for the United States and must be dealt with urgently:

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    • Middle East peace negotiations
    • Islamic political radicalism and its export
    • Oil supply and price stability
    • Iraq
  • Internal Saudi issues-i.e., economic advancement and stability-are important to the U.S.-Saudi dialogue but should be pursued with a difference in tone, urgency, and commitment. This is largely because the Crown Prince recognizes the need to undertake domestic reforms.
  • In focusing on issues of social, political, and economic development, the United States will have the greatest chance for breakthrough if it focuses on issues that engage Saudi interests and parallel Crown Prince Abdullah's own priorities-i.e., rule of law, accession to the World Trade Organization, economic opening, and education. This should be a broad, collaborative dialogue going beyond the institutions of government.


  • The superficiality of contact between American intellectuals and media and those in the Arab world is serving the interests of neither; the lack of depth and variety of contact is reflected in U.S. policies.
  • This trend will be difficult to reverse because dialogue will immediately focus on "hot button" issues and not proceed to deeper discussion.
  • Creating a dialogue between intellectual and religious elites from the two countries should be a priority for American foundations and institutions, but it needs to be pursued patiently with a long-term view of expanding the discussion.
  • Consultations should include Saudis who have studied at U.S. schools and universities and "next generation" leaders.

Saudi Stability

  • Maintaining Saudi stability is a cornerstone of U.S.-Saudi relations. Saudi Arabia has gone through serious change over the past fifty years-some of which is potentially destabilizing. Saudi Arabia faces significant social challenges-demography and galloping population growth, relatively slow growth in economic opportunity, tight social and religious controls, and a volatile region. The pressures on Saudi Arabia will grow over the years.
  • Crown Prince Abdullah's regime provides a window of opportunity for the United States to move the relationship along to accommodate Saudi Arabia's and the U.S. need for change.
  • There is reason for serious concern regarding the Saudi succession and the potential instability that may ensue after the reign of the prominent sons of Abdul Aziz. Uncertainty as a result of the generational shift in leadership from the sons of Abdul Aziz to the grandsons will be an underlying feature of Saudi politics in the future and will thus shape U.S.-Saudi relations.

The Arab-Israel Crisis: Abdullah's Initiative

  • Saudi Arabia will be the key to any success the United States has in reducing the violence between the Israelis and Palestinians. If the United States recognizes Saudi Arabia as a key partner, keeps it informed, and consults with it on issues of mutual importance, the U.S. can expect that Saudi Arabia will invest its prestige in the outcome.
  • Abdullah's initiative is more than a vision; it demonstrates the level of concern the Saudi leadership has regarding the situation. It communicated with the Israeli public and addressed their concerns for broader peace in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia rarely takes the high profile, political role, even in Arab councils that it is now taking. The challenge for the Bush administration is to effectively harness the change.
  • Abdullah's initiative will not be effective unless the United States helps the parties move toward a cease-fire and a political process that will connect the end of violence to the Saudi proposal.
  • If the United States can begin a credible peace process and keep Saudi Arabia involved, it should expect Saudi Arabia to work toward reducing the volume of anti-Israel and U.S. rhetoric in the public fora, education, and media, and sell the concept of peace to the Saudi public.
  • The need is underlined by recent experience. The United States has complained of Saudi Arabia's lack of involvement in the peace process since Oslo, and Saudi Arabia is frustrated by what it saw as U.S. disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially at a time of serious escalation.


Military Posture

  • The U.S.-Saudi military relationship is longstanding and a centerpiece of the U.S.-Saudi political relationship. Nevertheless, the U.S military presence in Saudi Arabia is not "secure." The absence of serious dialogue and communication has resulted in mutual misunderstanding of goals and purpose of the military relationship at the highest levels of both governments. The United States must work toward restoration of this strategic dialogue.
  • The United States and Saudi Arabia must address, through consultation and dialogue, the growing tensions surrounding the U.S. military presence in the Saudi kingdom. Neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia want a reduction in the level of military cooperation, but U.S. military activities in their current form are increasingly unsatisfactory to both sides. The United States must address its military presence in the region within the context of both U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Gulf relations. The United States must explore new concepts and ideas with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) about objectives, divisions of labor, risk, and ways to minimize political friction and improve efficiency in U.S. military deployment in the region.
  • Saudi Arabia and the United States see their defense relationship differently. Both agree that the U.S. military is present in Saudi Arabia in the event that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are invaded. The agreement stops there. The United States wishes Saudi Arabia would extend its cooperation to other missions important to American interests. The Saudis see these interests, notably those related to enforcing the no-fly zones, as not necessarily congruent with their own.
  • The United States should not strive for an explicit set of agreements on military arrangements with Saudi Arabia, rather a consultative dialogue that sets out clearly the goals and continuously reviews the management of the relationship.
  • Consultations on details are important. When possible, the Saudis should be convinced that the United States will operate with their consent.
  • The U.S.-Saudi defense relationship has been a major outlet for American arms sales and defense supplies. Saudi cooperation has helped defer the cost of U.S. operations in Saudi Arabia. While this arrangement has been a cornerstone of the military and political relationship, Saudi Arabia sees it as a political and fiscal burden given their current economy.

Conflict with Iraq

  • U.S. military action against Iraq would be extremely difficult without the political support of Saudi Arabia and access to its airspace, ports and bases. Without permission to use port facilities, bases, or airfields in Saudi Arabia, a major U.S. military operation against Iraq would be incredibly difficult. Moreover, Saudi political support is critical to the willingness of most GCC and other Arab countries to support major U.S. military operations against Iraq.
  • Jordan will not allow the United States to launch military operations against Iraq from its territory unless Saudi Arabia supports the U.S. operation. Moreover, Jordan is not a useful option for military operations against Iraq for a number of reasons: attitude of the monarchy, a divided population, and the difficulty in providing security for bases. If Jordan were to be involved in a U.S. military operation against Iraq, the United States would carry an even greater obligation for Jordan and the Hashemite monarchy's security. Moreover, securing American deployments in Jordan would be difficult.
  • Saudi Arabia has grave reservations about U.S. military action against Iraq and does not think that U.S. strategy is adequate to carry Arab opinion, unseat Saddam, and provide for Iraq's stability thereafter.
  • Saudi Arabia might support U.S. action against Iraq if there are clearly understood, shared objectives that are limited to the removal of Saddam Hussein, are short in duration in order to minimize Iraqi casualties, and result in a unitary post-Saddam Iraqi government that is acceptable to Saudi Arabia.
  • Egypt's close relationship with Saudi Arabia makes it an important factor in Saudi Arabia's decision to support U.S. military action. Egypt often serves as a political cover for Saudi activities in the region, and vise versa.
  • Saudi Arabia now enjoys fully normalized relations with Iran and would welcome any U.S. attempt toward engagement with Iran. U.S. steps would be viewed as offsetting other regional political costs that Saudi Arabia may incur if it supports U.S. military action against Iraq.

Islamic Radicalism

  • The issue of Islamic radicalism and its export is key to the stability of the region and central to American policy interests. The question is complex, but must be addressed. The United States must support Saudi efforts in confronting the impact of radical theology and its role in Saudi intellectual life.
  • The U.S. objective is to engage the Saudi government and offer them assistance as they address: financial flows in support of Islamic radicalism; strengthening intelligence collection on individuals engaged in subversive activities.

Oil Security

  • The United States and Saudi Arabia have had a long, extremely successful petroleum relationship.
  • Saudi Arabia will continue to be the largest source of the world's oil for the foreseeable future, making it a U.S. strategic concern for the long run.
  • Denying Saudi Arabia and the peninsula's oil reserves to powers hostile to the United States has been a constant in American policy for over half a century.
  • The United States is interested in the broadest possible oil market, including Russia, and yet, should not signal to Saudi Arabia a confrontational oil diversification strategy.
  • The United States should work toward lessening and diversifying reliance on imported oil.
  • Domestic instability born of a domestic fiscal crisis and a malfunctioning labor market is a serious potential threat to Saudi oil supply and world oil security.

Financial Cooperation

  • Saudi Arabians have what is estimated to be almost $700 billion assets invested in the United States. Maintaining these financial flows is important to the stability of American financial markets.
  • The institutional link between the U.S. government and Saudi financial institutions has dwindled. Given the amount of resources invested in the United States and the renewed campaign to choke off al-Qaeda funds, the United States has strong interests in Saudi financial policies and should work to reestablish this institutional link.
  • There is no clear evidence that Saudis are pulling their funds from the U.S. financial market post-9/11; yet, it would be valuable to monitor financial flows post-9/11. At the same time, the United States must be careful to use financial mechanisms wisely and with due process in order to avoid frightening Arab investment.

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