Much has been written and said in recent months about what some — myself included — have described as a “strain” in US-Saudi relations. Those who subscribe to this view have focused on what appears to be a philosophical difference between the administration of President Barack Obama and the Saudi leadership. While one of the pillars of the "Obama doctrine" appears to rest on the principle that the United States should avoid becoming militarily — or perhaps even politically — entangled in any Middle East conflict unless it poses a serious and imminent threat to its security, the Saudis appear to have adopted a very different if not completely opposite foreign policy posture.
What some have called the “Salman doctrine” appears predicated on the idea that the unprecedented tumult that has gripped the region requires Saudi Arabia to play a leadership role. It holds that the Saudis must fill the vacuum left by the United States by adopting an assertive foreign policy to bring a modicum of stability to the region, one that is not averse to the use of force when necessary. While political differences between the two governments should not be dismissed, bilateral relations between the two countries have not endured for over seven decades by happenstance. A plethora of mutual interests will ensure that Saudi Arabia and the United States will remain important allies for the foreseeable future. This is especially the case in the old “oil-for-security” equation, which had sustained the relationship for decades. It has been reformulated in light of the shale oil revolution in the United States that made it less dependent on oil imports and as the Saudi armed forces's military capabilities have improved significantly in recent years.
For starters, the two countries continue to support each other in the military campaigns that each of them is leading. Not only has Saudi Arabia been participating in the ongoing US-led airstrikes against the strongholds of the terrorist group known as the Islamic State in Syria, but it has done so in a very public fashion. Saudi Arabia’s public support for the campaign — one of King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud’s own sons flew a mission in its early hours — added an crucial air of international legitimacy to the US effort. Although this contribution has decreased in recent months in part because of Saudi Arabia’s focus on its own campaign in Yemen, its participation in the US-led coalition has made it much more difficult for critics to portray it as a Western “crusade” against Muslims. Saudi Arabia’s participation bolstered the claim that the campaign was the international community’s response to IS’ onslaught against humanity. For its part, the United States is providing vital intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led campaign against the Iran-supported Houthi rebels and the allies of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. In addition to supporting the UN resolution that lent international support to the Saudi effort by holding the Houthis responsible for the instability and violence in the country, the United States has provided Saudi Arabia with advisers to provide assistance in minimizing collateral damage.
The two countries also cooperate very closely in the fields of intelligence gathering and counterterrorism. It is well documented that Saudi Interior Minister and Crown Prince Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef provided the United States with vital information that enabled US security officials to prevent a potentially devastating terrorist attack in 2010. The two countries have also worked in tandem since 2004 to curtail terrorism financing by designating entities and individuals as terrorism supporters.
In the same vein, Saudi Arabia continues to exhibit a clear preference for US weapons and training. The Obama administration approved a $60 billion arms package to Saudi Arabia in 2010, the biggest in US history. Recent reports suggest that since the May 2015 Gulf Cooperation Council-US Summit, in which the United States not only reiterated its support for the security of the Arab Gulf countries but also promised to expedite weapons sales, the administration has authorized the sale of $33 billion worth of weapons to the GCC.
There is little doubt that the Saudi-led “Arab coalition” in Yemen has generated most of the attention — and scrutiny — that Saudi Arabia has received in the international media since Salman ascended to the throne in January 2015. The campaign does represent a dramatic departure from Saudi Arabia’s quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy that it had favored for decades. Much of this coverage has focused on the man who is considered the face and perhaps mastermind of the campaign, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. And although this shift in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy posture is significant, the economic reforms that are being considered and have been proposed by the deputy crown prince — who is also the head of the Economic and Development Council — could potentially have even longer-lasting repercussions for Saudi Arabia’s economy and future.
In recent interviews in the Western press, Mohammed has made it clear that he is intent on weaning Saudi Arabia from its current dependence on oil, which still constitutes approximately 40% of its GDP and 80% of government revenues. The prince wants to privatize several government-owned entitles and has even said that approximately 5% of the national oil company Aramco would be listed in an initial public offering. The prince has also stressed that he is seeking to attract foreign investors to spur this transition.
In September 2015, Mohammed gave American companies a preview of his vision for the future of the Saudi economy when he unveiled a “raft” of business opportunities estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Just as importantly, Salman, who headed the delegation to the United States, spoke unequivocally about how he intended to make the United States his first official visit.
When asked about the current state of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia during a recent interview, Mohammed said, “We consider ourselves to be the main ally for the US in the Middle East and we see America as our ally as well.” It is also worth noting that over the past three weeks, three different congressional delegations headed by Senators Lindsey Graham and Ben Cardin and House Speaker Paul Ryan have visited Saudi Arabia and met with senior leaders including Salman.
Just as importantly, Saudis continue to send their children to the United States for their higher education by the thousands, while thousands of others come for tourism or medical care. The fact that Saudis have been coming to the United States for decades and that American companies have helped develop the oil sector that has been the lifeblood of the Saudi economy has created a level of familiarity, comfort and even trust with Americans that should not be underestimated. In short, US-Saudi relations will continue to be “special.”