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  • US-Saudi Relations:Evolution, Current Conditions, and Future Prospects
  • David E. Long (bio)

Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, US-Saudi relations have plummeted from being one of the closest and most durable bilateral relationships between a major oil-producing state and a major oil-consuming state to an all time low. A common perception of Saudi Arabia heard in the United States is that it is a corrupt, absolute monarchy that supports terrorism and provides financial aid to terrorist organizations, denies its people basic democratic freedoms and human rights, keeps its women in virtual bondage, is antisemitic, and uses its vast oil reserves as an instrument of political power against Israel and the United States. At the same time, Saudi feelings toward the United States have turned from admiration, emulation, and trust to feelings of betrayal. A new, harsher perception sees the United States as an arrogant, hypocritical country preaching racial and ethnic toleration but intolerant itself. How could a relationship of three-quarters-century duration deteriorate so quickly? And what is the future of the relationship likely to be? To explore those questions, let us look at the evolution of the relationship and the factors that have kept it together for so many years.

The Evolution of US-Saudi Relations

One thing the relationship has never enjoyed is a deep, mutual understanding of, or sensitivity toward, the other's culture. The subtitle of a monograph I wrote a number of years ago on US-Saudi relations was "Ambivalent Allies."1 [End Page 24] One could not come up with two more disparate societies on which to base such a durable bilateral relationship.

By 1933, when the bilateral relationship can be said to have begun, the United States was not merely a democratic nation; it had survived a Civil War, abolished slavery, and granted women the right to vote and was rapidly transforming itself from an agrarian society to a modern industrial one. The Great Depression had dampened its hubris by that time, but by Old World standards, it was still a young, brash nation, opposed to colonialism and imperialism but eager for new economic frontiers to conquer.

It was the latter two characteristics that helped persuade King Abd al-Aziz (Ibn Saud) to grant an oil concession to Standard Oil of California (Socal, now Chevron) in 1933. Suspicious of Europeans, he believed that Americans were interested solely in commercial dealings and not in using the concession as a means of promoting imperialist political designs.2 At the time, he was one of the very few independent Arab chiefs of state and did not bear the psychological scars of colonial rule.

Though the al Sauds had ruled in Najd (central Arabia) for centuries, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had been formally created only a year earlier; the country's heartland still had one of the most conservative, tribally organized Islamic societies anywhere. Najd was so isolated from the rest of the world that European geographers called it "Arabia Deserta."

The king's ancestor, Muhammad al Saud, was a convert to the rigidly conservative, monotheistic Islamic doctrine of Tawhid, reintroduced in Najd in the mid-eighteenth century by the Najdi reformer Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and called by its detractors Wahhabism. By the 1930s, the doctrines of Tawhid had become the political, social, and economic ideology of Saudi Arabia. The political system had changed little since the introduction of Islam in the seventh century. Until Abd al-Aziz annexed the Hijaz in 1926 and inherited its cabinet form of government, he ruled Najd with the consensus of tribal shaykhs and family elders, and with virtually no formal governmental institutions at all with the exception of the religious leaders who dominated the Islamic juridical system, which was and continues to be the basis of Saudi constitutional law. The social system was dominated by [End Page 25] extended families, to which one's loyalty was far greater than to the newly created Saudi state. The economic system, dominated by families, consisted of the great merchant families of the Hijaz who catered to the Makka pilgrims making the annual hajj, merchants and...