An awkward but essential relationship

King Abdulaziz and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met on February 14, 1945

King Abdulaziz and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met on February 14, 1945

Every now and then, the US-Saudi relationship is described as “awkward” but never more so than now, when President Obama made a swift trip to Riyadh and met King Salman. No one, it’s reported, was left with a warm and fuzzy feeling, especially not the principals. The statement released after the meeting said that the two leaders “exchanged views”, which is diplomatese for their having failed to agree on much.

So what’s new?

The US and Saudi Arabia never did agree on much. Not even when their alliance was agreed between president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Saudi Arabia’s founding king, Abdulaziz, on Valentine’s Day 1945. An account of that meeting by Willam Eddy, then US envoy to Saudi Arabia, records the difference in perspective. Eddy, who was the sole interpreter throughout, says FDR brought up Jewish resettlement and the King promptly rejected the notion that the burden should fall upon small, land-poor, Palestine. “Make the enemy and the oppressor pay; that is how we Arabs wage war… What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe?” asked the King, citing Bedouin principles of war and peace.

Indeed, the Saudi way of thinking is very different from the US. How could it be any different? One is a religiously orthodox monarchical family estate; the other a fiercely freedom-loving self-regarding democracy with an advancing (if contentious) socially liberal agenda.

But, it was arguably simpler back in 1945 when the King met the American president on board the US Navy cruiser Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake segment of the Suez Canal. Then, the trade-off was straightforward: the US would provide security, the Saudis oil. Both countries were worried about Communism and were content to stay in touch if not exactly in sync.

Now, it’s all changing. Even while Obama was in Riyadh, the veteran former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki Al Faisal was pronouncing that “there is going to have to be a recalibration of our relationship with America.”

Some would say the recalibration has already happened. The ‘Salman Doctrine’ is a sign. It has been described by the remarkably well-networked Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as the King’s decision “that Saudi interest comes first” and that Riyadh cannot link its fate to the alliance with the US. The intervention in Yemen signaled the start of a new muscular Saudi decisiveness. Then there is the ‘Mohammed Bin Salman Doctrine’, which encompasses the modernizing dreams of the 30-year-old deputy crown prince. On April 25, he unveiled his “Vision for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” which he sees as a blueprint for change. It will see the creation of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, among other initiatives.

In truth though, it is the US that has set the recalibration of relations in motion. Not just by pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran and remaining, as the Gulf Arabs see it, silent about Tehran’s regional meddling and adventurism.

There is the blowback from 9/11. It has been 15 years coming and is stirring a delayed revulsion towards Saudi Arabia among America’s elected officials. One does not have to be Saudi (or, for that matter, Arab) to wonder if this is because of the bounty of fracking, enabling the US to become one of the world’s largest energy producers and reducing its reliance on Saudi oil.

In the long term, such an expedient uncoupling from Saudi Arabia may be both ill-timed and imprudent. Fracking produces roughly 300,000 barrels of natural gas a day but how long can it continue given all the worrying reports about its environmental,​ health and safety consequences? Only cheap and plentiful renewable energy can liberate the US from dependence on oil and that day is some way off.

But shortsighted and stubborn, the US Congress continues to debate a bipartisan bill that would allow American victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue the Saudi government and claim damages if Riyadh were found by the American courts to be complicit.

What a time to be doing this. If anything, the Saudis are now better partners in the so-called war on terror than in 2001. Fareed Zakaria recently recalled General David Petraeus telling him that “the most significant strategic shift during his time in uniform was that Saudi Arabia went from being a tacit supporter to an aggressive foe of jihadi groups.”

That sounds about right because the House of Saud is as much in the sights of the jihadi groups as America, the West, Israel, India etc. Though the Saudis undoubtedly bear significant responsibility for the spread of an intolerant interpretation of Islam and for exporting it around the world, they arguably lost control of the extremist levers more than 30 years ago.

In any case, it would be foolish for the US to legislate to allow its citizens to claim damages if American courts find the Saudi government complicit. First, can that even be proved? Second, to strip Riyadh of sovereign immunity might turn Washington into a target as well. Consider the lawsuits that citizens of different countries could bring against the US government – the house destroyed by a drone strike in Pakistan; the death of a family’s main breadwinner in a bombing raid on the Iraq-Syria border; the bride who was widowed before the marriage rites because of a US strike on wedding party in Afghanistan.

For all sorts of reasons, America’s interest is to stay deeply engaged with Saudi Arabia at this point of time. Eddy’s account of the FDR-Abdulaziz meeting provides a worthwhile postscript. He describes the simple good faith with which the Saudi king straightforwardly asked for an honorable friendship with FDR because he was known “as the champion of every freedom and because the US never colonises nor enslaves.” The American president, wrote Eddy, “gave Ibn Saud the double assurance,” that he personally, as president, would never do anything which might prove hostile to the Arabs and the US government would make no change in that.

How far we have come.