The United States and Saudi Arabia have had a relationship with ups and downs over the last eight decades. Beginning with the meeting between President Franklyn Roosevelt and the Saudi King, Ibn Saud, a relationship was forged that reflected an understanding of our common interests. Disagreements are natural between friends and the two have had their share, but they always saw the deeper common interests that drove them together.
During the Cold War, the two shared strong common interests in containing and limiting Soviet influence in the Middle East. During the Reagan Administration, it was the Saudis who helped to make the American strategy of raising the costs to the Soviets in Afghanistan a success. Whether looking to counter the influence of the Soviets or their proxies or preserving a stable oil market after 1973, the US and Saudi Arabia cooperated in the pursuit of their common interests and concerns.
Even before the end of the Cold War, both countries saw the Islamic Republic of Iran as a threat. But it was not only the Shia radicalism that the two saw eye to eye on, but also the secular Sunni extremism of Saddam Hussein. US forces deployed to the Kingdom to help conduct the military campaign of the Gulf War in 1991 and then departed when it was over.
The factors that drove the two together historically—seeing threats in radicalism, wanting evolutionary change and not a new order in the Middle East, believing in a stable oil market and supply not subject to threats of disruption or coercion—remain true today. Moreover, security and economic ties over the years have cemented the mutual perception of the importance of the relationship.
For Americans, there has been a sense that we have a commitment to Saudi security, understanding how security and stability in the Kingdom is crucial to broader stability in the greater Middle East. Some of this stems from understanding that those who threaten the Kingdom also threaten the United States. Some of it stems from the sheer financial and economic interdependence—American companies have built extensive parts of Saudi infrastructure and have large investments in Saudi Arabia as a result. But the Saudis over the years also made very large investments in America, producing assets in the US worth over $800 billion.
With there never being a successful model of development in any larger Arab states, it is extremist states and groups, secular and Islamist, that try to fill that vacuum and contribute so much to conflicts in the region. If nothing else, that gives the US an enormous stake in seeing the Saudi National Transformation plan succeed. Not only would it remove the vacuum that extremist groups have constantly sought to exploit, but a successful model could then be applied elsewhere in the Middle East. In this sense, transformation in Saudi Arabia promises transformation in the region.
At a time when there are real threats in the region from the Iranians and their proxies and from radical Sunni Islamists—ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to al Qaeda and Daesh—America and Saudi Arabia need to be in sync. Both leaderships need to be open and honest with each other on our differences and an honest, candid discussion is needed on strategic interests and issues. That discussion should be regularized and deal with the full range of regional and international issues. It is important not just to talk about Iran or the conflicts in the region but also the Russian and Chinese policies and points of agreement and disagreement. It will be important to compare assessments of where things stand in Yemen and Syria as well as what the Administration intends to do on Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Avoiding surprises and coordinating policies where possible should be a premise of these talks. As important as such talks may be, the Saudis must also reach out to the Congress—and to do so on a bipartisan basis. The new Saudi ambassador must reach out to the Democrats on Capitol Hill, but the Saudi leadership should also invite bipartisan delegations to come to the Kingdom for candid discussions. The current differences, especially with the US Congress, won’t simply go away; nor can they be ignored. But listening to each other’s concerns can begin to manage the problems and turn a new page—and that will serve the interests of both countries.