Orb Diplomacy and the Future of U.S. Saudi Relations

money and oil

The United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have a long and rich history, largely stemming from the United States’ first opening of Saudi oil facilities in the 1930s. Since then, the two countries have drawn closer, largely resulting from the Cold War and other proxy conflicts. However, the United States and Saudi Arabia have periods of strained relations, and it looks as though this strain may continue in the years to come. Regardless, it is in the best interest of Saudi Arabia to remain allied with the U.S., as they present the greatest defense against the threat of a belligerent Iran.

During the Cold War, both countries functioned as allies against the Soviet Union, and today, they are mutually involved against one common enemy: Iran. Although the United States and Saudi Arabia have been allies largely as a result of petroleum trade, their mutual distrust of Iran has brought them even closer. However, despite both countries sharing a mutual distrust of Iran and its nuclear program, it appears that Saudi Arabia may be looking to other international powers in search of economic gains and a stronger defensive alliance. 

Although the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been marked by a mutual distrust of Iran and closer economic ties, in recent years, numerous high-level decisions by the executive branch in the United States have further strained relations between the two powers. Perhaps the greatest schism between the two countries surrounds Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks. Although the Saudi government – and particularly the Saudi Head of Government – had direct ties to the Al-Qaeda attackers who led the attack, Saudi Arabia has categorically denied this. Both the European Union and British government have independently concluded that Saudi Arabia had direct ties to the September 11 terror attacks. The United States has largely chosen to overlook this, focusing on the two nations’ mutual distrust of Iran. Regardless, the event has created a permanent scar on the relationship between both powers. 

Adding greater strain on this relationship are former U.S. President Barack Obama’s comments on Saudi Arabia — highly and unabashedly critical of the authoritarian and autocratic government of the Kingdom — which only served to foster greater distrust on both sides. However, under the Trump Administration, relations between the powers improved. Regardless of warming relations, the rise of one power may be too great to permanently bring the countries back to their old levels of trust. Notably, the rise of China — both in a militaristic and economic sense — has led Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, to reevaluate his relationship with the United States. Although the two countries share a mutual security pact, Saudi Arabia’s government style and views on human rights aligns them much more with the  People’s Republic of China than Western countries, a fact that may upend the American partnership. This, when combined with the Chinese reliance on Saudi Arabian oil, may allow Bin Salman to deem his nation’s relationship with China to be more valuable than the current arrangement with the U.S., a sentiment which has only grown stronger with the Biden Administration in power. Regardless, it is in the best interest of Bin Salman and the government of Saudi Arabia to remain allied with the U.S., as well as to China, to ensure that Iran and its existential threat to the safety of Saudi Arabia never materializes in a meaningful way.

By Quinn Novick

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