Saint Valentine’s Day is mostly about the consumerist exchange of sweet nothings. But tender promises made this day can sometimes turn into an enduring relationship. This is one such story.
On February 14, 1945, the USS Quincy lay anchored in the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal. On board the battleship, former American president Franklin D Roosevelt greeted the then Saudi King, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. Their countries already enjoyed a commercial relationship.
But there was more to Roosevelt’s tryst with Ibn Saud than American penetration of Saudi oilfields. Both men knew that World War II had changed the global balance of power. The sun was setting on European hegemony in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia survived on British grace; now it needed to offer its hand to a new partner. WWII had also proved the strategic importance of controlling global oil supplies. Already in 1943 Roosevelt had declared that, “the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the United States,” and had dispatched troops to protect the kingdom. It would, of course, not be the last time American boots massed on Saudi soil. Like forbidden lovers, Roosevelt and Ibn Saud made a secret pact — the so-called Quincy Agreement. As long as oil kept flowing, the US would provide military protection to the House of Saud and to Aramco, and the ‘free world’, whose interests seemed intimately bound. Thus was arranged the Saudi-American marriage.
The fragile Saudi state faced many threats as it consolidated. It quickly stood out as an anomaly, a conservative desert kingdom amidst a sea of socialist Arab republics. But it was an island of reactionary stability that the US could rely upon, and the Saudi-American alliance thrived. Like any long-term relationship, it had its hitches. The American affair with Israel was a prominent sticking point, reaching climax with the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. The Saudis responded to American support of Israel with a temporary embargo on oil exports, followed by a dramatic increase in oil prices — the so-called ‘Oil Shocks’. But the US was far from cuckolded. It soon reasserted its dominance over the Saudis, whose oil production swung to favour US interests. The two also became bedfellows in anti-communist activities. Afghanistan’s myriad Islamist militias, midwifed by Pakistan, are the products of this union.
The US proved its commitment and fidelity during the First Gulf War, sending half-a- million troops to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq. In return, the Saudis allowed the erection of ‘enduring’ American military bases that operated in the Kingdom till 2003. Still, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led by Saudi hijackers, tested ties. But difficult times only brought them closer together. Saudi Arabia remained obedient, largely honouring US wishes to publicly condemn and combat terrorism. Moreover — spats over ongoing Saudi terrorist financing aside — the common threat-perception of Iran has turned the Saudis into the single largest purchasers of American military hardware in the world.
Over the past year, however, the Arab Spring, the looming succession crisis in Saudi Arabia and the regional balance of power tilting towards Iran have combined to sorely strain the relationship. True, the US did give Saudi Arabia a thoughtful anniversary gift by looking away as the Saudi National Guard brutally crushed the uprising that began in Bahrain on February 14, last year. But with the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and with Saudi entreaties for the Americans to bomb Iran falling on deaf ears, the Saudis have good reason to question American potency in the region. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is increasingly jealous of the rumoured back door alliances between the Americans and Iranians. What does all this mean for the Saudi-American embrace?
Moreover, as with most successful relationships, both the US and Saudi Arabia have accepted the other as they are, imperialist and absolutist warts and all. But what will happen if nascent Saudi reformists spill into the streets in larger numbers? Will the US then expect the Saudis to change? Will the Saudi-American relationship remain true, or could it head for a strategic divorce? On Valentine’s Day, one can only hope for the best.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2012.