Saudi-America: A love story

Published: February 14, 2012

The writer is a Fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University, Canada shibil.siddiqi@tribune.com.pk

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.

Reader Comments (19)

  • Arindom
    Feb 14, 2012 - 12:51AM

    can someone tell me more of the back door romance between US and Iran?

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  • Talha
    Feb 14, 2012 - 1:33AM

    There is documented evidence of British and American support for Wahabi’s and Deobandi’s.

    For decades they have received support militarily and monetarily from the west. But, they blame Ahmadi’s for being supported by the west while no evidence of this exists.

    Let’s be honest here, those who have support are in charge of their respective countries while the rest suffer at the hands of these fundamentalists.

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  • OG
    Feb 14, 2012 - 1:34AM

    i have a feeling that the biggest uprising in the arab world would come in Saudi Arabia in the near future. yes for now their keeping their citizens happy by pretty much paying them (forgiving loans and what not). What happens once the oil runs out and leaving the ruling party with their hands tight monetary wise… how will they keep their citizens happy then? and this uprising/revolution would be different from anything we have seen so far because it will affect the entire muslim world

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  • John B
    Feb 14, 2012 - 2:05AM

    Shallow analysis. The author forgot that Iran-US relationship was at its zenith during the same time (despite domestic criticisms in both countries) while Saudi Arabia was rediscovering itself and the Saudi economy was rebuilt from Mecca pilgrimage economy to industrial (oil) economy beginning 1938. Iran was the major oil producer at that time and no one knew of Saudi potential until 1954. US domestic oil production was surplus at that time and much of the saudi oil went to rest of the world rather than US.

    The politics of middle east changed when Iranian revolution came in and all that followed with OPEC oil embargo selective against the west in the name of religion.

    Bahrain repression? Ask the PAK troops why they did it.

    It is said to note that younger generation loose objectivity in history.

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  • SaudiRules
    Feb 14, 2012 - 2:29AM

    Moreover, Saudi Arabia is increasingly jealous of the rumoured back door alliances between the Americans and Iranians

    Merely pulling “rumors” out of thin air and printing is not enough. Can you give us some hints or empirical evidence to the so called “back door” alliances between the Americans and Iranians?

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Feb 14, 2012 - 2:49AM

    Ibn Saud family refused freindship hand raised by Hazrath E Hitler for long love of English for
    creation of saudia from Hijaz and like Kaabey of Muhafiz mil gya Meh khanay se.

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  • Feb 14, 2012 - 3:48AM

    @Arindom:
    Google it

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  • Mustafa Moiz
    Feb 14, 2012 - 5:36AM

    The Bahrain uprising should be looked at in context of the Syrian uprising and Iraq, because all three of these events involve the two regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The suppression of an uprising in Bahrain (which was itself not exactly innocent of massacre) was nothing compared to Iranian action in Iraq and Syria. And the dictatorship in Bahrain is nothing compared to the tyranny in Syria. It is very important to look and compare these two, because they are relevant to each other, in being recent examples of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

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  • billo
    Feb 14, 2012 - 6:03AM

    Haha…a great valentines day article. The naughty subtext is hilarious! Good to see some light hearted humour from one of ET’s more serious young writers.

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  • Ahsan
    Feb 14, 2012 - 8:27AM

    @John B Sometimes older generation gives youth too little credit. The fact is even now Saudi supplies around 15% of US oil consumption. But it is the largest exporter of crude in the world. Disruption in Saudi supplies would be felt across global economy which the US as leader of the capitalist world system want to avoid. The US also use Saudi swing production said in this article for it own economic gain and to offset oil instability in other parts of the world. By controlling Saudi and Middle East oil US can deny And they can potentially deny vital oil reserves to other countries and competitor like China and India. This policy is in place since 1930s. Anyone with interest in economics watching oil markets know this. The writer here is on the money.

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  • Sikander
    Feb 14, 2012 - 10:05AM

    Still a better love story than Twilight.

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  • Dr. Kartikay Pandey
    Feb 14, 2012 - 11:11AM

    The insecurity, and selfishness of S. Arab’s rulers has terribly harmed the region’s peace, prosperity, and security. The Islamic world must get civilized, and adopt clean, Democratic way of Governance, and living, in their own interest.Recommend

  • Muhammad Saad Khan
    Feb 14, 2012 - 11:32AM

    and where is the killing of shah faisal?

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  • Feb 14, 2012 - 12:12PM

    it is fall out of increasing US-China joint moves in tajkastan, afghanistan and qazqastan. yet saudi arab remains important because of its location at Sea Trade Routes, as Pakistan is important because of her location at Land Trade Route. US took all important pussations from the Late Empire after 1941 Atlantic agreement. Wars of Trade routes are still haunting our regions yet will US-China alliance redesign 1894 Durand line agreement or 1914 McMahon line agreement?

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  • Shams
    Feb 14, 2012 - 6:38PM

    Funny that both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have had unelected kings and military rulers that have declared the countries bastion and citadel of Islam. Yet they are both biggest US lovers.Recommend

  • Feb 14, 2012 - 10:55PM

    Cheers for the comments.

    @Arindom @SaudiRules I’m happy to discuss any facts and/or citations. Feel free to email/tweet me. One caution though: my draft of this article used the words “back door dalliances” and not “alliances”. US/Iran contacts are ongoing, but it wasn’t my intent to suggest there was any kind of existing partnership. But like I said, happy to discuss anything here.

    @Sikander Best comment ever!

    Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli
    Feb 15, 2012 - 8:35AM

    @Skinder
    Good one man hahahaha
    @Pandey
    is Democratic countries are not crrupt or selfish ????

    Recommend

  • Cynical
    Feb 15, 2012 - 3:30PM

    @Sikander

    You rock.

    @Ali Tanoli

    Democracy is a philosophy of life that builds and shapes a society or rather it’s value system.
    Governance is just one aspect of it.
    Corruption is a product of bad governance, whether democratic or not. .

    Recommend

  • Ali Tanoli
    Feb 16, 2012 - 7:15AM

    @Cynical
    Thank u sir agreed.

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