Facts on Saudi-US relations

Published: May 19, 2017
US President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Mohammed bin Salman meet at the White House in Washington, US, March 14, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

US President Donald Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Mohammed bin Salman meet at the White House in Washington, US, March 14, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

RIYADH: US President Donald Trump on Saturday makes Saudi Arabia the first overseas stop of his presidency, holding summits with the kingdom’s leaders, their Gulf neighbours and top officials from across the Muslim world.

Here are facts about the longstanding relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, which has been based on the exchange of American security for Saudi oil:


The discovery of vast oil reserves beneath Saudi sands in the late 1930s secured the kingdom’s place as a vital partner for the energy-hungry United States. The partnership was sealed in 1945 during a historic meeting between then-king Abdul Aziz ibn Saud and US president Franklin D. Roosevelt on board the USS Quincy as it cruised the Suez Canal.

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When neighbouring Kuwait was invaded in 1990 by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, then-US president George HW Bush ordered Operation Desert Storm, which used US airbases in Saudi Arabia as vital staging posts and sent thousands of American troops into the kingdom. It was “a moment of unparalleled cooperation between two great nations”, Bush said.


There have also been strains in the relationship, including after the September 2001 attacks on the US by Al-Qaeda airplane hijackers that killed almost 3,000 people. Fifteen of the 19 attackers were from Saudi Arabia.


A series of deadly shootings and bombings against foreigners and Saudi security forces that began in 2003 turned Riyadh into a loyal and robust partner in the fight against Al-Qaeda, with Mohammed bin Nayef, now the kingdom’s crown prince, well-regarded by US officials for his role overseeing a crackdown on the militants.


In 2014, Saudi warplanes joined the US-led coalition fighting Sunni militants from the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. Since early 2015, the kingdom’s military effort has been more focused on Yemen, where it leads an Arab coalition supporting Yemen’s government against Shia Huthi rebels backed by Iran.

Washington provides intelligence as well as aerial refuelling and bombs to the coalition, but former president Barack Obama’s administration in December blocked a sale of precision-guided weapons to Saudi Arabia because of concerns over civilian casualties in Yemen.
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Saudi leaders are glad to see the end of Obama’s term. They felt he was reluctant to get involved in the civil war in Syria and was tilting toward Shia-dominated Iran, Riyadh’s regional rival.


Riyadh has issued a series of laudatory comments about the Trump administration, which has echoed Saudi concerns about Iranian regional influence. The powerful Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 31, visited Trump in Washington just two months into the president’s term, while Trump’s CIA director Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly have all visited Saudi Arabia this year.

Prince Mohammed is the defence minister but spends much of his time on economic issues. He is the driving force behind Vision 2030 released last year to diversify the economy of the world’s biggest oil exporter, which has suffered from a global fall in crude prices.
As part of that effort he has been seeking US investment, including in the entertainment sector, for a country where more than half the local population is under 25 and hooked on the internet, but where public cinemas and theatres are still banned.

The US last year exported $18 billion worth of goods to Saudi Arabia and imported goods valued at almost $17 billion.

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