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HomeGeopolitical CompassArabian PeninsulaPariah or Partner? Reevaluating the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

Pariah or Partner? Reevaluating the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

Author: Jon Hoffman

Affiliation: The Cato Institute

Organization/Publisher: The Cato Institute

Date/Place: September 20, 2023/USA

Type of Literature: White Paper 

Number of Pages: 21 



Keywords: United States, Saudi Arabia, Middle East



This paper warns that Washington’s continued attempts to deepen relations with Riyadh could be counterproductive to the strategic interests of the United States and that any amount of concessions made will not change the fact that the strategic interests of the two countries are no longer as compatible as in the past. Therefore, continued attempts to rely on the kingdom in the region will only undermine American interests and values.

The first section lists the historical context of the development of Saudi-American relations up to the status quo. The strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia really began after the end of the Second World War when the two countries signed a joint defense agreement that established the first U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia. This convention relied primarily on security and energy. Especially after the escalation of the Cold War conflict, the parties’ fears of a communist tide creeping into the Arabian Peninsula increased. Washington considered Islam a strong strategic bulwark to counter the growing socialist and communist forces in the region. In 1979, a series of successive events, from the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a group of extremists to the Islamic revolution in Iran, contributed to the expansion of relations between the two countries. To stand against these new challenges, the US proclaimed the Carter Principle, which stated that any external force attempting to control the Persian Gulf region would be considered an attack on its vital interests. By 1990, a new regional crisis prompted Riyadh to resort again to U.S. protection. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait raised concerns among Riyadh’s ruling class that Saddam Hussein could attack Saudi Arabia. In response, with the help of 40 other countries, the United States was able to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. However, US-Saudi relations faced some obstacles, particularly as a result of US bias and full support for Israel.     

However, relations between the two countries continued and increased even further, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when Saudi Arabia decided to join the United States in its fight against terrorism. After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saudi Arabia intensified its security cooperation with the United States due to the expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq and the rise of armed groups directly targeting Riyadh. Then came the 2011 Arab revolutions where Washington should have used Riyadh’s efforts to undermine these uprisings. During Obama’s tenure, arms sales to Saudi Arabia increased, and he additionally provided logistical and intelligence support to Riyadh in its war on Yemen.

After taking power, Mohammed bin Salman was eager to implement changes and reforms in various sectors and fields, and further reinforced the trend towards Saudi nationalism. Washington welcomed his modern vision. Nevertheless, he has been criticized for his arbitrary policy, especially when it comes to his opponents and his full control over all political, economic and social affairs, as he aims to further strengthening his control over the Kingdom. Cooperation between the two countries increased after Trump took office. He supported the Saudi intervention in Yemen and backed the Crown Prince after Khashoggi’s killing, offering him more sophisticated arms sales. Although the relationship was interspersed with some differences, such as the 2020 oil war between Riyadh and Moscow that led Trump to threaten to withdraw U.S. security protection from Saudi Arabia, the relationship between the Trump administration and bin Salman remained generally strong. 

With the arrival of Joseph Biden to the US presidency, relations with the kingdom became strained and  arms sales to the kingdom to greater scrutiny, as Biden had previously vowed on the campaign trail to treat the country like the ‘pariah’ it was. The events in Ukraine would soon force his administration to reconsider that policy. After Russian troops entered Ukraine in February 2022, Riyadh did not adopt a similar position to Washington toward the war and Moscow. Riyadh additionally rejected Washington’s request to increase oil production. These rapid developments raised serious concerns for the Biden administration, prompting it to study the possibility of making additional political concessions and security commitments to Riyadh in order to further support and strengthen Saudi-American relations, effectively walking back his original policy on the kingdom.

The second section provides a set of old and new justifications for increasing American commitments to the Middle East by strengthening relations with Saudi Arabia and how it affects the United States’ strategic interests.

The researcher begins by talking about the traditional justifications that have always played a key role in simultaneously consolidating and undermining Saudi-American relations that focused on oil, combating terrorism, and supporting Middle East stability.

Firstly, the author argues that continued provision of security to Saudi Arabia does not mean that Riyadh will adopt favorable oil policies for the United States. Rather, it should be borne in mind that Saudi oil policy is determined by Mohammed bin Salman’s interests and global supply and demand. He also adds that given the continued centralization of oil in the Saudi economy and Mohammed bin Salman’s urgent need to increase revenues, Riyadh will tend to adopt oil policies that primarily serve its core interests.

Secondly, the writer believes that praising Saudi Arabia’s great role alongside the United States in the fight against terrorism is exaggerated, as the actual threat of terrorism was amplified and the results of the global war on terrorism were catastrophic. Some 4.5 million deaths have been recorded and 38 million people have been displaced, as well as cases of torture, imprisonment and surveillance. He also claims that bin Salman’s model of moderate Islam, in fact, is only a means of combatting his opponents and supporting his domestic and geopolitical goals and not of fighting extremism per se. It is also used to divert attention from the real reasons for the lack of regional stability in the Middle East, primarily related to the nature of authoritarian regimes and not to religious problems.

Third, the writer stresses that US-Saudi relations are unable to promote Middle East stability or even prevent the emergence of a dominant regional power that could threaten both sides’ interests in the region. In the author’s view, this is due to the relative balance of power in the Middle East between the Gulf States, Iran, Egypt, Turkey and Israel. Other factors are the relative weakness of regional armies, the high war costs and uncontrollable regional geography. Thus, he argues that it is impossible for one actor to maintain hegemony over the Middle East region. Furthermore, the writer blames Washington’s partners in the region, accusing them of being the primary responsibility for the region’s instability, particularly Riyadh, which he described as pursuing reckless policies due to the US’ unwavering support. The author addresses a number of examples that support this proposition, including the 2017 war waged by Saudi and the United Arab Emirates on Yemen, which lasted for five years and resulted in more than 377,000 deaths. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia was still unable to beat the Houthis. In the wake of the war, bin Salman has resorted to diplomacy, as reflected in the end of the blockade of Qatar, and especially the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran. The writer warns, however, that this rapprochement between the two countries should not be interpreted as a halt to competition but merely as a freeze on competition as required by the changing regional and international contexts.                           

The article then moves on to the new rationale justifications provided for Washington to expand its relationship with Riyadh based on the rivalry between the great powers of the Middle East and the advancement of the Abraham Agreements.                                                                                                                    

The first justification concerns competition among the great powers in the Middle East, as Russia and China are expanding their presence in the Middle East, particularly with Saudi Arabia. The author believes that Russia and China are unable and unwilling to fill the American vacuum in the Middle East. Indeed, he believes that they benefit from the United States security system in the region, which allows them to become more involved in the region without having to afford to protect their material interests. He also adds that they cannot build a new political and security system in the region because this will require an enormous amount of political, economic and military resources that they do not have. In addition, the writer believes that the return of multipolarity to the Middle East could be hugely beneficial to the United States.                                      

The writer then moves on to the second justification, with Biden stepping up his efforts to mediate normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which comes as part of a series of Abraham Accords initiated by the Trump administration for mediation between Israel and Arab states. In contrast, Saudi Arabia is pressing Biden to obtain security commitments and help develop its civilian nuclear program. In this context, the writer considers that in the absence of Washington’s strategic motivation, the concessions claimed by Saudi Arabia would disastrously harm the interests of the United States. He also adds that there are already strategic interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel, motivated by common concerns about maintaining the current situation in the region, especially after the Arab uprisings, new levels of cooperation have begun between them. That is why they do not need Washington’s support to normalize relations with Israel.                                       

The last section suggests a reassessment of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The writer believes that Washington’s policy towards Riyadh and the Middle East works inversely because it focuses on ensuring the interests of authoritarian regimes rather than promoting American interests and values. In this spirit, the author calls for the need to restructure the relationship between the two countries in line with changing regional and international contexts and America’s limited interests in the region.

The first step the writer deems necessary is to confine the relationship between the two countries to solely the diplomatic framework by withdrawing military and economic support from Saudi Arabia. According to the writer, the move will reduce the reckless and destabilizing policies that Riyadh was pursuing because of its certainty about continued U.S. support. The second step would be for Washington to benefit from the return of multipolarity to the Middle East rather than continue to compete with the great powers there. The Middle East is no longer of fundamental importance to American interests, nor could Russia-China’s expansion in the region pose any threat to it.

The author concludes his article by emphasizing the need for comprehensive reforms in Saudi-American relations by recognizing the failure of United States policy. He urges the US to reduce its participation in the Middle East to a level consistent with its interests, instead of continuing to engage with Saudi Arabia as a strategic ally in the region to the detriment of US interests.


By: Ryma Meddah, MA in IR and International Law



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