Analyzing and forecasting the Gulf Cooperation Council's geopolitical environment

The Future of U.S.-Saudi Relations

February 12, 2016
By Dr. Peter Harris

U.S.-Saudi relations are under intense scrutiny. Officials in Riyadh chafe at U.S. reluctance to engineer the overthrow of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. More importantly, they fear that President Barack Obama’s diplomatic opening to Iran might prove to be a portent of normalized relations between Washington and Tehran. Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers accuse the Saudis of manipulating oil production with the specific intent of bankrupting U.S. players in the energy industry – a hot button issue in this election year. Furthermore, criticism continues to mount regarding the kingdom’s longstanding role in funding Islamist extremist groups and its current conduct of the war in Yemen.

Could the U.S.-Saudi relationship actually expire? And if so, what would it take for the U.S. to abandon this important strategic partner?

The Origins of Alliances

Broadly speaking, alliances in world politics exist according to one of two rationales: either there is a compelling geostrategic purpose for the partnership, or there are domestic reasons for closeness.  The former category includes any number of opportunistic alliances past and present, including the Franco-Scottish “Auld Alliance” of the Middle Ages formed in opposition to England; the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902, created to contain Russian expansionism in East Asia; and the U.S.-Soviet alliance during World War II.  The latter are a rarer breed, depending much more on social and cultural affinity than hard-headed Realpolitik. Examples include Russia’s historic guardianship of Slavic and Orthodox states in Eastern Europe; the various alliances that work together to comprise the so-called Anglosphere; and, perhaps, the U.S. commitment to Israel.

Without question, the U.S.-Saudi relationship rests on geostrategic foundations rather than domestic ones. Indeed, it would be fanciful to suggest that the domestic population of either nation holds the other in particularly high regard. Many in the U.S. view Saudi Arabia as an intolerant and illiberal autocracy, a sponsor of extremism across the Islamic world, and an underhanded competitor in the energy industry. At the same time, although some members of the Saudi elite might display an outward admiration for Western materialism, the kingdom’s religious authorities and its general population do not hold the U.S. in high esteem.

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Dr. Peter Harris is an assistant professor of Political Science at Colorado State University.