American Studies, Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

The U.S.–Saudi Arabia Relationship: ‘Special’ or Broken?

The U.S.–Saudi Arabia Relationship: ‘Special’ or Broken?

Michael C. Hudson, the Seif Ghobash Professor of International Relations and Arab Studies, Emeritus, at Georgetown University, delivered the first CIRS Monthly Dialogue of the Spring 2016 semester on “The U.S.–Saudi Arabia Relationship: ‘Special’ or Broken?” on January 19, 2016. A long-term scholar of the Middle East, Hudson argued that the Middle East region is in an extremely turbulent condition, necessitating the reexamination of traditional alliances. He paid particular attention to the state of the US-Saudi relationship, which was once described as “special” and which is now under considerable strain.

Highlighting some key moments in the history of the US-Saudi relationship, Hudson noted that it was established after World War I, when companies backed by the US government began formalizing business ties and facilitating the establishment of the Saudi oil industry during the 1930s. Subsequently, “a modus vivendi was established that allowed this engine of modernization to function without really interfacing with, or let alone disturbing, the traditional political culture of the Kingdom,” he argued. In order for this businesses relationship to continue flourishing, the Americans remained uncharacteristically uncritical of the domestic politics of Saudi Arabia. This arrangement suited both parties, as each could get along with its business interests despite having many antithetical notions regarding each other’s cultures, religions, and politics. In this regard, Hudson argued that “the relationship, although special, was not deeply rooted in American politics, in the American mind, or within the American public. The relationship depended upon a rather narrow spectrum of interests, expertise, and influence,” and was established on a strategic basis between political and business elites.

In order to further secure these shared US-Saudi economic interests, the alliance was eventually expanded to other related political engagements and foreign policy alignments over the decades. During the Cold War, Saudi Arabia proved to be a strategic ally in securing US interests, and guarding against communist advances into the region. The importance of Saudi Arabia was further amplified after the Iranian revolution of 1979, and the collapse of the US’s alliance with the Shah.

In light of current turbulent political developments in the Middle East, the accepted historical basis of the US-Saudi relationship has come under questioning, and is in an increasing state of flux. Regional security concerns regarding the rise of sectarian tensions, the machinations of the Islamic State, and the easing of sanctions on Iran, have all worked towards straining the US-Saudi relationship, and are further magnified by domestic Saudi woes in the form of falling oil prices, a weakening economy, rising unemployment, a young population riddled with unrest, and a new royal regime taking an increasingly combative stance in the region.

Hudson mused on how these issues are likely to affect the future of US policy in the Middle East. Since the dangers posed by the Islamic State have become so central to regional and international political discourse, Hudson noted that it is unlikely that the US security umbrella in the Middle East will see any drastic change, and that the United States will continue to see Saudi Arabia as a key ally in its attempts at regional influence. While the solid historical and material interests, business connections, and security contracts between the United States and Saudi Arabia remain largely intact, “there is a rising chorus of hostile analysis and hostile criticism of Saudi Arabia in important political circles in the United States,” that argue in favor of taking a more lenient stand towards Iran, and reversing the balance of regional power. Today, “much of that debate is focused on foreign policy in the Middle East despite President Obama’s wish that he could pivot away from the Middle East and work on Asia instead.” However, Hudson concluded, current policies regarding the special US-Saudi relationship may indeed be altered depending on the results of the upcoming US presidential elections.

Michael C. Hudson is a former Director of Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS), and from 2010 to 2014 he was the first Director of the Middle East Institute and Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore. He was the Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at the Harvard Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative in spring 2015. Hudson has held Guggenheim, Ford, and Fulbright fellowships and is a past president of the Middle East Studies Association. His publications include The Precarious Republic: Political Modernization in LebanonThe World Handbook of Political and Social Indicators; Arab Politics: The Search for LegitimacyThe Palestinians: New Directions; and Middle East Dilemma: The Politics and Economics of Arab Integration (editor and contributor). His most recent books are: Gulf Politics and Economics in a Changing World and The Arab Uprisings: Catalysts, Dynamics, and Trajectories.


Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications