Relations with the United States

Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

Although Saudi Arabia and the United States obviously did not share any borders, the kingdom's relationship with Washington was the cornerstone of its foreign policy as well as its regional security policy. The special relationship with the United States actually dated to World War II. By the early 1940s, the extent of Saudi oil resources had become known, and the United States petroleum companies that held the concession to develop the oil fields were urging Washington to assume more responsibility for security and political stability in the region. Consequently, in 1943 the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that the defense of Saudi Arabia was a vital interest to the United States and dispatched the first United States military mission to the kingdom. In addition to providing training for the Saudi army, the United States Army Corps of Engineers constructed the airfield at Dhahran and other facilities. In early 1945, Abd al Aziz and Roosevelt cemented the nascent alliance in a meeting aboard a United States warship in the Suez Canal. Subsequently, Saud, Faisal, Khalid, and Fahd continued their father's precedent of meeting with United States presidents.

The United States-Saudi security relationship steadily expanded during the Cold War. This process was facilitated by the shared suspicions of Riyadh and Washington regarding the nature of the Soviet threat to the region and the necessity of containing Soviet influence. As early as 1947, the administration of Harry S. Truman formally assured Abd al Aziz that support for Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity and political independence was a primary objective of the United States. This commitment became the basis for the 1951 mutual defense assistance agreement. Under this agreement, the United States provided military equipment and training for the Saudi armed forces. An important provision of the bilateral pact authorized the United States to establish a permanent United States Military Training Mission in the kingdom. This mission still operated in Saudi Arabia in 1992.

The United States-Saudi relationship endured despite strains caused by differences over Israel. Saudi Arabia had not become reconciled to the 1948 establishment of Israel in the former Arab-dominated territory of Palestine and refused to extend Israel diplomatic recognition or to engage in any form of relations with Israel. Despite this position, Riyadh acknowledged that its closest ally, the United States, had a special relationship with Israel. After the June 1967 War, however, Saudi Arabia became convinced that Israel opposed Riyadh's strong ties with Washington and wanted to weaken them. During the 1970s and 1980s, periodic controversies over United States arms sales to the kingdom tended to reinforce Saudi concerns about the extent of political influence that supporters of Israel wielded in Washington. In several instances congressional leaders opposed United States weapons sales on the grounds that the Saudis might use them against Israel. Despite assurances from Saudi officials that the weapons were necessary for their country's defense, Congress reduced or canceled many proposed arms sales. Although the debates over Saudi weapons purchases were between the United States legislature and the executive branch, these political contests embittered Saudis and had an adverse impact on overall relations. From a Saudi perspective, the public policy disputes among United States leaders seemed to symbolize a weakening of the United States commitment to defend the kingdom's security.

Saudi uneasiness about United States resolve was assuaged by the United States response to the crisis unleashed by Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait. In this ultimate test of the United States-Saudi security relationship, Washington dispatched more than 400,000 troops to the kingdom to ward off potential aggression. This was not the first time that United States forces had been stationed on Saudi soil. The huge Dhahran Air Base had been used by the United States Air Force from 1946 to 1962. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy had ordered a squadron of fighters to Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom from Egyptian air assaults. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter loaned four sophisticated airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft and their crews to Saudi Arabia to monitor developments in the Iran-Iraq War. However, the presence of United States and other foreign forces prior to and during the Persian Gulf War was of an unprecedented magnitude. Despite the size of the United States and allied contingents, the military operations ran relatively smoothly. The absence of major logistical problems was due in part to the vast sums that Saudi Arabia had invested over the years to acquire weapons and equipment, construct modern military facilities, and train personnel.

After the war, Saudi Arabia again faced the prospect of congressional opposition to its requests for weapons. Riyadh believed that it cooperation in the war against Iraq demonstrated the legitimacy of its defense requirements. Nevertheless, the United States informed Saudi officials that Saudi Arabia's request to purchase US$20 billion of United States military equipment probably would not win the required approval of Congress. Riyadh reluctantly agreed to an administration proposal to revise its request into two or three separate packages, which would be submitted in consecutive years. This process tended to erode the positive feelings created during the war and revive Saudi resentments about being treated as a less than equal ally.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress