Saudi Arabia: Reset Redux

Saudi Arabia: Reset Redux

By Robert W. Jordan

Concepts & Thoughts
Dallas, Texas–This year the United Nations celebrated its 70th anniversary.  It is also the 70th anniversary of the historic meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia in February 1945.  During World War II, Saudi oil and air routes had been helpful to the war effort, but there was hardly a significant relationship with the United States. In that 1945 meeting, President Roosevelt extended America’s commitment to major assistance in the security and economic development of Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia confirmed its willingness to provide America with a much- needed reliable source of oil.  The two leaders also discussed the importance of consultation on the emerging issue of the status of Jews and Palestine in the post-war period. Perhaps the most important outcome of the summit was a genuinely warm personal relationship between the two leaders.  Two months later, Roosevelt would die, but a lasting political and economic relationship had been formed.

This relationship has been tested many times since 1945. Intermittent periods of neglect have ensued, and bitter differences over Palestine, Israel, the price of oil, and ideological extremism have erupted from time to time. Yet, despite widely divergent cultures, histories and national narratives, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has managed to reset its bearings, to overcome these differences, and occasionally to flourish. In the late 1970’s the two nations joined to fight Soviet communism in not only Afghanistan, but also in other corners of the globe with overt and covert Saudi assistance over a number of years.  In Operation Desert Storm, U.S. and Saudi troops fought side by side to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.  In the aftermath of 9/11 the Saudis ultimately joined forces with American intelligence and law enforcement to tackle the threat of terrorism and terrorist financing emanating from the Kingdom.  In March of 2003 American forces invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein. Despite warning us that we were unprepared to manage a post-invasion Iraq, the Saudis quietly provided us with nearly all the assistance we requested, much of which went unreported.  They gave access to Saudi border crossings so special forces could take out Scud missile sites and provide forward observers, use of the Saudi air bases at Prince Sultan Air Base and Tabuk, and permission to shoot Tomahawk cruise missiles over Saudi Arabian territory, aimed at Iraq from submarines in the Red Sea.

When I arrived in Saudi Arabia as the U.S. ambassador weeks after 9/11, the relationship was on life support.  With 15 of the 19 hijackers coming from Saudi Arabia, Americans were asking whether the Saudis were friend or foe. American anger at the Saudis was palpable, and the Saudis reciprocated with anger and resentment of their own.  Intelligence cooperation was halting, and our own government agencies were ill equipped to deal with a profound crisis in an Arab land, where they had few Arabic speakers and little understanding of the culture.

Even as we began to rebuild trust and cooperation in the fight against Al Qaeda, we struggled to find common ground on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Second Intafada was raging, and American lack of leadership in forcing Israel to the peace table was a frequent complaint from Saudi officials. In the spring of 2002, in the midst of these struggles, President Bush invited Crown Prince Abdullah to a summit meeting at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Despite reservations, Abdullah accepted the invitation and mounted a plan to give President Bush an earful on the need for American leadership with Israel, and a vivid depiction of the plight of the Palestinian people. The meeting did not begin well, and there was talk of the Saudis walking out. President Bush seized the initiative and invited Crown Prince Abdullah to take a ride round the ranch in his pickup truck. They returned after 45 minutes and were beaming. They had bonded personally, and were able to work through a daunting agenda and make progress.  Not unlike the meeting between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz, the Crawford summit marked a turning point in a touchy relationship.  In 2003 Bush and Abdullah met again in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, and yet again in 2005 in Crawford.

Cover Image Final
Desert Diplomat, Inside Saudi Arabia Following 9/11 Potomac Books, 256 pages; July 2015

As my time as ambassador was winding down, I observed to Secretary of State Colin Powell that our policy toward Saudi Arabia was far too ad hoc, parachuting in various officials to ask or plead for Saudi assistance on oil, terrorism, help with the Palestinians, and a laundry list of other topics. But we rarely asked them what they wanted from us, or how we could form a more regularized, sustainable relationship. Powell tasked me with coming up with an outline of a plan, and as I was leaving office I sent the plan to Powell and the president.

The plan called for consultation and commitment in every phase of the relationship: economic, military, political, cultural, and human rights.  The plan appeared to lead to the establishment of working groups in each category, with consultations between the Secretary of State and the Saudi Foreign Minister every six months.

Over the last several years the U.S.-Saudi relationship has again been tested.   The Saudis saw the administration stand by while Hosni Mubrak was deposed, and saw an embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood. They saw the violence perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad in Syria against his own people and an American failure to enforce a declared “red line” to stop the use of chemical weapons. And they saw an agreement with Iran to curtail its development of a nuclear weapon and wondered how enforceable it would be, and whether it would lead to a détente between the Americans and Iran that would alter the balance of power in the Middle East.

The Saudis also see the rapid expansion of American oil production and the glut of oil on the international market, and the growing energy independence of the United States. The Saudis are looking to other markets, primarily in Asia, increasing contact with Russia and signing contracts to develop investment and nuclear technology.  Politically and militarily, at a time when American involvement in the Middle East is in a period of retrenchment, the Saudis are finding it necessary to take more initiative, to assume more responsibility for their own neighborhood.

When King Salman met with President Obama on September 4 in Washington, many wondered if the meeting would lead to another “reset” of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Some called it a “potential turning point” in U.S.-Saudi relations.  At the conclusion of the meeting, the Saudis declared support for the nuclear agreement with Iran, yet their skepticism at its enforceability continues to be reported. The parties also announced movement toward “a new strategic alliance for the 21st century.”

The exact contours of this 21st century version remain largely unknown. Yet we can be certain that a large component is military.  Since March of this year, U.S. sales of military equipment, consulting and development have had a potential value of over $90 billion.  The Saudis remain active in combatting the Islamic State, and have been participating in coalition air strikes since 2014. The U.S. has continued its quiet support of the Saudi campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and has resupplied Saudi munitions expended in this war. The Americans and the Saudis continue to have mutual concerns over Iran, terrorism, and other security issues. And despite overtures to Russia and China, the Saudis know that the only reliable guarantor of their security is the United States, and that the United States has the power to back up its commitments.

It may be that the most important element of the future relationship is economic. Saudi Arabia is the U.S.’s largest trading partner in the Middle East. The parties have announced an aggressive U.S. investment program over the next five years. During my time as ambassador, I believed it was essential to bring the Saudis into the World Trade Organization, and since their accession in 2005 they have dramatically expanded foreign direct investment and access to their markets. They are a robust player in the international economy and an important member of the G-20.  Once Iran regains access to the billions of dollars in impounded funds, they will become a serious economic competitor in the Middle East. An American ally in economic development will be valuable to the Saudis for many years in the future.

So what kind of “reset” will it be? Likely the parties to the alliance recognize that American resources are limited. America cannot dictate every outcome, and cannot shoulder blame for every unfavorable outcome. The Saudis will have to assume more responsibility for their own neighborhood, more leadership within the Gulf, and more accountability for outcomes on their watch. But since 1945 the relationship has survived periods of indifference and periods of extreme crisis. With proper leadership and stewardship, the relationship has the potential to weather the next crisis on the horizon.


Robert W. Jordan is Diplomat in Residence and Adjunct Professor of Political Science in the John G. Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001-2003. Ambassador Jordan took charge of his mission in the wake of the attacks of September 11 at a critical time in U.S.-Saudi relations. He was a partner in the international law firm Baker Botts L.L.P. for many years and headed the firm’s Middle East practice based in Dubai.

Ambassador Jordan is Vice Chair of the Tower Center Board of Directors and of the Board of Governors of the Middle East Institute. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a past president of the Dallas Bar Association and the Dallas Committee on Foreign Relations. He is a member of the American Arbitration Association Commercial Panel of Arbitrators, the Panel of Distinguished Neutrals of the CPR International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution, and the London Court of International Arbitration. He also serves on the Advisory Board of the Bilateral U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce and is a frequent commentator with international media including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, Bloomberg and the New York Times. In July 2015, Ambassador Jordan published his memoir, Desert Diplomat: Inside Saudi Arabia Following 9/11, which was published by Potomac Books.

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