International relationships can be really weird. Nations often act like middle school children on the world stage; bullying each other, calling each other names, and sometimes just giving the silent treatment. Among the most awkward and unusual of these relationships is that endured by the United States and Saudi Arabia. One is an open democratic society with no official religious ties, the other is a strict authoritarian regime that is steeped in a particularly harsh religious ideology. For decades, the two nations have enjoyed (somewhat) friendly relations. But recently, there has been speculation that the two are hitting a rough patch. Let's take a look at some of the biggest issues keeping the U.S. and Saudi Arabia from becoming BFFs.
1) Oil just isn't what it used to be
It's probably no surprise that the foundation of U.S.-Saudi relations is based on sweet, sweet oil. For decades, both countries enjoyed a strong and stable trade agreement in liquefied exploding dinosaur remains. But now, America gets the majority of its oil either internally or from the poutine-laden shores of Canada. Saudi's oil is still really important in the global market (and especially to China and India), but the direct importance of Saudi oil to the United States has been substantially reduced in recent years. Just look at the recent nuclear agreement with Iran. As a direct result of the lifting of some trade sanctions, Iran has exploded (pun intended) into the petroleum market. This really upset Saudi Arabia, but America hasn't been too concerned about it.
To make matters worse, the expansion of oil extraction and production in the United States (thanks fracking!) has made Saudi Arabia much more of a competitor rather than an ally. By keeping oil prices at historic lows, Saudi Arabia is directly undercutting the profitability of American oil companies and forcing many to abandon shale oil extraction entirely. Naturally, American businesses aren't too happy with that and are putting pressure on government officials to do something about it. Sure, there are some upsides to Saudi's continued oil hoarding (it hurts Russia's interests after all), but it's clear that oil is starting to become more of a liability than a guarantee in U.S.-Saudi relations.
2) Saudi support for terror is a big problem
Oil isn't the only divisive thing Saudi Arabia is exporting these days. It's also exporting terrorism. Or more accurately, violent radicalism through its Salafi worldview. For those of you out of the loop on this, the Kingdom owes its current political-religious structure on a fundamentalist form of Islam known as Wahhabism (a type of Sunni Salafism, also rather fundamentalist). While it's not really official policy to convert people outside of the country to this rigid worldview, many individuals, charities, and companies in Saudi Arabia have been doing this for decades. Now, the major problems of this effort are being felt in nearly every corner of the Middle East. Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and many other nations all have some element of Saudi-backed support working to advance the Kingdom's interests. Often (like in the case of al-Qaeda), these elements start morphing into other, more dangerous groups throughout the course of the fighting.
The most damaging thing so far has been the potential Saudi connection to the 9-11 attacks. This has become a big deal these past few weeks during President Obama's visit to Riyadh last week. To make matters worse, there is considerable speculation that the redacted pages from the official investigation into the attacks will reveal some very embarrassing (not to mention incriminating) things about key individuals in the government. Even if those aren't released anytime soon, we know that the majority of the attackers were of Saudi nationality and often received support or funding from people within the Kingdom. Saudi's standard way of dealing with extremists within it's own ranks has usually been to send them off to the latest trendy holy war and close the door behind them (like in Afghanistan and now Syria). Until the Kingdom truly deals with its radicalization problem, America will continue to look for allies that aren't actively creating America's next top terrorist group.
3) Saudi security is becoming more of a liability for the U.S.
As the self-proclaimed champion of freedom, democracy, freedom, human rights, and freedom, America often comes under attack for its relationships with authoritarian regimes throughout the world. America's long standing support for Saudi Arabia is easily one of the most contentious of these partnerships. To some extent, it is unrealistic to expect us to hold other nations to our own standards of decency and governance. After all, it is up to the Saudis to choose their own path and not have one dictated to them. But at the same time, the Kingdom is guilty of some really nasty stuff. The subjugation of women to second-class status, public executions, and the appalling treatment of migrant workers all put a strain on this relationship (even though the U.S. is mostly silent on these issues).
One of the most striking examples of this disconnect occurred during the Arab Spring protests five years ago. Though Saudi Arabia's minimal protests were put down by harsh words and a payoff to its own citizens, protests in nearby Bahrain didn't receive the same treatment. Saudi Arabia threw its military support behind the government in Bahrain and helped put down the protests in that country. For years, the Kingdom has used its American-made military hardware to strike at targets which the United States never intended. Not that this is a new phenomenon. American military aid often ends up doing things for which it was never intended. But Saudi Arabia's ever-expanding definition of "security" has become difficult for the United States to accept in an increasingly disastrous Middle East.
4) America cares more about stability than Saudi's Sunni-Shia problems
But this relationship goes both ways. For Saudi Arabia's part, it has nearly always looked to the United States to guarantee the country a dominant position in the region. This is especially true in relation to the other big player in the region, Iran (Israel being excluded because of course Saudi Arabia can't compete with the U.S.-Israel relationship). Saudi Arabia and Iran have been locked in a power struggle for decades. This often plays out in the Sunni-Shia religious divide, but it let's not confuse the two. Not every Sunni-Shia conflict is a proxy battle for Saudi and Iran, and vice versa.
Up until recently (and not counting America's love affair with the Shah of Iran), the United States was relatively content to help support Saudi Arabia in its struggles with Iran. But the current and previous presidential administrations have started drifting away from this policy. America still generally supports the Kingdom over the Islamic Republic, but America's attempted refocusing to Asia and the closure of the Iran nuclear deal have signaled that the U.S. just isn't as interested in regional power struggles as it once was. More and more, Saudi Arabia is starting to feel isolated in the region, and blames America for much of this.
Despite all of this depressing news, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is still one of the strongest in the region and is unlikely to severely diminish anytime soon. Stable, strong nations are few and far between in the region, so the relationship will continue more out of necessity than comfort. Though officials in Washington may not like working with their counterparts in Riyadh, it certainly beats the alternative of a fractured Saudi Arabia or one taken over by radical religious factions. For its part, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to stray too far from American influence. Russia seems more concerned with its allies in Syria, while China prefers industrially exploiting Africa over making political moves in the Middle East. For now, the world's most unlikely relationship looks to remain strained, but strong.