"Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability" -Obama on his visit to Saudi Arabia
On Tuesday, some of America's most high-level government officials traveled to Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh to pay their respects to the late King Abdullah. Among these officials were the current Secretary of State John Kerry, previous Secretaries James Baker and Condoleezza Rice, three former national security advisers, the head of the U.S. Central Command (which oversees operations in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia), and the current CIA director John Brennan. That's a lot of high ranking diplomatic and security officials. President Obama himself cut short a visit to India to travel to Riyadh and meet with the new King Salman. Clearly, this is a big deal.
Why is Saudi Arabia so important to the United States? It all comes from a relationship which began in 1945 on a tiny ship floating along the Suez Canal in Egypt. On board the USS Quincy, the King of Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Aziz Al-Saud, and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met to discuss the future of their two nations following the inevitable end of the Second World War. What emerged from that meeting was a permanent agreement for the United States to provide regime security to the Saudis in exchange for significant favor in the Kingdom's petroleum markets.
Despite setbacks such as the 1973 oil embargo, the U.S. Saudi relationship has held strong throughout the decades ever since 1945. Its strength was reaffirmed by the sale of F-15 fighter jets in the late 1970s and the joint support effort for the Afghan mujaheddin, who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s (the U.S. support was mostly through money and weapons, while the Saudis sent fighters and exported their particular brand of Islamic ideology). All of this is explained in painstaking detail in my Master's thesis (the first chapter is boring, I know).
This relationship was met with another critical challenge following the 9/11 attacks. Most of the hijackers were of Saudi origin and Osama bin Laden himself was a Saudi citizen. Even though Saudi Arabia has pledged to help stop radical Islamist groups in the region, they continue to provide military hardware and ideological support to organizations such as the Syrian rebel forces (some of whom are joining groups like ISIS). The two nations are still working on how to navigate their relationship in this new century.
So the foundation of this relationship is oil: duh. But not in the way you might think. The United States only gets about 15% of its daily petroleum imports from Saudi Arabia (most comes from Canada eh!). The United States highly values Saudi Arabia's power in the global oil market (as outlined in this post). It is their power in the world oil market to influence oil prices and the increasing dependence of Asian markets on Saudi oil that is most appealing to American officials. As evidenced by Russia's worsening recession (they are super-dependent on oil for money and oil is cheap right now) this power is priceless and well-known (so well-known that any good conspiracy theory in the Middle East includes at least some involvement from the Saudis).
Regional stability also plays a key aspect in this relationship. Despite being less-than-ideal at stopping violent ideologies (and sometimes encouraging them), Saudi Arabia still serves as a key ally in the fight against some terrorist groups (mainly the ones who want to see the Saudis gone too). They are also the strongest military power in the region, with the possible exception of Israel or Iran. While Saudi Arabia acts as though it doesn't like Israel and vice versa, the two nations know better than to start fighting among themselves. The Kingdom's real value to the United States is as a check on the influence of Iran. Their self-proclaimed status as the champion of Sunni Islam (though most don't recognize it) and their dominant role among the other Gulf Arab states are also nice bonuses.
Despite needing to pretend they aren't friends sometimes (some Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Christians in the U.S. equally dislike the relationship), the two countries are obviously close allies. This is why, when a leader like Abdullah dies, so many diplomatic and security officials drop by for a visit. King Salman will likely continue most of the same policies as his predecessor, so for now the U.S.-Saudi relationship remains strong. But in a world where democracy and human rights equality are quickly becoming mainstream, Saudi Arabia will have to adapt to survive. When the Kingdom which practically enslaves migrant workers can no longer turn to its vast petroleum reserves for support, how long will the United States continue to exchange stability for oil in the Middle East?
TL;DR: Oil and regional stability make Saudi Arabia a popular vacation destination for American policymakers.
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