The tension in relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States is rooted in the transformation of regional politics, as well as in societal changes in Saudi Arabia itself. The Middle East regional balance of power was upset by the Iraq War in 2003, which enabled the rise of Iran. Furthermore, the wave of democratization in the Arab world in 2011 has undermined the very foundations on which regional security and regime stability have been built. With its tacit recognition of Iran’s growing relative strength, regional powers, and especially Saudi Arabia, see the Obama Administration as exacerbating the situation, and this perception has contributed to creating a rift between the two traditional allies. Saudi Arabia feels abandoned in terms of managing its own security needs, particularly in regard to the rise of Iran, democratization, and the rise of Salafi extremism.
The Saudi system has long been based on a triangular alliance structure: on the domestic side, there is the alliance between the regime and the conservative clergy, originally formed between Muhammad bin al-Saud and Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab in the 18th century, in addition to the alliance between the royal family and the various Sunni tribes of the peninsula, which has been solidified through royal marriages.1 The international dimension of the triangle has been completed by the security alliance between the Kingdom and the United States, first formed between Saudi King Abdul Aziz bin Saud and US President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. The domestic dimension of the political structure is still solid, though the Saudi regime is increasingly confronting massive societal pressures ironically produced by success in terms of economic modernization, significant progress achieved in the field of education, and urbanization. Yet the international dimension of the triangle is facing a growing crisis due to the transformation of regional politics, especially since the Iraq War in 2003 and the Arab Spring.
Saudi Arabia is considered to be a textbook example of the rentier state model. According to this model, states that are extremely rich in natural resources do not depend on their societies for tax revenue, and the absence of this financial linkage has strong domestic and international political implications.2 This absence of any financial link between state and society is supplanted by a strong dependence on external rent generated from the sale of extracted resources. The model predicts that rentier states will be dependent on external markets and on security alliances with international powers. The model has so far worked in Saudi Arabia as expected. However, with globalization, together with dramatic changes in the geopolitical landscape of the region, an increasingly more populous, more educated and thus more demanding society, and on top of this, declining oil revenues, Saudi Arabia is under much more pressure to change. With this crisis in the model, Saudi foreign policy, particularly its special relationship with the United States, is also feeling the pressure.
In the Saudi view, the United States appears to be retreating from the traditional priorities of the US-Saudi alliance, leaving Sunni Arabs to confront a resurgent Iran and its sectarian policies alone.
In foreign policy, Saudi Arabia is demonstrating a remarkable degree of dynamism and adaptation in thwarting the predictions of the model. The rentier state model suggests that rentier states are largely locked into a patron-client relationship due to the nature of their natural resource-dependent economy. Historically, the international power that Saudi Arabia has allied itself with has been the United States. However, since the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has reacted to emerging security challenges in ways informed by its own perceptions and rooted in its history and identity. Not only has Saudi Arabia been able to differentiate itself from the policy line of the United States, but in recent years it has also begun openly to express its discontent with regional policies pursued by the United States. At the same time, the Saudis have to manage their own economic and political crises aggravated by decreasing oil revenues, a growing population, and deepening sectarian tensions. From the perspective of Saudi Arabia there are three international security threats to the Kingdom, each of which has strong domestic politics dimensions and implications: (1) the expansion of the Iranian sphere of influence in the Middle East; (2) the wave of democratization in the context of the Arab Spring, and finally (3) the rise of radical Salafi Islamism. In the Saudi view, the United States appears to be retreating from the traditional priorities of the US-Saudi alliance, leaving Sunni Arabs to confront a resurgent Iran and its sectarian policies alone. Saudi Arabia feels it necessary to adjust to these changes in the security environment through self-help measures, the formation of regional alliances, and increased state repression against internal minority sects.
Saudi Arabia believes that specific US policies in the Middle East have exacerbated these security threats, enabling the rise of Iran in particular. The most significant turning point, in Saudi eyes, was the 2003 Iraq War, which drastically transformed the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is multifaceted, with geopolitical, cultural, ideological and economic dimensions.3 In the Saudi security reading, Iran is a geopolitical rival which uses the sectarian card in order to expand its sphere of influence around Saudi Arabia. Due to Saudi Arabia’s large Shia minority on the Gulf coast, the country feels besieged by this expansion. The establishment of a Shia-majority regime in Iraq has empowered Iran and encouraged Arab Shia movements to seek power in other territories. The Arab Spring, moreover, has allowed these movements to exert themselves and seek power. Today Iran’s sphere of influence includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. In the Arabian Gulf region, Bahrain has an overwhelming Shia majority, estimated to be around 65-75 percent of the population. Oil-rich Kuwait has a significant Shia minority as well. The Saudi Shia minority, the size of which is disputed but which is usually estimated to represent around 10 to 15 percent of the Saudi population, live in the region which contains Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves. Hence Saudi Arabia feels increasingly under pressure from Iran’s growing regional clout. It is completely encircled by Shia expansion with the exception of Jordan. Ayatollah al-Namr’s execution in Saudi Arabia in January 2016 provoked strong reactions from the governments of Iran and Iraq, and was protested by Shias in many cities across the region. Saudi Arabia asserted that al-Namr had committed the crime of disobeying Saudi rulers and inciting sectarian strife.4 Politically, this was a clear message to Iran, and the Iranian response was swift. Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, blasted Saudi Arabia and civilian protestors stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. During this quarrel, Saudis noted the silence of the United States.5 A more recent confrontation in the relationship came when Saudi Arabia engineered a statement of condemnation during the final communique of the OIC summit in Istanbul, blaming Iran for pursuing policies of sectarianism and thwarting Turkey’s attempts to ease the tensions.6
Both US intervention in Iraq and US unwillingness to intervene in Syria has strengthened Iran as a regional power, allowing Iran to utilize the sectarian card in expanding its sphere of influence.
Obama came to the office in 2009 following a presidential campaign that was critical of the Iraq War and which promised disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan. In this sense President Obama’s foreign policy track has remained in line with his election agenda. However, his unwillingness to militarily intervene in the Syrian conflict has served the same outcome. In other words, both US intervention in Iraq and US unwillingness to intervene in Syria has strengthened Iran as a regional power, allowing Iran to utilize the sectarian card in expanding its sphere of influence. Furthermore, the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West has expanded Iran’s capabilities and legitimized Iran as a peacemaker in the region, particularly in the context of ISIS terrorism.
The Saudi population is one of the fastest growing in the world—estimated to be more than 30 million—and the Kingdom has invested more heavily in education than any other country in the Middle East, with thousands of Saudi students receiving higher education abroad with government scholarships. Saudi Arabia is home to more than 30 universities including the graduate-level King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Jeddah, and the Prince Nourah bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh, which, with a student population of over 60,000, is the world’s largest women-only university. Such educational investments are seen as strong signals showing the regime’s “commitment to opening the Kingdom politically, socially, and culturally,” …and to building the necessary “infrastructure for a future economic and technical transformation.”7 However, the lack of diversification in the Saudi economy, its near complete reliance on the oil industry, and its conservative rules, make it hard for thousands of new university graduates, including women, to fulfill their career ambitions. In addition, the domestic legitimacy of the Saudi system was traditionally generated through state largesse. The Saudi economy was able to provide an affordable life for its population through oil and energy subsidies based on oil revenues. Now there is a growing demand from economic planners for subsidy cuts.8 In the future, population increases and the demands of a younger and better-educated middle class for a diversified economy could mean that Saudi Arabia may have to shift to a taxation model which would rein in its rentier state. Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad has already announced a plan for a massive transformation of the economy in his “Vision for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” that aims to diversify the Saudi economy in order to better adjust to an inevitable post-oil future. This plan entails the creation of the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, holding more than $2 trillion in assets created from the sale of five percent of the shares of Aramco, the introduction of a value-added tax and levies on luxury goods and sugary drinks. The fund will diversify into non-petroleum assets and “will technically make investments the source of Saudi government revenue, not oil.” The reform-minded Deputy Crown Prince hopes that “within 20 years, we will be an economy or state that doesn’t depend mainly on oil.”9 Yet how exactly this transformation to a taxation-based economy can be achieved without a parallel political modernization remains in question. Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad clearly understands this dilemma but intends to move slowly in terms of implementing necessary socio-political reforms in order not to risk tension with the conservative religious establishment.10
Yet how exactly this transformation to a taxation-based economy can be achieved without a parallel political modernization remains in question.
The wave of democratization that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2010 and Yemen in 2013 caught Saudi Arabia in this transitional stage. The initial response of the regime was to buy popular legitimacy through distributing money and to repress dissent. It also utilized sectarian discourse in order to obtain the loyalty of the Sunni majority.11 It mobilized troops to Bahrain to help the Sunni government in its attempt to quell the Shia revolt in February 2011. It has been involved in an expensive yet unsuccessful bombing campaign (Operation Decisive Storm) against the Houtis in Yemen since 2015. It also played a key role in supporting the military intervention in Egypt, which removed a democratically elected president, with the Saudi government congratulating the interim president who was appointed by the military chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on the day after the coup.12 Furthermore, Saudi Arabia led a group of other Arab countries to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, a designation which is accepted by Russia but not by the United States.
The Saudi side is clearly dissatisfied with the American reaction to the Arab Spring, which can be seen as an oscillation from the forceful removal of Libyan leader Qaddafi to essentially doing nothing against Syrian dictator Assad. On the one hand, Washington offered strong support to democratic transitions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Countering criticism of meddling in their domestic affairs, President Obama repeatedly pointed out that the events were “not about the United States.”13 Yet in his historic speech titled “A New Beginning” delivered at Cairo University in 2009, President Obama expressed his solid support for political change in the Middle East. Furthermore, the US Administration insisted that at least ten members of the Muslim Brotherhood be allowed to attend the speech.14 The American pressure on former Egyptian President Mubarak was also critical in his removal from power in 2011 following massive demonstrations.
On the other hand, the United States kept a low profile in the case of Syria, where democratization would remove a pro-Iranian regime and bring to power a Sunni government. The United States remained idle in the face of Syrian state brutality against Syrian civilians which directly, if gradually, contributed to the rise of radicalism. These concerns over American policies were expressed by top Saudi officials multiple times. In 2013, a sharp criticism came from Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who noted that the United States failed to act effectively in the Syrian conflict and had failed to support the Saudi government in its acts in Bahrain in 2011, adding that the Kingdom would undergo a major shift in its relations with the United States.15 Yet Saudi Arabia knows that it does not have any realistic alternatives in terms of alliances with superpowers, as other candidates have even more drastic differences to the Saudi perspective when it comes to the role of Iran. Therefore, the era of reliance on a security alliance with a superpower is over.
It appears that the Saudi discourse of Iranian Shia expansion is helpful for the Kingdom to pacify and silence both democratic and radical opposition who share the regime’s growing sense of insecurity about this matter. As Sanam Vakil claims, “the sectarian narrative suits the interests of elites in Tehran and Riyadh seeking to distract their populations from domestic crises of governance.”16 Yet this presents a dilemma and a vicious circle for the regime. This sectarian discourse feeds sectarianism which provokes rival sectarianism. The environment of increased sectarianism strengthens militant Salafism which demands strong action from the regime. As expressed by Jones, “stoking sectarianism will only empower extremists and further destabilize an already explosive region.”17
From the Saudi perspective, it is essential to alter the Iranian-dominated Iraqi-Syrian political context in order to undermine the legitimacy of ISIS
In this climate, al-Qaeda is resurgent in Yemen. Furthermore, the sectarian suppression of the Sunnis by the Shia government in Iraq and in the Syrian crisis have led to the emergence of ISIS. These groups could easily infiltrate into Saudi territory due to the similarity in their religious doctrine with that of the Saudi religious establishment. The Salafi interpretation of Islam, with its distinct interpretations, particularly regarding Shiism, has been disseminated by Saudi Arabia’s own religious establishment. ISIS builds its legitimacy due to its image of waging a frontline war against the expansion of Iran and Shia Arab control in Iraq and Syria. This boosts ISIS’s recruitment abilities and financial support. Yet Saudi Arabia is deeply disturbed with the rise of ISIS for the same reasons. Potentially, it may turn against Saudi Arabia, and for this reason Saudi Arabia does not have any intention to appear weak in the fight against Iran. Therefore, from the Saudi perspective, it is essential to alter the Iranian-dominated Iraqi-Syrian political context in order to undermine the legitimacy of ISIS, particularly among increasingly radicalizing Sunni youth in the region. Yet ISIS terrorism has helped legitimize both Iran and Iran-supported regimes including Assad. The United States appears to be losing its interest in the fight against ISIS. President Obama has repeatedly expressed his views that any direct military confrontation on the ground is out of question, as ISIS does not present an existential threat to the United States18 and such an action would potentially increase Sunni radicalism in a larger Muslim world context. Nonetheless, President Obama has announced plans to increase US Special Operations forces on the ground in Syria to 300 from its current level of merely 50. This is probably a cosmetic response to his observations of widespread regional discontent with the US approach to Syria.
One of the most significant indications of turmoil in US-Saudi relations is a proposed resolution in Congress that would allow families of victims of September 11 attacks to sue the Saudi government.19 The reaction to this move came from Saudi Foreign Minister Jubair who stated that Saudi investors would withdraw their assets, including $750 billion in US Treasury notes and other Saudi investments, from the United States if Congress approves the bill. In its published form, the 2002 9/11 Commission Report established no relationship between the Saudi government “as an institution” and the Al-Qaeda organization that carried out the attacks.20 Yet a bipartisan resolution in the Congress calls on the White House to disclose the missing “28 pages” that were originally part of the 9/11 commission report but were classified by the Bush Administration. The Obama Administration kept the status of these pages classified, allegedly because declassifying them would complicate the anti-terror activities of the US government. According to Walter Jones, a Republican congressman from North Carolina, and Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat, who prepared the resolution, the missing part offers direct evidence of complicity on the part of certain Saudi individuals and entities in the events. Saudi Arabia itself has demanded the declassification of these pages because of such allegations. Prince Bandar bin Sultan has declared, “Saudi Arabia has nothing to hide. We can deal with questions in public, but we cannot respond to blank pages.”21
This bipartisan attempt to square up to Saudi Arabia in the Congress has met strong resistance from the White House. President Obama opposed the bill, arguing that this would also open the room for the United States itself to be sued by individuals in other countries. In his April visit to Saudi Arabia, where he attended the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit Meeting, President Obama tried to convince the Saudis that his country’s stance towards the Kingdom has not changed and that it still sees the Kingdom as an ally. Saudi dissatisfaction with him was made very clear in the way the President was received in the airport, as he was welcomed by a regional governor. Obama returned the favor by expressing strong but implicit criticism of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf regimes on the issue of sectarianism: “The prosperity and stability of the region depends on countries treating all their citizens fairly and … sectarianism is an enemy of peace and prosperity.”22 As pointed out by Henderson, rather than demonstrating diplomatic success through mending their ties, the visit more “likely highlight(s) how far Washington and Riyadh have drifted apart in the past eight years.”23
The United States is adjusting itself to an increasingly multipolar international system, in which it is no longer the only superpower, and to the rise of China and the overall shifting weight of the world economy: the Asia-Pacific region is now becoming much more critical to US security strategies than the Middle East.
These tensions in US-Saudi relations are more structural than the work of the current administration. The United States is adjusting itself to an increasingly multipolar international system, in which it is no longer the only superpower, and to the rise of China and the overall shifting weight of the world economy: the Asia-Pacific region is now becoming much more critical to US security strategies than the Middle East. The Obama Administration has pursued a strategy of military disengagement and succeeded in normalizing or reducing tensions with former adversaries such as Cuba, Myanmar, and Iran. It is returning to the pre-2003 strategy of offshore balancing, where the Middle East powers maintain a balance of power, with the US playing the role of a stabilizer. Yet the immediate vacuum created by the retreat of the United States from the region has been quickly filled by an increasingly resurgent Iran and its sectarian policies. This is the root of Saudi discontent and frustration with the United States in recent years.
Knowing that its can no longer rely on its traditional security alliance with the United States, the Kingdom is preparing to stake out claim its own position in the regional balance of power. It knows that it has little leverage on the United States for the continuation of this special relationship and that building alternative alliances with superpowers such as China and Russia is basically impossible, because they do not share Saudi security perspectives in the region. Hence self-help is the only realistic way to assure the security of the Kingdom. Security experts now talk about a new Saudi doctrine, the Salman Doctrine, the architect of which is Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.24 It calls for self-reliance and assertiveness in regional security. With a military spending of nearly 90 billion dollars per year, it already has the 3rd largest military budget in the world, surpassing Russia.25 For its part, the United States will continue to be the main supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia, having sold to them military hardware worth 95 billion dollars over the past few years. At the same time, Saudi Arabia will be upgrading and modernizing its intelligence and military structure, and will attempt to forge a regional alliance structure including militarily powerful Sunni powers such as Egypt and Turkey and economically powerful Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates. Yet such moves in the realm of security cannot provide an adequate response to Saudi security needs unless the Kingdom responds to its own economic and socio-political challenges with initiatives such as the ones Prince Muhammad has been undertaking.
1. On the historical role of religion in the formation of the Kingdom, see David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, (New York: IB Tauris, 2006). Also see Gregory Gause III, “Official Wahhabism and the Sanctioning of Saudi-US Relations,” in Muhammad Ayoob and Hasan Kosebalaban, Religion and Politics in Saudi Arabia: Wahhabism and the State, (Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 2009).
2. For the rentier state model, see Hossein Mahdavy, “The Pattern and Problems of Economic Development in Rentier States: The Case of Iran”, in Studies in the Economic History of the Middle East, ed. M.A. Cook (Oxford University Press, Oxford 1970). Also see Hazem Al Beblawi and Luciani, Giacomo, The Rentier State (London, Routledge, 1987).
3. Simon Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East, New York: IB Tauris, 2013, 4-5.
6. “OIC summit bolsters Saudi influence at expense of rival Iran,” http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/2/8/199717/World/Region/OIC-summit-bolsters-Saudi-influence-at-expense-of-.aspx
7. Toby C. Jones, “The Dogma of Development: Technopolitics and Power in Saudi Arabia,” in Saudi Arabia in Transition,
9. Peter Waldman, “The $2 Trillion Project to Get Saudi Arabia’s Economy Off Oil,” The Bloomberg Business Week, April 25-May 1 2016,
11. Madawi al-Rasheed, “Sectarianism as Counter-Revolution: Saudi Responses to the Arab Spring,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 11: 3, 2011.
23. Simon Henderson, ”The Long Divorce, How the U.S.-Saudi relationship grew cold under Barack Obama’s watch,” Foreign Policy,
24. Jamal Khashoggi, “The Salman Doctrine,” Al Arabiya English, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2015/04/01/Saudi-King-Salman-s-doctrine.html