The Central Role of Saudi Arabia to U.S. Middle East Interests

This year will long be remembered and analyzed by scholars and students for the so-called “Arab Spring” sweeping the Arab world from North Africa across to the Arabian Peninsula. Simmering tensions in a dozen countries boiled over in protests and revolts toppling several regimes – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – and pushing others to the brink. In the Persian Gulf Iran is playing an outsized role, threatening the neighborhood: sponsoring terrorism, building nuclear weapons, and dominating the scene in Iraq as America is shown the door by Baghdad. Meanwhile, 44 years of conflict and occupation in Israel-Palestine shows no signs of a solution. Indeed the threat of an American veto to a Palestinian statehood bid in the United Nations illuminates Washington’s dilemma of balancing interests versus America’s principles.

As historic Arab world developments play out it focuses attention on the centrality of Saudi Arabia to America’s enduring role in the region. Against this background Cookeville will welcome Thomas Lippman, a distinguished speaker on U.S. Middle East policy, this week as a guest of the Tennessee World Affairs Council. Lippman – preeminent journalist, scholar and commentator – has written numerous books on U.S. Middle East affairs including “Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia,” and the forthcoming, “Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally.” Tuesday he will visit Tennessee Tech for a public forum, the Breakfast Rotary Club and Cookeville High School to talk about Saudi Arabia from “Arab Spring to Iran Showdown.”

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States have been close partners since the 1930s when oil exploration led to formal commercial ties. Diplomatic links were in place when Franklin Roosevelt traveled at the height of World War II to meet King Abdul Aziz in the Suez Canal, and that 1945 meeting solidified relations, based on mutual interests and respect.

Saudi Arabia demonstrated its standing in the world when, just 13 years after its own founding as a unified country, it was a founding member of the United Nations, as a signatory to the UN Charter. Its partnership with America showed through during decades of Cold War as it stood staunchly alongside the United States in thwarting Communist ambitions from Afghanistan through Africa and Central and South America. In the 1970s and 1980s as revolution in Iran and a hot war in the Gulf threatened regional security and the provision of global energy supplies, Saudi Arabia was steadfast in its commitment to stability.

The Kingdom continues to pursue peace between Palestine and Israel as demonstrated by authorship of comprehensive plans in 1982 and 2002. The latest offers peace and relations between Israel and all members of the Arab League in exchange for a return to pre-1967 war borders, the yardstick most observers see as a realistic framework.

Saudi Arabia’s leadership among Arab and Islamic countries is shown through its moderating role in both the 22 member Arab League and the 56 member Organization of the Islamic Conference. Its influence is underpinned by service as custodian of the holy places of Islam, Mecca and Medina, and its role as annual host to three million pilgrims who journey to the Kingdom for the Hajj.

Saudi Arabia is an active participant in numerous efforts to bring global partners together. As the scourge of terrorism reached a peak in the West and the Arab world, Saudi Arabia – having suffered its own wave of deadly attacks from an Al Qaeda campaign launched in 2003 – convened an international conference on counter terrorism, fostering practical ways to tackle the global affliction. The Kingdom’s commitment continues, exemplified by very close intelligence cooperation with its allies. Al Qaeda’s plot last year to destroy two U.S. bound airliners with parcel bombs was interrupted only as a result of intelligence shared by Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s commitment was reaffirmed this September when it provided $10 million to fund a counter terrorism center at the United Nations.

On the energy front Saudi Arabia leads in ensuring adequate supplies to meet global energy requirements. It is the only oil exporting country with enough production – made possible through significant expense – to make a difference in global supplies. It regularly makes up shortfalls in the aggregate world market resulting from civil unrest, conflict, and natural disasters that would otherwise cause severe market disruptions. The recent loss of Libyan oil on the world market was made up by Saudi spare capacity.

The Kingdom continues as an active partner with its Gulf and Western allies in defense arrangements. The 1990-1991 Gulf War spotlighted Saudi Arabia’s leadership in hosting, supporting and serving in combat alongside a grand international coalition to contain and ultimately expel Iraq from Kuwait. Defense cooperation remains a pillar in the relationship, especially in the face of the Iranian regional security threat.

There is perhaps no more emblematic sign of Saudi Arabia’s partnership with America than the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which has placed more than 40,000 students in the United States, including over 100 at Tennessee Tech. The program provides higher education to a growing number of Saudi youth while serving to build bridges during their stays in America and then serving as unofficial ambassadors when they return home.

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, like that between any partners in the world, faced obstacles along the way, but the more than 80 years of commercial and diplomatic ties remain strong by every measure, and have served both sides well.