Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations
Christopher M. Blanchard
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
September 8, 2015
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled by the Al Saud family since its founding in 1932, wields significant global political and economic influence through its administration of the birthplace of the Islamic faith and by virtue of its large oil reserves. Close U.S.-Saudi official relations have survived a series of challenges since the 1940s, and, in recent years, shared concerns over Sunni Islamist extremist terrorism and Iranian regional ambitions have provided a renewed logic for continued strategic cooperation. Political upheaval and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa appear to have strained bilateral ties, but their full effect has yet to be determined.
Amid regional turmoil, Obama Administration officials have referred to the Saudi government as an important regional partner in recent years, and U.S. arms sales and related security cooperation programs have continued with congressional oversight. Since October 2010, Congress has been notified of proposed sales to Saudi Arabia of fighter aircraft, helicopters, missile defense systems, missiles, bombs, armored vehicles, and related equipment and services, with a potential value of more than $90 billion. Since March 2015, the U.S.-trained Saudi military has used U.S.-origin weaponry, U.S. logistical assistance, and shared intelligence to carry out strikes in Yemen. Some Members of Congress have expressed skepticism about Saudi leaders’ commitment to combating extremism and sharing U.S. policy priorities. However, U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism ties reportedly remain close, and Saudi forces also have participated in coalition strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria since 2014.
In parallel to these close security ties, official U.S. concerns about human rights and religious freedom in the kingdom persist, and, in part, reflect deeper concerns for the kingdom’s stability. Saudi activists advance a range of limited economic and political reform demands, continuing trends that have seen liberals, moderates, and conservatives publicly press the kingdom’s leaders for change for decades. Since 2011, initiatives to organize nationwide protests have been met with some popular criticism and official rejection. Local protests occur sporadically, but public clashes with security forces have remained contained to certain predominantly Shia areas of the oil-rich Eastern Province. The Obama Administration has endorsed Saudi citizens’ rights to free assembly and free expression. Saudi leaders reject foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs.
The death of King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz in January 2015 brought to a close a long chapter of consistent leadership, and his half-brother King Salman bin Abdelaziz assumed leadership of the kingdom. He has moved quickly to assert his authority by reorganizing several government entities, naming new heirs and officials, and distributing public funds. Succession arrangements have attracted particular attention in recent years, as senior leaders in the royal family have passed away or faced reported health issues. A series of appointments and reassignments has altered the responsibilities and relative power of leading members of the next generation of the Al Saud family, the grandsons of the kingdom’s founder.
Current U.S. policy seeks to coordinate with Saudi leaders on regional issues and help them respond to domestic economic and security challenges. Time will tell whether U.S. initiatives and, more importantly, Saudi leaders’ efforts will ensure stability. Shared security challenges have long defined U.S.-Saudi relations, and questions about political, economic, and social reform may become more pertinent in light of the calls for change and patterns of conflict that are now swirling around the kingdom. Saudi assertiveness in confronting perceived threats may affect U.S. regional security priorities, including with regard to Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and negotiations with Iran in the near future. In turn, Congress may examine the scope, terms, and merits of U.S.- Saudi partnership as it considers proposed arms sales and security commitments.