Saudi Arabia and the United States: Common Interests and Continuing Sources of Tension

Table of Contents

Strong Ties, But with Significant Tensions

Building a Stronger Relationship

Improving Mutual Public and Policy Level Understanding of the U.S.-Saudi Strategic Partnership

  • Making the U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership transparent and developing public understanding
  • Explaining Saudi Arabia and Islam
  • Explaining the joint fight against Islamic extremism and terrorism

Developing a Common Understanding of the Strategic and Economic Impact of Energy Interdependence 

Dealing with Iran as a Broad Gulf and Regional Security Threat

  • Iran’s nuclear programs
  • Iran’s missile build-up
  • Conventional and Asymmetric Deterrence and Defense
  • The struggle for regional influence
  • Working towards a common approach

Dealing with the Threat Posed by the Mix of Ethnic, Sectarian, Islamist Extremist Threats; Ongoing Fighting; and Longer-term Instability in Syria

  • The success of efforts to halt the fighting – a “cessation of hostilities
  • The failure of peace and ceasefire efforts and continued civil war: If the civil war continues – driven by Russian intervention and Iranian and Hezbollah support
  • Offering a peace and recovery plan that will aid all elements in the struggle

Dealing with the Threat Posed by the Mix of Ethnic, Sectarian, and Islamist Extremist Threats; Ongoing Fighting; and Longer-term Instability in Iraq

Dealing with the Threat Posed by the Civil War in Yemen

Improving Coordination in Counterterrorism, Counterinsurgency, and Countering Violent Islamic Extremism

Dealing with Emergence of the Kurds as a Major Element in the Security of Syria and Iraq 

Dealing with the Broader Regional Forces of Instability that Led to the “Arab Winter,” that Already Affect Key Regional Powers like Egypt and Libya, and Now Threaten the Stability of Other States

Better Defining the U.S. and Saudi/Gulf Strategic Partnership and Relationship

Improving Cooperation in Developing and Coordinating Security Forces, Force Plans, Arms Choices, Training, and Contingency Plans – Bilaterally and on a GCC-wide/Arab Alliance Basis


The United States and Saudi Arabia have been strategic partners during most of the postwar era. In broad terms, the United States and Saudi Arabia have cooperated closely in shaping Gulf and regional security during most of the more than 70 years since President Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz aboard the USS Quincy on February 20, 1945. This partnership is even more important today than in the past, given the complex mix of threats posed by Iran, ISIS, civil war, and political upheavals. At the same time, it faces significant issues, and both sides need to make significant adjustments to make it more effective.

Strong Ties, But with Significant Tensions

Saudi Arabia strongly backed the United States against the former Soviet Union, and both states supported each other during their respective confrontations with Nasser, in supporting Afghan opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and in dealing with crises in Iraq and Yemen. They backed Iraq against Iran when Iran threatened to defeat Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, and then fought as allies against Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia depends on the United States for both most of its arms and for training and support. The Kingdom now has U.S. military advisory missions for its regular forces, its National Guard, and the counterterrorism and internal security forces in the Saudi Ministry of the Interior. U.S. government estimates indicate that Saudi Arabia placed $86 billion worth of new arms orders during 2007-2014, and $60.2 billion came from the United States.

There have, however, always been tensions as well. U.S. ties to Israel, and Saudi ties to the Palestinians, divided the two states during each of the Arab-Israel conflicts and the oil embargo in 1973. Energy has both united and divided the two countries – uniting them the moment the flow of energy exports out of the Gulf are threatened and dividing them, to some degree, when oil prices are high. Their level of cooperation has also varied with time. For example, the United States declared “twin pillars” in the Gulf when Britain left the region in the early 1970s, but gave its ties to Iran priority until the fall of the Shah in 1979.

Saudi Arabia initially opposed the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel. The events of 9/11 created tension until Saudi Arabia also came under attack by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and both countries became close partners in fighting terrorism.

Saudi Arabia warned the United States against the risks of invading Iraq in 2003, although it quietly allowed the United States to use its air space for recovery missions, and provided other facilities. Since that time, Saudi Arabia has seen Iraq cease to be a major strategic buffer against Iran and come under growing Iranian influence. It has also felt that the United States has failed to act decisively in dealing with Assad and the Syrian civil war, allowed Iranian influence to grow in Iraq, and accepted an uncertain nuclear agreement with Iran.

Differences in religion, culture, and political systems have been a continuing source of tension and misunderstanding. Americans who know the Kingdom understand its level of progress, have Saudi friends, and find it easy to live there, but most Americans have a limited understanding of Saudi history and culture and the progress it has made. A far larger number of Saudis have studied and lived in the United States, but most Saudis have a limited understanding of the United States. For most people in both countries – and the United States and the Kingdom are tied together by common interest and not by common understanding…

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy