Saudi-U.S. Relationship Endures Despite Disagreements

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States have shared close ties for over 70 years. Although the two nations sometimes disagree, including recently over the civil war in Syria and U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran, this relationship has endured despite both nations’ distinct set of values.

The relationship began when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with the Kingdom’s founder, Abdul-Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, to forge an agreement providing U.S. access to Saudi airfields and oil resources in exchange for U.S. security guarantees. Indeed, some have described the relationship simply as: “The U.S. needed Saudi oil, and the kingdom needed American security.” President Obama’s recent vow to continue close ties with Saudi Arabia further illustrates the emphasis the United States places on this partnership.

One of the prominent connections in the relationship has been U.S. arms sales to the Kingdom.  Between FY 2008 and FY 2013, total U.S. arms sales deliveries through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program to Saudi were $12 billion. These sales have included some of the most advanced military equipment available including F-15’s, Apache and Blackhawk helicopters, javelin and patriot missiles and refueling aircraft.

A significant portion, over $224 million,went towards the Saudis purchasing operational and tactical training for over 5,000 security forces. One of the enticements for the Saudis to purchase more FMS training is the discount the United States provides to Saudia Arabia. The U.S. government has consistently provided Saudi Arabia the minimum amount (approximately $10,000) of International Military Education Training (IMET) funds needed to qualify them to receive discounts on FMS training.

Although some training remains classified, Saudi security forces attended a variety of technical and operational related courses. For example, in FY 2010 the Saudis received training in pilot instruction, special operations, aircraft maintenance, officer training, military intelligence and English language courses.

The Kingdom has increased its weapons purchases from the United States over the last decade and just this past year, the State Department approved a $2 billion Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) modernization program, the Patriot Air Defense System with a PAC-3 enhancement for $1.75 billion and support services for $80 million, in addition to the $4.7 billion approved in 2013 from the Direct Commercial Sales program and FMS program.

Despite this close security cooperation, both countries have shared important differences over a variety of issues. Riyadh remains concerned over Washington’s efforts to negotiate an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, and has been critical of President Obama’s slow progress in arming Syrian rebels to unseat President Bashar al-Assad. Despite fielding one of the region’s most well equipped militaries, the United States has been frustrated with Saudi Arabia’s limited role in the fight against the Islamic State. The Saudi led coalition conducting airstrikes in Yemen shows Saudi’s growing independence and left the United States no other option but to support the Saudis. And King Salman’s reported ties with radical Islamists may over time impact Washington’s ability to rely on Riyadh as a capable counterterrorism partner.

The Gulf monarchy’s human rights record also challenges U.S.-Saudi security cooperation. Saudi Arabia’s continued targeting of political dissidents and human rights activists, such as Mohammed Al-Bajadi and Raif Badawi, highlights just some of the human rights issues dividing both nations. Some have even concluded that the Kingdom’s continued neglect for human rights seriously harms U.S.’ long term interests, and many Western nations have recently taken note of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. Sweden just ended its 10-year multimillion-dollar arms agreement with the Kingdom due to Riyadh’s human rights record (which Saudi responded by removing its ambassador), and Germany has reportedly suspended its arms exports to Saudi Arabia over concerns that its equipment could be used by terrorists in the region, although recent reports suggest it has since backpedaled on that policy.

A recent study also suggests that the Gulf States are likely to go through significant transformations in the following decade due to declining revenues from energy resources and greater demand for political participation from their citizens. While the U.S.-Saudi security relationship will continue in its current form in the near future, it could soon face longer-term challenges.