Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's richest and most powerful state, is once again at loggerheads with the United States, its longtime patron, oil customer, and weapons dealer. The current split opened with the U.S. abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in January and widened as President Barack Obama's administration haltingly embraced pro-democracy demands from the Arab street -- a trend the kingdom staunchly and unequivocally opposes.
Those differences are yet again on painful display this week at the United Nations, where Saudi Arabia will join other Arab countries -- and over 100 other U.N. members -- in supporting the recognition of a Palestinian state in the world body, a move the United States has committed itself to opposing strenuously on behalf of its closest Middle East ally, Israel.
But Saudi Arabia and the United States have been at odds for much of the last decade, over not just Palestine but also terrorism, energy policy, and the Iraq war. The question is whether repeated strains in the relationship starting even before the 9/11 attacks are leading toward a substantive shift in the kingdom's attitude toward its main foreign protector for the past seven decades. This is a question of major strategic importance for the United States given the kingdom's role as the world's top oil producer in terms of capacity (12.5 million barrels a day) and its No. 4 ranking in foreign exchange holdings ($540 billion). The Saudis continue to hold out against demands from some other oil producers for payment in currency other than the U.S. dollar, partly or totally. What would be the consequences if they agreed to a change in this policy? Is Obama willing to find out?
The United States and Saudi Arabia have always had trouble describing how they relate to each other. For decades, the core of the relationship was summed up in the cryptic description of "oil for security," meaning assured Saudi oil supplies at reasonable prices in return for assured U.S. security of the kingdom against its external enemies, be it Iraq, Iran, or al Qaeda.
In the early 1970s, the two countries coined the term "special relationship," even while Saudi Arabia steadfastly refused to become a "non-NATO ally" of the United States, like Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, or sign any formal defense agreements. After 9/11, neither side spoke any longer about a "special relationship." It took four years to adopt the term "strategic dialogue," the same used to describe U.S. engagement with China, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia.