How to describe the strange relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia? It has been variously called a “friendship,” a “partnership,” and—despite the lack of any formal security agreement—an “alliance.” All these words tend to obscure the fact that this relationship has always been purely transactional, a matter not of shared values but of complementary interests. We needed their oil; they needed our guns, bombs, and warplanes. In 1943, less than a decade after Standard Oil discovered huge oil reserves in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States.” That claim has remained the basis of U.S. policy ever since.
The special relationship between the two countries is perhaps best described as a marriage of convenience, one that has endured many trials: two Saudi-led wars with the State of Israel (also a “partner” of the United States); a Saudi-led oil embargo that triggered a decade of stagflation; the discovery that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals; and, more recently, the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, reportedly approved by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
In the wake of this last event, presidential candidate Joe Biden said he found “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” and promised that, as president, he would make the Saudi government an international “pariah.” For a brief moment, it looked as if he would make good on that promise. Just weeks after being sworn into office, he ordered the release of a classified U.S. intelligence report that concluded Prince Mohammed had indeed ordered the assassination of Khashoggi. Grave consequences seemed to be in the offing. And then…nothing happened—no significant changes of policy toward Saudi Arabia, no sanctions on the crown prince, no real explanation of Biden’s apparent change of heart.