America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia


Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia

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(By Rachel Bronson)

The following is a generally held view of the US-Saudi Arabian relationship in the United States: One of the few constants in American foreign policy for the past six decades has been President Roosevelt’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia, which he established shortly after the end of the European wars. Since then, the US has given the Saudi royal family military security in exchange for the free flow of relatively cheap oil. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, every president has stayed true to the agreement, and the Saudis have kept their end of the bargain by building excess oil capacity and acting as a swing producer to keep oil prices from skyrocketing.

                  When writing about Saudi Arabia, it’s easy to get caught up in the oil. Bronson, on the other hand, is swift to point out that the US-Saudi partnership is much more than just about oil. Indeed, if there is a new focus in this account of the relationship, it is on the two countries’ shared interests during the Cold War. Saudi Arabia was adamantly anti-communist, and successive US administrations exploited this fact to create joint projects that linked Saudi financial capital and, at times, religious clout to a series of covert US operations. Although many Americans who have served in government are aware of some of these adventures – Angola, Nicaragua, South Yemen, as well as the big undertaking in Afghanistan – nowhere else has the scope of these undertakings been portrayed so accurately.

Since the Saudis were generally reluctant to draw attention to their position, the general public in the United States was often unaware of what was going on behind the scenes. The US, for its part, has advocated for Saudi interests in international organizations such as the World Trade Organization. The Saudis have become the voice of balance in the

OPEC oil cartel. With the attacks of 9/11, all of that seemed to shift – the Saudis were seen as having let the US down in a time of need.  According to Bronson, the US-Saudi partnership started to lose some of its raison d’être after the Cold War ended. This is surprising, given that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 served as a stark reminder to the Saudis that they needed an outside protector

The Saudis, on the other hand, were concerned about the presence of US troops on their territory, the rise of Islamic radicalism, and the US’s inability to deal effectively with Saddam Hussein in the 1990s.  According to Bronson, the issue was compounded by King Fahd’s increase in capacity from 1995 onward. Late in 2007, when oil prices reached $100 a barrel, the Saudis seemed to have explicitly broken their oil contract. Worse still, it was said that the jihadists unleashed by the Saudis on the Soviets in Afghanistan are now killing US soldiers in Iraq. The Bush Administration was portrayed as weak or even complicit by not standing up to the Saudis.

Perhaps it was because of this feeling that President George W. Bush declared in his 2006 State of the Union speech that the United States is dangerously “addicted to oil” from troubled countries. There are a plethora of conspiracy theories floating about. There has been a flood of books about Saudi Arabia in America since September 11, many of them sensational and pessimistic in their predictions. Thicker than Oil is primarily an effort to dispel several of the existing common misconceptions. It’s a serious book about the US-Saudi relationship that avoids both the old-fashioned idealization of Saudi Arabia and the current trend of demonizing the region.

Bronson wants her book to be seen as a sober, balanced counterpoint to “recent books [that] seem more bent on feeding public indignation than on seriously investigating” the US-Saudi relationship, according to Bronson. She names as criminals Robert Baer’s Sleeping with the Devil and Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud, both of which accused Washington of selling its soul for crude. Both authors often rail against individual greed and shady transactions, which they claim shaped US-Saudi ties at the highest levels before 9/11. The US-Saudi relationship has become much more than just oil for protection, as the title implies. Branson establishes the focus of her investigation early on:

“Few relationships are as significant, under as much strain, and as misunderstood as the one between the US and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The first thing that newcomers to the subject would be surprised to learn is that much of the early US-Saudi relationship was influenced by the two countries shared interests during the Cold War, rather than by oil per …..Saudi Arabia was adamantly anti-communist, and successive US administrations capitalized on this fact to create joint projects that linked Saudi financial resources and religious clout to a series of US-targeted covert operations. They were usually reticent to publicize their involvement in these projects, so the American public was mostly unaware of their crucial contribution to national security.

The second widely held misconception debunked by Branson concerns the widely held belief that US-Saudi ties were never particularly strained until the events of September 11, 2001. There were several squabbles between the US and Saudi Arabia even during the Cold War. There were major disagreements over Palestine and other Arab-Israeli questions. Bronson captures the Saudis’ mounting dissatisfaction on the eve of the October 1973 war, as well as the calculations that led King Faisal to place an oil embargo on the US as a means of forcing President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger into taking an active role in post-war diplomacy.

Kissinger despised what he called extortion, but his use of shuttle diplomacy was in part a reaction to it. Finally, the key rationale underlying the US-Saudi alliance vanished with the fall of the Soviet Union and the absence of the international communist threat. “Economic, political, and geo—graphical conditions have changed so dramatically since the end of the Cold War that neither the US nor the Saudi leadership could expect the same kind of partnership that existed for more than half a century to continue” (p. 7). The outcome has been a series of ups and downs in the post-Cold War period, depending on circumstances.

Even the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, which served as a stark reminder to the Saudis that they needed an external protector, was overshadowed by Saudi concerns about US troops on their soil, the rise of Islamic radicalism, and the US’s inability to deal effectively with Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. Bronson observes that the Saudis were not fond of Bill Clinton’s administration, describing the relationship as “in tatters” by 2000 (p.231). However, after 9/11, cooperation has resumed, but not to everyone likes. Many in Washington have been frustrated by Saudi Arabia’s slow response to American demands for cooperation and intelligence, just as the US involvement in Iraq has caused great concern in Riyadh.

Many Saudis and Americans are now questioning whether the two countries share enough mutual interests to sustain a productive working relationship. Many Americans believe that Saudi Arabia’s religious credentials, which were once seen as a strategic advantage in the joint effort to combat “godless Communism,” have led to the dangerous growth of radical Islamic movements and the events of 9/11. Many US politicians and commentators now regard the Saudi monarchy, which was once seen as a force for stability in the Gulf region, as being under serious threat from radical Islamic rebels and an impediment to US efforts to spread democratic principles and institutions in the Middle East.

This new focus on Saudi religious policies, according to Bronson, ignores the role of American foreign policy in creating the problems that plague the post-9/11 world, especially the encouragement of jihadists to battle the Soviets in Afghanistan. “September 11 was, in many respects, the price we paid for winning the Cold War and pursuing the policies we did. Our complicated relations with Saudi Arabia are no exception” (p.9). Bronson is hopeful that the US-Saudi relationship can be restored in a way that allows both countries to fight the many factors driving the region toward greater turmoil, but she is vague on how to do so.

She seems to believe that it is just a matter of ironing out a few kinks in the relationship. “Today, Saudi leaders must address concerns related to the funding of radical thought.” “Washington must find ways to assist the pragmatists [in Riyadh] in their domestic battle,” he says. (p. 249). Bronson finishes on a positive note, stating that the two countries are on the right track. It’s difficult to say how effective this restoration has been in the two years since Thicker Than Oil was released. Bronson warns, writing when oil prices were about $35 per barrel, that if prices rose sharply, say to $100 per barrel, both the international economy and Saudi Arabia’s economic interests will be destroyed (p.250). Now that oil has surpassed the $100 mark, it is less clear that she is right about Saudi self-interest in maintaining a more modest price level.

However, she appears to be a better forecaster on major regional issues – the US and Saudi Arabia agree to a greater degree than at almost any other point in their relationship. They are both concerned about the Iranian presence and the Iranian nuclear program; they see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a wound that needs to be healed; they are concerned about the spillover impact of Iraqi violence, and they are both adamant in their opposition to Al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates. One thing Bronson could not have predicted is that the biggest disagreements between the US and Saudi Arabia will be about strategies rather than goals.

There is reason to believe that the relationship would not be nearly as successful as the Soviets in combating regional threats. For example, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bush administration is attempting to diplomatically isolate Hamas and suffocate Gaza’s economy. Saudi thought, on the other hand, revolves around a desire to restrict Iranian influence among Palestinians. Saudi authorities see an isolated Hamas moving more toward Tehran and want to use their influence to push Hamas back into an Arab-backed coalition. For the other goals listed above, there are similar differences between the two countries.

As Bronson shows in her research, such conflicts are a natural part of the Saudi-American relationship and do not signal an impending crisis. Even, it’s difficult to predict how these conflicts will play out. Bronson gives a short and businesslike overview of the crisis sparked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the slow Saudi response to American demands for cooperation and intelligence, and the eventual declaration of greater influence over Saudi policy by Crown Prince – and now King – Abdallah. However, Bronson warns, writing when oil prices were about $35 per barrel, that if prices rose sharply, say to $100 per barrel, both the international economy and Saudi Arabia’s economic interests will be devastated (p. 250).

With oil nearing $80 per barrel, it is less clear that she is right about Saudi self-interest in maintaining a more modest price level. Bronson is tempted to end with policy prescriptions after writing a fine history and study of the US-Saudi relationship. Although many of her recommendations seem to be rational, the speed of change in the Middle East these days is so fast that such guidelines are of little use. Even so, they don’t subtract much from an otherwise excellent achievement.

In conclusion, Despite Bronson’s objectivity, Thicker Than Oil is mostly written from an American perspective, which is its primary flaw. The effectiveness of the partnership in achieving the above goals will be largely determined by small changes in Saudi strategies, which may be so subtle that they are beyond the reach of US policymakers even after reading Bronson’s valuable contribution.


Bronson, Rachel, 2008. “Thicker Than Oil: America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia,OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press.



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