I’ve mentioned from time to time of all the countries in the Middle East Iran and Israel intrigue me the most. But if I had to pick a runner-up it would probably be Saudi Arabia. A major oil exporter, home to the holiest sites in Islam and ruled since the early 1920s by the puritanical al-Saud family, Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally since the end of World War II. It might seem odd a representative democracy like the United States, a majority Christian nation with a deeply enshrined commitment to a separation of church and state would ally itself with one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. Even when compared to its Arab neighbors the Islam practiced by most Saudis and heavily promoted by the kingdom’s ruling family is an austere, uncompromising interpretation easily at odds with more modern concepts of feminism, religious tolerance, scientific inquiry and freedom of sexual identity. While both the United States and Saudi Arabia see Iran as a threat to the region the Saudis have traditionally viewed Israel, a chief American ally, as a perennial thorn in their side hellbent on destabilizing an already volatile region.
So, why a long friendship between the two countries? That’s the question Bruce Riedel set out to answer with his 2017 book Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States since FDR. Considering my interest in the Middle East it was hard for me to pass up a borrowable Kindle edition of Riedel’s 2017 book. Knowing nothing about the book or its author I didn’t know what to expect. I’m happy to report Kings and Presidents exceeded my modest expectations and is one of 2022’s pleasant surprises.
While some reviewers complained the book was superficial I disagree. Riedel is no stranger to the Middle East. He spent 30 years in the CIA, served on the National Security Council for four different presidents, as well as a Special Advisor to NATO and is currently a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He covers a hundred or so years of major political and religious developments that helped pave the way for the founding of Saudi Arabia. From there Riedel draws from his decades of foreign policy experience supplemented by memoirs and official documents to craft a detailed and readable history of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia
Even after reading John R. Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crises and Karen Elliott House’s On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future this book taught me more than a few things about Saudi Arabia. I knew the Saudi monarchy, together with the American CIA worked with Pakistan’s intelligence agency the ISI to arm and train Afghan and Islamic resistance groups to fight the Soviets and their Afghan puppet army during the 1980s. But I had no idea military ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan go much deeper. For years starting in the 1982 Pakistan stationed a “reinforced armored brigade” of 20,000 troops in Tabuk near the Jordanian border to serve as a both a deterrent to Israel as well as a “loyal Pretorian guard” for the royal family in case of a palace coup or popular uprising. (During the run-up to the first Gulf War the brigade was quietly redeployed across the kingdom along the border with Iraq in case it was needed to counter an Iraqi invasion.) I’ve read the Chinese supplied the Saudis with medium-range ballistic missiles, which, due to their inaccuracy are suitable only for carrying nuclear warheads. Why the Saudis would purchase such missiles while lacking a nuclear arsenal for years has been a mystery. But Riedel plausibly speculates as part of this long and shadowy military alliance the Saudis feel the Pakistanis will provide them with deliverable nukes should the Kingdom be sufficiently threatened by one of its regional rivals like Israel or Iran.
In the end, the US-Saudi alliance is based not upon shared values or long-standing institutions but common interests. Affordable and plentiful oil runs our economy and in turn keeps the Saudis afloat financially. While our leaders disagree over Israel, for decades our two countries have allied with each other against various powers in the Middle East be they Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq or Iran under the Ayatollah or his successors. It’s a marriage of convenience that’s lasted since the spring of 1945 when FDR met with the founding king Saudi Arabia on an American battleship near the Suez Canal and hashed out a deal to both parties’ liking.