Meeting with members of a U.S. medical delegation in Riyadh on January 10, 1937, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud told them: “I love your country and admire your president (Franklin D. Roosevelt), and am very grateful for the services which members of your mission have shown me and my people. You come wanting only to help us.” The leader of the U.S. delegation noted in his memoirs: “His cordiality took my breath away, and I could say nothing more than that I hoped the friendship would continue.”
And as history has shown, the Saudi-U.S. friendship has not
only continued but has weathered many storms, including numerous regional and
global conflicts and crises, developing into a relationship that today spans the
fields of politics, economics, education, technology and other areas of human
endeavor. And as the relationship of these two nations matured, it has reflected
the ideals of independence, justice and peace that are cornerstones of the
United Nations Charter.
The origin of this friendship is rooted in King Abdulaziz's admiration for President Woodrow Wilson and his call for self-determination for nations at a time when much of the world, particularly the Middle East and North Africa, was burdened with colonialism. Realizing that he needed help in developing the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which he had established on September 23, 1932, King Abdulaziz saw the United States as an emerging global power that, unlike the European nations, espoused principles of liberty and self-determination for developing nations and had no colonial ambitions.
King Abdulaziz based his perception of the United States on Wilson’s refusal to condone the partitioning of the Middle East among the Allied victors of World War I and his call for granting the Arabs self-determination. He was also influenced by the positive impressions left by the Americans he had met in the 1920s, including philanthropist Charles R. Crane, who helped established the first desalination plant to supply drinking water to Jeddah, and geologist Karl Twitchell, who in his quest for underground water aquifers encountered evidence of the existence of oil in the Kingdom.
Looking for a foreign company to help develop the Kingdom’s oil reserves, King Abdulaziz chose not one of the many British firms that were already working in the region - in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain - but an American company, a choice made over the objections of Britain, then the dominant global power. The granting of the oil concession on July 7, 1933, to Standard Oil of California, which would evolve into the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), was followed in November of the same year by the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The outbreak of World War II had short-term repercussions for Saudi Arabia in that it halted exports of the limited quantities of oil the Kingdom’s new fields were producing in the 1930s and impeded the pilgrimage to the Holy Mosque in Makkah. But the war also had an unexpected effect on relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
In the pre-war years, the existence of oil in the Kingdom and its extraction by an American company shaped the nature of these relations. Forcing the United States as it did into the position of a global power, the war and its conduct, also helped the United States realize the Kingdom’s important geopolitical position. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1943: “I hereby find that the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States.” He said these words at a time when the great extent of Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves was unknown.
The meeting between King Abdulaziz and President Roosevelt on board the USS Quincy on February 14, 1945, in the waning days of the war, launched a new chapter in Saudi-U.S. relations. The long hours the two men spent together discussing a wide range of issues, particularly the future of Palestine, which was a British mandate at the time, marked the beginning of a unique relationship. It not only provided an opportunity to establish a personal friendship that lasted until President Roosevelt’s death, but also allowed the two leaders and senior officials from the two countries to realize the extent to which the vital interests of their nations coincided, and indeed were intertwined.
That historic meeting set a precedent. Since then, every Saudi King has met with the current U.S. president, and the tone of their talks has echoed the frank and friendly discussions of King Abdulaziz and President Roosevelt.
Following the war, Saudi Arabia’s oil exports grew steadily, providing the funds needed to bring about the development that King Abdulaziz had envisioned for his Kingdom. Embarking on an ambitious development program in industry, agriculture, health care, education and other areas, the Kingdom turned to the United States for assistance. Soon, American companies and experts would be involved in building a modern infrastructure, including roads, airports, sea ports, industrial cities and telecommunications facilities, as well as universities, hospitals and other ventures. Of the 1,300 trillion dollars Saudi Arabia has spent on the development of its infrastructure and human resources since the introduction of the First Five-Year Development Plan in 1970, a sizeable portion has gone to American companies and experts.
At the same time, trade flourished. The United States became Saudi Arabia’s principal trading partner, exporting to it billions of dollars worth of goods and services every year, while importing a sizeable portion of its crude oil needs from the Kingdom. Saudi Arabian imports from the U.S. rose from a few million dollars a year at the time of the 1945 meeting to more than eight billion dollars in 1999. Considering that the U.S. Labor Department estimates that each one billion dollars in exports provides jobs for 10,000 American workers, the hundreds of billions of dollars of goods and services the Kingdom has imported from the United States in recent decades gives some indication of the significance of the close economic relations between the two countries.
One of the primary components of the Saudi-U.S. relationship has always been oil. In the years immediately following the 1945 meeting, most of the oil requirement of the United States was supplied by domestic production, and the remainder imported from Mexico, Venezuela and producers other than Saudi Arabia, which was a relatively small exporter of oil. Later, as domestic oil production in the United States declined and the extent of Saudi oil reserves became apparent - Saudi Arabia now has a quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves - U.S. imports of Saudi oil grew steadily.
Another aspect of Saudi Arabia’s significance to the economic well-being of the United States, and indeed the whole world, is the role the Kingdom has historically played in the oil market. Committed to ensuring the stability of supplies and prices on the global market, Saudi Arabia has acted in times of crisis, such as when oil supplies were lost from Iran during the 1979 revolution and from Kuwait as a result of the Iraqi invasion of 1990, to cover any deficiency in supplies by maintaining excess production capacity. By doing so, it has prevented major shocks to the global economy from a loss of oil supplies or sharp price increases.
The growing level of economic cooperation and interdependence between Saudi Arabia and the United States brought a corresponding awareness by each of the two nations of the important role the other played regionally and internationally.
In the 1950s and 1960s, both countries viewed communism as the primary threat. During that period, the United States had already emerged as the dominant military power in the non-communist world and was therefore a natural partner for Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the Kingdom, which enjoys a special status as the birthplace of Islam, the site of the two holiest shrines to Muslims and the heartland of the extended Arab nation, was rapidly acquiring a dominant role in the Islamic and Arab worlds, as well as among all developing nations, with many countries increasingly looking to it for leadership and guidance. These qualities made the Kingdom a desirable ally for the United States.
With the Middle East and North Africa mired in revolutions and coups, the Soviet Union loomed as a real threat to the region, both directly and indirectly, through Moscow’s many proxies. This threat brought Saudi Arabia and the United States closer together in an effort to avert it and to bring stability to the region.
The main domestic threat to regional peace and stability over the past half century has been the Arab-Israeli conflict and the two wars it spawned in 1967 and 1973. An ardent supporter since the time of King Abdulaziz of the rights of the Palestinians to a homeland and self-determination, Saudi Arabia has advocated settling the dispute through negotiations based on the principle of land-for-peace and United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, and has encouraged various U.S. administrations to become actively engaged in ending the conflict. In this respect, leaders from the two countries have been in constant contact to find a solution to this crisis.
Already working together in the economic, political and security fields, relations between the two countries have entered a new and closer phase over the past two decades. The catalyst for this was two events in 1979 — the Iranian revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — that posed a serious threat to stability and security in the region. The start of the Iran-Iraq War and the taking of American hostages by Iranian revolutionaries in 1980 compounded the sense of instability in the region.
In the following years, Saudi Arabia and the United States worked closely together to confront Iran’s attempts to export its revolution, help the people of Afghanistan fight the Soviet occupation, and contain the Iran-Iraq war and the threat it posed to the unimpeded delivery of oil from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to the United States and the rest of the world.
Having worked together to successfully contain these crisis, Saudi Arabia and the United States were confronted with another and far more serious problem when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and threatened to attack Saudi Arabia. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz and President George Bush led a diplomatic campaign to forge a coalition of Arab, Muslim, European and other nations to confront Iraq and free Kuwait. The successful completion of this joint endeavor restored Kuwait’s freedom, but did not restore that country’s ability to export oil as retreating Iraqi forces had set fire to 600 of Kuwait’s 900 producing wells. During the conflict and in the following year, Saudi Arabia stepped in to compensate the lost production from Kuwait and Iraq, and thus averted a major global economic catastrophe.
The past decade has witnessed the continuing evolution of Saudi-U.S. relations. Over that period, Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, entered into a joint venture with Texaco Inc., which was later joined by Shell Oil Company, to form a downstream company that refined some 800,000 barrels per day of crude oil at four refineries and distributed the products through thousands of gasoline stations in 26 states in the eastern and southern parts of the United States.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has continued to grant large contracts to U.S. companies for the purchase of goods and services. For example the national airline, Saudi Arabian Airlines, recently took delivery of the last of 61 jetliners it had purchased under a contract worth six billion dollars with Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, and American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) was granted a contract worth four billion dollars for expansion of the Kingdom’s telecommunications network. Earlier this year, the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), which was established in 1999 to encourage more joint ventures with and greater investments from American and other companies, issued a license to a consortium of U.S. companies to build 3,000 new schools at a cost of 3.5 billion dollars.
In June of this year, King Fahd chaired a meeting of the Higher Economic Council that approved the signing of a long-term contract with American oil companies for the development of the gas sector. The agreement involves tens of billions of dollars of investments in desalination and power generation plants, and the development of natural gas and petrochemicals.
The most recent example of the close relationship that has developed between the two nations is Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the tragic events of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Shortly after the event, Saudi Arabia strongly condemned these “regrettable and inhuman bombings and attacks,” and offered sincere condolences to the families of the victims, to U.S. President George W. Bush and to the American people in general. On September 14, King Fahd sent a cable of condolences to President Bush in which he conveyed the great sorrow and grief with which the Kingdom was following reports of the terrorist attacks. Deputy Prime Minister and Commander of the National Guard Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz on September 13 spoke by telephone with President Bush and said the Kingdom would cooperate fully with the United States to find those responsible for the terrorist attacks.
In the months since the attacks, Saudi Arabia has supported U.S. military action in Afghanistan and cooperated with U.S. authorities in the hunt for the perpetrators of these and other terrorist attacks. As part of the close cooperation between the two sides, King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah met separately with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Riyadh, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud Al-Faisal visited Washington, DC, to assure President Bush of Saudi Arabia’s full cooperation in the fight against terrorism.As they have in the past, the two countries will overcome this, the most recent crisis that has tested their friendship, and will emerge with a clearer understanding of the mutual benefits inherent in a close relationship that has endured for some seven decades.