On Sept. 4, Washington hosted the summit meeting between Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman and President Barack Obama, where they announced a “New Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century,” building on their already robust 70-year-old partnership.
The Washington summit has been compared with an earlier one, in February 1945, between King Abdul Aziz, founder of modern Saudi Arabia, and President Franklin Roosevelt.
The two meetings have many similarities but they also differ in some key areas. They had in common the objective of setting forth a new and stronger direction for Saudi-US relations amid profound changes taking place in the region and the world.
The purpose of the February 1945 meeting, held aboard USS Quincy near Suez (Egypt) was twofold: Roosevelt wanted to thank Saudi Arabia for its help to the Allies’ war effort and set the course for a more comprehensive partnership with Saudi Arabia.
Roosevelt came to Suez directly from Yalta following a meeting with Stalin and Churchill, just months before the Allies’ final victory in the war, when the US emerged as a global superpower after the defeat of Germany and Japan and destruction of Europe.
By that time, Saudi Arabia had also emerged as the most important independent powerhouse in the region, one of only a handful not under British or French control. King Abdul Aziz had become the undisputed ruler of Arabia, having restored his ancestral birthright by retaking Riyadh in 1901 and unified the rest of the country over the following decades with the proclamation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in September 1932.
In 1945, Saudi-US partnership was based on three pillars: Economic (oil and development), regional security and dealing with regional crises. Those pillars remain today with some changes. Today, terrorism and confronting Iran’s meddling in the internal affairs of its neighbors top the agenda. Crises in Yemen, Syria and Iraq are also major concerns. Economic cooperation has been delegated to the well-oiled machinery, in the government and private sector, which the two sides have developed over the past decades.
The bargain struck in 1945 was not always faithfully honored by subsequent administrations and the US occasionally committed grievous mistakes in its regional policy, but the Saudi-US partnership endured, because the two sides agreed that their relationship was pivotal for the preservation of their vital interests, despite differences of opinion sometimes.
But there were also notable differences between the two summits. The detailed joint statement issued at the conclusion of the Washington talks was one difference; there was no comparable document from the 1945 meeting, which was less formal. What was implicit then about Saudi Arabia’s regional role was made explicit in 2015, as the Washington statement acknowledged Saudi leadership in the Arab and Muslim worlds. King Salman too highlighted Washington’s significance to Saudi Arabia by choosing the US for his first state visit since assuming the throne in January 2015.
The Washington meeting was also explicit about the four pillars of the “New Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century.” In addition to bilateral cooperation, the two leaders emphasized joint commitment towards fighting terrorism, countering Iran’s destabilizing activities, and resolving regional problems.
Military commitments were also explicit, by emphasizing the need for fast-tracking delivery of weapons and spare parts, and for increasing cooperation in maritime security, cyber security and ballistic missile defense (BMD). No such references in 1945, indicating how far the two sides have come in their partnership, how the regional landscape has changed in 70 years.
Fighting terrorism and extremism was not a priority in 1945, but now it is, and so was reflected in the Washington statement: Disrupting financial flows and foreign fighters to terrorist groups and countering their messages.
The Washington statement detailed the two sides’ common positions on Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. This was a marked difference from 1945, when there was only informal agreement on how to deal with some regional issues, principally the Palestine Question and how to rid Arab countries of French and British colonial rules.
Perhaps the most glaring difference between 1945 and 2015 is the huge leap in Saudi economic fortunes. In 1945, Saudi Arabia produced only modest amounts of oil, its oil revenue was almost negligible and its entire gross domestic product (GDP) was a meagre $4 billion. Compare that to the Saudi economy today: At nearly $750 billion of GDP, Saudi Arabia is among the top 20 economies globally, a force to reckon with. This enhanced economic position has significantly added to the pivotal role that Saudi Arabia plays in this strategic partnership.