Book Review: Understanding the history of Saudi-US ties

’Saudi Arabia and the US since 1962: Allies in Conflict’ is a detailed and analytical account of the US-Saudi relationship since 1962
Updated 15 August 2017

Book Review: Understanding the history of Saudi-US ties

The US-Saudi relationship, bound by common interests in oil and security, dates back to the 1930s. This strategic alliance has never been in complete harmony, however, and has passed through difficult times, according to an eye-opening book by Naif bin Hethlain.
Facing waning US involvement in the Middle East and a resurgent Iran, a new generation of Saudi leaders are instigating a more assertive foreign policy. The Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen marks a shift from checkbook diplomacy to taking a more militaristic stance in the region. However, Donald J. Trump’s decision to make his first official visit to Saudi Arabia since taking office signals “the beginning of a turning point in the relationship between the US, the Arab and Islamic world,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told reporters in Riyadh.
“Saudi Arabia and the US since 1962: Allies in Conflict” is a detailed and analytical account of the US-Saudi relationship since 1962. The DNA of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy was determined by King Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is based on principles of good neighborly relations, non-interference in the affairs of other countries and strengthening relations with Gulf, Arab and Islamic states.
King Abdulaziz Al-Saud, known as Ibn Saud, was one of the most successful, admired and dynamic leaders of the first half of the 20th century. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt met him on Feb. 14, 1945, aboard the USS Quincy on the Great Bitter Lake in Egypt. The king asked the president about US reliability in the future, insisting that Arabs should not have to pay for the misdeeds of others.
A month later, during a joint session of Congress, Roosevelt said: “I learned more about the whole problem of Arabia, the Muslims, the Jewish problem, by talking to Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen of letters.”
The Saudi leader not only strengthened the alliance with the US but also relied on it for arming and training his military. He actively sought to counter the influence of socialism and Arab nationalism by promoting Pan-Islamism as an alternative. However, during the Suez Crisis, Saudi Arabia stood by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and was joined by the US in a stand against the tripartite attack instigated by France, England and Israel on Oct. 29, 1956.
On Dec. 3, 1956, Britain and France, under US pressure, agreed to withdraw immediately from Egypt. This was an important diplomatic victory for Nasser which made him incredibly popular in the Arab world. While US policy was now concentrating on containing Nasser’s influence, the Saudi king believed that the Americans should develop friendly relations with Nasser. He even told the US ambassador who sought his opinion on the Egyptian leader that “Nasser was a profoundly intelligent and ambitious man who unquestionably had a tremendous hold on the Arab masses, including many sections of the Saudi population. He added that he was not afraid of Nasser inciting revolution in Saudi Arabia as, regardless of the Egyptian’s popularity, the Saudis did not want Nasser or Egypt to rule over them,” the book’s author wrote.
After King Abdulaziz Al-Saud’s visit to Egypt, the two states declared in a joint communiqué that they did not approve of the presence of foreign troops on the soil of any Arab country. While Nasser developed warmer relations with Saudi Arabia thanks to the king’s acknowledgement of the Egyptian president’s soaring popularity in the Arab world, Robert Komer, a member of the National Security Council, suggested a change in US policy. He recommended that Nasser be offered economic assistance to develop Egypt in a bid to lure the country away from Soviet influence. Although Nasser was grateful for the US aid, it did not lead to any meaningful change in the relationship between the two countries.
Soon, Nasser would face growing problems which began when he decided to send troops to Yemen. In his haste, he had overlooked how difficult it would be to bring peace back to Yemen. Nasser had also overestimated his military power and his crushing June 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel destroyed his personal image and knocked him off his pedestal. After his death, Anwar Sadat took charge and Egypt shocked the USSR by expelling the Soviet military experts. This decision paved the way for a strong strategic alliance between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. However, Sadat went on to sign the Camp David Accords without Saudi support.
“The US had overestimated not only what the Saudis could do, but also what they would do. The Saudis, as Arabs, were no less opposed to the accords than their more radical fellow Arabs. They were never inclined to support it directly. As participants in the Arab consensus, they were willing to tone down, but not oppose Arab condemnation of Camp David,” Hethlain wrote.
The era of King Abdulaziz, which was characterized by Saudi-American collaboration, gave way to the era of King Fahd which Hethlain has divided in two phases in his book. The first King Fahd era came during a time of great instability dominated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This war threatened both US and Saudi interests and it eventually led to close cooperation between the two.
When the US was ready to offer the Soviets a way out of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia was chosen to make the diplomatic move. An offensive Mikhail Gorbachev told Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al-Saud that the US would let the Saudis down: “I know everything you are doing there. You are spending $200 million a year in Afghanistan.” Bandar answered: “You are losing people, we are losing money… but we can always print more.” At this point in the discussion, Gorbachev asked to be alone with the Saudi representative and reportedly told him: “If we are not pushed or humiliated or taken advantage of, we will leave. You can tell King Fahd that by next March, we will be out of Afghanistan.”
“What was not known to Bandar at the time was that the decision to withdraw had been taken by the Soviet leadership as early as November 1986,” Hethlain wrote.
The inclusion of verbal diplomatic exchanges adds some well-needed spice to the narrative. The author’s research for this book is outstanding despite his inability to secure interviews with key Saudi figures.
This definitive work on the complex relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US ends with a study of the King Abdullah era which was marked by the September 11 attacks. Although the ensuing “war on terror” set both countries on a collision course, the US and Saudi Arabia have worked hard to rebuild their ties. “Both the US and the Kingdom need to work together as much as possible to push the peace process forward and to reduce support for violent extremism on both sides. There will never be truly shared common objectives or perceptions without resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Hethlain wrote.
Donald Trump cannot ignore the fact that many countries need Arab oil and a disruption in supply would impact the international economy and markets around the world. Saudi Arabia is still considered a key American ally and good Saudi-US relations are indispensable to the stability of the Middle East.
Hethlain has written an impressive and highly detailed account of the strategic alliance between Saudi Arabia and the US since 1962. This book is essential reading for scholars, diplomats, students and politicians with an interest in Saudi Arabia and its role in the Middle East and the world.


What We Are Reading Today: Race Is About Politics Jean-Frederic Schaub

Updated 21 January 2020

What We Are Reading Today: Race Is About Politics Jean-Frederic Schaub

  • Schaub argues that to understand racism we must look at historical episodes of collective discrimination

Racial divisions have returned to the forefront of politics in the US and European societies, making it more important than ever to understand race and racism. 

But do we? In this original and provocative book, acclaimed historian Jean-Frédéric Schaub shows that we don’t— and that we need to rethink the widespread assumption that racism is essentially a modern form of discrimination based on skin color and other visible differences.

On the contrary, Schaub argues that to understand racism we must look at historical episodes of collective discrimination. Built around notions of identity and otherness, race is above all a political tool that must be understood in the context of its historical origins.

Although scholars agree that races don’t exist, they disagree about when these ideologies emerged. Drawing on historical research from the early modern period to today, Schaub makes the case that the key turning point in the political history of race in the West occurred not with the Atlantic slave trade and American slavery, as many historians have argued, but much earlier, in 15th-century Spain and Portugal, with the racialization of Christians of Jewish and Muslim origin.