The Irreplaceable Kingdom

The U.S. needs a strategic partner in the Persian Gulf. Only Saudi Arabia has been capable of being this partner since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, but the kingdom is also interesting from an economic perspective.

The Strait of Hormuz at the exit point of the Persian Gulf is becoming a key location for the world economy. In 2013, almost a third of the world’s crude oil shipments passed through this needle eye, as reported by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in March with reference to figures from American authorities. The U.S. has indeed reduced its dependence on oil imports to 27 percent, but the U.S. economy is still very much dependent on the world economy’s smooth sailing. According to CIA estimates, America imported goods in the range of $2.3 trillion dollars in 2014.

The Obliteration of the Pillars: Iran

Earlier American policy for the strategic protection of shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz rested on two pillars: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the shah from the Peacock Throne and proclaimed the Islamic Republic, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the Gulf with the necessary size and weight to carry out this task.

The other traditionally important ally in the region, Egypt, never was capable of projecting its military power over the Arabian Peninsula to the shores of the Gulf. Saudi Arabia played a key role for the American oil industry in bilateral relations: Because the Saudis mistrusted Europeans due to their imperial past, they invited the Americans to develop their oil industry. Even after the nationalization of Saudi oil production, American companies were still present in secondary functions.

Largest Importer of Arms

The White House estimated American exports to the kingdom in 2013 to be $35 billion. Of particular importance in this regard is the armaments sector; Saudi Arabia overtook India as the largest importer of arms in 2014. That is, of course, related to the fact that the kingdom has no noteworthy arms industry. However, with more than 17 percent growth to over $80 billion, Riyadh, according to the International Stockholm Institute for Peace Research, is registering the largest growth in defense budgets. It is obvious that the Saudis, after experiences with the American posture in regard to the Arab Spring and the negotiations with Iran (kept secret from the Saudis) over the nuclear deal, are eager to take more of their security into their own hands.

A Broader Catalog of Weapons

The Israeli-Arab conflict probably ensures that Saudi Arabia cannot buy the latest assortment of American arms technology. This privilege remains reserved for the Jewish state, to which America has always guaranteed a military advantage over the Arabs. However, just a casual look at the comprehensive catalog of American weapons systems and training options, which Saudi Arabia has taken from since 2010, with a value of over $90 billion, clearly shows that this was not junk being hawked off: The palette stretches from upgraded F-15 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, and Javelin and Tow missiles to missile defense systems of the Patriot PAC-3 types.

In the end, both sides profit from the cooperation of their security agencies in the fight against terrorism. The fact that many of the elite figures in the al-Qaida organization on the peninsula are citizens of Saudi Arabia contributes to this.

Relationship to Conflicts

Saudi Arabia has maintained a close strategic partnership with the United States for decades. The long-term foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, who held office for 40 years and died last year, contributed greatly to its formation. Like many other members of the Saudi elite, Saud al-Faisal studied in America. He stood for a foreign policy that in the long term placed emphasis on the relationship with Washington and held this as central to the stability of the Saudi monarchy, due to cooperation of the military and secret services.

Last but not least, ties to the West for Riyadh are important due to the investments of Saudi petrodollars in Western companies. Furthermore, after the European Union, the U.S. is the most important trade partner for the Saudis. In recent years, conflicts of interests between Washington and Riyadh have emerged. America’s posture toward the Arab Spring infuriated Riyadh, as the people’s movements for political participation are a threat to the monarchy. The King’s House looked upon the rising influence of Iran in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein with displeasure. More than ever, it felt snubbed by the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Washington suspiciously observed the ideological proximity of Wahhabism — promoted by the Saudi state — to radical Sunni jihadists. Meanwhile, Saudis themselves, due to their partnership with Americans, who are hated in the region, feared the wrath of the extremists. Internationally, the new generation of Saudi leadership is attempting to position itself as independent internationally. That is how the unilateral intervention in Yemen can be understood. Washington is supportive of the intervention primarily to avoid any more affronts to the Saudis after the deal with Iran.

This shows that Riyadh still carries weight for Washington, despite complications, and also plays off of this weight. That is how Riyadh still has a strong impact on oil prices, even if its petrodollars are becoming scarcer, and American production is rising. Even in the fight against terror, it still appears that there are no alternatives but to count on Riyadh as a partner.

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