Quora Question: What Is the History of America's Relationship With Saudi Arabia?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in June. Brendan Smialowski/Pool/Reuters

Quora Questions are part of a partnership between Newsweek and Quora, through which we'll be posting relevant and interesting answers from Quora contributors throughout the week. Read more about the partnership here.

Answer from John Burgess, Former US Foreign Service Officer who's been around the block (and the world) a few times.

It's a long history, one that goes back to before the 1932 foundation of Saudi Arabia, in fact.

Starting in the 1920s, Saudis had first contact with Americans via Christian missionary doctors based in Bahrain. In 1925,  Abdulaziz, the founder of the country, commissioned an American, Karl Twitchell, to look around for oil in the Eastern Province, because it seemed close to other oil-bearing regions in Iraq. Then came American philanthropist Charles Richard Crane who, out of his own pocket, financed exploration for water and mineral resources in what would become Saudi Arabia.

Twitchell found signs of oil and a few years later, the Standard Oil of California struck a successful well and the story of the Saudi oil got started. It was delayed by WWII -- when the Saudis actually imported oil from the US -- but soon, and with a change of name in 1943 to the Arab-American Oil Company (ARAMCO), history descended on Saudi Arabia with big boots.

The next stage came during the Cold War. The US and Saudi Arabia shared the view that "godless communism" was a problem. The US focused on the "communism" part while the Saudis were most taken by the "godless" part of that phrase.

All this while, the Saudis saw Americans as pretty decent people, not like the colonialist British with whom they'd had a troubled relationship, though one that never (well, hardly ever) reached the point of hostilities.

Americans had the technology and ability to help develop Saudi Arabia, which they were pleased to do with fat contracts and salaries. Just about all Saudi infrastructure had Americans designing and building it.

Jump to the 1970s and the oil embargo. Here, Saudi Arabia, along with OPAEC partners, wanted to make it known that it was not to be pushed around and was not a puppet of the US. Expressing displeasure with US policies toward Israel, the boycott had major global effects. Among these where the US pulling out of the Bretton Woods Agreement and going off the gold standard; a repricing of oil in gold rather than dollars; a quadrupling of the price of gold; and a crash of the US stock market.

Things eventually got sorted out. ARAMCO became 100% Saudi-owned Saudi ARAMCO. Saudi Arabia grew rich, but still relied on the US for development assistance and military sales and assistance. Israel remained an irritating issue, but nothing more than that.

Saddam Hussein's seizure of Kuwait in 1990 and the Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1991, led to close cooperation once again, to the disappointment and disapproval of religious fundamentalists, including Usama bin Laden.

During the 1990s, the US basically left US-Saudi relations on autopilot. The end of the Cold War saw an end to one of the threads that joined the two countries and the US downsized its diplomatic presence in the KSA.

Then came the September 11 attacks. Of the 19 hijackers, 17 were Saudi nationals.

This led to immense tension between the two countries. Saudi Arabia was in denial that Saudis actually played any role or that Saudi Arabia held any culpability. The US disagreed, not only on the facts of the attack, but also pointing out that Saudi education encouraged religious extremism, that Saudi monetary controls were essentially useless, that the Saudis had no idea where the money they were contributing to "Islamic charities" was actually ending up, i.e., in the hands of terrorist organizations.

It took several years -- and Al-Qaeda attacks on Saudi Arabia itself -- before the Saudis agreed that they had a problem and started working on solutions. They imposed controls on charitable donations, imposed controls on money transfers, and started reforming their educational system, including curriculum and teacher training. As a result, Saudi Arabia has become a good partner to the US in fighting terrorism.

Saudi Arabia did not agree with US policy regarding Iraq in 2003 and withheld its approval of the invasion. It did, nevertheless, allow US support facilities to operate out of the Kingdom, but asked that no direct attacks on Iraq be launched from the KSA.

The US and Saudi Arabia still share several concerns, Iran and its influence the chief of them. The Saudis take these concerns a bit more seriously than the US government as their oil fields are 10 minutes away from Iranian military bases. They are immediately concerned about Iran acquiring atomic weapons. They see Iran as a destabilizing influence in the region, particularly after the mess the US left in Iraq. Saudis also differ with the US about what to do about Syria and Iraq and are concerned about the spread of Iranian-supported groups like Hezbollah.

Trade remains strong between the two countries. Saudi Arabia is invested so heavily around the globe -- including in the US -- that another oil embargo would hurt the Saudi economy as much as it would hurt the US economy. At present, there are over 70,000 Saudi students studying in American universities, most of them on Saudi gov't scholarships.

The Saudis see a future that includes close relations with the US, but perhaps not as close as before.

Read all the response to the question "What is the history of America's relationship with Saudi Arabia?"

Join the Discussion