The past 30 years of the Saudi-American relationship have seen highs of intense geopolitical cooperation and the lows of the post-September 11, 2001 period. What has tied those ups and downs together is the fluctuating relationship between both governments and the transnational Salafi Islamist movement. Both governments fostered the movement — domestically in Saudi Arabia and as an international force — during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Both have seen the movement shift from a tool of their foreign policies to a threat. Ironically, this common sense of threat, which was not clear immediately after the 9/11 attacks, helped Washington and Riyadh to restore some equilibrium to the bilateral relationship.
The Iranian Revolution presented the United States and Saudi Arabia with a common enemy. At the time, US and Saudi leaders thought that Saudi Arabia’s role in the Sunni Muslim world could be a useful ideological counter to the revolutionary and anti-American Shi‘i Islamist platform put forward by the new regime in Tehran. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to the Muslim world that the Saudi version of Sunni Islam could mobilize transnational support as well, in a cause that was both consistent with American Cold War strategy and a challenge to Iran’s claim to Muslim leadership. Mobilizing Salafists appeared to offer both sponsors far greater benefits than risks: The Saudis had based their domestic legitimation strategy upon Salafism/Wahhabism for centuries, and had used Islam more generally as a counter to Nasser’s Arab nationalism in the 1960s, while the United States had seen Islam as a Cold War ally, despite the anti-American turn in revolutionary Iran.
In hindsight, however, it is clear that Saudi and American leaders should not have been so sanguine about their ability to channel and control transnational Salafi Islamism. The takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Juhayman al-Utaybi and his followers, in retrospect, was a warning shot across the bow of both governments. Al-‘Utaybi criticized the Saudis for their laxity and their close relations with an “infidel power” (i.e., the United States) in terms that would echo in the pronouncements of Usama bin Ladin in the 1990s and 2000s. At the time, however, the tendency was to dismiss the takeover as a fringe manifestation of Muslim millenarianism, and certainly no reason to reassess the strategy of mobilizing Sunni Salafism and kindling the spirit of jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
The strategy worked — at least when viewed from the 1990s. Soviet forces were driven out of Afghanistan; the Iranian revolutionary momentum was blunted (as much by Saddam Husayn in the Iran-Iraq War as by anything else, though both Saudi Arabia and the US helped him); the Cold War was won by the Americans, with support from their friends in Riyadh and elsewhere.
The Gulf War of 1990-91 was the high point of Saudi-American cooperation. Using the military and civilian infrastructure built by Saudi petro-dollars and American construction companies in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States deployed a force of half a million troops to Saudi Arabia, sufficient to turn back Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and restore the Persian Gulf status quo. Only in retrospect can we see that these two great successes of Saudi-American strategic cooperation laid the foundation for the 9/11 attacks.
The spirit of Salafi jihadism ignited by Afghanistan and focused on the United States (at least in part) by the 1990-91 Gulf War, which came to be personified by Usama bin Ladin, was an inconvenience and an irritant in the Saudi-American relationship in the 1990s, but not a major issue. The Saudis suppressed domestic Salafi opposition voices which were raised during the Gulf War, but chose not to take on the more general phenomenon of transnational Salafi jihadism, which found recruits and funding within the Kingdom. They tried, instead, to channel it into what Riyadh saw as relatively innocuous fronts: Bosnia, Chechnya, and back to Afghanistan. The political cost of confronting Salafi jihadism directly — ideologically and organizationally — was too difficult politically. It would have entailed the formidable task of redefining Salafism at home, which had come to be tightly entwined with the idea of jihad, and thus potentially disruptive to the institutions and the ideas of Wahhabism, which had been a pillar of the regime’s stability.
After al-Qa‘ida’s bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the Salafi jihadist issue began to cause tensions in the Saudi-American relationship. With the 9/11 attacks, it became the central issue in the greatest crisis the relationship experienced since the 1973-74 oil embargo, if not since the inception of the relationship. The United States expected the Saudi leadership to conduct a searching self-examination about its ideological, organizational, and financial role in the development of Salafi jihadism (conveniently avoiding any public self-examination about its own role in the process). The Saudis went into a defensive crouch, denying any connection between the Kingdom and Usama bin Ladin, his ideas, or his organization. While it was clear that the Saudi government had had nothing to do with the attacks themselves, Riyadh’s unwillingness to confront its indirect role in the development of bin Ladin’s movement inflamed American public opinion. Saudi public opinion, never particularly pro-American because of the Arab-Israeli issue, among other things, reacted very negatively to the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These were the makings of a serious rift, if not a rupture in the bilateral relationship.
Yet, such a rupture did not happen, for two reasons. First, in 2003 al-Qa‘ida began a campaign in Saudi Arabia itself against the regime. The 2003 terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, more than those of 2001, mobilized the Saudi regime to take an active role in confronting the Salafi jihadist movement. The highest profile element of that campaign was a security offensive that started out haltingly but eventually succeeded in taking the fight to its domestic Salafi opponents. Less noticed in the United States was the sustained ideological effort by the regime to delegitimate bin Ladin’s ideas. The Saudis not only mobilized the official religious establishment, but also were able to rally a number of Salafi critics — some who had spent time in jail in the 1990’s — to the regime’s side. With this new commitment to confront Salafi jihadism domestically came greater cooperation with the United States on intelligence sharing and steps to dry up the sources of financial support for jihadist groups.
The second reason that the relationship survived the post-9/11 crisis was the perception by leaders in both countries that geopolitical interests necessitated their continued close cooperation. Had the US war in Iraq succeeded in establishing a stable, secure, and pro-American Iraqi government, perhaps Washington might have been able to put some distance between itself and Riyadh. But with Iraq a mess and Iran a continuing challenge to American power and goals in the region, the US could not afford a further deterioration of its only working relationship with a major Gulf power. The run-up in oil prices from 2003 to 2008 also brought home to Washington the American interest in good relations with Saudi Arabia — the Organization of Oil Producing Countries’ (OPEC) dominant player and the world’s leading exporter of oil. Meanwhile, in the upheaval of the post-9/11 Middle East, with war and chaos in Iraq and the concomitant increase in Iran’s regional power, the Saudi leadership almost by instinct suppressed its misgivings about many Bush Administration policies (including the gentle but real pressure in 2004-05 for domestic political reform) and sought security in its historic refuge — its relationship with the United States. Both King ‘Abdullah and President George W. Bush took political risks (in terms of their respective domestic public opinion) to maintain the relationship during this difficult period.
If the 9/11 crisis did not fundamentally change the Saudi-American relationship, it is hard to imagine what would. During this tumultuous period, it was the recognition by both Washington and Riyadh of the existence of, and the need to confront common enemies — especially Salafi jihadism — that undergirded and ultimately sustained the relationship. And cooperation to thwart common enemies is likely to continue to be the key factor in bolstering the relationship in future.