5 Myths About U.S.-Saudi Relations

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By Rachel Bronson
Sunday, May 21, 2006

T he United States and Saudi Arabia form one of the world's most misunderstood partnerships. The Saudis are a longtime oil supplier for the U.S. economy -- but on 9/11, their kingdom accounted for 15 of the 19 hijackers. The Bush family and the House of Saud are close -- yet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls for greater democracy in the region. To understand the relationship, a few misconceptions must be debunked:

1 The U.S.-Saudi relationship

is a bargain of oil

for security.

There's more to it than that. Oil is, of course, critical to U.S.-Saudi ties -- it can hardly be otherwise for the world's largest consumer and largest producer. But Washington's relationship with Riyadh more closely resembles its friendly ties to oil-poor Middle Eastern states such as Jordan, Egypt and Israel than its traditionally hostile relations with oil-rich states such as Libya and Iran. Deep oil reserves have never translated into easy relations with the United States.

A major reason for the close ties between the two nations was their common Cold War fight against communism. Both countries worried about the Soviet Union, and that solidified their oil and defense interests, and minimized differences. In hindsight, by supporting religious zealots in the battle against communism, the two countries contributed to the rise of radical Islamic movements.

2 The 9/11 hijackers

undermined otherwise

strong U.S.- Saudi ties.

Actually, things were never that smooth. Historians refer to the "special relationship" established when Saudi Arabia's King Abdel Aziz and President Franklin D. Roosevelt met in 1945. But since then the relationship has endured oil embargoes, U.S. restrictions on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and tensions around Israel and Palestine. Dissension permeates the entire history of U.S.-Saudi relations.

Since the end of the Cold War, relations have become particularly fraught, with the 9/11 attacks being the most recent issue. Oil, defense and some regional interests keep the countries together, but both sides have made clear that the relationship is less special today. In 2005, Rice stated that "for 60 years . . . the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither."

Meanwhile, members of the Saudi royal family are debating the utility of close ties with the Americans. 3 The Bush family


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