Instead, the myth that Saudi Arabia and the United States are allies was built and perpetuated by two powerful forces — the Americans who owned and ran the oil company in the kingdom and the Saudi state itself. They both exaggerated the importance of U.S.-Saudi interactions, beginning with a brief meeting between the king of Saudi Arabia and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to advance their own interests. But this myth cloaks the reality of a reluctant partnership. Recognizing this would help policymakers — current and future — reimagine U.S. interests and relationships in the region.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932, after King Abdulaziz spent 30 years fighting, negotiating and marrying into alliances that unified the Arabian Peninsula. The first permanent contact from the United States came a year later, when Standard Oil of California negotiated an oil concession with the king’s advisers. At the time, Washington did not have official diplomatic representation in the kingdom, which was less important to the United States than Egypt, Palestine under the British Mandate, and Lebanon under the French Mandate.
In 1945, Roosevelt planned a diversion from his return trip from the Yalta Conference to meet with King Farouk of Egypt and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. A meeting with King Abdulaziz was added to the schedule, and the two leaders met for five hours.
The White House described the meeting as standard, “in line with the president’s desire that heads of government throughout the world should get together whenever possible.” Nine years later, Col. William A. Eddy, an intelligence officer and diplomat who had served as the interpreter for the meeting, wrote a booklet titled “FDR Meets Ibn Saud” for a New York nonprofit. Eddy saw great importance in the meeting, which was probably the highlight of his multiple careers. But even he conceded that for Roosevelt, the only meaning in the meeting was hearing the king’s perspective on Jewish immigration to the Palestine under the British Mandate.
Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s commerce secretary and foreign policy adviser, disagreed. He thought the meeting with King Abdulaziz covered nothing new, seeing it as a routine, run-of-the-mill encounter with little influence on U.S. policy, and certainly not the beginning of an alliance.
The actions taken afterward support Hopkins’s assessment. While Saudi Arabia did enter World War II on the side of the Allies two weeks later, the kingdom never contributed to the war effort. In fact, Saudi interests, not a request from Roosevelt, drove this declaration: It earned the kingdom a seat at the United Nations. In August 1945, King Abdulaziz sent his 41-year-old son and foreign minister to the United States to try to forge a relationship with President Harry Truman, but this visit was largely ignored by a preoccupied U.S. government.
In 1946, the United States finally sent an ambassador to Saudi Arabia. But he, like other foreign dignitaries, was forced to reside over 500 miles away from the capital city of Riyadh. At the time, non-Muslims were only permitted to live in Jiddah and on the Aramco base of Dhahran. Dhahran also housed a neglected U.S. air base for 17 years, starting in 1946.
Yet despite this historical reality, the 1945 meeting became the foundation of a myth that the United States and Saudi Arabia were close allies thanks to Aramco, the American-owned and operated oil company in Saudi Arabia. Even today, the company continues to claim that “the significance of this meeting cannot be overemphasized.”
Aramco’s motives, however, had little to do with historical accuracy or U.S. policy. Instead, the company needed Americans to see the Saudis as close partners (if not allies) to justify sending thousands of Americans to a distant desert to pump oil. In addition, when relations between the company and the monarchy occasionally deteriorated in the postwar years, the oilmen relied on American diplomatic assistance to help keep them in the king’s good graces. To persuade the U.S. diplomats to assist, especially at times when Saudi oil was not needed by the U.S. government or market — which was true through 1960 and sometimes after — the company needed the perception to exist that there was a close relationship between the two countries.
Over time, the Saudi government joined Aramco in promoting this myth. Photographs of King Abdulaziz and Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy are still used frequently in propaganda within Saudi Arabia and in messages aimed at American audiences. This photograph is featured at the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Many in the Saudi population have been taught that this meeting was a formative event in both countries’ histories.
But the reality is quite different: Since this purportedly seminal meeting, the United States and Saudi Arabia have had a simply transactional relationship.
During the Cold War, U.S.-Saudi relations mainly revolved around access to oil and were occasionally strained over America’s policy toward Israel. Relations soured when Saudi Arabia embargoed oil shipments to the United States and, along with OPEC, raised global oil prices, sending the U.S. economy into a deep recession in the mid-1970s. Although Saudi Arabia had disdain for the Soviet Union, the United States did not sign any defense treaties with the kingdom.
In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, King Fahd and his brothers reluctantly invited U.S. and international forces to protect Saudi Arabia and repel Iraq; they worried that if not repelled, Saddam Hussein could turn his sights to their kingdom next. Saudi Arabia also fueled the coalition forces with gasoline and jet fuel and was a minor participant in the war. After the Gulf War, U.S. forces remained in Saudi Arabia to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq.
Osama bin Laden exploited the fact that U.S. troops had protected Saudi Arabia — home to the holiest Islamic sites — and used this as a recruiting point for al-Qaeda. This remained a thorny issue for the Saudi monarchy, which ruled over an increasingly fundamentalist population. But bin Laden’s propaganda overstated the importance of the U.S. base in Saudi Arabia, which was not a sign of a close alliance.
In 2003, when the United States asked Saudi Arabia for permission to launch its invasion of Iraq from the kingdom, Saudi Arabia reluctantly agreed, but on the condition that after the invasion the U.S. military leave Saudi Arabia entirely. The decision came back to haunt the kingdom, as the United States set up its Persian Gulf base in neighboring Qatar, a rival to Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia remains the U.S. defense industry’s largest foreign customer.
Perhaps the greatest cooperative effort between the United States and Saudi Arabia since the Gulf War was the counterterrorism information-sharing program spearheaded by the CIA and former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is now persona non grata in the government. In 2017, the CIA awarded the prince its George Tenet Medal. This symbolizes the transactional nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The two countries can cooperate toward common goals, but deeper ties remain elusive and even unwanted by either side.
Now that the United States is the largest oil producer in the world and oil imports from Saudi Arabia are at historically low levels, the economic connection between the countries is growing increasingly tenuous. Perhaps this is why the meeting between Roosevelt and Abdulaziz is frequently invoked by both American and Saudi policy commentators as the crux of the “special” U.S.-Saudi relationship. But the historical record reveals otherwise. This meeting was but a minor detour for Roosevelt, and any so-called relationship did not survive his death months later. While powerful forces have mythologized it for their own reasons, the United States and Saudi Arabia are not and never have been allies.