By choosing the United States to be the destination of his first visit since acceding to the Saudi throne, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz has dismissed speculation that the honeymoon between Washington and Riyadh is coming to an end. Both countries have changed their stances on several key issues. Nevertheless, the strategic, historic alliance between them never appeared to be threatened by the winds of change. It is true that their relations chilled and their stances differed in the last few years, but their 70-year alliance that started with the famous 1945 meeting between the late King Abdulaziz Al Saud and the then US President Franklin D. Roosevelt has managed to contain all those differences. In fact, all the information points towards the continuing of this alliance for decades to come.
The visit, which has been described by US officials as reflective of the significance of the strategic alliance between Riyadh and Washington, represents an opportunity for both countries to develop bilateral relations under King Salman, who is fully familiar with the weaknesses and strengths of US–Saudi relations and to whose consolidation and continuity he has greatly contributed. When King Salman meets with President Barack Obama on Friday, his message will be undoubtedly clear: that Riyadh is committed to the continuity of the strong and historic relations between the two countries and will strive to consolidate and deepen them to serve their mutual interests. Remarkably, the differences between Riyadh and Washington are not about objectives as much as methods. The Saudis cannot be denied the right to exercise pressure by whatever means they see fit in order to influence US policy in the region. The official circles in Washington presumably understand that and do not object to it.
The current US administration has taken a different line on three main issues, which are perhaps the reason behind the recent tensions between Riyadh and Washington.
First, no progress has been achieved over the past seven years to solve the Arab–Israeli conflict, which remains in a state of deadlock. Second, the Obama administration’s reluctance to deal with the Syrian crisis has raised questions about Washington’s credibility and commitment. Third, Iran’s regional ambitions, which began shyly at first, have taken the shape of a hostile policy, something which has been admitted by senior US officials. Later, Iran surprised the world by signing with world powers a nuclear deal that is likely to give Tehran more protection as long as there is no way the international community can ensure that Iran will not violate the terms of the agreement.
It would be a mistake to envision that US–Saudi relations are based on complete consensus. In fact, relations between the two countries are based on fundamental, mutual interests pertaining to maintaining the security of the Gulf and ensuring the delivery of oil supplies. Officials in both countries have always stressed their mutual security interests while at the same time acknowledging the presence of political differences. One thing to add: the US–Saudi alliance cannot be reduced to the mere import and export of oil.
The magical equation that could return warmth to the relationship can be summarized in two words: mutual interests. Saudi Arabia has major interests in the US just like Washington has in the region. King Salman’s visit to Washington drives home the message that the winds of change have not affected US–Saudi relations.