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«The U.S. - Saudi Relations»

The Persian Gulf is a region of the particular interest for the international and especially Western researchers. The clear challenges of the two factors of the contemporary world politics, which consist of the oil and the Islamic questions, could be observed. The value of the oil factor eventually has led to the need of the West to defend its religious interests through the use of the armed forces. The Islamic factor, in contrast to the previous case, has radicalized the ratio of the population of the Gulf countries towards activity of the outside states, forming the anti-Western sentiment. The Persian Gulf is an important object of study, because it is a zone of the American interests. This region is significant both from political and economic points of view. Production and exportation of oil determine its importance for the United States. Moreover, it is one of the centers of the counter-terrorism activity. Therefore, the special relationship between the United States and the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, should be stressed. The relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are a priority for the United States. They are based on the economic aspect of oil trade and the political aspect of common resistance to the Iran’s nuclear program, the regime in Syria, and any possible aggression of the third parties.

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Geostrategic Importance of the Persian Gulf

For centuries, the geopolitical value of the Persian Gulf has been caused by two factors - historical and geographical. First of all, this territory represented important crossroads of the trade routes between the East and the West. Particularly, it included trade of silk and spices. Secondly, the Persian Gulf had always been one of those intermediate zones where the interests and cultures of different civilizations and empires mixed. Among the most important international historical conflicts were the followings: Rome, then - Byzantium and Persia; Arabs and Persians; the Seljuks and the Mongols; the Ottoman Empire and Persia; in the XIX century - the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain (a route to India) and Russia (a breakthrough to the warm seas). The Middle East and especially the Persian Gulf had been one of the more or less unstable geopolitical scenes since the Second World War to the 80s. The scenarios of indirect conflicts between the United States in alliance with the Shah’s Iran, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and the Soviet Union, who relied on unreliable cooperation with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, were played out.

Throughout the XX and the beginning of the XXI century, the international community has witnessed a fierce international armed struggle here, as well as in the world markets for oil in the region. The primary right of using so-called “petrodollars” was an important issue. The ruling circles of the West have always believed that the desired results in the Gulf region could be obtained through the creation of the stable blocks of the loyal, friendly, and dependent regimes. However, determining the motive in the Persian Gulf remains one of the West’s strategic goals, which embody reliance on the support of the designated countries to provide favorable conditions for the triumph of its policy in the region and possibly expanding its scope.

Theoretical Principles of the U.S. Activity in the Gulf

There are several approaches that define the principles of formation of the U.S. foreign policy. Criterion of realism operates on the basis of the principles of statism, survival, self-reliance and self-improvement. According to Morgenthau, Aron, Kennan and other theorists of realism, the states are the core actors in the international relations (Weber, 2005). The USA attempts to reach the world domination as proof the first principle. Thus, all the complexity of inter-state relations on the example of the United States and Saudi Arabia will be explored. It is clear that the U.S. defends its national interests, which is the second major principle of the political realism. The need to ensure security in the region, the demand for oil, and relief of potential conflict situations require relentless involvement of the United States. The containment system, which is strengthening the Gulf, suggests that the use of military force is one of the ways for maintaining the power balance. The Iraq’s campaign confirmed that military resolution of problems is one of the American methods of dealing with threats to the well-being of the country.

The principles of constructivism cannot fully explain the United States’ approaches to conducting foreign policy in the region. A key principle of constructivism is the belief that international politics are influenced by the uncontested ideas, shared values, culture and social identity (Bobulescu, 2011). Constructivism argues that international reality is based on social values which give new meaning to the material world. However, the relationships between the USA and the Gulf countries are primary based on mutual benefit or mutual hostility. The only aspect that may be applied in this case is democratization. The desire to overcome outdated beliefs and the non-humane regimes in the Eastern countries is motivated by the desire to create a new better society. At the same time, it inevitably leads to the clash of civilizations, because Western and Eastern cultures have numerous differences.

The doctrine of global democratic interventionism (Hehir, 2013) tries to establish order among the states, but not to prevent the threat of being born from chaos. This approach is reflected in the activities of the United States’ attempt to combine the process of spreading democratic values with the willingness to force protection of its national interests (Hajjar, 2002). Thus, the foreign policy is based on the combination of different approaches and principles.

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Saudi Arabia as the Key State in the Persian Gulf

An exploration of the peculiarities of Saudi Arabia becomes a key to understanding the reasons for its special position in the Islamic world. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the largest and the most influential states of the Arabic world. With the population which of more than 30 million people, a large quantity of deserted territories unsuitable for life and poor infrastructure, the Kingdom has turned to a key player in the region of the Middle East. It was promoted by two factors. Firstly, the KSA is a motherland of Islam. Secondly, there is 25 % of all reconnoitered stocks of oil are concentrated in this country.

The renaissance of religious feelings in the Islamic countries during XX-XIX centuries was named “Islamic revival” by professor Samuel Huntington. It provides the state with a moral and political coloring, forcing it to be connected to the international processes in which Muslims are actively involved. The head of the KSA is called “the keeper of two holy sites of Islam”. Thus, he possesses exclusive authority over the Islamic world. It is important to note that Saudi Arabia keeps control over nearly a quarter of world’s reserves of oil. The state company “Saudi Aramco” supervises extraction and subsequent sale of black gold. The Kingdom’s territory includes 77 fields of oil and gas. Gavar and Safaniya are the two largest ones in the whole world. 90 % from all export incomes and 75 % of budgetary receipts of the Kingdom are connected to oil. The USA, Japan and China are the core buyers of the Saudi Arabian oil. (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014) For this reason, the KSA is the significant trade partner and one of the centers of geopolitical and economic interests for the USA.

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The structure of Saudi Arabia has undergone fundamental transformations during the last generation, having become a young Arabian state from the poor feudal-breeding country in the capitalistic region. The society was not ready for such changes. The Kingdom possessed neither professional workers, nor proper public institutes. The legal system of the country has been based on Sheriyat, or the Islamic laws of the times of Prophet Muhammad, and on the Holy Writ that consist of examples from the life of the Prophet. For all this time the law system has not undergone any essential changes. For this reason, a painful crush of economic, psychological and social relations took place. A promotion of “the Islamic Renaissance” worldwide remained the basic direction of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. The support of the Afghani movement “Taliban”, financing of the Palestinian terrorists, communications with the Al-Qaeda’s branch Jabhat an-Nastroj in Syria, participation of natives from Saudi Arabia in the conflict in Kashmir and many other aspects of external policy are vivid examples of the distinguished direction.

The Saudi Arabian youth that was subjected psychological reorganization inside the country realized the ideas of Ibn Wahhab (Global Security, n. d.) in the Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and other countries. The Saudi Arabia “squeezed out” dissatisfied Islamites from the Kingdom. As a result, the majority of insurgents in the ranks of Al-Qaeda, Jabhat an-Nastroj and the other Islamic terrorist organizations occurred in the KSA. Moreover, the majority of terrorists who carried out the act of terrorism on September 11th, 2001, were the citizens of the Kingdom.

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The Saudi Arabia has arisen in ХVIII century on the basis of the movement of Muslim reformers, or Wahhabis. The ideology of the given branch of Islam does not accept any innovations. The primary goal was based on the collection of the isolated breeding formations of deserted SaudiArabia. In addition, the Wahhabism as an ideology became the factor of legitimization of the Saudi domination. Ibn Saud relied on the union with the descendants of Abd al-Wahhab who were the relatives of the founder of the Wahhabis ideology. Thus, the two clans became irreplaceable for each other. As a result, the clan of Ibn Saud became a dominating political class, and the clan of Wahhabi provided legitimacy of the king and articulated ideology of the young state.

Historical Background of the U.S. - Saudi Relations

Before considering the modern relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, it is necessary to define the reasons for the partnership between these states. In the middle of the XX, century Saudi Arabia faced new circumstances that completely changed the image of the Kingdom and its role in the international arena (Blanchard, 2009). However, the core factors of those changes lied outside Saudi Arabia. A new page in the history of this country was opened after the discovery of the oil deposits in 1930. For many years, the Hajj has been the primary source of the Kingdom’s income. Nevertheless, during the Great Depression of 1929-1933, the number of the pilgrims has dropped dramatically, causing an acute shortage of funds and the budget deficit in the KSA. Thus, the king had to find the new sources of revenue. At this point, the British orientalist Philby – the father of the Soviet spy Philby - having close ties with the royal family, reassured the monarch to meet with an American philanthropist and millionaire Charles Crane. By 1933, the first oilmen came to the KSA. By 1935, the Americans and the British began drilling. In 1939, the King Ibn Saud visited the Dhahran area where oil production was conducted. On-site camp was set up by several hundred tents, which marked the start of the oil production.

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In May 1939, the first tanker with black gold withdrew from Saudi Arabia. Later, a museum with the symbolic name “Prosperity Well” was constructed in the place of the first well. Thus, during the years of the Cold War a strategy of the Middle East was directed towards providing an uninterrupted supply of oil from the region to the West. The Saudi Kingdom played a key role in that process.

The U.S. foreign policy is totally doctrinal. It means that its basic contours are spelled out in the documents with official character. For this reason, in 1957, Washington secured the special or “exclusive rights” to the oil-rich and geopolitically important region of the Middle East. The doctrine of the President Eisenhower announced the Middle East as the area of the USA’s “vital interests”. The document was issued in the period of crisis associated with the future of the Suez Canal and the changing role of Egypt under Nasser. The role of conservative and Islamic Saudi Arabia was particularly attractive for Americans. The Kingdom became a natural rival for the socialist Egypt and a holder of the international balance in the area. The partnership between the USA and he KSA was promising and productive, because the Kingdom was concerned with the increasing role of Egypt, which gradually became the leader of the Arab world. Thus, both states had enough reasons to maintain close relations in the XX century.

Modern Period in the U.S. - Saudi Relations since the End of the Cold War

With the passing of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who had ruled de facto since the mid-1990s, and de jure since 2005, numerous questions of the future development of the Kingdom emerged. The younger brother of Abdullah, Salman ibn Abdul Aziz Al Saud, was appointed as the new king. More than a quarter of all oil reserves are located in in the KSA. Thus, it remains the zone of America’s interests. It is a strategic center of the Islamic world and the American ally at the same time.

The priority of Saudi Arabia as a partner of the United States is stressed by multiple diplomatic visits. On January 27, 2015, Barack Obama met with the new king Salman. It is noteworthy that the U.S. President was accompanied by a very impressive delegation of Americans, which included both Obama’s and Bush’s administrations (The White House, 2015).

The whole system of modern U.S. - Saudi Arabia relations could be reduced to the following items: the Iranian factor, the Syrian factor, the legacy of the Arab Spring and the relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood, and evolution of relations in the post-9/11 world.

The Iranian factor. Departure of Saddam Hussein from the international scene has caused fundamental changes in the geopolitical map of the Middle East. The crush of the Iraqi state has become a destabilizing factor which affected all states from Morocco to Pakistan. It was especially painful for the regional system due to the violent collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. All states in the region had to revise their strategy, to associations, as well as to seek the new forms of security.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are the natural leaders of the Middle East. Considering economic, demographic and political opportunities, both countries have a major impact on other states in the Gulf (“Saudi Arabia in Focus,” 2014). However, the key factor in the competition of these two countries is ideology. In the reality of the patriarchal East after the collapse of communism as a microsystem, religion should be considered an ideology. The role of the KSA in the Islamic world has been already mentioned. Iran, in its turn, protects Shiah which is branch of Islam spread by the first supporters of Imam Ali. It is the core of Shiism, where the holy city of Qom is located. Thus, Iran is a natural rival of Saudi Arabia in terms of religion. There are two main streams of Islam Sunnism and Shiism. After the oil booms inside two countries, they have reached a qualitatively new level. They turned from poor third world countries to fast-growing economies. GDP of these both countries now exceeds the mark of one trillion dollars.

It should be noted that Riyadh is greatly concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. Saudi Arabia is convinced that Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. One of the main goals of the U.S. is to confront terrorism and any attempts of the nuclear proliferation. For this reason, the United States supports the KSA as well as all other countries that adhere to the non-proliferation regime.

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The Syrian factor. Syria is the only unconditional ally of Iran and enemy of Saudi Arabia. The Shi’ite axis of Iran - Syria - South Lebanon (Hezbollah) is considered the key foreign policy concern in Riyadh. In mid-2011 the civil war broke out between the government of Bashar Assad and disparate opposition groups, which included the terrorist organizations. The power in Syria is framed by a clan, religious and family ties, as well as in all other countries of the East. Thus, the government positions are held by religious communities, and the religion of the leader should became the religion of a state.

The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad comes from the Alawite community, a branch of Shia Islam. Accordingly, Syria relies on Iran. However, the majority of Syria’s population is Sunnis, which became a mainstay of Saud in an attempt to destroy the current regime. The controversies over Syria between the KSA and the U.S. are based in the desire of the Kingdom to act more distinctively against Iran’s key ally. Thus, under pressure from Saudi Arabia in late 2011, Arab League suspended the membership of Syria in the structure. For that reason, the opposition in Syria was supported.


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Saudi Arabia focuses on the fight against Iran through Syria. Thus, the Wahhabi Kingdom is ready to pay for the U.S. armed force directed against this country. Riyadh insists on the military solution in Syria. According to the Saudis, Bashar al-Assad should be replaced in Damascus by the Sunni leader who is not tied to Tehran. Washington’s view on Syrian issue agrees with the position of the Saudi clan. However, the United States are not ready for the radical action preferred by the Kingdom. The events of summer 2014 on the territories of Iraq and Syria, which threatened the interests and security of both the United States and Saudi Arabia, deprived the Syrian factor of its former importance. Syrian army is a natural force that can keep control over the fundamentalists of the Islamic state. For this reasons, Washington does not hurry to implement any radical plans of Saudi princes. It is not in the interests of the United States.


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