No major shift in US-Saudi relations

24 April 2018
The crown prince enjoyed a warm welcome in the US, but little has fundamentally changed

On 7 April, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman completed a tour of the US that lasted almost three weeks.

It encompassed meetings with US President Donald Trump and lawmakers in Washington, banks in New York, tech and entertainment firms in California, and oil corporations in Texas.

It suggests something new is happening in America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, but that is not accurate.

Previous partnerships

Riyadh has been America’s most reliable Arab partner since US companies found oil in the kingdom in 1938, and the US has done more than anyone else to make it the Middle East’s largest economy. Saudi Arabia’s armed forces depend upon US equipment and training.

Americans are being encouraged to invest in oil giant Saudi Aramco. But it was at least partly owned by US oil firms until 1980. Full nationalisation was only completed in 1988 and Saudi Aramco never stopped working with US oil and engineering firms.

Cinemas opened in April. However, this is not a radical departure. Unregulated cinemas were operating in the kingdom until the 1980s. Thanks to satellite television, Saudis have been happily watching Hollywood films and American news channels since the early 1990s.

Women will be allowed to drive from June. It is symbolically significant this has come after Prince Mohammed bin Salman was made heir to the Saudi throne last June. However the social changes it reflects have been under way for decades. There are more women at Saudi Arabian universities than men.

Areas of divergence

In practically every area, the crown prince is building on long-established common perspectives. There are nevertheless a few exceptions.

The kingdom opposed former US president Barack Obama’s overture to Iran and, initially at least, his support for Arab Spring rebellions.

And there remains a gap between Saudi Arabia and the US about how to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A plan for Palestine

President Trump’s announcement that the US will recognise Jerusalem as capital of Israel and move its embassy to the city conflicts with settled Saudi Arabian policy that calls for two states with Jerusalem as the capital of both.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview published on 2 April that Israelis have the right to their own home. The statement captured media attention, but the crown prince was stating what is implied in the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which the kingdom drafted.

Saudi Arabia wants a deal that works for the Palestinians. President Trump has not got one.

But he is not the first occupant of the White House with whom Saudi Arabia has managed to work constructively despite their lack of a viable plan on other fronts. Nor will he be the last.


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