The US-Saudi ‘special’ relationship 20 years after 9/11

In the past 20 years, it was not 9/11 that shook the close ties between Washington and Riyadh.

US President George W Bush speaks with Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal at the White House on September 20, 2001 [Reuters]

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, a number of developments have refocused attention on US-Saudi relations. On August 27, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines asserted the state secrets privilege in a civil lawsuit filed by a Saudi holding entity against a former senior Saudi government official to stop classified information from coming out.

Several days later, after sustained pressure from families of 9/11 victims, US President Joe Biden directed the Department of Justice to review documents from the FBI investigation into the attacks for declassification and public release.

Twenty years on, the legacy of 9/11 continues to cast a shadow over a bilateral relationship that in some respects has evolved considerably since the terror attacks. The fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals and the mastermind, Osama bin Laden, was a member of one of the most successful business families in Saudi Arabia threatened to create the greatest rupture in US-Saudi ties since full diplomatic relations began in the 1930s. Initial reluctance by some Saudi leaders, including Minister of Interior Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, to acknowledge the involvement of Saudis in the attacks, caused an additional furore.

After 9/11, a “cottage industry” of think-tanks, op-ed writers, and retired officials emerged to defend and contextualise the “special” nature of the US-Saudi relationship within a supposed oil-for-security agreement that dated, in their narrative, to the fabled 1945 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal.

And yet, when Robert Vitalis, an American political scientist, examined the issue, he found not only that no mention of oil or security was made at the 1945 meeting, but that “oil for security” first surfaced in 2002, months after the 9/11 attacks. Since then, the term has become widely adopted and perceived as historical.

To the extent that the US and Saudi Arabia do have a special relationship, it emerged after 9/11. Washington and Riyadh worked closely, as the former pursued al-Qaeda and their Taliban hosts in Afghanistan and later extended its “war on terror” to Iraq in 2003. The many connections between the attackers and US partner states, including Pakistan and the UAE as well as Saudi Arabia, were addressed in other far less intrusive or invasive ways, by diplomacy rather than force. One need only imagine how the response might have differed had 15 of the 19 hijackers been Iranian, for example.

9/11 has not fully disappeared as an issue, despite the passage of 20 years and the removal of the “old guard” of senior princes in Riyadh who were in positions of power at the time, with only King Salman remaining from that generation.

The US continued to be concerned about charity fundraising in Saudi Arabia, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claiming as late as 2009 that private donors in the country continued to constitute “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”.

The 2016 passage of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress indicated how 9/11 still cast a powerful, and at times populist, political legacy.

After navigating the pitfalls of the emotive post-9/11 period and ensuring the durability of the political and strategic aspects of the relationship with the US, Saudi leaders have, paradoxically, spent much of the second decade after 2001 in a state of some anxiety about their ties with Washington. Seen from Riyadh, it was the period in and after 2011 that was more worrying to them than 2001.

In Saudi eyes, the perceived US “abandonment” of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longstanding regional partner, to the Arab Spring, the willingness of the Obama administration to engage with Islamist groups the Saudis viewed as a threat, and the subsequent revelation of secret US dialogue with Iran in 2012-2013 were of rather greater concern than the fallout of 9/11.

Somewhat ironically, given the enthusiasm with which Saudi leaders greeted Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016 and lavishly hosted him on his first overseas trip as president in May 2017, decisions taken during the Trump administration further roiled bilateral ties. Trump initially took the Saudi (and Emirati) side when he tweeted in support of their blockade of Qatar in June 2017, but rapidly reversed course in the face of opposition from his Departments of State and Defense as well as military commanders.

This was followed by mounting public and political backlash in the US at the ongoing Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen and, in October 2018, near-unanimous revulsion at the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Two issues threaten to take US-Saudi ties into largely uncharted new territory. The first is the politicisation and personalisation of the relationship during the Trump era in part due to the unhealthily close ties that were seen to develop between principal figures, such as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

This drew Saudi Arabia into the polarisation of US political discourse and narrowed the bipartisan and institutional basis of the US-Saudi partnership. While Israeli and Emirati leaders also became closely associated with the Trump White House, US-Israel ties are based on common and shared values not easily replicable for the Saudis, while the UAE rebuilt its political standing in Washington with the Abraham Accord, creating in the process some distance from Riyadh in US eyes.

The second issue is the growing uncertainty in Riyadh about the future of the security guarantee that Saudi and other regional leaders believed was the backbone of their security and defence partnerships with the US. To an extent, this is a repeat of the perceived abandonment of their interests by the Obama administration but with greater substance this time around, especially after Trump not only did not respond to the Iranian-linked attacks on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 but also made a point of distinguishing between Saudi and US interests.

This came as a shock to the leadership in Riyadh (and Abu Dhabi) which had long assumed that their and US interests in regional security were one and the same, especially on any issue that had to do with Iran, as they had done when commencing military operations in Yemen in 2015.

Soon Mohammed bin Salman, who was just a teenager when the 9/11 attacks took place, will rule Saudi Arabia and attempt to guide the kingdom well into the midcentury. One of his likely responses to the uncertainties in US-Saudi relations – and his own political difficulties in Washington – has been to diversify Saudi Arabia’s defence and security partnerships.

Such measures are deemed necessary in the wake of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the widespread assumption in Riyadh, and elsewhere in the region, that the US is in retreat from the Middle East. Sure enough, the crown prince’s brother and deputy defence minister, Khalid bin Salman, signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia within days of the fall of Kabul.

The dilemma for the Saudis, however, remains the fact that no other country is likely to come close to matching the breadth and depth of the partnership with the US, leaving Riyadh vulnerable to political and economic drift.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.