The New York Times recently asked Democratic candidates for president if they “still consider Saudi Arabia an ally” after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, ongoing human rights violations and the war in Yemen.
But the question is based upon a false premise: Technically, Saudi Arabia has never been an ally of the United States. The two countries have never signed a treaty or a mutual defense pact, and the relationship between them has never gone beyond a narrow partnership on select issues.
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.