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Friday, March 25, 2011

Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations

Christopher M. Blanchard
Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled by the Al Saud family since its founding in 1932, wields significant global political and economic influence as the birthplace of the Islamic faith and by virtue of its large oil reserves. Close U.S.-Saudi official relations have survived a series of challenges since the 1940s, and, in recent years, shared concerns over Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism and Iranian regional ambitions have provided a renewed logic for continued strategic cooperation. The ongoing political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa is changing the dynamics of long-running reform debates in the kingdom. The full effect of these events on the kingdom and on U.S.-Saudi relations has yet to be determined. Official U.S. concerns about human rights and religious freedom in the kingdom persist, and some Members of Congress have expressed skepticism about Saudi leaders’ commitment to combating religious extremism and supporting U.S. policy priorities in the Middle East and South Asia. However, Bush and Obama Administration officials have referred to the Saudi government as an important regional partner in recent years, and U.S. arms sales and related training programs have continued with congressional oversight. In October 2010, Congress was notified of the proposed sales to Saudi Arabia of dozens of F-15 fighter aircraft, helicopters, and related equipment and services, with a potential value of $60 billion.

Saudi leaders are now weighing a litany of economic and political reform demands from competing, energized groups of citizen activists. The prevailing atmosphere of regional unrest and increased international scrutiny of domestic political developments further complicates matters. Groups representing liberal, moderate, and conservative trends have submitted advisory petitions to King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz, and many recent reform statements refer to and echo past requests submitted to the king and his predecessor, the late King Fahd. Initiatives to organize nationwide protests on March 11, 2011 have gathered considerable nominal support, but also have been met with some popular criticism and official rejection. Some observers fear that public confrontations with unpredictable consequences could result from the apparent incompatibility of a government ban on all demonstrations and the political enthusiasm of activist groups. The Obama Administration has endorsed Saudi citizens’ rights to free assembly and free expression. Saudi leaders reject foreign intervention in the country’s internal affairs.

Since taking power in 2005, King Abdullah has created greater public space for domestic social reform debates and has promoted the concept of a strong national identity among Saudis in the face of a determined domestic terrorism campaign. He also has codified royal succession rules, begun restructuring the justice system, and taken clear steps to exert stronger government control over religious authorities. Robust oil export revenues have strengthened the kingdom’s economic position and provide Saudi leaders with significant financial resources to meet domestic investment needs and provide social benefits. In this context, the United States and Saudi Arabia continue to grapple with a core challenge identified by the 9/11 Commission in its final report: defining a broader bilateral relationship that “leaders on both sides are prepared to publicly defend.” The Obama Administration has engaged the Saudi government as a strategic partner in efforts to promote regional stability and to defeat Al Qaeda, and current U.S. policy initiatives seek to help Saudi leaders address key domestic economic and security challenges. It remains to be seen whether these U.S. initiatives and, more importantly, Saudi leaders’ own reform efforts will enable the kingdom to meet the energy, education, employment, and security challenges that its citizens face. Shared challenges have long defined U.S.-Saudi relations, but questions about political, economic, and social reform may become more pressing in light of the calls for change that are now swirling around the kingdom.

Date of Report: March 10, 2011
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: RL33533
Price: $29.95

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