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

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Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror assaults, a lot of developments have refocused consideration on US-Saudi relations. On August 27, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines asserted the state secrets and techniques privilege in a civil lawsuit filed by a Saudi holding entity in opposition to a former senior Saudi authorities official to cease categorised data from popping out.

Several days later, after sustained strain from households of 9/11 victims, US President Joe Biden directed the Department of Justice to evaluation paperwork from the FBI investigation into the assaults for declassification and public launch.

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Twenty years on, the legacy of 9/11 continues to forged a shadow over a bilateral relationship that in some respects has advanced significantly because the terror assaults. The indisputable fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers have been Saudi nationals and the mastermind, Osama bin Laden, was a member of some of the profitable enterprise households in Saudi Arabia threatened to create the best rupture in US-Saudi ties since full diplomatic relations started within the 1930s. Initial reluctance by some Saudi leaders, together with Minister of Interior Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, to acknowledge the involvement of Saudis within the assaults, precipitated an extra furore.

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

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And but, when Robert Vitalis, an American political scientist, examined the problem, he discovered not solely that no point out of oil or safety was made on the 1945 assembly, however that “oil for security” first surfaced in 2002, months after the 9/11 assaults. Since then, the time period has develop into broadly adopted and perceived as historic.

To the extent that the US and Saudi Arabia do have a particular relationship, it emerged after 9/11. Washington and Riyadh labored carefully, as the previous pursued al-Qaeda and their Taliban hosts in Afghanistan and later prolonged its “war on terror” to Iraq in 2003. The many connections between the attackers and US associate states, together with Pakistan and the UAE in addition to Saudi Arabia, have been addressed in different far much less intrusive or invasive methods, by diplomacy fairly than power. One want solely think about how the response may need differed had 15 of the 19 hijackers been Iranian, for instance.

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9/11 has not totally disappeared as a difficulty, regardless of the passage of 20 years and the elimination of the “old guard” of senior princes in Riyadh who have been in positions of energy on the time, with solely King Salman remaining from that technology.

The US continued to be involved about charity fundraising in Saudi Arabia, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claiming as late as 2009 that personal donors within the nation continued to represent “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 each homes of Congress indicated how 9/11 nonetheless forged a strong, and at instances populist, political legacy.

After navigating the pitfalls of the emotive post-9/11 interval and making certain the sturdiness of the political and strategic elements of the connection with the US, Saudi leaders have, paradoxically, spent a lot of the second decade after 2001 in a state of some nervousness about their ties with Washington. Seen from Riyadh, it was the interval in and after 2011 that was extra worrying to them than 2001.

In Saudi eyes, the perceived US “abandonment” of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longstanding regional associate, to the Arab Spring, the willingness of the Obama administration to have interaction with Islamist teams the Saudis considered as a risk, and the next revelation of secret US dialogue with Iran in 2012-2013 have been of fairly larger concern than the fallout of 9/11.

Somewhat satirically, given the keenness with which Saudi leaders greeted Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016 and lavishly hosted him on his first abroad journey as president in May 2017, choices taken in the course of the Trump administration additional roiled bilateral ties. Trump initially took the Saudi (and Emirati) facet when he tweeted in assist of their blockade of Qatar in June 2017, however quickly reversed course within the face of opposition from his Departments of State and Defense in addition to navy commanders.

This was adopted by mounting public and political backlash within the US on the ongoing Saudi-led navy marketing campaign in Yemen and, in October 2018, near-unanimous revulsion on the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi contained in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Two points threaten to take US-Saudi ties into largely uncharted new territory. The first is the politicisation and personalisation of the connection in the course of the Trump period partly because of the unhealthily shut ties that have been seen to develop between principal figures, corresponding to 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 foundation of the US-Saudi partnership. While Israeli and Emirati leaders additionally turned carefully related to the Trump White House, US-Israel ties are primarily based on widespread and shared values not simply replicable for the Saudis, whereas the UAE rebuilt its political standing in Washington with the Abraham Accord, creating within the course of a ways from Riyadh in US eyes.

The second difficulty is the rising uncertainty in Riyadh about the way forward for the safety assure that Saudi and different regional leaders believed was the spine of their safety and defence partnerships with the US. To an extent, it is a repeat of the perceived abandonment of their pursuits by the Obama administration however with larger substance this time round, particularly after Trump not solely didn’t reply to the Iranian-linked assaults on Saudi oil amenities in 2019 but additionally made a degree of distinguishing between Saudi and US pursuits.

This got here as a shock to the management in Riyadh (and Abu Dhabi) which had lengthy assumed that their and US pursuits in regional safety have been one and the identical, particularly on any difficulty that needed to do with Iran, as they’d executed when commencing navy operations in Yemen in 2015.

Soon Mohammed bin Salman, who was simply a teen when the 9/11 assaults befell, will rule Saudi Arabia and try to information the dominion nicely into the midcentury. One of his seemingly responses to the uncertainties in US-Saudi relations – and his personal political difficulties in Washington – has been to diversify Saudi Arabia’s defence and safety partnerships.

Such measures are deemed vital within the wake of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the widespread assumption in Riyadh, and elsewhere within the area, that the US is in retreat from the Middle East. Sure sufficient, the crown prince’s brother and deputy defence minister, Khalid bin Salman, signed a navy cooperation settlement with Russia inside days of the autumn of Kabul.

The dilemma for the Saudis, nevertheless, stays the truth that no different nation is more likely to come near matching the breadth and depth of the partnership with the US, leaving Riyadh weak to political and financial drift.

The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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