Summary

  • From Operation Desert Storm in 1990 until the U.S. overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was the United States’ key Arab partner in confronting the problems to international stability emanating from Iraq. Over that decade and more, however, the demands associated with containing Iraq and Saddam Hussein began to place unprecedented strains on the U.S.-Saudi relationship, particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the run up to the U.S. invasion. The abnormal situation that bound Saudi Arabia to the United States in having to face a common threat from Iraq has now given way to a more normal situation in which the two countries’ interests and approaches toward Iraq will converge or diverge, depending on the issue concerned.
  • Riyadh’s policy toward Baghdad over the next several years will probably be dominated by four key concerns about the future of Iraq: domestic stability, foreign meddling, oil production policy, and Iraq’s political evolution (especially the role of the Shia). Of these, far and away the most important to Riyadh is stability.
  • Even if Iraq achieves a stable, legitimate government, it would still be a mistake to foresee its relations with Saudi Arabia as trouble-free. Ever since the emergence of the Saudi and Iraqi states in the wake of World War I, relations between the two have been problematic. The post-Saddam period promises to be another era of bilateral difficulties over oil policies; the demonstration effect on Saudi Arabia from Iraq’s democratization; and cross-border religious influence, particularly from Shia in both states and on Iraq’s Sunni community from Saudi Arabia’s support of Wahhabi propaganda.
  • In the near term, the U.S. and Saudi perspectives on Iraq will be quite similar, with both countries tightly focused on restoring peace and order, and preventing the propagation of terrorism spurred by the fighting in Iraq. Beyond that, however, there is ample room for divergence. Saudi Arabia values its ties to Washington, but its ability to cooperate with U.S. policy will be limited by regional and domestic pressures. Riyadh’s attention will frequently be distracted by the bumps and potholes on its own developmental path. Ensuring that Saudi Arabia is a force for stability in the Gulf rather than a source of disruption will be a continuing challenge for U.S. diplomacy.

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