Saudi, U.S. Relationship Becoming More Tense

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has seen better days.

Obama King Salman

Saudi Arabia is warning the United States that it may seek to develop its own nuclear weapon if Iran gets a weapon of its own:

WASHINGTON — When President Obama began making the case for a deal with Iran that would delay its ability to assemble an atomic weapon, his first argument was that a nuclear-armed Iran would set off a “free-for-all” of proliferation in the Arab world. “It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons,” he said in 2012.

Now, as he gathered Arab leaders over dinner at the White House on Wednesday  and prepared to meet with them at Camp David on Thursday, he faced a perverse consequence: Saudi Arabia and many of the smaller Arab states are now vowing to match whatever nuclear enrichment capability Iran is permitted to retain.

“We can’t sit back and be nowhere as Iran is allowed to retain much of its capability and amass its research,” one of the Arab leaders preparing to meet Mr. Obama said on Monday, declining to be named until he made his case directly to the president. Prince Turki bin Faisal, the 70-year-old former Saudi intelligence chief, has been touring the world with the same message.

“Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too,” he said at a recent conference in Seoul, South Korea.


The Arab leader interviewed on Monday said that countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, all to be represented at the Camp David meeting, had discussed a collective program of their own — couched, as Iran’s is, as a peaceful effort to develop nuclear energy. The United Arab Emirates signed a deal with the United States several years ago to build nuclear power plants, but it is prohibited under that plan from enriching its own uranium.

Over the last decade, the Saudi government has financed nuclear research projects but there is no evidence that it has ever tried to build or buy facilities of the kind Iran has assembled to master the fuel cycle, the independent production of the makings of a weapon.

Still, the Saudis have given the subject of nuclear armament more than passing thought. In the 1980s they bought a type of Chinese missile, called a DF-3, that could be used effectively only to deliver a nuclear weapon because the missiles were too large and inaccurate for any other purpose. American officials, led by Robert M. Gates, then the director of the C.I.A., protested. There is no evidence the Saudis ever obtained warheads to fit atop the missiles.

Obviously, nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is something that the Obama Administration, or any sane person for that matter, would rather avoid. Rather than seeing this as a sign of panic, though, it occurs to me that a good deal of what we’re seeing here is no small degree of public bravado on the part of the Saudis and others as part of an effort to extract concessions from the United States. Specifically, these parties are likely seeking some sort of security guarantees from the United States given the fact that they are now dealing with not only the threat posed by Iran but also the more immediate threat of ISIS and other radical movements that have already proven to be a serious threat to more traditional regimes in other parts of the region. In the case of the Saudis, there are also concerns about the situation in Yemen, which has led to them becoming directly involved in a ground war there that has all the earmarks of becoming a brutal, long-term affair that is likely to be a problem going forward for Riyadh. There have also been very public disagreements expressed by Saudi and other leaders regarding the proposed nuclear deal with Iran currently being negotiated in Switzerland. Ultimately, then, this is less about the Saudi’s actually actively pursuing a nuclear weapon, which would be an expensive affair that would take quite some time in any case, than it is about the Saudis and their Gulf allies trying to extract guarantees from the U.S. Whether we should actually grant those guarantees is, of course, another question.

All of this is occurring against a backdrop of what seems to be a time of a tense relationship between the United States and the nations of the Persian Gulf. This week, the President is convening a summit between the U.S. and the leadership of the Gulf nations at Camp David to discuss issues such as the rise of ISIS and Iran’s nuclear weapons, except that he’s now dealing with a very public snub. Two of the most important leaders in the region, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Bahrain’s King Hamad both announced this week that they would not be attending the summit, instead sending lower-ranking officials in their place. In both cases, public statements have been careful not to portray these as snubs, but it’s hard to see them any other way, especially in the case of King Salman who had previously publicly stated that he would be attending the meetings. As David Andrew Weinberg notes at The National Interest, these announcements seem to solidify the ongoing disputes between the U.S. and the Gulf states, and raise the possibility of an arms race in the Middle East that could prove to be quite problematic.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Scott says:

    One, the Saudis do not have the indigenous technical means to develop a nuclear weapon. They are no where near the Iranians in terms of an educated and capable population. They would not be able to develop one for decades. Most likely they will try to buy one from Pakistan (or Israel?).

    Two, seems to me that the Saudis need the US far more than we need them. So any snubbing is counterproductive.

    Three, could the solution be that the Saudis and Iranians actually talk to each other to work out their differences? Are we, through our involvement in the region, the barrier to that concept?

  2. Ben Wolf says:

    @Scott: The barrier is Saudi Arabia’s mass exportation of a violent interpretation of Islam which demands the deaths of Shi’a muslims. There is no chance of any reconciliation when al-Saud advance the notion of murdering every man, woman and child in Iran (this of course includes the murder of Iran’s Christians and Ba’hai.)

  3. Rob Prather says:

    Somewhat related, I would love to see us abandon the Saudis and most of that region: Saudi Executions

  4. Scott says:

    @Ben Wolf: And which we are aiding and abetting?

  5. John Burgess says:

    I see Simon Henderson is getting some traction. He’s the one spouting off about “snub.”

    Oddly enough, the Saudis are going out of their way to say that it isn’t a snub. That the king is staying home to oversee the 5-day ceasefire he’s engineered in Yemen.

    So, instead of his going, he sent the Crown Prince (who’s also Min. of Interior). And then the king calls Obama ahead of the conference to make sure he knows it’s not a snub. The Saudi Foreign Minister says, “No snub!” And then Obama says, “Hey, it’s all copacetic.”

    Yet it somehow remains a snub among the “Let’s you and him fight” club.

    If we’re going to read between lines, then we might as well also accept that the Saudis won’t have to buy a nuke from Pakistan. According to media reports, they’ve already done that by funding the Pakistani nuclear program from the start. The Saudis are just holding off on setting a delivery date.

  6. JohnMcC says:

    @Scott: In the Semour Hersh story about OBL and the revisionist history that he is telling there is a sideways reference to the Saudi Kingdom as having financed the Pakistani bomb and that a certain number of their warheads that the Paki military kept security on were actually property of the Saudi’s.

    Please consider the source! But it didn’t seem impossible. Reminded me of Dune and the ‘family nukes’.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    @Rob Prather:

    I agree. The KSA is a monstrous, evil regime whose ideological spawn have killed thousands of Americans and cost us hundreds of billions of dollars. Things have changed in the world of oil. We can get by on domestic and near-domestic (Canadian, Mexican, British) oil. China needs ME oil more than we do, let them inherit that nuthouse.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The primary customers for Saudi oil are already China, japan, South Korea, and India. IIRC we’re a distant fifth (around 5% of Saudi exports).

  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Yep. I think we should buy a nice card down at Hallmark and send it to Beijing with a pleasant note inside congratulating them on inheriting the Middle East. It was one thing keeping the oil flowing for our allies, but obviously it makes zero sense to be providing the same extremely expensive service to the Chinese.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    We’re way less dependent on their oil. And if any part of House of Bush, House of Saud is true, our current relationship is a huge improvement.

    How can the press even talk about this without getting into the cronyism between the Saudis and the Bushes?

  11. Davebo says:

    Once again, Oil is traded on a global market. The fact that we import little Saudi oil means nothing when considering their importance to us and the rest of the world.

  12. michael reynolds says:


    Yes, but why is this entirely on our shoulders? Why is the ME our problem alone?

    I tink Mr. Obama is doing excellent work pushing the Arabs to manage their own problems in Yemen and more importantly in Iraq. But the entire region has come to take for granted that we will keep the peace with our fleet and our air force and on occasion our army. If ME oil is so terribly important to the Chinese (with a GDP close to ours) and the EU (also with a GDP close to ours) and Japan and SK and India (not first tier powers, but not inconsiderable, either,) why is 100% of the burden on us?

    It made some sense when we were worried about the Soviets (all gone) and it made some sense when the Royal Navy carried that burden because they had an empire. But in a Soviet-free world, a world of free trade, a world where we can’t wring valuable concessions, this makes no sense at all.

    We carry the cost, we take the risk, and all we get is grief. Let’s see someone else do a better job.

  13. PJ says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Yes, but why is this entirely on our shoulders? Why is the ME our problem alone?

    Would you want OPEC to start trading oil in euros?

  14. Steve V says:

    De-Lurking/OT : What’s up with the ads? On my phone, the site rolls almost automatically to MySpace. Now on my desktop it rolls to “gogarden”-something. Someone is not getting value for their ad bucks, because this s**t is going to make me stop coming here at all.

  15. cd6 says:

    I mean… during the previous administration, our president and their King walked hand and hand in the garden, and enjoyed gentle smooches. Technically the relationship only COULD get further apart after that. Well, unless you consider… hmm….

  16. Rob Prather says:

    @Steve V: I’m experiencing the same thing. It’s opening new windows for some “educational garden” and when I close it, it takes the OTB page to “educational garden”.

  17. Slugger says:

    The Saudis have been the fountainhead of Wahhabism which is a aggressive ultra orthodox Sunni ideology and the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual driver behind AlQeada and its franchises like ISIS. They have used their position to drive the world wide price of petroleum since the 1970’s. They have used American arms and American blood to retrieve their satraps and punish other claimants for Sunni leadership. The idea that they are our friends is preposterous. Literally kissing up to them a la George Bush turned my stomach. We need to disengage. Disengagement needs to be done very carefully. No arms, no blood in Yemen is a start. Getting out of the insanity of the conflict in Syria should be the next step.
    If you want to be a friend to America, not financing 9/11 would be a start.
    Please note that I think that the other players in the Middle East including Iran and Israel are not friends of the US.

  18. MarkedMan says:


    One, the Saudis do not have the indigenous technical means to develop a nuclear weapon. They are no where near the Iranians in terms of an educated and capable population

    I’ve met a fair number of Saudis over the year and my impression is that anyone in the kingdom that shows any promise at all will be able to attend the best schools in the world via scholarships. And increasingly, the ‘government’ is paying enormous sums to have those schools open up campuses on their home turf. The Saudis have a lot of problems, but lack of an educated population is not one of them.

  19. Davebo says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It’s an excellent question Michael. But sadly the answer seems to be that we have put that burden on our shoulders ourselves.

    If you were China, the EU, etc. would you want to share the burden if you didn’t have to?

    And regarding KSA, what could we possibly do to push for reforms? It’s leadership has a tenuous hold at a best and I’m sure we’d both agree that as repugnant as we might find the royal family we probably would not like the likely replacement.

    It’s a bowl of f#cked up mess soup. You know that. But it’s the soup we have to deal with.

    Luckily, the Saudis aren’t about to go nuclear. Neither is Iran and obviously not Iraq or Syria. It’s a safe bet that there will continue to be only one nuclear power in the mideast and that everyone will continue to ignore that fact.

  20. lounsbury says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Because USA is the world’s single largest oil consumer and ME petrol is a substantial portion of total global supply. Given global markets, withdrawal of production impacts everyone’s pricing and ME has lowest cost, ergo highest impact.

    Your petrol intensive economy and sheer size sucking in all that oil make you uniquely vulnerable, so you’re not doing the world any particular favours, you’re following your state interest – although characteristically then whinging on about it as if you were doing the world favours out of some altruism….

    So it’s on your bloody shoulders because of your bloody primary interests mate, simple as that.

    @PJ: It really doesn’t matter terribly much if oil were traded in EUR.

  21. James Pearce says:


    So it’s on your bloody shoulders because of your bloody primary interests mate, simple as that.

    That’s becoming less and less true with each passing day. Our primary interest in the region is divorcing ourselves from it’s political problems. The oil, we can get elsewhere.

  22. stonetools says:


    Gotta agree with lounsbury. Look, Doug, Mike et al, oil is fungible. Think you can fence the US oil market away from the world market? Let a Shia rebellion break out in eastern Saudi Arabia( where the oilfields are)-and watch gasoline prices surge to $7 a gallon and the US economy stagger into a recession.

    I’m afraid that while the US consumes something like a quarter of the world’s oil, we are going to always have to be very concerned about what’s happening in ME. Sorry, but that’s real world.

  23. michael reynolds says:


    Oh baloney.

    If it’s in our interest it’s equally in Europe’s and China’s. Unlike Europe, we have other, reliable sources – our own, Mexico’s and Canada’s.

    China and the EU are perfectly capable of building a few destroyers and positioning a few troops. We are being used, and we are increasingly sick of it. It is ridiculous that 300 million Americans have to carry the load for 500 million Europeans and 1.3 billion Chinese.

  24. Franklin says:

    @Steve V: I’ve seen the gogarden thing, too, but only once or twice. A couple of times a year, I have those types of issues at OTB but they somehow clear up after a few days (i.e. I don’t know if somebody actively fixed them).

  25. Grewgills says:

    The last year I can find accurate records for (2014) the EU (18,297mbpd) used about as much petroleum as the US (19.15mbpd) and China used over 9mbpd. The EU and China together use about 1.5 times as much petroleum as the US does. It won’t be only or even primarily the US that suffers if oil production in the ME is significantly reduced. Pretending it is so does not make it so. How is it the responsibility of the US to bear the cost of securing that for all of us?

  26. lounsbury says:

    US economy is particularly oil intensive and US has particular political ‘interests’ – neither China nor EU share US particular political engagements re ME. And of course USA is particularly oil intensive among the developed economies.

    You’re pursuing your interests. Whinging on about the cost of that pursuit is typically hypocritical American self-pity.

    Others don’t “share” the cost because the interest is not there.

    @James Pearce:
    Rubbish. Oil market is liquid and global, your economic illiteracy notwithstanding.

  27. Tony W says:


    Others don’t “share” the cost because the interest is not there.

    Just like any relationship, those who care the most end up doing all the work.

  28. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I think a problem here too is that Mike happily imagines that China will shoulder an increased burden in managing the ME without demanding a say in the goals of such management.
    Take for example, Iran. It seems to be a conceit of both the left and the right that the US and Iran are pursuing an essentially bilateral negotiation, with China, Russia, and the EU being relegated to rubber stamping whatever the US wants. That is probably not the case: it would definitely not be the case were China to assume a greater role in the ME.

    China, for example, is probably much more concerned with assuring future oil supplies than with whether Iran goes nuclear or not. It regards the US fascination with Israel as a peculiar quirk quite at odds with Israel’s position in the world, and would be OK with a nuclear Iran , so long as it could build a pipeline from energy poor western China, ( where hundreds of millions of people live in poverty) to the oilfields of Iran.

    So, no, be careful what you wish for, Mike. An increased role for Russia and China in the ME would come with its own headaches- and might not result in a more peaceful, stable ME.

  29. Grewgills says:


    US economy is particularly oil intensive

    Europe uses near the same amount and the US has 2/3s the population, that is true. That, however, doesn’t mean that the EU will suffer less than the US if its primary source is blocked at the tap. Having to arrange to buy their oil from other sources that the US and others are currently using will cost substantially more.

    You’re pursuing your interests. Whinging on about the cost of that pursuit is typically hypocritical American self-pity.

    Keeping ME oil flowing is in all of our interests. Don’t be as big a git as you accuse others of being. If petroleum wasn’t such a big deal to the EU they wouldn’t whinge so much about sanctions against Russia on that front.

    Others don’t “share” the cost because the interest is not there.

    Others don’t share the cost, because someone is already footing the bill and they don’t have to share them. As long as mommy and daddy are buying your dinner you don’t even have to pay the tip.

    Rubbish. Oil market is liquid and global, your economic illiteracy notwithstanding.

    Oil is fungible, but long standing agreements and geography matter. Our economies are interconnected. So, even if the EU suffered less from a ME oil shortage the EU and China would suffer from the blow to the American economy. You benefit from our expense and get petulant when we point out that you are a free rider.

  30. lounsbury says:

    (1) No EU does not use about the same amount. Of course EU is not a country, now is it? Per capita oil consumption (contra energy consumption) is rather lower in EU overall, as one can see in the BP Statistical review):

    The economics of oil market price changes matter rather more directly and cause pain to USA rather more abruptly.

    (2) EU is not a single decision making entity, whatever Bruxelles dreams, so making a EU to USA national interest comparison is frankly stupid. No EU military. There are national
    militaries and national interests.

    (3) ‘Keeping oil flowing’ out of ME is in no way synonymous with “sharing US interests as to the geopolitical structure of ME”

    (4) The American self-perception that Their Policy = Mommy & Daddy paying the bills is just that, self-perception and mistaking your narrow interests for global interests.

    What happens is not Europeans “getting petulant” – rather it is the gross American self-deception that the policy and geopolitical approach which they are paying for is something that is particularly viewed as desirous as such, and that your interventionism in particular is per se advantageous.

    The fact that one’s cousins insist on flamboyant dinners and intervening neighbourhood disputes in a blundering and ill-thought through fashion does not render it in your interests to pursue the same as such.

    As a single state actor that is at once the single largest oil consumer and one of the most intensive oil consumers on a per capita basis gives you particular interests and policy desires. They are not, however, synonymous with “Rest of World” interests as to ME and ME oil.

    Whinging on that Rest of World is not particularly inclined to for some reason”share the burden” of your particular ME policies and approaches. That is mere gross and blind hypocrisy, and typical American navel-gazing provincialism.

    This is not to take a position on said policies, but they are driven by your state interests and decided with a Free Hand.

    Since USA is so notoriously adverse to collective decisions via multi-lateral bodies, it is rather rich to then whinge on about the results of that preference.

  31. Grewgills says:

    (1) 18,297mbpd ~ 19.15mbpd, so yes it is about the same.

    (2) EU to US is a more fair comparison based on population and geographic size than single nation to nation comparisons.

    (3) The primary geopolitical interest in the ME is keeping the oil flowing. Absent that the US wouldn’t much care what happened there.

    (4) On defense, yes Europe is very nearly free riding.

    If I’m not mistaken you are British. Your country has rather eagerly tagged along on pretty much all of our ME military adventurism (for good and bad) and, particularly early on, instigated much of the worst of it.

  32. lounsbury says:

    Per capita is what I was bloody comparing you dim sod and what BP shows. That is the fair comparison.

    The intensity of usage drives the intensity of engagement.

    And no, comparing a National Actor to a continent or economic group is nonsense as to the actions of national actors. It is sheer magical thinking.

    USA to China is a fine comparison. EU is nonsense. If you wish to normalize comparison and national interest intensity it is on per capita.

  33. Grewgills says:


    Per capita is what I was bloody comparing you dim sod

    And there is the condescending shmuck we all know. The numbers I brought showed near equal total amount of petroleum used over a much closer geographic area and much closer population numbers. The entire EU is/was about half the area of the US and about half again the population and used about the same amount of petroleum. That would be about 2/3s the per capita usage. One could certainly cherry pick individual EU nations that use less than that average. The UK, for example, falls well below that average yet seems to be the most willing follower in our ME adventurism.

    USA to China is a fine comparison. EU is nonsense. If you wish to normalize comparison and national interest intensity it is on per capita.

    By your own standard that is nonsense. China uses about half what the US does as opposed to near the same and has more than 4 times the population, so per capita used 1/8th as much as the US. The EU average is about 2/3s.

    Aside from that, the sources currently used by the EU and China are more ME centric and the sources currently used by the US are MUCH less so. Oil is fungible, but there is a reason that we each use the sources we use and loss of ME oil would hit the EU, not just the US hard. Anything that hits the US economy will cascade through the EU and China. Denying that does not make it so. Calling me provincial doesn’t make you smarter or more right. The Eu and China have considerable interest in keeping ME oil flowing. Them pulling their weight doesn’t mean supporting every or even most US moves in the region, particularly since more than a few of those moves have been counterproductive, but it does mean doing something other than sitting back and whinging that the US is doing it wrong.