Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled by the Al Saud family since its founding in 1932, wields significant global influence through its administration of 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. In recent years, shared concerns over Sunni Islamist extremist terrorism and Iranian government policies have provided some renewed logic for continued strategic cooperation.

Political upheaval and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa have created new challenges, and the Trump Administration has sought to strengthen U.S. ties to Saudi leaders as the kingdom implements a series of new domestic and foreign policy initiatives. Since March 2015, the U.S.-trained Saudi military has used U.S.-origin weaponry and, at times, U.S. logistical assistance and shared intelligence, in support of military operations in Yemen.

Some in Congress have grown critical of U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s leadership in light of Saudi policy in Yemen and the involvement of Saudi officials in the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Legislation has been proposed and considered in the 116th Congress to direct the President to withdraw U.S. forces from hostilities in Yemen or to limit or condition U.S.-Saudi defense cooperation and U.S. arms sales (e.g. S.J.Res. 7, S. 398, S.J.Res. 36, and H.R. 2500). A

mid missile and drone attacks on the kingdom attributed by U.S. officials to Iran and Iran-backed Yemenis, President Trump in 2019 deployed additional U.S. troops and military equipment to Saudi Arabia. In parallel to close security ties, official U.S. reports describe restrictions on human rights and religious freedom in the kingdom.

Some Saudi activists advocate for limited economic and political reforms, continuing decadeslong pattern of Saudi liberals, moderates, and conservatives advancing different visions for domestic change. Saudi leaders in 2018 reversed a long-standing ban on women’s right to drive and in 2019 loosened restrictions on other women’s rights, but over the same period have arrested a number of women’s rights advocates, human rights activists, and conservative critics of social liberalization. Public demonstrations remain rare and clashes involving Saudi security forces have not spread beyond certain predominantly Shia areas of the oil-rich Eastern Province.

Since assuming the throne in 2015, King Salman bin Abd al Aziz (age 84) has made a series of appointments and reassignments that have altered the responsibilities and relative power of leading members of the next generation of the Al Saud family, who are the grandsons of the kingdom’s founder.

The king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (age 34), is now the king’s successor and the central figure in Saudi policymaking. He has centralized control over security forces, sidelined potential rivals, begun implementing bold economic and social changes, and arrested prominent figures accused of corruption, including some royal family members. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership style has led many Saudis and outsiders to reexamine their assumptions about the kingdom’s future.

Ambitious plans for the transformation of the kingdom’s economy seek to provide opportunity for young Saudis and bolster non-oil sources of revenue for the state. Abroad, the kingdom pursues a multidirectional policy and has aggressively confronted perceived threats, while facing serious risks from cross-border attacks on its critical infrastructure. Congress may examine these developments when evaluating the scope, terms, and merits of U.S.-Saudi partnership, arms sales, nuclear energy cooperation, and U.S. security commitments.   Purchase this report.