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Several years back, I read somewhere that a Saudi prince was living just beside the home of the Bush family.

Saudis were involved in the 9/11 terrorist attack, and the US government was unable try the Saudi government.

Jamal Khashoggi's murder was also swept under the carpet.

A few years ago, Saudis were boycotting Canada over a Saudi citizen being given asylum by Canada. No Western country was able to say a word over this action.

So, how much influence do the Saudis actually have over the USA, and why?

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  • If boycotting another country is considered aggression, then the US is likely the most aggressive nation in the world right now, using number of aggressive acts as the metric.
    – doneal24
    Jun 24 at 17:42

2 Answers 2

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Most countries try to influence each other.

That can be in the form of public and private diplomacy of the embassy and consulates, talking to parliaments, governments, and the public. It can be in the form of public diplomacy from the home country, writing press releases designed to affect a target population in a certain way. (Compare the Ukrainian president, quoting Churchill to the Brits, talking about walls to the Germans, etc.) It can be by hiring public relations companies at home or abroad.

That is generally considered legitimate, at least if public statements disclose their origin.

Some countries try to pressure each other.

That depends on what levers those countries have. They might raise tariffs, or promise to lower them. They might give favorable or unfavorable prices for exports like oil, or refuse to sell at all. (Compare how Russia deals with their gas contracts right now.) They might provide financial guarantees to encourage trade.

That is sometimes considered legitimate. Breaking contracts is not OK, offering favorable contracts to some might fall under trade agreements a country might have signed, but generally offering good deals to friendly countries is permitted.

As to the specific case:

  • Saudi Arabia has oil, and it can influence other countries with oil.
    The US has their own sources, but they are still affected by changes in global market prices and supplies. That alone makes Saudi Arabia more influential than, say, Namibia.
  • Saudi Arabia has money.
    Having money to spend and invest is always a better position than asking for handouts.
  • Saudi Arabia is opposed to Iran.
    For historical reasons, the US is opposed to Iran. So is the American ally, Israel. Saudi Arabia is one of the Arab countries that may put their hostility towards Iran over their hostility towards Israel.
  • Relations become a habit.
    Even if objectively speaking, Saudi Arabia is not an obvious ally for the US, it has been an ally for a long time. Changing that would mean overturning established policies in both countries.

That being said, I believe that your question overstates the situation. I believe that the US government does find it convenient to work with and through Saudi Arabia, which shields Saudi Arabia from some but not all backlash their actions would otherwise bring. They are not as influential in Washington as the Canadians, or the UK, for instance.

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  • I don't think it's fair nor accurate to say that the US is opposed to Iran "for historical reasons" (maybe the other way around). The US is opposed to Iran because Iran is opposed to the US. During the cold war, Iran nationalized the oil industry, to the dismay of the British. The British asked the US for help (Similar situation with the French in Vietnam) and the US covertly overthrew their government and installed a US friendly dictator. This government was overthrown later and the new Iranian government is now anti-US for this reason.
    – uberhaxed
    Jun 24 at 18:26
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    @uberhaxed, I believe that by now it has gotten emotional for the US. Their public does not do well with countries which defy the US and don't back down. Compare their view of Germany and Japan with their view of Cuba or Iran. A world war could be mostly forgiven if the old enemy became staunchly anti-communist afterwards.
    – o.m.
    Jun 25 at 4:58
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    @uberhaxed Seems pretty fair and accurate to me. The US for one has never forgiven the humiliation of the embassy (which, to be fair, flew against all international norms on how to treat diplomats). US foreign policy towards Iran, like that towards Cuba, is mix of rational confrontational foreign policy towards an unfriendly country and plain petty emotional hissy fits. That's what it looks to many non-Americans anyway. So, yes, pretty much what answer state. Jun 25 at 17:54
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica This is a pretty fairy tale vision of the US. Not even US text books, which are straight propaganda, speak negatively of Iran so it's 100% wrong to say the US is anti-Iran for "historical reasons".
    – uberhaxed
    Jun 25 at 18:00
  • @uberhaxed If your criticism is that 50 years is not enough to consider "historical" enmity, you may have a point. Defending that the US isn't anti-iranian, but that Iran is anti-US and the USA is the poor victim reacting towards this hate is pure nonsense. The USA positioned itself as an enemy of Iran when it overthrew a democratically elected leader to install a dictator, and hasn't tried anything to amend the relationship since - neither has the other side, but there's no doubt about who started poisoning the well.
    – Rekesoft
    Jun 27 at 10:30
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It's a mix of factors, some of which are getting weaker as time goes on:

  • Saudi Arabia is not only the largest oil producer, it is the producer with the largest capacity to increase production very quickly, at low cost. Which can be used to either bail out the US or pressure other OPEC countries. This makes it a key ally when there is an oil price spike. Exhibit #1 on diminishing influence: Biden's call on Saudi to increase production went unanswered and the US produces much more oil domestically than before. With global warming, oil will also lose traction.

  • Saudi Arabia is, by far, the biggest buyer of US arms.

  • Saudi Arabia is anti-Iran for religious and regional power reasons. Saudi sees itself as the leader of the Muslim Sunnis and Iran is the leader of the Shias. Anyone disliking Iran is automatically thumbs up in US books. Then again, the ongoing mess in Yemen shows the limits of Saudi hard power.

  • Before the fall of the USSR, Saudi used to be one of the more West-oriented countries, in an area with a fair bit of Pan-Arab nationalism of the Socialist variety (Lybia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt pre-1980s...). This also made them a reliable anti-Communist bulwark when that mattered more. The Afgha Mujahideen for example were 50%/50% funded by the US and Saudi money. Exhibit #2: this doesn't matter near as much as before.

  • Saudi used to have a lot of disposable income. Money talks. But with a growing population, occasionally stagnating oil prices and a non-diversified economy, they seem like they have less to throw around.

  • Prior to 9/11, Saudi Arabia seemed like a conduit to influence the Arab world due to their money and prestige. Past 9/11 it is becoming more apparent that their influence can be fairly pernicious. Without the influence of Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism, Islam would be very different faith to the rest of the world. Ditto Afghanistan: Saudi sponsorship, used for both monetary and deniability reasons, routed through Pakistan, tended to reward the more religiously doctrinaire rebels, rather than the most effective militarily. Past 9/11, this is another thing that is being re-examined: Saudi's role, at least in the past, in promoting extremism, is wider knowledge. Note that, from 2006-ish on, the Saudi government cracked down fairly hard on its Wahhabi extremists: they tended to fatwa the royals themselves.

    • Saudi also led the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 towards Israel in 2002. But while it was groundbreaking, Israel also chose to ignore it, making that offer somewhat moot. As of this answer, Saudi has still not normalized relations with Israel, unlike some other Arab countries.
  • Saudi's treatment of women and minorities was always a rather well-known "secret" in the past. It was easy to read up about it, but rarely front page. With the advent of the internet, the occasional uncomplimentary article about teenage protesters on death row, women being forbidden to drive or to travel alone tends to receive much more frequent coverage. And, well, there is always that "regrettable incident" with Khashoggi.

To conclude: the US government always seemed to be rather fonder of the Saudis than the US public was, but the usefulness of Saudi Arabia could be waning. Ongoing US-Iran tensions counterbalance that somewhat.

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