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Ask Cokie: History Of U.S. And Saudi Relations


In 1945, an American leader met a king from Saudi Arabia. Here's a newsreel report from that time.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: An American destroyer comes alongside a cruiser in Great Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal in Egypt. It brings Ibn Saud, king of the 5 million people of Saudi Arabia, to a conference with President Roosevelt.

KING: That was the first time the Saudi monarch had left his home country. Now, 73 years later, the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is challenged by the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A lot of our listeners had questions about our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Here's Steve Inskeep.


We put your questions to commentator Cokie Roberts, who answers your inquiries each week about how politics and the government work. Hi there, Cokie.


INSKEEP: And it's certainly a big question how this relationship works. And here's our first question.

NICOLE BAKSINSKAS: This is Nicole Baksinskas from Nashville, Tenn. Is the U.S.-Saudi Arabia's special relationship really based primarily on an oil arms for arrangement or is there something more to it?

ROBERTS: Well, it's not oil for arms. It's oil and arms. Of recent years, the United States has become much more self-sufficient in terms of energy, but Saudi Arabia remains a huge producer of oil, and more important, incredibly influential in the international setting of oil prices. But it's also a purchaser, as President Trump has repeatedly said, of arms made by U.S. companies. But there's something more, and that is mainly Iran. The United States has seen Saudi Arabia as a check on Iran, both in the region internationally, and to the extent that it's a live issue, the U.S. also thinks that Saudi Arabia could be helpful in any elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

INSKEEP: Now, oil is also on the mind of our next listener.

SEAN FITZMORRIS: Hello. My name is Sean Fitzmorris. I'm from New Orleans, La. How did the U.S. view Saudi Arabia before oil was a thing? Thank you.

ROBERTS: Basically, there was no view before oil was a thing. Saudi Arabia as we know it was - became a country in 1932. The very next year, it signed an agreement with Standard Oil of California to form Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company, which is now owned by the Saudi state. And that happened even before it was clear how oil rich the country would be. The leader who unified the country and started the relationship with the U.S. was Abdulaziz ibn Saud. He had 45 sons, Steve, and all the kings since his death in 1953. And then one of those sons, the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, we've been hearing so much about lately, would be the first of the next generation if he becomes king.

INSKEEP: The next question is whether the U.S. being so close to the Saudis can get them to do anything.

ALEX LASSALLE: Hi. This is Alex Lassalle from Upton, Mass. How much influence does the United States have over Saudi Arabia's foreign policy?

ROBERTS: Well, I'd say the question is more how much the U.S. has chosen to exert. The biggest case in point at the moment is the civil war in Yemen, where the Saudis have been accused of bombing civilians and closing off access to humanitarian aid. So now there's enormous food crisis taking place. But because Iran is involved with the faction the Saudis are fighting, the United States has sided with the Saudis. But there are stirrings in Congress which showed up in the last defense bill of trying to protect civilians.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And there's talk of sanctioning Saudi Arabia in some way because of the journalist killing as well. Cokie, thanks as always.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by emailing us at askcokie@npr.org or tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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