How much does Saudi Arabia really rely on the US?

Donald Trump claims King Salman would ‘not last two weeks’ without American military support

Donald Trump shakes hands with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Donald Trump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a White House meeting in March
(Image credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has laid bare the Middle East’s primary power dynamic, claiming that Saudi Arabia and its King would not last “two weeks” in power without American military support.

Addressing a campaign rally in Mississippi, Trump appeared to call on rich allies to pay more for their own defence.

“And how about our military deals where we protect rich nations that we don't get reimbursed. How about that stuff? That's changing too folks,” he said. “We protect Saudi Arabia. Would you say they're rich? And I love the King... King Salman but I said ‘King, we're protecting you. You might not be there for two weeks without us. You have to pay for your military.’”

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The US-Saudi alliance is one of the most enduring diplomatic relationships in the world.

Forged during the Second World War, what is effectively an oil-for-arms arrangement has maintained the balance of power in the Middle East for decades.

“In addition to Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves and role as the spiritual anchor of the Sunni Muslim world, the long intelligence relationship helps explain why the United States has been reluctant to openly criticize Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses, its treatment of women and its support for the extreme strain of Islam, Wahhabism, that has inspired many of the very terrorist groups the United States is fighting,” wrote Mark Mazzetti in The New York Times in 2016. He argued that the alliance is kept afloat “on a sea of Saudi money and a recognition of mutual self-interest”.

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal marked the nadir in relations, but since Trump has come to power, ties between the Gulf kingdom and Washington have strengthened, especially after the administration announced it was withdrawing from the agreement. The White House has also defended Saudi involvement in Yemen, despite repeated criticism from the United Nations and international rights groups.

During his first official overseas trip as president, Trump signed a nearly $110bn defence deal with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. It was part of a much larger $350bn package of economic and defence investments between the two countries over the next ten years “which signaled a renewed US commitment to its alliance with Saudi Arabia”, says CNN.

Following a 2017 summit in Riyadh, both countries also agreed to increase cooperation on maritime security, military preparedness, arms transfers and cyber security.

Yet Trump’s bellicose comments belie a more complicated relationship, and his warning to the Kingdom to increase its defence spending or face an uncertain future can be seen as “an effort to pile on one of America’s closest allies over the rising cost of oil”, says The Independent.

With crude prices at a four-year-high and with midterm elections looming, Trump has repeatedly sought to pressure the Saudi-led Opec oil cartel into upping production.

But, in a sign of how intertwined both countries have become economically, Saudi Arabia has sought to “strike a balance between maximising revenue and keeping a lid on prices until US congressional elections”, says CNBC.

The news network says the Kingdom “still wants to keep oil prices as high as possible without offending Washington”, as it needs cash to finance a series of economic development projects.

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