Matthias Wasinger is an Austrian Army officer. He can be found on LinkedIn. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the Austrian Armed Forces, the Austrian Ministry of Defense, or the Austrian Government.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group.

Title:  Assessing the Relationship Between the United States and Saudi Arabia –An Unethical Partnership with Multiple Purposes?

Date Originally Written:  June 1, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  August 3, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is an active General Staff Officer. Following Charles de Gaulle’s quote that nations do not have friends, but interests, he believes in the dominance of political realism over ethical considerations when it comes to vital national interests. This assessment is written from the author’s point of view on how economic considerations dominate U.S. foreign policy.

Summary:  “The end is the outcome or the effect, and if a prince wins and maintains a state, the means will always be judged honorable.” Niccolò Machiavelli described in this way the discrepancy between ethics, politics, and policy. The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, illustrates the differences between its words that proclaim it as the lighthouse of liberty and democracy, and how it acts when torn between ethics, ambition, and necessity.

Text:  The Iranian attack on a Saudi Arabian oil production facility in September 2019 was, so far, the peak of continuously growing hostilities between these two regional powers. Besides official protests from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the U.S. condemned Iranian aggression. Although U.S. President Donald Trump finally refused to take retaliatory measures against Iran, this attack led to a remarkable deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia. Why does the U.S., the self-proclaimed lighthouse of liberty and democracy, feels so affiliated with a Kingdom that is repeatedly condemned for human rights violations?

A nation’s purpose is to ensure a society’s existence. In this regard, nations develop strategies, consisting of ends, ways, and means, facilitating a desired end state. In the National Security Strategy (NSS), the U.S. defines the desired end state “America First,” facilitated by the four goals[1]. Although the NSS clearly outlines the U.S.’ unique national capacities, it emphasizes the importance of partnerships and alliances[2]. One of the U.S.’s critical partners is the KSA. The fact that the KSA’s Wahabi monarchy is a country restricting religious freedom, denying gender equality, and promoting the Sharia founding religious schools in that spirit around worldwide makes the partnership appear at least strange[3]. At first glance, the characteristic is not congruent with the idea of “the American Way of Life.” Might it be “Bismarck-ian strategic thinking[4],” the idea of maintaining an ally instead of destroying or even gaining an enemy[5], ties the U.S. to KSA?

The most problematic sphere of the U.S. – Saudi relationship is linked to the goal (1) “Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life.” The majority of the terrorists responsible for 9/11 came from KSA. Rumors about financial support to terror organizations never silenced. Osama Bin-Laden even lived in the Wahabi Kingdom[6]. All of that is contradictory to the idea of the NSS. What are the U.S.’ benefits from this partnership?

U.S. National Security Strategy Goals

(1) Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life:

The benefit of the U.S. – Saudi Arabian relationship is at least questionable. The possible infliction of the Wahabi Kingdom in terror attacks even had a severe impact on this relationship[7]. In consequence, Saudi Arabia promotes its efforts on counter-terrorism operations since 9/11[8].

Additionally, promoting the Sharia, political assassination[9], and beheadings as death-penalty hardly correlates with the American Way of Life. However, economic prosperity, facilitated by ties to the Middle East, is a precondition for protecting the American way of life.

(2) Promote American Prosperity:

The U.S. and KSA have close economic ties, based on oil, reciprocal investments, and weapon sales. Most of the Saudi Arabian economic key leaders studied in the U.S. and are, therefore, eager to maintain close connections[10]. Saudi Arabia possesses the second-largest oil reserves (the U.S. is the 10th largest[11]) worldwide after Venezuela. When it comes to dealing arms, the Wahabi leadership negotiated a 110 billion dollars treaty with follow-on investments within the next ten years, worth 350 billion dollars[12].

Saudi Arabia is mentioned once in the NSS. Although just in a regional context, it is mentioned – like Egypt – as an area of interest to modernize its economy. U.S. military presence is very often an expression of national interest. Within KSA, there are five U.S. Air Force bases[13], hosting military capability packages to survey the essential sea lines of communication from the Arab Gulf along the Yemeni coast, the Bab El Mandeb through the Suez channel, the lifeline for U.S. oil imports from the Arab world[14]. The U.S. military’s force posture is in line with the national interests, according to the NSS.

(3) Preserve Peace through Strength:

It is an inherent part of the U.S.’ strategic understanding to ensure its national security by a deterrent military force such as the one based in the KSA. Strategic partnerships and the U.S. Navy keep conflicts out of the continental U.S. Consequently, the U.S. military is focused on out-of-area and expeditionary warfare. During the Second World War, the U.S. has proven its unique capabilities to conduct amphibious operations, accomplishing the landings in Italy, the Pacific, and on the Normandy’s shores. Nevertheless, the price-tag in soldiers’ lives was extraordinarily high[15]. It is unlikely that a nation would be willing to suffer such losses again in the 21st century, a period of reluctance to bear heavy losses[16].

It appears logical to establish and maintain strategic partnerships – regardless of ideological distances/differences – to avoid the necessity to conduct amphibious operations again. In consequence, worldwide partnerships are a reasonable approach for permanent pre-positioning of forces and, in a follow-on phase, to be used as assembly as well as staging areas for large scale combat operations. It is an interesting detail that in the KSA the U.S.’ military areas of interest overlap with its economic ones. Partnerships and deterrent armed forces require, like the American way of life, economic prosperity to finance national interests.

(4) Advance American Influence:

Partnerships and alliances are crucial for the U.S.[17] They are the tools for advancing American influence. Besides the fact that these partnerships and alliances enable a strong force posture towards upcoming or recent adversaries, they immensely support end (2) American prosperity. The inclusion of eastern European states in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (reducing Russian influence, primarily economically[18]) is a remarkable example of forcefully advancing the U.S.’ influence, followed by pushing for a more significant military commitment of European NATO members (overtaking the [financial] burden of deterring Russia to free forces[19]), pre-deploying forces to South Korea, and maintaining the partnership with Japan (containing China’s expansionism[20]). In the vein, the KSA is an economical source of strength for the U.S. and a potential staging area to maintain an appropriate force flow for military operations in the Middle East.

Economic prosperity, goal (2), is the critical requirement within the U.S. NSS. Consequently, it dictates necessities for the political level, regardless of the ideological differences and ethical considerations. Niccolò Machiavelli described an eternal rule: “The end is the outcome or the effect, and if a prince wins and maintains a state, the means will always be judged honorable[21].”


[1] National Security Strategy of the United States of America: NSS (2017), II-VI.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Fatimah Alyas, “US-Saudi Arabia Relations: Relations Between the Two Countries, Long Bound by Common Interests in Oil and Security, Have Strained over What Some Analysts See as a More Assertive Saudi Foreign Policy”, (accessed October 1, 2019).

[4] Geoffrey Parker, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare: The Triumph of the West/ Edited by Geoffrey Parker, Rev. and updated ed., Cambridge illustrated Histories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 236.

[5] Peter Paret, Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert, Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age/ Edited by Peter Paret with Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 293-295.

[6] Fatimah Alyas, “US-Saudi Arabia Relations”.

[7] Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations (2018), 18-19.

[8] Saudi Arabia and Counterterrorism (2019), passim.

[9] Ian Black, “Jamal Khashoggi Obituary: Saudi Arabian Journalist Who Fell Foul of His Country’s Ruling Dynasty After Moving Abroad so He Could Criticise It More Freely,” The Guardian, October 19, 2018, Saudi Arabian journalist who fell foul of his country’s ruling dynasty after moving abroad so he could criticize it more freely.

[10] Fatimah Alyas, “US-Saudi Arabia Relations”.

[11] Howard J. Shatz, US International Economic Strategy in a Turbulent World (2016), 35.

[12] Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations, 21-22.

[13], “U.S. Military Bases in Saudi Arabia,”, (accessed October 1, 2019).

[14] Jean-Paul Rodrigue, “International Oil Transportation: Petroleum Remains a Strategic Resource in the Global Economy Underlining the Challenges of Producing and Transporting Oil,”, (accessed October 1, 2019).

[15] Klaus Roch, Viribus Unitis – Analyse Von Operationen: Ausgewählte Seminararbeiten Des 20. Generalstabslehrganges, Militärwissenschaftliches Journal der Landesverteidigingsakademie 2015, Band 16 (Wien: Republik Österreich, Bundesministerium für Landesverteidigung und Sport, 2015), 108-110.

[16] Martin van Creveld, Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West and What Can Be Done About It, First edition (Mevasseret Zion, Israel: DLVC Enterprises, 2016), 224-229.

[17] National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 26.

[18] Ibid., 38.

[19] Posture Statement US EUCOM (2019), 3-5.

[20] National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 47.

[21] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, 2nd ed. (Chicago, Ill., London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), XVIII.