Ever since the highly consequential meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia in 1945, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has steadily grown to become an important cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. It is no secret that major challenges struck this relationship; policymakers in Washington and Riyadh traded harsh rhetorical blows over the 1973 oil embargo, the degree of Saudi Arabia’s culpability for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and most recently the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in Istanbul. In spite of these tensions, the partnership between the two states has endured. In 2022, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and as the U.S. is engaged in talks with Iran to revive the JCPOA nuclear agreement, the two countries appear to have realized the need for closer coordination. Among many issues, the stability of global oil markets, the geopolitics of the Gulf region, and other shared security and economic interests have brought Riyadh and Washington closer together again.
At time that U.S. and Saudi officials navigate the short-term ups and downs in their bilateral relationship, there have been signs of a deeper divergence of geopolitical interests. Over the past decade, the two countries have held opposite views on the Arab Spring, the war in Yemen, the implementation of the JCPOA, the degree of Washington’s commitment to the security of the Gulf region, Saudi-Russian coordination in the oil market, and other topics related to the intra-GCC relations and domestic changes in Saudi Arabia. All of these topics have had an impact on the Saudi-American partnership. As the divergence becomes more obvious, Riyadh has pursued closer ties with Moscow and Beijing, and Washington has sought to form a more effective partnership with other Arab countries to balance its interests in the region.
In 2022, what issues bring Washington and Riyadh closer together, or push them apart? Why is Biden visiting Riyadh after calling it a “pariah” state? Are the U.S.-Saudi relations institutionalized, or based on personal relations between the two countries’ leaders? How have the foundations of the geopolitical relationship changed over the last decade? Is Saudi Arabia looking for a new superpower partner? Finally, how have economic issues, including the global transition to cleaner energy, changed the calculus of the two countries’ relations?
Featured speakers: Dr. Daniel Serwer (moderator), Dr. Abdullah Alshayji, Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Anna Jacobs, and Professor Douglas London.
Professor Daniel Serwer (moderator)
Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Professor Daniel Serwer (Ph.D, Princeton) is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he taught conflict management for a decade. He is affiliated as a scholar with the Middle East Institute and serves on the board of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, as well as on the J Street Advisory Council. His current interests focus on the civilian instruments needed to protect U.S. national security as well as transition and state-building in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans. His book, Righting the Balance: How You Can Help Protect America, was published in November 2013 by Potomac Books and his From War to Peace in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Ukraine was published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2019.
Formerly vice president for centers of peacebuilding innovation at the United States Institute of Peace, he led teams there working on rule of law, religion, economics, media, technology, security sector governance, and gender. He was also vice president for peace and stability operations at USIP, where he led its peacebuilding work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and the Balkans and served as Executive Director of the Hamilton/Baker Iraq Study Group. Serwer has worked on preventing inter-ethnic and sectarian conflict in Iraq and has facilitated dialogue between Serbs and Albanias in the Balkans.
As a minister-counselor at the U.S. Department of State, Serwer directed the European office of intelligence and research and served as U.S. special envoy and coordinator for the Bosnian Federation, mediating between Croats and Muslims and negotiating the first agreement reached at the Dayton peace talks. From 1990 to 1993, he was deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, leading a major diplomatic mission through the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War.
Dr. Abdullah Alshayji
Professor, Kuwait University
Dr. Abdullah K. Alshayji is a professor as well as the former chairman and director of the graduate program of the political science department at Kuwait University. He is an expert in U.S. politics, Gulf Cooperation Council security, and political development, and has published extensively on these issues. From 2007-09, Alshayji was the head of the American studies unit at Kuwait University. He later served as a special advisor to the speaker of the Kuwaiti Parliament, the foreign relations committee, the committee investigating the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the committee for Kuwaiti prisoners of war and hostages in Iraq. From 2008-2009, he was a member of the advisory board of the committee in charge of drafting a comprehensive national security strategy at the Kuwaiti government’s Bureau of National Security. From 2001-2004, Alshayji served as counselor and head of the Kuwaiti Information and Media Bureau at the Kuwaiti Embassy in Lebanon. He received his bachelor’s and master’s in political science from Oklahoma State University and his PhD in political science from the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Alshayji is the author of two books, Gulf Cooperation Council’s Crises and The Development of the US Presidents’ Doctrines from George Washington to George Bush 1789-1993, and US Presidential Doctrines Post Cold War Era: From Bill Clinton to Barrack Obama-1993-2017.
Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East, Rice University; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Gulf International Forum
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Ph.D., is a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East. Working across the disciplines of political science, international relations and international political economy, his research examines the changing position of Persian Gulf states in the global order, as well as the emergence of longer-term, nonmilitary challenges to regional security. Previously, he worked as a senior Gulf analyst at the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies between 2006 and 2008 and as co-director of the Kuwait Program on Development, Governance and Globalization in the Gulf States at the London School of Economics (LSE) from 2008 until 2013.
Gulf States Senior Analyst, Crisis Group
As Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for the Gulf states, Anna Jacobs covers the foreign policies of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, with a focus on regional security and conflict mitigation efforts in the Gulf region and in Africa. Anna has been living and working as a foreign policy researcher in the Middle East since 2011. She specializes in the foreign policies of Gulf Arab states, with a focus on the Gulf region and Africa. Anna is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW) where she has written on Gulf states foreign policies in Africa and the Mediterranean region. Her work has been published by the Brookings Institution, Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Al Sharq Strategic Research, and elsewhere.
Prior to joining Crisis Group in July 2022, Anna worked as a senior political officer focusing on Track 2 dialogues in the Gulf region for The Shaikh Group. She also worked as the Senior Research Assistant at the Brookings Doha Center, as the Academic Director for the SIT Study Abroad journalism program in Morocco, as a lecturer in political economy and media at Rabat’s Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie, and as a political risk consultant. She received a Master of Philosophy in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford where she specialized in political economy, foreign policy, and Arabic. She is a Fulbright Scholar and a graduate of the University of Virginia.
Professor Douglas London
Professor, Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service; Non-Resident Fellow, the Middle East Institute
Professor Douglas London is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence,” Hachette Books, September 28, 2021, is a 34-year veteran of CIA’s Clandestine Service who retired in 2019. Mr. London spent the majority of his career overseas and served extensively across the Middle East, South Asia, the former Soviet republics and Africa, including three assignments as a Chief of Station and one as a CIA Base Chief in a conflict zone. In addition to his overseas experience, Mr. London was a CIA subject matter expert in counterterrorism, counterintelligence, Iran, cyber and hostile environment operations in denied areas. He also served as an intelligence tradecraft instructor. During his service, Mr. London spoke Russian and French with professional competency, and Arabic with limited proficiency. Since his retirement, Mr. London has taught intelligence concentration courses at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, is a non-resident fellow with the Middle East Institute, and writes on national security topics. He has been a contributor for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Politico, Just Security, the Hill, CNN Online and the Middle East Institute. Mr. London has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, PBS News Hour, NPR, NBC, ABC, BBC and al-Jazeera, and is frequently quoted by a wide range of national security reporters. He has lectured at universities across the US, Europe and been routinely interviewed on podcasts addressing national security and intelligence issues.