An Unconventional Alliance


Review of Oil Powers: A History of the U.S.-Saudi Alliance by Victor McFarland

New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2020


Victor McFarland’s Oil Powers quietly demolishes the conventional wisdom of the history of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

That sentence deserves to be unpacked. After all, the term “conventional wisdom” is hung only about the necks of ideas that an author is about to trash. Writers who want to seem bold without making any enemies love the phrase because it lets them depict a belief as widespread without criticizing anyone in particular.

That’s also why watching an author howl at the conventional wisdom proves unsatisfying. If nobody in particular holds beliefs ascribed to everyone in general, then the blows the author strikes land on a target that cannot defend itself. An intellectual boxing match is exciting; watching someone pummel a punching bag is less so.

Nevertheless, we can rescue the utility of “conventional wisdom” by returning to the term’s roots. The term may not have originated with a 1958 book, The Affluent Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard economist and future adviser to President John F. Kennedy, but Google n-grams suggest that Galbraith gave it a massive boost in popularity.

Galbraith’s use of the term differed from its connotations today. He used it specifically to refer to “the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability”—ideas that would be as welcome before an audience of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as before a meeting of the AFL-CIO. “The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group,” Galbraith emphasized. Its broad acceptability makes any sort of challenge inherently suspect, including within the academy: “The conventional wisdom having been made more or less identical with sound scholarship, its position is virtually impregnable.”

This definition permits more precise identification of the conventional wisdom—for instance, in the work product of the U.S. foreign policy community. Thousands of brilliant minds (well, at least hundreds working amongst the thousands) in and out of government service endlessly produce blandly interchangeable reports about the need for leadership, strategy, and alliances. These documents result from a process that grinds away originality, leaving behind only consistency and compromise, conditions under which Galbraith’s vision of the conventional wisdom flourishes. These are the traits that led Obama’s foreign-policy guru Ben Rhodes to dismiss this establishment as “the Blob.”

Among the most prized elements of this conventional wisdom is the necessity of alliances. President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy platform centered his foreign policy on the theme of strengthening alliances: “calling on all NATO nations to recommit to their responsibilities as members of a democratic alliance”; “strengthen[ing] our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other Asian democracies,” “taking immediate steps to renew our own democracy and alliances.”

So rote would these pledges be in any context other than opposing the Trump administration that it brings to mind Galbraith’s line that “the articulation of the conventional wisdom is a religious rite…an act of affirmation like reading aloud from the Scriptures or going to church.” The problem with these invocations of the conventional wisdom, to be clear, is not the concept of an alliance but the lack of rigor that arguments develop when left unchallenged. Affirming the conventional wisdom against the intellectual straw man of the Trump administration leads to the same laziness that criticizing the conventional wisdom would normally bring.

And this brings us back to the service that McFarland provides in his quiet challenge to this conventional wisdom. For lurking in the celebration of alliances in the Biden platform is an unspoken assumption that all U.S. alliances are with democracies, or that at the very least U.S. alliances with other democracies exist on a separate plane from its partnerships with non-democratic systems. This perspective overlooks how, for decades, Washington’s relationships with nondemocratic countries have buttressed key elements of U.S. power abroad.

The longest-enduring of these relationships is the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia. Let’s not mince words: the two countries may not have a formal treaty alliance, as the U.S. does with South Korea or the NATO countries, but as McFarland demonstrates the two countries have mutually understood their economic and security relations to be closely tied. Despite occasional quibbles over terminology, the New York Times is right to identify Saudi Arabia as a “close ally.” Revisiting the history of this relationship at a time when the alliance seems to do more to foreclose than to open U.S. options—as Politico observes, is it possible to sanction an ally for human rights violations and still have them be an ally?—makes sense.

There is something of a conventional wisdom about the origins of this relationship as well (and here I will indulge in the sin I castigated above by targeting belief without identifying individuals). One strain, popular among the punditocracy and informed Americans, holds that the U.S. cares about Saudi Arabia because of its oil—not, the sophisticates hasten to explain, because the U.S. buys Saudi oil (it imports vastly more from Canada and other Western Hemisphere countries) but because Saudi oil prices affect the world price. Challenges to control of the kingdom’s oil fields by the Soviet Union, Iran, or Iraq (the latter’s threat was the real focus of the 1990-1991 Gulf war) spark U.S. reactions to defend the oil market.

Another version discards such crude determinism and reaches back to the Cold War to explain the depth of these ties. This version privileges political relationships, especially anticommunism, to explain the depth of the U.S.-Saudi relationships. Those relations, in turn, adjusted to the new post-Cold War order as Saudi Arabia emerged as a cornerstone of U.S. security architectures in the region, including resistance to regional hegemonic challenges (actual or potential) by Iran, Iraq, and outside powers.

These visions of the U.S.-Saudi relationship find easy expression in bullet points and sound bites. They even come easily illustrated, with familiar photographs of a clearly ailing Franklin Roosevelt meeting King Abdulaziz ibn Saud in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake in 1945 or George H.W. Bush sharing Thanksgiving dinner in the Saudi desert with U.S. troops taking part in Operation Desert Shield in 1990.

McFarland joins a wave of recent historians and political scientists who have turned a more critical eye on these stories and revealed a more complex relationship with no simple visual metonym. Toby Craig Jones’s 2010 Desert Kingdom, for instance, demonstrated that U.S. firms’ ties to the Saudi royal family antedated not only Abdulaziz’s meeting with FDR but even the discovery of oil. Jones argues that the quest for water—and the expertise that Americans and other non-Saudis brought to that quest—shaped the early governing structures that the al-Saud relied upon. Those relationships in turn inflected the development of the Saudi state, including its extraction of oil.

Robert Vitalis’s America’s Kingdom, published in 2006, earlier demonstrated that the road from oil to partnership was not always smooth. Creating a relationship between Washington and the Saudi court required first settling the kingdom’s economic basis, which in turn required smashing nascent labor movements among local workers in fields managed by the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO, now Saudi Aramco). It was not until the 1960s, when Abdulaziz’s successor Saud had been ousted and control of the monarchy rested firmly in more sympathetic factions of the sprawling royal family, that the alliance was solidified. (Vitalis sharpened these arguments in his 2020 book Oilcraft.)

McFarland draws upon works like these but focuses more narrowly on the U.S.-Saudi relationship even as he tries to contextualize it fully. Situating the emergence of a U.S.-Saudi alliance requires McFarland to comprehend a daunting array of subjects, which includes: internal Saudi politics; U.S. political dynamics; the economics of the international oil market; webs of corporate influence binding the American and Saudi elites; rivalries in the Middle East, including but by no means limited to the U.S.-Soviet conflict; the Arab-Israeli conflict; and the complex history of the formation and elaboration of the government of Saudi Arabia itself.

Covering a range of topics means that some subjects receive less time than one might wish. The most obvious trim comes in the treatment of the last three decades of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, squeezed into a few pages at the end. The subtitle “A History of the U.S.-Saudi Alliance, 1943-1979” would have been more accurate. The upside of this focus is that McFarland can center his attention on the development of Saudi-U.S. ties from their origins to the announcement of the Carter Doctrine that no outside power (either the Soviet Union or revolutionary Iran) would be allowed to dominate the Arabian Gulf—a defensible marker for the point at which Riyadh’s relations with Washington clearly became an alliance.

McFarland’s main goal is to undermine all of the standard stories about Saudi-U.S. relations. The opposite of the conventional wisdom, it turns out, is not arrogant myth busting but careful nuance. The title of the book reflects the fact that Saudi Arabia and the United States are both oil powers—even since the United States became a major importer, it has also remained a major oil producer, and indeed has accelerated its production of oil in the past two decades. When Saudi and American rulers began developing relations, moreover, not only was the United States the world’s leading producer but Saudi Arabia had not yet begun to pump oil.

Taking a holistic view of how oil has inflected Saudi-U.S. relations, McFarland demonstrates that the relationship was no simple bargain to trade security for oil. Saudi and U.S. leaders eventually hit upon a modus vivendi that represented the culmination of lobbying efforts by actors within each country (and some, like arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi or construction firm Bechtel, which spanned the two realms) under changing international circumstances. What began with initial commercial contacts between American firms and Saudi circles in the 1920s and 1930s—a major emphasis was on procuring enough buses and automobiles to sustain the pilgrim traffic to Mecca, and on building good roads and infrastructure in the holy cities and other parts of the kingdom—eventually became a bedrock of global politics and economics.

This change in the terms of U.S.-Saudi relations represented a shift from its beginnings. As McFarland carefully recounts, Prince Faisal—a prominent son of Abdulaziz—visited the United States during the Second World War, where he was wowed by the oil-fueled modernity and power of the U.S. government and society. A complex sequence of developments left Saudi Arabia well positioned to parlay its ample, cheaply extracted reserves into a dominant force in oil markets. First, there had to be the development of Saudi resources itself. Second, American policymakers had to decide that the reliance of European allies—not Americans—on Persian Gulf oil made the region strategically important, even as the United Kingdom was no longer capable of playing a decisive role in the region.

Finally, Western firms’ hegemony over oil markets, which had calibrated the supply of oil to guarantee profits and price stability for their home-country customers, had to be broken. This involved not only the nationalization of Western-dominated oil firms (eventually including Aramco itself) but also the stubborn resistance of Western governments and publics to accept any limitations on their consumption of oil. Even before the Yom Kippur War triggered the Arab oil producers’ announcement of a blockade (more honored in the breach) of the United States and other Western supporters of Israel, warnings of imminent price hikes circulated.

The price spike of late 1973 and early 1974, which quadrupled oil prices in the span of a few weeks, nevertheless came as a surprise to the conventional wisdom in Washington. Ignorant of economics and energy politics alike, Nixon, Kissinger, and members of Congress scrambled to respond. Yet even though simplistic models of politics—from both the anti-imperialist left and the hard-bitten “realist” right—would have predicted a coercive backlash, the ultimate effect was driving Washington and Saudi Arabia closer together.

As McFarland shows, by the 1970s, only the hardest-line members of the Nixon administration would seriously consider toppling regimes in oil-rich countries in response to the 1973 price hikes that left the U.S. economy gasping. Despite lamenting that “it is ridiculous that the civilized world is held up by 8 million savages,” even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger scorned suggestions by Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger that the U.S. consider invading Saudi Arabia in response: “He is insane.”

Instead of reprisals, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations chose paths that drove the United States and Saudi Arabia closer. As McFarland observers, a richer Saudi Arabia “had more to offer the United States as an investor, an export market, and a source of funds for anticommunist causes around the world” (139). The Saudis sold Washington on the idea that they were a force for moderation within OPEC. They pointed to their growing investments around the world as evidence that they too shared a stake in the health of the global economy, not merely in gouging oil consumers. Offering generous contracts to well-connected U.S. and Western firms helped sweeten the arrangement while dangling the promises of future riches for those who lost out in the first rounds, thereby cementing influence even with those who did not directly profit from petrodollars.

Government-to-government relations grew even closer. Although the U.S.-Saudi Joint Commission for Economic Cooperation (JECOR), a mechanism by which the U.S. government would tutor the Saudi regime in managing its new wealth, never lived up to its promise, it speaks to the closeness of relations that Riyadh would accept the “advice” of hundreds of American officials. More important, McFarland demonstrates, oil wealth allowed the Saudis to subsidize U.S. executive-branch foreign policy without going through Congress—strengthening the White House, and especially Cold Warriors, when post-Watergate shackles on the executive and a spirit of détente were supposed to have produced the opposite effects.

It also bears noting that it was American fears over European and other democratic allies’ reliance on oil that finally cemented the alliance in the late 1970s. Afraid that the Soviets would seek to exploit this soft underbelly, hawks in the Carter White House, like then-National Security Council staffer (and later “clash of civilizations” exponent) Samuel Huntington, called for the U.S. to develop a capability to project power into the region to repel a Soviet advance. Rather quickly, this position became mainstreamed, reaching the level of conventional wisdom when even Ted Kennedy, running as an insurgent against Carter in the 1980 presidential primaries, stated that the United States could not allow an outside power to dominate the Gulf.

These relationships transformed not only the alliance between the oil powers but their domestic economies and societies as well. In Saudi Arabia, the state seized oil wealth to turn its subjects into clients, disrupting (although not entirely displacing) other, “traditional” (a freighted word in this context) relationships. In the United States, McFarland argues, petrodollar recycling boosted the financialization of the American economy, aiding the destruction of blue-collar manufacturing jobs—including, ironically, the construction of oil tankers in New York’s former naval shipyards—through a one-two punch of more volatile oil prices and increased pressure, not least from the Saudis, to maintain a strong dollar.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has never rested on a popular foundation in either country. In the United States, McFarland argues, the spectacle of Saudi and other oil-rich Arab investors seizing the commanding heights of the economy provoked resentment. (Who knew that the “I’m mad as hell” speech from the film Network was provoked by the anchor’s company being bought by “Arabs”?) In the kingdom, popular resentment toward the United States meant that security cooperation had to be kept quiet, until the invasion of Kuwait and deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi soil shattered the monarchy’s claim that it needed no outside protector.

The history of the past three decades has been one of challenges to the alliance. U.S.-Saudi cooperation in Afghanistan and in the 1991 Gulf war provided the context that eventually produced the networks of radicals that attacked the World Trade Center in 1993 and, more seriously, in 2001. Americans’ enduring concerns over Saudi human rights violations have proven to be an enduring challenge to the elite ties that bind. And the most recent Saudi military involvement in Yemen has focused even more criticism on U.S. military and defense contracting ties with the kingdom. In that Biden campaign platform replete with encomiums for alliances, the only mention of Saudi Arabia was a call to “end our support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.”

The scholarship in the book demands careful attention. By plainly and thoroughly documenting the history of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, McFarland shows that the conventional wisdom about the conditions that generated the alliance is, indeed, wrong. The implications of his argument stretch farther. Despite the other set of conventional bromides that there are “good” alliances that U.S. leaders can neatly separate from messier ones, McFarland convincingly shows that it was precisely a solicitousness for how the U.S. could provide a service to Western Europe and Japan that made good relations with Saudi Arabia valuable.

Indeed, if there is a criticism to be made of this otherwise excellent book, it is that McFarland could have avoided some conventional wisdom of his own. McFarland concludes by arguing that the political and economic order that American and Saudi policymakers cemented in the mid-1970s may be “deeply entrenched” but “it is not natural or inevitable” (249). Of course—nothing is. But that does not mean that some paths are not more likely than others, nor that other paths might have led to still worse outcomes.

It’s likely that the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia will face increasing turmoil, but that has little to do with the moral virtues—or vices—of rulers in either country’s capital. The shift away from fossil fuels will itself likely make the Middle East of less immediate concern to U.S. policymakers. Simultaneously, China’s growing dependence on imported oil, and its similarly growing wealth and power, will provide Saudi Arabia with something its rulers have not had for decades: a viable outside option for a superpower patron.

McFarland may therefore be right that the established U.S.-Saudi order may not last. And it’s conventional wisdom in some quarters at least that the alliance has been more of a cost than a burden. Perhaps—but perhaps not. Observers might regard the bloody record of other periods of great-power transition and evince a little less eagerness to see what the future holds.



Posted on 31 March 2021

PAUL MUSGRAVE is assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He studies U.S. foreign policy, international relations theory, and how oil revenues change political institutions. He tweets at @profmusgrave.