Q&A: Victor McFarland on the History of the U.S.-Saudi Alliance

The extraordinary relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has influenced both countries, often for the worse. There is no better guide to the origins of this complex alliance than Victor McFarland’s new book. Anyone with an interest in the U.S. role in the Middle East should read it.

~Odd Arne Westad, author of The Cold War: A World History

In Oil Powers, the historian Victor McFarland traces the history of the controversial alliance between America and Saudi Arabia to its origins in the mid-twentieth century. He challenges the view that the U.S.-Saudi alliance is the inevitable consequence of American energy demand and Saudi Arabia’s huge oil reserves. Instead, he traces the growth of the alliance through a dense web of political, economic, and social connections that bolstered royal and executive power and the national-security state, showing how U.S. and Saudi elites collaborated to advance their shared interests against rivals at home and abroad. 

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First of all, congratulations on the publication of Oil Powers: A History of the U.S.-Saudi Alliance. It’s a fascinating read and a much-needed addition to the conversation about the history of Saudi-U.S. relations.

Q: I hoped you could first introduce us to a key term of the book—“oil power”—and tell us about the connection between oil and politics that it describes. You refer to both Saudi Arabia and the United States as “oil powers” rather than use the more popular term “oil states.” How do these terms differ, and what argument does this difference allow you to make?

Victor McFarland: The term “oil states” puts Saudi Arabia and the other oil-exporting nations in a special category, separate from the rest of the world. I wanted to look past that distinction, to see the ways in which both the United States and Saudi Arabia are oil powers. Petroleum made Saudi Arabia a wealthier and more powerful country, but it did the same for the United States. For more than one hundred years after the beginning of the modern oil industry in the 1850s, the United States was undoubtedly the most important oil producer in the world. Those resources underwrote American military and economic influence around the world. Even as the balance of power in the global oil market shifted during the 1970s, U.S. leaders still saw control over oil as a vital tool for U.S. foreign policy. They desperately sought to increase oil production at home, and they tried to influence the main oil exportersespecially Saudi Arabiato act in the interests of the United States.

The terms “oil state” and “petro-state” imply that there’s something abnormal about oil exporters, including the “oil curse” that supposedly dooms them to autocracy and economic dysfunction. It’s true that oil wealth has transformed Saudi Arabia and financed the authoritarian Saudi regime. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that petroleum and the machines that run on it have become so ubiquitous that all states are now oil states, in one way or another. Oil has changed the consumer nations as well as the producer nations. The United States and Saudi Arabia both helped bring that oil-dependent global order into being.

Q: You center the book around the well-known oil embargo and resultant crisis during the 1970s, but you expand the timeframe of analysis for these events, beginning with Saudi history from the 1920s and 1930s and ending with a discussion of the Gulf War. How does increasing the temporal scope of the book change our understanding of the oil crisis of the 1970s?

VM: During the 1970s, oil prices soared, and Saudi Arabia and the other oil exporters took more control over their own natural resources. It’s hard to appreciate the significance of that transformation without putting it in a broader historical context. The United States was the world’s leading oil exporter until the late 1940s. American oil fueled the Allied military effort during both world wars. Even after the United States became a net importer, American and British oil companies still ran most of the world’s biggest oilfieldsincluding the ones in Saudi Arabia. Prices were very stable for decades, and American consumers never had to worry about the availability of gasoline and other fuels. When that changed in the early 1970s, it was a real shock. The direct economic effects of the 1973–74 embargo were limited, but the psychological impact was much bigger.

The 1970s brought even bigger changes to Saudi Arabia. Today the kingdom has such a reputation for oil wealth that it’s easy to forget that things weren’t always that way. Saudi Arabia used to be one of the least-developed countries in the region. As late as 1970, the Saudi government was running a deficit, and Saudi leaders were trying to secure foreign aid from the United States to pay their bills. Just three years later, the situation was reversed. The kingdom was experiencing truly extraordinary economic growth, and the Nixon administration was trying to get Saudi Arabia to invest in American markets and subsidize U.S. foreign policy initiatives.

 We can’t appreciate the consolidation of the U.S.-Saudi alliance during the 1970s without contrasting it with what came before. The roots of that relationship stretch back to the early twentieth century, but it took decades to develop. U.S. officials had persistent doubts about the long-term survival prospects of the Saudi monarchy. Those doubts were set aside only after the oil boom changed the way U.S. policy makers (and everyone else) looked at the kingdom.

Q: Oil Powers was a difficult book to research because many primary sources related to the material you study are difficult or impossible to access. Can you tell me about the sort of archival research that went into the project?

VM: The Saudi regime has never opened its archives to the public, but there are still valuable resources for historians in the kingdom. I served as a visiting fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. I also went to the headquarters of the oil company Saudi Aramco in Dhahran and to Jeddah on the Red Sea coast. I interviewed former Saudi officials and read widely in published sources, especially newspapers. The newspaper collection at the King Saud University library was especially helpful. It’s easy to dismiss the Saudi press because it’s censored and partially government-run. Even a controlled press is a valuable source, though, because it shows how the regime wants to be seen. I looked at the official gazette Umm al-Qura going back to its first issues in the 1920s. They showed just how early the Saudi monarchy started promoting itself as simultaneously a guardian of Islamic values and a modernizing force—including by importing cars, constructing roads, and rebuilding cities like Mecca to suit the auto age. Petroleum was changing the kingdom even before the first Saudi oil deposits were discovered in the late 1930s.

 The Saudi press also provided important insights into the texture of life in the kingdom that I couldn’t get from foreign sources. It was fascinating to read the local Riyadh news during the 1970s, which illustrated the tremendous turmoil that accompanied rapid economic growthskyrocketing food prices, rising inequality, people evicted from their homes as older neighborhoods were demolished, and all kinds of disruption as the city expanded in every direction.

The U.S. source base, of course, is very extensive. There are now vast numbers of declassified documents from the State Department and other U.S. government agencies related to U.S.-Saudi relations up through the 1970s. The sheer volume of sources is often the biggest challenge. There are still gaps, though. Many documents (especially military- and intelligence-related) remain classified or have been released only in redacted form. You have to read between the lines and triangulate among all the different kinds of sources, U.S. and Saudi, that are available.

Q: One of the things you pay special attention to in Oil Powers is the way domestic dissent—on both sides—gets lost in hegemonic historical narratives about the U.S.-Saudi partnership. What can this hidden history reveal about who benefits from this relationship?

VM: The history of U.S.-Saudi relations is usually narrated from the point of view of those institutions that support and benefit from the alliance—the U.S. executive branch (especially the White House and State Department) and the Saudi regime. The long history of opposition in both countries gets minimized. The alliance faced intense criticism from some members of Congress, for example, all the way back in the 1940s, when the U.S.-Saudi relationship was just starting. Other American critics have included supporters of Israel, labor leaders, feminists, and human rights advocates. The current political situation, in which the Trump administration has pursued close ties with Riyadh while Congress has questioned that relationship after the war in Yemen and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, fits within a long history of tension between the White House and Congress over the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

For many decades, Saudi dissidents have also criticized the alliance between Washington and Riyadh. Since 9/11, the Saudi regime has tried to present itself as the only bulwark against militant Islamic groups like al-Qaeda. The Saudi opposition, though, is a much more diverse group than the government likes to admit. Oil Powers builds on recent work by other scholars like Madawi Al-Rasheed, Bob Vitalis, Rosie Bsheer, Toby Jones, Pascal Menoret, and Toby Matthiesen who have explored the history of dissent against the Saudi regime—especially on the left. I drew on the work of dissidents like the former oil minister Abdullah Tariki and the labor activist Nasir al-Said, among others, who fiercely criticized the regime for its ties with the United States during the 1960s and 1970s.

Q: On a related note, how has the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia contributed to shifts in the balance of power here in the United States, especially to an increase in power and autonomy in the executive branch?

Saudi leaders rarely had to deal with formal checks and balances on their power at home, and they were frustrated when U.S. foreign policy officials were constrained by legal and congressional oversight—especially during the 1970s, when the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Church Committee hearings led Congress to reassert its authority. When I interviewed the former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal, he deplored what he called the “post-Watergate American disengagement from world affairs” and the “restrictions on American foreign policy action and CIA action.” He thought that the Soviet Union was taking advantage of American paralysis.

 To help the CIA and other national security agencies evade those constraints, the kingdom subsidized U.S. covert operations and provided aid to anticommunist causes around the world. The joint U.S.-Saudi-Pakistani program to fund the Afghan mujahedeen during the 1980s is the most famous example but far from the only one. In other words, Saudi Arabia boosted the power of the U.S. national security state and helped the imperial presidency survive the Watergate era.

Explore our virtual booth and read the introduction to Oil Powers: A History of the U.S.-Saudi Alliance. For the duration of what would have been the conference weekend, you can use the code SHAFR20 at checkout from our website for a 30 percent discount on any of our conference titles.

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