The United States – Saudi Arabian Relationship

Event Information



The Middle East Policy Council convened its 97th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, July 19th: “The United States – Saudi Arabian Relationship.” The conference was designed to present diverse perspectives on recent developments in this historic U.S. relationship and what the future shape of relations might look like. Representatives from more than 25 Congressional offices attended, underlining the growing interest in this relationship on Capitol Hill. The event was also broadcast live on C-SPAN. Access the full video from the event by clicking here.


Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley (former U.S. Ambassador to Malta; Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event; Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) contributed to the event; and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Thomas Lippman (Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute; former Middle East Bureau Chief The Washington Post); Dana Stroul (Senior Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Former Staff Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee); and Gerald Feierstein (Senior Vice President and Director of Gulf Affairs, Middle East Institute; Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of State; and former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen).

Mr. Lippman stressed how the U.S. – Saudi relationship has always been beset by tensions, from President Truman’s 1947 recognition of the state of Israel, to the 1973-74 oil embargo, to the 9/11 attacks on September 11th, 2001 and the subsequent 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. But these tensions never disrupted the core economic and security relationship. However, he believes we may be entering a new phase where Saudi Arabia starts being treated like any other U.S. partner on most matters except for counterterrorism, where there is little chance that the status quo will be significantly disrupted. Mr. Lippman cited a variety of factors contributing to this new phase: greater U.S. energy independence, the lack of a U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and, politically, the absence of a Saudi domestic constituency in the United States with Congressional clout. He thinks that while these factors are unlikely to change, there also remain political uncertainties that could greatly impact the direction of the future United States – Saudi Arabian relationship, including the result of the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the ability of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to manage the different branches of the Saudi royal family.


Ms. Stroul shared insights from her prior work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explaining how attitudes and understanding of Saudi Arabia have evolved in the U.S. Congress. In her view, the United States – Saudi Arabian relationship is in its most serious crisis since 9/11, fueled by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the boycott and embargo of Qatar, the detention of the Lebanese prime minister, and the treatment of dissent and human-rights issues within the Kingdom. While words like “reckless” are increasingly used to describe Saudi behavior, she pointed out that U.S. foreign policy between the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations has varied considerably, justifying the view from Saudi Arabia that the United States is not a completely reliable partner. In light of such tensions on both sides, Ms. Stroul believes U.S. policymakers must assess whether the Saudi relationship helps or hurts core U.S. foreign policy objectives in the greater Middle East, including the conflict with Iran, the relationship with Israel, and financial support for Syria and Iraq. In her view Saudi Arabia’s youthful population, technological needs and the goals of Vision 2030 could open new opportunities for cooperation.


Amb. Feierstein focused on the Saudi role in the conflict in Yemen, challenging two narratives he often hears within Washington policy circles. First, he explained that the war in Yemen is not new; rather, it reflects decades-long conflict among various domestic factions. Second, he stressed the importance of distinguishing between Saudi Arabia’s justifiable motivation for intervention in Yemen, and its poor implementation, for which the Saudis should be held accountable. He noted that Saudi Arabia entered the Yemen conflict to secure its southern border, to confront the presence of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah in Yemen, and to promote a new central government there that the Saudis can work with (which could include Houthi political representation). Moving forward on resolving the Yemen war and the broader United States – Saudi Arabian relationship, Mr. Feierstein suggested that both countries appear to be evolving into “disruptive” actors in the region after decades of prioritizing the status quo. Whether or not the two countries can continue to work together while their actions become less predictable and harmonized will determine the sustainability of the relationship.


The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email

Event Speakers

Mr. Tom Lippman

Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute

Former Middle East Bureau Chief, The Washington Post  


Ms. Dana Stroul

Senior Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Former Senior Professional Staff Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee


Amb. (ret.) Gerald Feierstein

Senior Vice President and Director of the Gulf Affairs Program, 

Middle East Institute

Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen

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