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A series of disagreements have chilled the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But the two countries can’t do without each other
Barack Obama first met with the King of Saudi Arabia at a London conference in April 2009. Greeting the elderly monarch before the cameras, Obama slightly lowered his torso as he shook the King’s hand—a bow, in the eyes of his conservative critics back home. The Washington Times fumed that the gesture constituted “a shocking display of fealty to a foreign potentate.” But Obama was hardly the first American President captured in an unusual moment with Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud. A few years earlier, George W. Bush had been photographed strolling at his Texas ranch with Abdullah, then crown prince; the two men walked hand in hand.
Such encounters underscore the fact that America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia’s anachronistic monarchy is as awkward as it is important.
In recent months, the American approach to three regional hot spots—Iran, Syria and Egypt—has shaken the U.S.-Saudi relationship to its core. Throw in America’s growing energy independence, shrinking military budget and talk of a strategic shift toward Asia, and Saudi Arabia is wondering whether it can still rely on Washington’s longtime security guarantees or if it needs to form new alliances—and perhaps go nuclear itself.