Saudi Arabia and the US: Unwavering special relationship

May 22, 2017
Dr. Mohanad Al-Shaikh
Dr. Mohanad Al-Shaikh

By Dr. Mohanad Al-Shaikh

Perhaps contrary to popular belief, it was business not military or political concerns that began one of the most enduring relationships in international relations. Ever since the Standard Oil Company of California started oil exploration in the Kingdom in 1934, Saudi Arabia and the United States have been destined to forge a special relationship that has endured for decades. This special relationship was consummated with the establishment of full diplomatic relations in 1940, cemented by the historic and fateful meeting between the Kingdom’s founder King Abdulaziz Al-Saud and President Franklin Roosevelt aboard a US warship in the Suez Canal.

Since then, subsequent Saudi Kings and US presidents, necessitated by mutual interests, have ensured that the two countries have maintained a baseline of time-tested military cooperation that withstood World War II and Soviet Communism. In fact, Saudi Arabia is America’s largest foreign military sales customer, and the US has long had an advisory military role in the Kingdom.

I, however, believe it is commerce that can be the jewel of this special relationship in the coming years. While the US is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner - importing more than $22 billion worth of products and services last year alone - it is my belief that the two countries should elevate their economic ties to a more sustainable economic alliance. With the Kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 initiative underway, the need for such an economic alliance has never been timelier.

One great platform to help reach economic alliance between the two countries is the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council (USSABC). Established to foster, develop and expand strategic business alliance and bilateral relations, the key role of this Council is to facilitate and maintain high-level business dialogue between Saudi and US business leaders.

It was under this Council that the Saudi government recently detailed a $72-billion five-year program aimed at expanding US business operations in the country to establish new partnerships with both public and private sectors. The Council’s next annual conference is on August 25th in Los Angeles.

From direct and active involvement, I cannot overstress the importance of having ongoing dialogue between business leaders of both countries. I have had the pleasure of working for the Saudi government where I was responsible for US Congressional affairs. A key part of my job was to help establish and connect the dots between the Saudi government and US federal and state legislators as well as business leaders. Consequently, I participated in countless meetings with and many visits of US delegations to the Kingdom. It was during these visits that I saw firsthand how impactful direct dialogues are for bridging political points of view as well as for the facilitation of business. As one former Congressional colleague put it, “these visits sure demystify lots of the myths about Saudi Arabia.”

As the Chief Executive Officer of one of the most successful joint ventures in Saudi Arabia, I believe joint ventures can be a great conduit for reaching a strong and sustainable economic alliance between the two countries by enabling businesses to expand beyond borders while gaining preferred access to new markets. For example, access to US transfer of technology in return for unprecedented and highly-prized entry to the Saudi Arabian market – the largest in the Middle East – has proved to be a win-win success formula for my Saudi-US joint venture.

In conclusion, President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – as the first stop on his maiden international tour as president – is a strong manifestation of a decades-old special relationship that continues to pay dividends in the form of commercial growth for both countries.

However, it is time that the two countries advance their commercial ties to that of economic alliance as the natural next step.

Lastly, I would like to thank the Saudi and US leaderships for demonstrating to the world time and again how great partnerships can create mutual value and prosperity for Saudi and American citizens alike. Mr. Trump, welcome to Saudi Arabia and my best regards to the American people.

Dr. Mohanad Al-Shaikh is the CEO of Al Salem Johnson Controls

May 22, 2017