President Obama meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah today in Washington. Saudi Arabia plays a key role in many issues of critical interest to the United States—including terrorism, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Middle East peace process, and Afghanistan. In a video Q&A, Christopher Boucek examines the U.S.–Saudi relationship and joint counterterrorism efforts, the internal climate within the Kingdom, and the role Saudi Arabia plays in the Middle East.

Both sides are looking for additional commitments from each other—the United States wants Saudi Arabia to utilize its considerable influence to advance U.S. interests on the Middle East peace process and to take a more active role in stabilizing Afghanistan. From the Saudi perspective, Gulf security depends on U.S. engagement, but Saudi Arabia is concerned that the United States will shy away from involvement after it withdraws from Iraq.

What’s on the agenda for King Abdullah’s visit to Washington?

When King Abdullah visits Washington, there will be a number of issues on the agenda that are important to both the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. First and foremost is the Middle East peace process, as well as the Iranian nuclear program.

Other issues include Saudi Arabia’s increasing prominence in the region and its greater regional role in a number of areas including Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among others. The United States will also be keen to talk about bilateral investments, especially direct American investments in the Kingdom. This will also be an opportunity for both sides to reaffirm the importance of the relationship and for the Americans to continue developing this relationship.

How strong are relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia?

Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia are very strong and have been strong for fifty plus years. The two see eye-to-eye on most international issues and agree most often on regional issues as well as the larger ones in the international arena.

However, on issues within Saudi Arabia, the two disagree at times. There have been a number of high-level visits back and forth in recent months, and over the past year, including a number of very high-level American visitors to the Kingdom. The Obama administration is keen to develop Saudi Arabia as a greater actor to advance some of the issues the Obama administration would like to see in the Arab and Muslim world. 

There are several issues that the United States is eager for Saudi Arabia to be more active and pro-active with in line with what the American administration would like to see. This includes energy policy, oil production, and stabilization in the energy markets. It also includes taking leadership on the peace process and in communicating with the Palestinian leadership, but also other Arab states, particularly Syria. Moreover, the United States would like to see the Kingdom take a much more active role in Afghanistan to help persuade different Afghan factions to come to the table and to seek accommodation.

Five years after Abdullah ascended to the throne, what is the political situation in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia has a very well established, stable society and government. Over the years there have been many who have predicted the downfall of the Saudi government. However, in the end, the government has always outlasted all of its critics. What we are seeing now is that King Abdullah is working to solidify and institutionalize this stability, which above all other things, is what Saudi officials aim for—stability.

The Saudi society has evolved considerably, since Abdullah assumed the throne several years ago. In a number of areas, he has overseen initiatives by the central government to establish more control over the government—this should not be confused with reforms. This is about bureaucratizing and institutionalizing the state. These include establishing a defined process for succession, establishing the government’s of control over areas where they previously had not much—education, justice, and in family and private matters.

The Saudi government has also sought to redefine its relationship with the religious establishment and further establish its control over aspects which it previously did little. This can be seen on a number issues, including gender mixing in public, having men and women in the same classroom, establishing education for girls, etc. Last fall’s opening of King Abdullah University was the most public and well known of these efforts.

In Saudi Arabia, there is a common misperception that the government of the Kingdom does not do anything without the consent and approval of the religious establishment. In actuality, the government, most times, will do what it wants to do, and then gets approval from the mullahs.

In a society where almost 80 percent of the population receives its employment from the state, the government is in a great position to influence events. In one way or the other, most people work for the state. If you are a cleric who works at a university, if you are a cleric who works in a mosque, or you serve on a commission, one way or the other, you receive your livelihood from the state in most cases. And the state uses this to shape—and co-op—opinions and control the Sunni religious establishment.

Is Saudi society evolving?

From the outside, Saudi Arabia can seem to be an incredibly static place where there’s not much change. However, Saudi society is incredibly dynamic. There are an awful lot of changes going on inside the country as they work through a number of issues related to education, the role of women, and the role of religion and society, among others.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that only within the last 80 years that this change began in Saudi Arabia. So within this compressed period of time, the Kingdom is working through issues that in many other societies have taken hundreds of years to work out. As a result, you have, within living memory, incredibly change—from poverty and isolation to incredible petro-wealth and access to pretty much anything. As Saudi society works through all of those issues, there is a lot of pressure on developments in the country. So access to education for girls and women, the role of religion and society, all these issues are being worked out every day. It’s only when you’re inside Saudi Arabia that you are really exposed to these. Outside, it looks like they never change.

One of King Abdullah’s major efforts has been a program to send Saudis abroad for education. There are currently over 20,000 Saudis in the United States, studying in colleges and universities. This is not only to get an education and come back to the Kingdom, but it’s also a program to expose Saudis to Western culture, to American culture, to English language, etc. One of the remarkable things about this program is that Saudis don’t just come by themselves, especially female students. Female students will oftentimes bring other members of their family, as required by traditional Saudi custom. What this does is not only bring the two countries closer together, but serves to develop the Kingdom and broaden the horizons of Saudis who partake in this program. Currently there are more Saudis studying in this country than there were before September 11.

How effectively has the government addressed radicalism in the country?

Saudi Arabia has taken great strides to combat radicalization and extremism in recent years, including a wide-ranging, soft counterterrorism approach aimed at undercutting the ideological and intellectual justifications for political violence, in addition to hard security measures to kill or capture wanted extremists.

This is a shift from how it was inside Saudi Arabia at the beginning of 2003. Now the government is aware of the problem and is taking initiatives to combat extremism and violence within society. These include programs in schools, the education ministry, the justice ministry, mosques, and society at large, and includes a wide ranging public communications program to explain the dangers of violence, militancy, and extremism.

There are still issues that need to be addressed, including issues with the curriculum and other aspects. But it is significant how far Saudi Arabia has come.

While the Saudi government has taken great efforts to combat violence and extremism in the Kingdom, as soon as the government lifts its efforts, whether it’s the soft counterterrorism initiatives or the military or security efforts, there is a great likelihood that violence or militancy will increase. Over the years, there have been regular reports of arrests of individuals who are planning operations and attempting to engage in violence inside the Kingdom. Saudi officials often say that al-Qaeda and extremism have not been defeated inside the Kingdom, but that they are under control, and this control must be maintained to ensure stability and security inside Saudi Arabia. 

How successful is U.S.–Saudi cooperation on terrorism?

The United States and Saudi Arabia enjoy a very tight relationship when it comes to fighting terrorism and extremism. The two sides cooperate very closely—American officials often remark that Saudi Arabia is one of its greatest partners when it comes to fighting terrorism.

One of the major issues for American officials, however, is the issue of terror financing—the money that is collected for charitable purposes that leaves the Kingdom and goes to militant causes in the region and around the world. This is a very difficult issue because many in Saudi Arabia believe in charitable giving. It’s very difficult to track where this money goes but American officials are keen to press Saudi Arabia for greater control over this money.

While September 11 brought home the issue of Islamist terrorism to the United States, it was not until several years later, in 2003, when this happened in Saudi Arabia. When violence occurred inside the Kingdom that was directed against Saudi nationals and Saudi interests, the Saudi officials began to make greater efforts toward combating terrorism, including terror finance. The United States and Saudi Arabia both recognize that terror finance remains an issue, however, this is a difficult issue in Saudi Arabia for a number of reasons, including the fact that the charitable giving within the Kingdom is so important.

How powerful is Saudi Arabia in the Middle East?

Saudi Arabia is very influential in the region and has the potential to be even more so. It has the greatest petroleum reserves, is one of the largest petroleum producers on a day-to-day average, is the birthplace of Islam, and is home to two Holy places. Saudi Arabia has an awful lot of influence, leverage, and appeal that it can use throughout the region on a number of issues. Typically, Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials prefer for this to be under the radar and not in plain sight whereas the United States oftentimes would like Saudi Arabia to be more proactive in taking measures that match the U.S. international agenda.

Saudi Arabia has a central role to play in a number of international issues, including stabilizing the international energy market and preventing price spikes, as well as international issues relating to the Middle East peace process, the rehabilitation of Syria, developments in Iraq, the future of Iran, events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So throughout the Arab world but in the broader Muslim world, Saudi Arabia has a great role to play. Internationally, when it comes to economics, as the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia has considerable influence as well.

How much influence does Saudi Arabia have in the peace process?

Saudi Arabia has the potential to be very influential on the Middle East peace process. As authors and instigators of the Arab peace plan, in which all Arab states would recognize Israel in exchange for certain concessions, Saudi Arabia has a lot of influence with the Palestinians. The Saudis have also worked to encourage Palestinian reconciliation and is also a great funder of the Palestinian government.

In all likelihood however, the United States and others overestimate Saudi Arabia’s ability to influence events on the ground, and whether the Palestinians would actually listen to what the Saudis say. The Saudis can only offer so much, it is up to the Palestinians to follow through on a number of issues. The Saudis have often said that this is between the Israelis and the Palestinians and that the Saudis are there to support the Palestinians as they go through this process.

What are the security challenges in the Gulf and what role does Saudi Arabia play?

There are two key security issues in the Gulf that are of concern to Saudi Arabia. The first is the role of Iran, both in the future of the Iranian nuclear program and Iranian ambitions in the region. The second is the future of Gulf security architecture after the United States leaves Iraq. Who will fill that vacuum? There is a concern within Saudi Arabia that the Americans may shy away from being as assertive as they have been in the past given its experience in Iraq.

With regards to Iran, there is a great concern within Saudi Arabia about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and intentions. While the Saudis are very eager to make the point that military solutions are not viable in the region, there are at the same time also very eager to express to the Americans that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon, that it is not in the interest of security and peace in the region.

Despite the unpopularity of American military operations in Iraq, Saudi Arabia does want to see the United States either leave Iraq prematurely or leave the region. Current Gulf security architecture depends on an engaged United States. So there is a concern that the United States may not be as involved in the future as they had been in the past.  

How important is Saudi Arabia in stabilizing Yemen?

Another issue likely to be on the agenda when President Obama and King Abdullah meet is the future of Yemen. Saudi Arabia sees Yemen as one of its greatest challenges and is very keen to avoid what has been termed an “Afghanistan” on its southern border. Many Saudis look at Yemen as the source of an awful lot of their problems—security, terrorism, drugs, extremism, undocumented workers, etc. Late last year and early this year, Saudi Arabia was involved with Yemen in a war on its southern border. It was the first time in decades it had engaged in unilateral military operations. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen, had tried to assassinate Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, the Saudi counterterrorism chief, as well as making other threats and operations inside the Kingdom. So Yemen, in the context of terrorism and security, will be a key issue for both sides.

Looking forward, it will be important for the United States to involved Saudi Arabia in any policy or strategy in Yemen going forward. Saudi Arabia will need to be central to any U.S. or larger international policy.