Transactional Allies: The Case of U.S.--Saudi Arabia Relations

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Althunayyan, Hamad
Telhami, Shibley
This research (1) probes the argument that the regional level of analysis explains Saudi external behavior better than the global level of analysis, and (2) evaluates whether the degree of alignment of policy preferences provides a better explanatory power in understanding U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations than does the independent effect of the security hierarchy between the two. Applying the four hypothesis on the security hierarchy advanced by David Lake (2009) to qualitative case studies examining eight exogenous shocks to U.S.–Saudi Arabia relations over the span of 43 years, I present the following findings: (1) The global level played a more significant role than did the regional level in shaping the Saudi external behavior to regional events as well as influencing the geopolitics of the Gulf. (2) The level of security hierarchy between Riyadh and Washington does not explain Saudi Arabia’s defense behavior. (3) The alignment of policy preferences has a more explanatory power than does the level of security hierarchy in explaining the likelihood of Saudi Arabia joining the U.S. wartime coalition and explaining American support to the Kingdom in an interstate conflict, as well as Saudi Arabia’s compliance with U.S. oil requests. Overall, the level of security hierarchy between Riyadh and Washington does not fully explain Saudi external behavior. Finally, this work challenges the explanatory power of the notion of security hierarchy and highlights the importance of assessing state preferences beyond those emanating from the distribution of power.