Saudi and U.S. leaders have been speaking in harmony about the threat posed by Islamic State, after a period in which the allies of 70 years frequently sounded discordant notes.
The breakaway al-Qaeda group’s rampage through northern Iraq and eastern Syria has persuaded the U.S. to launch air strikes and seek Arab support for a broader campaign. Saudi Arabia hosted a coalition-building summit last week for Secretary of State John Kerry and 10 Middle Eastern states. After that session, and more than two hours of talks with King Abdullah, Kerry told reporters that “you could not have heard a more fulsome commitment to doing anything that is necessary.”
Such solidarity hasn’t always characterized ties between the nations since 2001, when Saudi citizens were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. A decade later, they split again over the Arab revolts, with Saudis blaming the U.S. for abandoning allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. President Barack Obama’s decision to hold back from military action against the Syrian government last year, and his engagement in talks with Iran, have also been unpopular among Saudi leaders. American critics of the kingdom say it shares blame for the rise of Sunni extremism.
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“It’s an ironic twist of fate that just as al-Qaeda’s attack against the U.S. greatly damaged U.S.-Saudi relations, the threat ISIS poses to both countries could go a long way toward mending their relations,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc., a consultancy based in Vienna, Virginia, using an alternative name for Islamic State.
The U.S. has underwritten the security of OPEC’s biggest oil producer in an alliance that dates to the 1940s. More recent differences have receded as the two countries join forces to formulate a plan for defeating Islamic State. The kingdom has agreed to host training camps for moderate Syrian rebels, U.S. officials say, and its top religious scholars have been urging citizens not to join militant groups in Syria and Iraq.
By contrast, after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., Saudi Arabia didn’t immediately perceive a domestic threat. The Saudi crackdown only began about three years later, when al-Qaeda began to carry out attacks there. One of the biggest came in 2006, when car bombs struck the world’s biggest oil processing plant at Abqaiq. Saudi forces later dismantled much of the organization in the kingdom.