Exactly 50 years ago, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched coordinated surprise attacks on Israeli positions in the occupied Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, quickly crossing the cease-fire lines from the Six-Day War of 1967. The 1973 Arab-Israel war, what became known as the Yom Kippur War or October War, had begun. Egypt and Syria achieved complete strategic and tactical surprise on the morning of Oct. 6, 1973—Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism—leading to significant Israeli military losses. The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal into Sinai, breaking the Israeli military's heavily fortified Bar Lev Line, and the Syrians briefly captured the southern Golan Heights.
Although the war ended by late October, it ultimately transformed the Middle East and the global energy market. The war's biggest winner in the end was Saudi Arabia, which imposed an embargo on the export of oil to the United States in response to American support for Israel during the war. The Saudi-led oil embargo did more economic damage to the U.S. than any other country had done since the British burned Washington in 1815.
Following the joint Egyptian-Syrian attack, a desperate Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir pleaded with U.S. President Richard Nixon for arms. Nixon ordered the Pentagon to begin Operation Nickel Grass to airlift jets, tanks, ammunition and other military supplies to Israel from the U.S. via the Azores—eventually 22,000 tons of materiel in all. The airlift saved Israel.
But it also infuriated King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. In a secret meeting in Riyadh months before the war, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had asked Faisal to prepare to use the "oil weapon" if necessary. As soon as the war started, the Kuwaitis pressed for an embargo. The American airlift to Israel precipitated King Faisal to act.
The 1973 Arab-Israeli war transformed the Middle East and the global energy market. The war's biggest winner in the end was Saudi Arabia.
- Bruce Riedel
Nixon was already immersed in the Watergate scandal and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, had just resigned in disgrace. The Vietnam War was still dragging on. An oil embargo added to the president's woes.
The impact of the embargo in the U.S. was staggering. Oil prices rose from $2.90 a barrel in July 1973 to $11.65 a barrel in December 1973, and gas shortages were rampant. America's GDP would drop 6 percent by 1975, and unemployment would double to 9 percent. The embargo sunk the U.S. economy into a recession that ended up affecting millions of Americans.
Nixon instructed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to meet with King Faisal, who deeply distrusted Kissinger. Faisal only agreed to end the embargo in March 1974 after Kissinger had finally secured a disengagement agreement for Syria from the war.
Faisal had been the top Saudi diplomat since the improbable age of 12, when he was sent to Britain and France as his father's unofficial envoy at the end of World War I. He later traveled extensively across Europe, including the Soviet Union, before World War II. In 1943, he met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, beginning the Saudi relationship with the U.S. that was famously formalized two years later on an American cruiser in the Suez Canal. It was there, on the USS Quincy in the closing months of World War II, that Roosevelt met with Faisal's father, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the absolute monarch who had founded the modern Saudi kingdom in 1932.
Now, in 1973, Faisal's priority was Jerusalem. As a pious Muslim, the king was determined to protect the sacred sites of Islam. Faisal determined early on in the war that Nixon was only interested in the Egyptian track of negotiations to end the war, because peace in the Sinai would eliminate military pressure on Israel, thus allowing Israel's occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to continue—as it has now for five decades. Faisal was right.
A year after the oil embargo ended, Faisal was assassinated in Riyadh on March 25, 1975. He was shot and killed by a younger prince, Faisal bin Musaid, the son of his half-brother, who had been educated in the United States. There were rumors that it was an American-directed hit to punish the king for the oil embargo—and even ordered by Kissinger. In fact, the prince assassin was angry about King Faisal's introduction of television into the kingdom, which he and his brother regarded as un-Islamic. His brother had died in 1966 during a violent protest outside a newly opened television station in Saudi Arabia, when he was shot and killed by Saudi police.
MBS needs high energy prices to fund his vision for the kingdom, but the reality is, despite endless American courtship, the U.S. no longer needs the Saudis like it used to.
- Bruce Riedel
The 1973 oil embargo elevated Saudi Arabia from a poor backwater in the Arab world to the leading state in the region and a global economic player. Wealth poured into the Gulf states, including Iraq and Iran. King Faisal spent tens of billions of dollars propagating Saudi Arabia's militant Wahhabi Islamic ideology across the Muslim world. The consequences of this financial boom on the Islamic world still resonate.
Every American president since Nixon has courted the Saudis, largely to ensure the smooth flow of oil. But today, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is again using the "oil weapon" to keep prices high, helping fuel Russia's war in Ukraine. The crown prince continues to cooperate with Moscow to keep oil production down, rejecting appeals from President Joe Biden to put more oil on the market. Even after Biden's about-face on Saudi Arabia, including visiting the kingdom last summer and fist-bumping with MBS, he has come up empty, in a humiliating repudiation.
Yet this isn't the 1970s. And Saudi Arabia may not have the leverage it once had. Its power over energy markets has diminished since the U.S. has become a major oil producer itself. MBS needs high energy prices to fund his vision for the kingdom, but the reality is, despite endless American courtship, the U.S. no longer needs the Saudis like it used to.