The Caravan

The Biden Administration’s Saudi Climbdown: The Failure Of Recalibration

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

It is no secret that the United States’ relations with its Gulf Arab partners have suffered greatly under the first year and a half of the Biden administration. As Yousef Al Otaiba, the U.A.E. ambassador in Washington, observed this past March of his country’s relationship with the United States, “It is like any relationship. It has strong days where the relationship is very healthy and days where the relationship is under question. Today, we’re going through a stress test.” Similarly, Turki Al Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the United States and the former Saudi intelligence chief, remarked in May, “We’ve had our ups and downs over the years and perhaps, at this time, it’s one of the downs.” Both men went on to sound a note of optimism that relations could be repaired, but there was no denying that the damage was significant, particularly in the case of Saudi Arabia.

In April, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia “has hit its lowest point in decades,” and this was no overstatement. President Biden came into office promising to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” and to a large extent that is what he did—at least until the recent crisis in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and the punitive Western response, caused global oil prices to surge above $100 per barrel for the first time since 2014. The Biden administration pressed Riyadh to increase oil production to help compensate for Russia’s shortfall and thereby lower prices—Russia is the world’s third largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia the second largest—but the Saudis demurred. They reportedly refused phone calls from the White House, even as they took calls from the Russian and Chinese leaderships.

All of this was a result of the Biden administration’s deliberate policy of downgrading the relationship with Riyadh, or “recalibrating” the relationship, as administration officials frequently said. “We’ve made clear from the beginning that we’re going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki in a press conference in February 2021. Days later, she reaffirmed “ the intention of this government … to recalibrate our engagement with Saudi Arabia.” And again, days later: “Our objective is to recalibrate the relationship.” Similarly, in a briefing in March 2021, State Department spokesman Ned Price underscored the “effort to recalibrate the terms of our relationship with Saudi Arabia” in accordance with America’s interests and values.

Recent reports, however, indicate that the Biden administration is climbing down from this get-tough stance on Saudi Arabia. As Biden prepares to visit Riyadh this summer, recalibration seems to be giving way to rehabilitation. The reasons for this shift in policy run deep.

The U.S.-Saudi Partnership from Roosevelt to Trump

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia dates to the 1930s, when American companies played a leading role in developing the nascent Saudi oil industry. In February 1945, King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud, the founding monarch of the Saudi kingdom, met with President Franklin Roosevelt in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal, where the two sides sowed the seeds of an enduring partnership. The Saudis and the Americans had little in common culturally—one an absolute monarchy, the other a constitutional democracy—but they were united by shared commercial interests and a shared fear of communism and radical Arab nationalism. There was also a strategic energy component to the relationship. From the 1940s onward, the Americans saw the oil resources of the Persian Gulf as of paramount importance, not for domestic energy consumption but rather for the energy security of Western Europe. It was for this reason that the United States, in the early years of the Cold War, proclaimed a policy of safeguarding Saudi Arabia from foreign assault. In October 1950, President Harry Truman wrote to King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz affirming that “the United States is interested in the preservation of the independence and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia. No threat to your Kingdom could occur which would not be a matter of immediate concern to the United States.”

In the ensuing decades, the oil resources of the Gulf continued to be viewed in Washington as indispensable. President Jimmy Carter, as he recalled in his memoirs, saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 as “a threat to the rich oil fields of the Persian Gulf area and to the crucial waterways through which so much of the world’s energy supplies had to pass.” In January 1980, in the annual State of the Union address, he articulated a policy known as the Carter Doctrine: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” The same strategic calculation obtained a decade later, even after the Cold War had come to an end. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, appearing poised to seize the nearby oil fields of eastern Saudi Arabia, President George H. W. Bush deployed air and ground forces to Saudi Arabia. In an echo of Truman and Carter, he stated: “Let me be clear. The sovereign independence of Saudi Arabia is of vital interest to the United States. This decision …  grows out of the longstanding friendship and security relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.”

The United States has thus been strategically invested in Saudi Arabia since the early days of the Cold War, and both countries have benefited from the partnership. This is not to say that the relationship has not been marred by serious disagreements and tensions. The Saudi leadership’s anti-Zionism—and sometimes outright anti-Semitism—was long a source of friction, and for decades the Saudis forbade Jews from entering the country. The kingdom’s frustrations with U.S. support for Israel led to the first oil shock of the 1970s, when Riyadh announced an embargo on oil sales to the United States during the October 1973 war. The relationship took another hit following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and the Wahhabi version of Islam promoted by Riyadh was seen as contributing to the ideology of al-Qaida. The 2003 Iraq war, which the Saudis publicly opposed, was another source of strain.

Another major disagreement emerged during the presidency of Barack Obama, whose pursuit of a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran was deeply troubling to the Saudis. In July 2015, the Obama administration and Iran agreed to the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which provided Iran with massive sanctions relief in exchange for temporary restrictions on its nuclear program. Though publicly supportive of the deal, the Saudis were highly critical of it in private, complaining that it provided Tehran with a financial windfall with which to pursue its destabilizing policies across the Middle East. Making matters worse was an interview with The Atlantic in which Obama appeared dismissive of Saudi Arabia’s security concerns, saying, “they [the Saudis] need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood” with Iran.

It was thus a great relief to the Saudi leadership when Obama was replaced by Donald Trump, who had repeatedly criticized his predecessor’s Middle East policies during the presidential campaign. In May 2017, Trump made Saudi Arabia the site of his first overseas visit, signing security and investment agreements and extolling the “the enduring partnership” between Washington and Riyadh. The Washington Post described the affair as a “love fest,” one that contrasted sharply with the “years of growing estrangement under President Barack Obama.” A year later, much to the Saudis’ delight, Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA.

All of this occurred during the rise of Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, the ambitious son of Saudi King Salman, reigning since 2015. Under the leadership of MBS, who became crown prince in 2017, the kingdom introduced sweeping social reforms that empowered women and curbed the power of the conservative religious establishment, opening Saudi society to opportunities more attuned to Western mores. MBS also made Saudi Arabia into a more repressive autocracy, however, overseeing an unprecedented crackdown on political dissent at home and abroad. It was this dimension of his rule that led to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. MBS was widely accused, including by the U.S. intelligence community, of ordering the operation that resulted in Khashoggi’s death, and the fallout in Washington was severe. Already the Saudis were under fire for their unpopular war in Yemen. Nonetheless, Trump stood by the young crown prince, vetoing punitive bipartisan legislation and bypassing Congress to push through a massive arms sales package. Trump’s support for MBS only made the crown prince, and by extension Saudi Arabia, more controversial in American politics.

It was in this context, during the Democratic presidential primary campaign, that then-candidate Biden made his famous pariah comment. In a Democratic primary debate in November 2019, he explained that as president he would punish senior Saudi leaders for the murder of Khashoggi and treat the Saudis as “the pariah that they are,” adding that “there’s very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” Under his watch, he declared, the Saudis would be held at arms’ length and the U.S.-Saudi relationship would be subjected to review and reevaluation.

The Origins of Recalibration

In the first months of the Biden presidency, the watchword for this critical approach to Saudi Arabia emerged as “recalibration.” The term, together with many of the associated policies, appears to have had its origins in a monograph written by Daniel Benaim, a former Middle East policy adviser and speech writer for then-Vice President Biden and presently deputy assistant secretary of state for Arabian Peninsula Affairs at the State Department. Titled “A Progressive Course Correction for U.S.-Saudi Relations,” the monograph was published by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, in June 2020. In it, Benaim made the case that the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum latitude” toward Saudi Arabia was out of step with American interests and values. Trump, he claimed, had effectively encouraged MBS’s repression and provocative behavior. What was called for was a “recalibration” of the relationship whereby “U.S. policy should press Saudi Arabia to make meaningful policy changes.” The “pressing” was to be harsh.

The next administration, Benaim wrote, ought to present the Saudis with a “stark choice”: either they decide to chart “a more constructive path forward” or they suffer the consequences of “diminished ties.” Both paths were to remain open and dependent on Saudi decisions. The “constructive path forward” would include “a ceasefire and easing air and sea passages into Yemen, releasing political prisoners, pledging to end extraterritorial abuses of dissidents, and participating in a regional dialogue with Iran.” In the meantime, Benaim recommended that the next administration begin by “impos[ing] a temporary moratorium on major new arms sales” and “institut[ing] a time-bound, six-month strategic review of U.S.-Saudi cooperation.” If the kingdom were not to meet U.S. demands by this time, then a more fundamental rethinking of the relationship was to be considered.

Many of Benaim’s outlined requests, such as releasing political prisoners and stopping attacks on dissidents abroad, were of course reasonable and desirable asks. Yet the idea of presenting the Saudis with a “stark choice,” and presumably reprimanding and threatening them in public, was imprudent. Such an approach was bound to sow distrust and risked compromising an eight-decade security partnership. Yet that is the path Biden chose.

During its initial months, the Biden administration followed many of the steps mapped out by Benaim in his paper. In addition to adopting the term recalibration, it announced the pause of a $478 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh, the end of arms sales for the Saudi war effort in Yemen, and the removal of the Houthis—the Iran-backed militant group in Yemen that has fired rockets at Saudi cities—from the list of foreign terrorist organizations. It further announced that President Biden would not interface directly with MBS but only with his counterpart as head-of-state in King Salman, who is largely retired.

The administration also released a classified U.S. intelligence report that concluded that MBS had personally approved the operation “to capture or kill” Khashoggi. During a press conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that this step and others were in line with the policy of recalibration. “The relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important one,” he stated. “But we also want to make sure, and this is what the president has said from the outset, that the relationship better reflects our interests and our values. And so what we’ve done by the actions that we’ve taken is really not to rupture the relationship, but to recalibrate.”

In his monograph, Benaim had similarly written that “the goal is to recalibrate rather than rupture.” In this way he sought to present his plan as a moderate one that paid heed to the importance of the historic U.S.-Saudi relationship. And yet, Benaim’s recalibration was not aimed at a restoration of the status quo ante. For in his view, the days of harmonious relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia were in some ways irretrievable. “These recommendations won’t return U.S.-Saudi relations to the high points of the past,” he wrote. “Each side, in its own way, has evolved.” This appears to have been the Biden administration’s view as well.

Recalibration’s Demise

Predictably, Riyadh did not respond well to the administration’s recalibration rhetoric and the associated punitive actions. While the kingdom did end its embargo of Qatar before Biden took office and has sought to de-escalate the war in Yemen, these steps were likely to have been taken anyway. The larger impact of the recalibration strategy was to alienate the Saudis and lead them to reconsider their strategic options. In August 2021, Riyadh signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia to encourage “joint military cooperation between the two countries,” and it has enlisted the support of the Chinese military in producing its own ballistic missiles. Asked about the Biden administration’s critical approach to the kingdom in an interview with the Atlantic, MBS replied: “Simply, I do not care.” As the Biden administration was learning, recalibration could be repaid in kind.

It was not the Saudis’ strategic hedging, however, that forced a change in policy. Rather, it was the war in Ukraine and the subsequent spike in oil prices. Shortly after the war broke out in February, senior administration officials visited the kingdom in hopes of mending ties and encouraging Riyadh to increase oil production. The charm offensive ultimately had some effect. After initially refusing to boost production, the Saudis eventually helped, in June, by leading an effort in OPEC+, the expanded oil cartel that includes Russia, to “raise output by 648,000 barrels a day in July and in August.” While the effect of the new OPEC+ agreement would have only a modest impact on oil prices, it was a step in the direction of improved cooperation with the United States.

The move was warmly received in Washington, where Karine Jean-Pierre, the new White House press secretary, tweeted, “We recognize the role of Saudi Arabia as the chair of OPEC+ and its largest producer in achieving this consensus amongst the group members.” Days later, she commented favorably on the U.S.-Saudi relationship, saying, “Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner of the United States for eight decades. Every president since FDR has met with Saudi leaders. And the President considers Saudi Arabia an important partner on a host of regional and global strategies, including other efforts to end the war in Yemen, contain Iran, and counter terrorism.” There was no talk here of recalibration or pariahdom; rather, the emphasis was on the enduring relevance of a strategic partnership going back decades. Jean-Pierre also spoke of raw American interests, or the “deliverables” that Biden would be seeking for the American people in meeting with MBS. As the White House has now confirmed, Biden will visit Saudi Arabia in July and will meet with the crown prince—a step that will mark the end of the ill-fated recalibration policy.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from this saga, it is that the U.S.-Saudi relationship still holds considerable value for both sides. Saudi Arabia may be an imperfect ally, but it is nonetheless a wealthy, stable, status quo power in a volatile region; it possesses the second largest proven oil reserves in the world; it has made numerous positive steps in terms of social reform over the past five years; and it is on increasingly good terms with Israel. It is strategic malpractice to risk compromising the pro-American orientation of Riyadh. The saga also shows that pressuring the Saudis in public is probably not the best way to go about achieving desired behavioral changes. Private criticism and respectful deliberation are more likely to be effective than naming and shaming, as they were in the case of achieving the revised OPEC+ agreement. Hopefully, the Biden administration will be able to affect Saudi behavior in other positive ways, including as concerns human rights, by following the same approach.