The Caravan

How to Move the US-Saudi Relationship Beyond the Transactional and Personal

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The US relationship with Saudi Arabia is at an all-time low. Without significant and timely course corrections, the damage to America’s interests could be severe. Parties on both sides have acknowledged this, including the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS). The latter has expressed exasperation with what he considers a dithering American foreign policy that he has compared unfavorably to that of the United Kingdom, France and China. He views the policies of these nations as more constant and guided by core national interests despite changing domestic political currents. America, by contrast, oscillates wildly between the pursuit of interests and values, often switching between these with each election cycle.

The harm from the damaged relationship with Riyadh can be seen not only in record high gasoline prices, but also in an increasingly warm relationship between the Kingdom and China. President Xi, whose country is Saudi Arabia’s leading trade partner in both exports and imports, will be visiting Riyadh later this year and he will be very well received. The Chinese wish to strengthen their bilateral relationship at America’s expense. One agreement, for instance, might be to trade oil in renminbi, which would hurt the status of the dollar as the global reserve currency.

President Biden, and members of his administration, have been clear that the Saudi leadership--as represented specifically by MBS, the country’s de facto ruler--ought to be shunned for human rights violations and for its role in the devastating civil war in Yemen.  Values rather than interests have guided this White House, and this is now proving costly.  Until recently, the mot du jour in the White House has been “recalibration” of the relationship with what Biden on the campaign trail labeled a “pariah” state. In the last few days, however, Biden’s advisors talk of a “reset” in relations, which signals a realization of the importance of Saudi Arabia on the global geopolitical stage. The outcome of the Biden-MBS meeting in July will be a litmus test of the strategic nature of the relationship.

In practice, however, Biden’s policy until now has meant a downgrading of the strategic alliance with Riyadh while also targeting the crown prince with opprobrium by deliberately releasing a CIA document about his alleged role in the Jamal Khashoggi murder.  By doing this, the US was in fact signaling its preference about who should be the next ruler of the Kingdom—the CIA’s candidate until recently and for a variety of questionable reasons was MBS’s cousin and former crown prince, Prince Muhammad bin Nayif.  Bin Nayif had collaborated closely with the Agency during the war on terror against Al Qaeda and was in some sense the CIA’s man in Riyadh until MBS’s rise to power. Such interference in determining succession to kingship in Saudi Arabia is unprecedented. All previous American administrations realized that this constitutes an infringement on the sovereignty of the Saudi state and can destabilize the country.

Yet implicit in the downgrading policy is also the questioning of the utility of an alliance that has lasted for nearly eight decades and has been helpful in the stabilization of global energy markets, the competition against Communism and the Soviet Union, and later in the war against Al Qaeda and ISIS.  President Biden, like President Obama before him, has framed the “recalibration” in larger strategic and abstract terms: downgrading Saudi Arabia helps disentangle the US from the Middle East and allows for more resources to be concentrated on the rivalry with China (the so-called pivot to Asia). This is a strange framing of the issues since the two imperatives of US policy, which are maintaining influence in the Middle East while confronting China, are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they reinforce one another because the US military presence in the Persian Gulf places China in an energy stranglehold given Beijing’s high dependence on these resources. Foreign policy is not a fungible business—swapping one region for another--but rather an interconnected one.

Furthermore, the recalibration under Biden has taken place alongside the pursuit of intense negotiations with Iran, a sign to Middle Eastern allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia that the US wants to upgrade its relationship with Tehran.  Biden and his team emphatically argue that these are narrowly focused talks with the exclusive aim to limit Iran’s ability to acquire the bomb. In fact, the goal of both the Obama and Biden administrations has been to strengthen the so-called “moderates” in Iran through this deal, with the hope that they will make the regime less virulently hostile.  A line of wishful thinking runs through these policies, one that deliberately ignores certain facts about the region and about each of these countries.

Reality has now starkly confronted the Biden administration, and its more abstract and values-based policies have had to give way to certain hard truths. First, it is impossible to reach a resolution and improvement of relations with Iran because its militant antagonism to the US is intrinsic to the regime--without their policy of “Death to America” the mullahs have limited political legitimacy and will have abandoned the rallying ideology that keeps the elite united. This is one reason why Iran has refused to re-enter the nuclear deal by insisting that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be removed from the list of terrorist organizations.  In fact, the mullahs want the bomb, or the ability to produce one at very short notice, since this is what they think will guarantee the regime’s long-term survival as well as boost its flagging legitimacy.  Any denial of this by regime supporters and representatives consists of what Iranians call taqiyya or precautionary dissimulation—a smoke screen. Furthermore, at no point has Iran ceased its relentless pursuit of trying to evict the US militarily, economically, and culturally from the region. Second, President Biden is acknowledging that without Saudi Arabia he cannot bring down oil prices and secure the stability of allies like Egypt and Jordan among others. Higher food prices and rising interest rates on their debt are creating severe fiscal challenges for these countries. Nor can America pursue peace between Arabs and Israelis without engagement with the Saudis. Riyadh recently gave Cairo USD 5 billion to cover rising food costs, and the Abraham Accords would not have been possible without Saudi Arabia’s active support.

The Biden administration is not the first to see the relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in transactional terms.  America’s two political parties have been myopic about the strategic importance of the Gulf countries. Many US officials derisively consider the Kingdom to be a “big gas station,” only paying Riyadh a visit to request extra barrels when tight markets raise the price of gasoline to levels that would harm electoral prospects. Riyadh is also dealt with as a cash cow, whether as a customer of US military hardware—something President Trump often mentioned--or as a bank that can provide funds to countries or causes that Washington deems to be important. At one point during the Cold War a conservative anti-Communist Italian magazine was subsidized by Saudi Arabia. The entire relationship is often framed by the media and in policy circles as one based on an exchange of oil for security, which is what is alleged to have been the deal struck between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz at their meeting in 1945. In fact, this is a false claim since the minutes of that meeting make no mention of such an agreement, and most of the discussion was taken up by King Abdulaziz expressing concern about the plight of the Palestinians. A number of studies, such as Rachel Bronson’s Thicker than Oil, have shown that the relationship between the two countries is more complex than a simple quid pro quo.

President Biden will soon visit Riyadh and ask for more oil, but this should not be the crux of the meeting. While Saudi Arabia can realistically offer more barrels, up to 12 million per day with some 2 to 3 months lead time from a present production rate of 10.5 million barrels, these will not arrive soon enough to affect price and the outcome of the mid-term November elections. In other words, the White House must be realistic about what the Saudis can offer to alleviate the economic crisis. Nor should the meeting be about MBS’s rehabilitation after the Khashoggi murder. Instead, substantive issues should be discussed and agreed upon. These would include measures for ending of the war in Yemen and the reconstruction of that devastated country; improving the human rights conditions of political prisoners and dissidents as well as enhancing the rule of law; assisting developing countries now facing major food and fiscal challenges because of higher wheat and energy prices; protecting Saudi Arabia from the missile and drone threat posed by Iran and its proxies as well as addressing Iran’s destabilizing regional activities; improving coordination on fighting terrorism; attenuating the negative effects of the war in the Ukraine; addressing the question of Palestinian rights and achieving peace with Israel; building on the positive social and economic changes that have been undertaken and with great success especially for Saudi women. And all these issues should be dealt with not in the highly personalistic and transactional manner that President Trump embodied but on an institutional level between the two governments. The opportunity to improve relations with the various Gulf countries that are now transitioning to a younger generation of leaders should not be missed, especially in the case of Saudi Arabia, which is the most important country in the region and whose interests remain closely aligned with those of the United States.