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Biden is Pledging a Reevaluation of U.S.-Saudi Arabia Relations. It's About Time

After nearly two years in the White House, the Biden administration has come full circle on Saudi Arabia. In February 2021, weeks after President Joe Biden was sworn into office, U.S. officials stressed plans to "recalibrate" U.S.-Saudi relations. Twenty months after those remarks were uttered, and three months after Biden himself visited the kingdom, the White House reiterated the need for a change.
The decision by the OPEC+ alliance to reduce oil production by 2 million barrels a day has again put Saudi Arabia in the crosshairs. Washington has dismissed Riyadh's economic justification for the cut, arguing that the move will increase the prospects of a global recession and pad Russian President Vladimir Putin's war-chest. "As the President has said, we are reevaluating our relationship with Saudi Arabia in light of these actions," White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Oct. 13.
The only question is why it took so long for the U.S. to come around to it.
Ever since President Franklin Roosevelt met Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the founder of the modern kingdom, on an American cruiser in 1945, U.S.-Saudi relations have rested on mythical foundations. There has been an assumption throughout the eight decade-long relationship that Washington and Riyadh are not only partners but allies in a region, the Middle East, that produces more than 30 percent of the world's oil. The so-called oil for security arrangement, in which the United States protected the Saudi kingdom in exchange for the Saudis ensuring a reliable supply of oil on the global market, is viewed as the bedrock of bilateral ties.
The reality, however isn't as clear-cut. U.S.-Saudi ties have never been as strong or permanent as proponents allege. The term "alliance," so often used to describe the relationship, is inaccurate at best and misleading at worst. While it's certainly true that Washington and Riyadh would prefer to have stable and amicable relations, the ties between them are steeped in transactionalism—and in many cases, the Saudis are more than willing to undercut the spirit of that transactionalism when it suits them.
The OPEC+'s oil reduction only strengthens the case. As one might expected, the news was greeted in Washington as a purposeful snub by an ungrateful Saudi royal family. Lawmakers, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez, were downright livid.
Yet Saudi Arabia using its leverage over the energy markets isn't some new phenomenon. It's a bit puzzling why U.S. officials and lawmakers were so surprised. In 1973, Saudi Arabia, acting in coordination with other OPEC producers, slapped an embargo on exports to the U.S. in retaliation for Washington's military support for Israel. That embargo spiked the price of gas, created a supply shortage in the U.S., and forced American motorists to wait for hours at the gas pump to fill their cars (assuming there was any gas left to pump). In 1986, the kingdom increased oil production from 2.4 million barrels per day to 5 million, causing a price decline in order to make it expensive (and therefore less-profitable) for non-OPEC countries, the U.S. and Canada included, to produce. A similar strategy was enacted by the Saudis in 2014, when instead of limiting output to support higher prices, they chose to keep production levels steady to edge U.S. shale producers out of the market.
Long story short: The kingdom's oil policy is based first and foremost on Saudi interests, not on what a particular U.S. president may request at any given time.
Oil, of course, is only one aspect of the bilateral relationship. Security is another. But U.S. and Saudi positions on matters of foreign policy and defense are hardly similar, let alone identical. Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's (MBS) leadership, Saudi Arabia has become a far more assertive and aggressive state in the Middle East, often pursuing policies that cause heartburn back in Washington.
The Saudi air campaign against the Houthis in Yemen was sprung on the U.S. without much debate or input, compelling the Obama administration to make a quick decision as to whether the U.S. would support the endeavor (despite reservations, Washington agreed to assist, tying it to a war that has proved disastrous for Yemen). MBS was a central advocate of the Gulf Cooperation Council embargo on neighboring Qatar, whose only effect was to drive Doha closer to Iran. Riyadh's improved relationship with Russia's Vladimir Putin, despite U.S. objections and the Russian strongman subjecting Ukraine to the worst bloodshed in Europe since World War II, isn't lost on U.S. officials either.
When the U.S. and Saudi Arabia do agree on policy, they often disagree on how best to proceed. Both countries would prefer to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, yet the Saudis have never been particularly supportive of U.S. nuclear diplomacy with Tehran. In theory, Washington and Riyadh both want to alleviate Yemen's humanitarian catastrophe, but the U.S. frequently runs into difficulty persuading the Saudis that fuel and oil can enter the energy-starved country. Saudi leaders, meanwhile, continue to believe the U.S. is inattentive to its security concerns, even if Washington has sold more than $150 billion of military equipment to the kingdom since 2009.
If there is a silver lining from last week's OPEC+ oil cut, it's that U.S. policymakers will begin to see relations with Saudi Arabia as they really are. The Saudi royal family doesn't hesitate to do what it believes is in its own country's best interest. Neither should the United States.
Oct 26, 2022 13:17
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