Why the US-Saudi Relationship Will Last
Regardless of the intensity of the current conflict between the Biden administration and Saudi Arabia, their long history of military alliance and shared concerns over regional stability will certainly override their conflicting interests, especially at this juncture of international tension in the wake of the war in Ukraine
The recent conflict between the United States and Saudi Arabia over Riyadh’s decision to cut its oil production by two million barrels a day should be addressed in the context of their long and extensive relationship. For more than 70 years, the two countries have cooperated and collaborated on many levels, including the massive sale of US military hardware, collaboration on national security, joint economic development, and transfer of sensitive US technology, along with intelligence sharing.
The current conflict is not the first that has occurred between the two countries; in fact, in 1973 the Saudis imposed an oil boycott on the US as retribution for its aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, and in 2001, after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, relations became strained again due to (still unproven) allegations about the possible involvement of Saudi Arabia in the attack, as 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudi citizens and their were allegations of funding from certain Saudi individuals and institutions. These two major incidents certainly disrupted the relationship to a great extent; nevertheless, each time, the countries restored the spirit and the practical dimension of their relationship because their shared interests on so many levels overrode their conflicting positions.
The Saudi oil cut appears as if they are taking revenge against the US, specifically because Biden, from the time he was running for president, called Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” whose leadership had “very little redeeming value.” He accused Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of orchestrating the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and swore to never speak with him, and criticized the kingdom for its indiscriminate bombing in Yemen and its human rights violations. Finally, Saudi has been public in its opposition to Biden’s efforts to renew the Iranian nuclear deal.
Although it is necessary to reevaluate the US-Saudi relationship in the wake of what happened, I concur with David Rundell, former Chief of Mission in the American embassy in Riyadh, that it will be a mistake for the Biden administration to take any significant punitive measures against the Saudis, which will only worsen their bilateral relationship at an extremely sensitive time. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated last year, the idea is “not to rupture the [US-Saudi] relationship, but to recalibrate [it].”
I believe that some Democratic senators, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, who said that he will propose a halt to “any cooperation with Riyadh until the Kingdom reassess its position with respect to the war in the Ukraine,” adding, “enough is enough,” and others who introduced a bill to “immediately pause all US arms sale to Saudi Arabia,” are going far beyond the pale of what needs to be done.
Other Democrats are calling for milder measures, including withholding intelligence, refusing the sale of certain weapons, restricting access to financial markets, and curtailing some elements of military training, along with slowing down major development projects. This may seem necessary to send Saudi Arabia a message about the US’ displeasure, but it will still be the wrong message.
Indeed, given that both countries must take into full consideration the importance of their bilateral relationship and its overall regional security implications, they should not engage in a tit for tat, which will only benefit Russia and China.
Although Saudi Arabia depends on the US for much of its military hardware and national security guarantees, the Saudis feel that they have been all along reciprocating by helping to maintain regional stability, making considerable efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, joining hands with the US in fighting terrorism, and allowing the US to continue to have a military presence on their soil. Furthermore, the Saudis have promoted a more tolerant version of Islam, and continue to trade oil with the dollar, which strengthens the American currency.
The Saudis also fundamentally disagree with the US about their motivation to cut down their oil production. As they see it, their action was strictly motivated by business considerations. They wanted to reduce oil production in order to increase prices, and insist that even with the cut of two million barrels a day, the price will remain in the vicinity of $80-90 per barrel — which is still far less than $130 per barrel, the high of the past few years.
My position is that the Biden administration should not take any punitive counter-action against Saudi Arabia, certainly not before the midterm election, which allows for a cooling off period. Following that, the Biden administration should establish contact behind-the-scenes in an effort to mitigate their differences. Given the critical importance of their bilateral relationship, especially at this juncture, both sides must avoid any public recrimination, which can only aggravate the relationship. Indeed, the continuing discord between the US and Saudi Arabia will further encourage Russia and China to do everything they can to create a schism between the two allies, especially now when Biden has just declared that China and Russia are adversaries of the US.
This may sound like an appeasement of the Saudis, but it is not. Indeed, regardless of who is right and who is wrong — and in this case, both have their share of blame — any dispute between allies must be resolved through dialogue and honest discussion. Saudi Arabia and the US must demonstrate that given their long friendship and constructive relationship for more than seven decades, their alliance can and will stand the test of time.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.