Foreign Policy
10/17/2022

An Uneasy Partnership: U.S-Saudi Relations

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Following oil discoveries in the 1930s, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have maintained a decades-long allyship built on oil diplomacy and security guarantees, with the U.S. aiding Saudi Arabia in its national defense and, in turn, the gulf state has allowed for the growth of various U.S.-Saudi oil partnerships. This brief traces the origins of U.S.-Saudi affairs, both economically and politically. Furthermore, it highlights the difference shown in the approach seen in recent presidencies, with an emphasis on how it impacts present regional issues and priorities. Finally, with consideration to President Biden’s recent trip to the Middle East, it offers policy options for the administration to take to ensure a balanced relationship between Riyad and Washington for prospective U.S. endeavors.

Introduction

Overview

On June 15, 2022, President Biden visited Saudi Arabia to engage in bilateral talks with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, often referred to as MBS. Saudi Arabia marks the last destination on Biden’s first official trip as President to the Middle East. Even before his arrival, the U.S.-Saudi bilateral meetings were already facing domestic criticism, mainly due to previous allegations of murder and corruption made against MBS. Regardless, the trip held great importance for the future of U.S.-Saudi relations, as it indicated a shift in Biden’s policy with Saudi Arabia. 

Pointed Summary

  • Changes in global foreign policy push Biden to engage actively with Saudi Arabia 
  • Domestic concerns regarding U.S.-Saudi relations

Relevance

Following major events such as the Russia-Ukraine Conflict and the emergence of Iran as a possible nuclear state in the Middle East, a solid relationship with Saudi Arabia is paramount in ensuring the safety and guarantee of U.S. interests. However, despite how critical it is in long term, Saudi human rights abuse and questionable leadership continue to be obstacles in U.S.-Saudi relations. Unless these issues are alleviated or, in the best case scenario, solved, it is to be expected that U.S.-Saudi relations will continue to be a controversial affair. Nevertheless, that does not mitigate Saudi Arabia's overall significance in the grand scheme of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. To better understand its importance, one can simply look back on the role Saudi Arabia played in U.S. foreign policy in the past.

Policy Questions

History

U.S- Saudi relations were founded on oil. In 1933, King Abdel Aziz granted a 60-year concession to Standard Oil Company of California, allowing for the joint exploration for oil in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia. Following the agreement, in 1938, commercial oil was found at Dammam Well No. 7 – an event that would signal the future prosperity of the Saudi economy. Through oil discoveries, the 1930s characterized the early U.S.-Saudi Arabia diplomatic ties, and soon, during World War II, the region became a location of “strategic importance.”

By 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that the defense of Saudi Arabia was a vital interest to the U.S. and made the country eligible for Lend-Lease assistance. Such relationships enabled the Arabian American Oil Company (now known as Aramco) to make record-breaking oil productions of 500,000 barrels per day in 1949.

Nevertheless, that is not to say that all U.S. ventures regarding oil were successful. The Great Oil Shock of 1973 caused a colossal oil price spike for the U.S and throughout most of the west. With increased consumer demand for oil, Arab oil producers manipulated oil prices using their newfound petro-power and punished countries that fought in opposition to Egypt during the Arab-Israeli War. Regardless, the U.S. continued relations with Saudi Arabia and sought to protect oil wealth in the region. In the midst of the Iranian Revolution and Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the kingdom spent more than $50 billion dollars on U.S. military purchases, including 5 airborne warning and control systems and a $5.6 billion “peace shield” – a command/control system that allows for the Royal Saudi Air Force to link their 147 defenses sites. Such efforts only grew during the Gulf War when 500,000 troops were deployed to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield and post 9/11 when Saudi Arabia supported the war on terrorism. 

Since the beginning of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, both countries have committed to oil partnerships and international security to fight threats, especially Iran after its 1979 Revolution. However, a divide between the regions has been escalating with the U.S. treating Saudi Arabia as an oil competitor and several disagreements on issues like prospective nuclear deals with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Syrian War. The rift continued to grow throughout the early 2000s. 

Tried Policy 

By the late 2010s, the dissonance of U.S.- Saudi relations would narrow with the Trump administration. The Trump administration was characterized by a close relationship with Saudi Arabia. This is chiefly demonstrated through the relationship between former president Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). In 2017, Prince Bin Salman arrested hundreds of the most powerful businessmen and princes in the gulf nation. The goal of this “purge” was to centralize power by removing leaders that posed an economic or political threat to MBS’s authority. President Trump praised the move, tweeting that he had “great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.” The leaders also bonded over their shared opposition to Iran. Subsequently, in 2018, Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. In the years following, Trump installed broadband sanctions on Iranian banks. Following the 2019 attacks on Saudi Oil fields by the Iran-backed, Yemen-based Houthi group, Trump installed more sanctions targeted at Iran.

However, the greatest demonstration of the close relationship between MBS and Trump was Trump’s policies toward Saudi Arabia regarding the Yemen Civil War. The War started in 2014 when, in reaction to rises in fuel prices, Houthi insurgents captured the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a, and forced Interim President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, and in 2015 a coalition of nine countries, led by Saudi Arabia, entered the conflict in “Operation Decisive Storm.” The goal of Operation Decisive Storm was to quickly re-establish the Hadi government and was primarily executed through airstrikes. However, seven years later the war continues, and said airstrikes have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians. The Trump Administration was an ally to Riyadh during the civil war. In opposition to three congressional bills, Trump pushed through an $8 billion arms deal to aid Saudi Arabia in the conflict. In 2018, the United States and Saudi Arabia sponsored resistance to a British resolution for a ceasefire. And in 2019, President Trump also vetoed a bipartisan measure to stop US involvement in the Yemen War. Trump’s steadfast allyship for Saudi Arabia during the Yemeni Civil War is a consistent demonstration of the tight relationship between Washington and Riyadh during the Trump years.

Even the murder of Washington Post Journalist and outspoken advocate against MBS, Jamal Khashoggi, which was approved by MBS, did not severely threaten the relationship between Trump and the Crown Prince. Trump didn’t endorse the independent reports that found MBS culpable for the killing and later stated in an interview that “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.” Trump’s defense of MBS following the Khashoggi murder is another show of the close relationship the two leaders shared

Current Stances 

While U.S- Saudi relations during the Trump era were agreeable, the same sentiments are not shared by the Biden Administration. Following the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, views regarding the Crown Prince reached an all-time low, both domestically and internationally. In accordance with public opinion, Biden, during the 2019 Presidential Debates, stated that he would make Saudi Arabia “pay the price” for the killing of Kashoggi and make them a “pariah.” Once elected, these statements set the precedent for Biden-led U.S-Saudi relations, leading to a year and a half of complete silence between the two countries. However, following the market shortage of Russian oil after the Russia-Ukraine War and, consequently, high gas prices, Biden is unable to maintain his previous hardline approach towards the Sauds, as shown during his recent trip to the Middle East. 

Biden’s first trip to the Middle East as President began in Israel, then to the West Bank, and finally to Saudi Arabia where he spoke directly with MBS. Although gas prices were definitely on the President’s mind, the first matter of contention was, again, the killing of Khashoggi. Biden states that he “raised it at the top of the meeting” and plainly told MBS that he thinks he was responsible. Yet, when Saudi officials were asked, they replied that Biden never made such claims. Nevertheless, MBS continued to deny any allegations regarding the murder of Khashoggi. Considering public outcry regarding the killing, it will be necessary for Biden to highlight his effort to demand accountability from the Crown Prince, especially if he wants to strike a deal on oil without garnering even greater domestic criticism. When it comes to oil, Biden urged the Kingdom to increase its oil production capabilities. However, while agreeing to increase to 13M BPD, MBS reminds Biden that Saudi Arabia does not have the capacity to go beyond that, as it would cause unprecedented inflation and subsequent unemployment. 

Although tension was present, there were concrete successes that came from the bilateral talks. First, Saudi Arabia opened up its airspace to Israel aircraft, a move the Biden Administration took as the Saud stepped toward normalizing relations with Israel. However, Saudi officials have come out and stated that the move was simply to ease tension, not an indication of future plans of normalization – a step that would first require solving the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Second, Biden and MBS spoke on “ taking steps to do everything possible to extend and strengthen the UN-mediated truce,” which has resulted in the longest period of peace within Yemen in seven years. At the same time, Biden affirmed his support to help Saudi Arabia defend itself, both from Houthi rebels and from Iran. 

Furthermore, Biden confirmed his commitment to the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII). Through the PGII the United States and Saudi Arabia have plans to “mobilize hundreds of billions of dollars to deliver quality, sustainable infrastructure” throughout the Middle East. U.S. involvement in infrastructure in the Middle East comes at a strategic time, as China, since 2016, has invested nearly $123B worth of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) related investment in the Middle East. U.S. efforts to ingrain itself as an investor in Middle Eastern infrastructure allow it to maintain a presence within the region that is directly rivaling China – ensuring that competitors are unable to fully consolidate influence within the region. 

Policy Problem

Stakeholders 

Russian and Chinese influence has expanded globally, with both expressing plans to increase their standing in the Middle East. For instance, Saudi Arabia has a strong transactional relationship with China, which is its most important crude oil customer. Over the years, Saudi Arabia’s distrust of the U.S. as a less reliable partner has given Russia openings to collaborate economically, specifically when Russia joined the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 2016. In response to the growing influence of competing powers, Biden asserted to Arab leaders, “We [America] will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.” Commenting on Biden’s most recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Aaron David Miller, the former senior advisor for Middle East policy at the State Department, said, “The Russian invasion of Ukraine gave this trip more of a great-power-competition focus.” Indeed, The White House believes that the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia to punish Moscow economically for its war in Ukraine and maintain its influence within the region.

Nonpartisan Reasoning

The change in U.S.-Saudi relations comes amid heightening tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Ever since the failure of the JCPOA and following negotiation stalemate, the increased likelihood of Iran reaching nuclear weapon capabilities and its growing sponsorship of terrorism is now a top priority to address for the GCC and US. This common threat has opened up opportunities for Biden to persuade GCC member states, such as Saudi Arabia, to normalize relations with Israel in an effort to effectively deter Iran. While visiting the Middle East, President Biden aimed to strengthen the relationship between Washington and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and align their efforts against Iran. Following the Abraham Accords, in which the UAE and Jordan normalized relations with Israel, Biden has aimed to progress in the same direction as Saudi Arabia. For decades, however, Saudi Arabia has said that relations with Israel can only happen after the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is settled.

Policy Options

The Biden administration faces a number of challenges in the Middle East, and a sustainable, cooperative relationship with the Saudis — given certain concessions from Riyadh — will be fundamental in meeting U.S. regional goals. 

Reset, Not Rupture

For four years, the Trump administration was decidedly friendly and wholly supportive of Saudi Arabia and MBS. From making the kingdom his first foreign trip as president to, post-presidency, hosting events with Saudi-backed sports, the Trump administration grew and remains close with Riyadh. While Khashoggi's killing introduced turbulence into the relationship, the Trump White House discounted the crown prince’s alleged responsibility and refused to condemn the kingdom.

Biden has worked to reverse this trend, making clear to MBS that, though the U.S. seeks allies in the region, the White House will not ignore aggressive misconduct on the part of Riyadh. But the administration has to be careful. Isolating rhetoric, such as calling Riyadh a “pariah,” does more to distance the countries than to help create a conditions-based framework for cooperation. Yes, Biden should reestablish U.S. demands that were absent under the Trump administration, but an overly-friendly relationship is better than no relationship — a development that jeopardizes U.S. power projection in the region and pushes Riyadh into the Chinese and Russian influence.

No Blank Check, Leverage Security

Washington’s security aid to Riyadh is the Biden administration’s strongest leverage to achieve U.S. bilateral and regional goals. The former president was frequently criticized for offering Riyadh a “blank check,” supporting Saudi adventurism without reservation. Confident in its guarantees from Washington, Riyadh was able to pursue its own regional goals without repercussions from the U.S., even if its actions ran counter to Washington’s interests. Biden, skeptical of the kingdom, has since reversed this informal policy. 

The biggest implication for regional security has been the current ceasefire holding in Yemen made possible in part due to Saudi restraint in the conflict due to limited arms and cooperation from the U.S. Perhaps, more importantly, the Biden administration significantly reduced Washington’s contribution to the perpetuation of the conflict, the U.S. and U.S.-aligned international institutions are able to better act as trusted third-party negotiators, bringing both sides to the table in ways that were not possible before. 

By leveraging still existing security aid, the Biden administration can continue to push for its regional goals. Without an unambiguous guarantee from Washington, Saudi Arabia has to find other ways to ensure its security against, chiefly, Iran. Two trends are likely to develop: 1) Riyadh will engage in less regional adventurism for fear of facing a confrontation it can’t escalate, and 2) the kingdom will be pushed to work with other regional allies that have similar anti-Iranian interests. While the former point will certainly help to stabilize the region, the latter point provides the framework under which Arab states can work together, in a GCC-eue fashion, to counter Iranian influence. Both achieve Washington’s interests, and the strategy manages to do so with decisively less U.S. involvement. 

Push for Normalization

While the emergence of a security-based coalition of Western-leaning Arab states may be hastened by limited U.S. unilateral security guarantees (forcing nations to work together, despite their differences, to create a mutual defense against Iran), it does little to increase collaboration between these Arab states and, the U.S.’s primary ally in the region, Israel. 

Notably, the Biden administration will not be pursuing massive reductions in defense commitments to the Israelis in order to force Arab-Israeli cooperation — and, if the White House did defy official policy and cut security aid to Jerusalem, the IDF would remain a capable, nuclear-equipped force. Both politically and practically, then, Israel cannot be bullied into cooperation with Saudi Arabia (and the region more broadly). Rather, Jerusalem must be persuaded — not coerced — into increased allyship. 

In this effort, Washington must emphasize shared goals between the Saudis and Israelis, use its continued cooperation with both nations as a bargaining chip, and lean on Prime Minister Lapid’s desire to be seen in alignment with the U.S. Enhancing the interoperability of each nation’s military systems may be the most politically feasible place to start as it works to directly achieve each side’s security goals. 

Even then, any formal partnership is unlikely to go public, with both leading parties likely to face domestic political struggles if perceived as freely engaging with the other, but Washington can continue to act as a go-between to continue to deepen ties.

Conclusion

Biden followed through on his campaign promise, using the early part of his presidency to cast a cold shoulder toward Saudi Arabia. While this shift in dynamic from the Trump administration’s over-compliance with the kingdom was needed to reset the relationship, the Biden White House must now try to achieve a delicate cooperative relationship with MBS if it wants to achieve its goals and enhance regional security. 

Acknowledgment

The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Lucas Yang, Elizabeth Miller, Marielle DeVos, Luke Drago, and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.

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