U.S. President Joe Biden was never enthusiastic about making a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia to make up with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And three months after the fist bump that went ’round the world, it’s easy to see why.
Last week, that fist bump was replaced by a Saudi sucker punch as OPEC+, a cartel of top oil producers, decided to cut its oil production by as much as 2 million barrels per day (though oil analysts say the cut may prove to be significantly lower). There’s no doubt that the primary motive was to keep prices high and maintain Russian-Saudi and OPEC+ cohesion in anticipation of further economic downturns and perhaps a U.S. and EU price cap on Russian oil before year’s end.
But let’s be clear: The Saudi move was done with the full awareness that it would undermine Biden’s political position at home and abroad. Weeks before the U.S. midterm elections and with gas prices already ticking up, Mohammed bin Salman made it unmistakably clear to the U.S. president that he’d do as he pleased when it came to oil prices and his cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, regardless of U.S. objections or interests.
Whether this latest development reflects a major turning point in U.S.-Saudi relations is unclear. That relationship has had many ups and downs—including the 1973 oil embargo and the 9/11 attacks—and survived. But one thing is certain: The days when U.S. presidents dealt with risk-averse Saudi kings dependent on the United States and wary of offending Washington have been over for some time now. A willful, ruthless, and unpredictable Saudi leader is now in charge and may, when he becomes king, rule Saudi Arabia for half a century.
The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that it would undertake a reevaluation of U.S.-Saudi relations. And even though U.S. options run from bad to worse, the point of departure for that review must be clear. If it has learned nothing else from this sorry affair, the Biden administration needs to write on the blackboard 1,000 times that Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman isn’t an ally of the United States.
In the wake of the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, then-presidential candidate Biden talked repeatedly about reevaluating and reassessing U.S.-Saudi relations. To his credit, Biden seemed to follow through on this early in his presidency by suspending offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, freezing contacts with Mohammed bin Salman, and releasing a brief assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence establishing the crown prince’s role in and responsibility for Khashoggi’s death.
But even then, what the Biden administration had in mind, according to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was “not to rupture” the U.S.-Saudi relationship but rather to “recalibrate” it “to be more in line with our interests and our values.” And throughout 2021, administration officials seemed to be thinking through ways to do that.
Yet no real reassessment of the relationship seems to have occurred. And then came Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and its attendant shock to oil markets, which accelerated the urgency of at least trying to normalize ties with Saudi Arabia and reinforced the importance of Saudi oil and of Mohammed bin Salman’s value as a potential strategic partner.
Indeed, the Jeddah Communique issued at the end of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July repeatedly stressed that strategic partnership and contained an impressive array of joint initiatives to make it real—almost everything except the proverbial kitchen sink, including security and defense cooperation; initiatives on technology, green energy, cybersecurity, global infrastructure, and investment; and cooperation on regional issues from Yemen to Lebanon to Syria.
One could be forgiven for thinking that after a very turbulent stretch, a new era had dawned in U.S.-Saudi relations. And the Biden administration’s confidence that, over time, Saudi Arabia would incrementally ramp up oil production added to the sense that Biden’s trip had been a worthwhile strategic investment.
Apparently, Mohammed bin Salman didn’t get the memo. For him, the visit was certainly a chance to begin anew—but on his terms. Likely feeling personally slighted by Biden’s initial shunning of any contact with the crown prince, as well as by Biden’s comments in 2019 that Saudi Arabia was a “pariah” nation whose leadership had “very little social redeeming value,” the crown prince almost certainly saw the visit as the U.S. president’s comeuppance, a kiss-the-ring moment in the rapidly evolving international landscape in which the United States was no longer as powerful or as central to Saudi interests.
Mohammad bin Salman would gladly cooperate with Washington and take whatever it would give, especially in the vital areas of security, intelligence, and arms sales. But on a whole host of other issues, from establishing close relations with Russia and China to setting oil prices to human rights, Saudi Arabia would exercise its own independence and discretion free from U.S. objections, even if those policies ran directly counter to Washington’s interests.
This is especially true when it comes to human rights. It should not have been lost on anyone that last week’s OPEC+ decision came just three days after the fourth anniversary of Khashoggi’s killing. For Mohammed bin Salman, the Khashoggi file was now permanently closed—and with it any notion that Biden or the United States could dictate to Saudi Arabia on that issue or on the matter of whom its friends should be.
The politically inconvenient reality is that as a fellow authoritarian, when it comes to democracy, human rights, and individual freedoms, Saudi Arabia’s leader has far more in common with the leaders in Moscow and Beijing than the one in Washington.
Biden has expressed “disappointment” in the response to the OPEC+ decision, and a statement by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese termed it “shortsighted” and foreshadowed some additional response.
Having been skeptical all along about the value of the fence-mending trip to Saudi Arabia, one can only imagine Biden’s private reaction to the OPEC+ move. But reaction by U.S. congressional Democrats left little to the imagination. “It’s time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without their alliance,” Sen. Dick Durbin tweeted, referring to Saudi Arabia. Sen. Bernie Sanders called for an end to U.S. military support for the country and to “end its price-fixing oil cartel.” Rep. Tom Malinowski along with others introduced legislation to withdraw U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia.
Others urged passage of the 2021 No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels (NOPEC) bill, which “prohibits a foreign state from engaging in collective action impacting the market, supply, price, or distribution of oil, natural gas, or any other petroleum product in the U.S.” CNBC reports that the bill, which passed a Senate committee in May, “could expose OPEC countries and partners to lawsuits for orchestrating supply cuts that raise global crude prices.” Based on Sullivan and Deese’s statement, the administration may well decide to work with Congress on such an approach.
That U.S. administrations past and present had and continue to have leverage with Saudi Arabia is beyond question. After all, on the security and military dimensions of the relationship alone the numbers speak for themselves. From 2016 to 2020, Saudi Arabia was by far the biggest recipient of U.S. arms sales. And the United States could easily ground the entire Saudi air force, dependent as it is on U.S. spare parts and maintenance. But Washington has been reluctant to use this leverage, even though it would take years for Saudi Arabia to reorient its security relationship with Russia or China, and neither could provide the quality or quantity of U.S.-supplied weapons systems. Nor is there any sense that either Moscow or Beijing would be willing or able to come to the defense of Saudi Arabia in an exigent situation.
Yet administrations past and present have been unwilling to press the Saudis hard and use the leverage they clearly have. The default position seemed to be that, unlike Lehman Brothers, the U.S.-Saudi relationship—driven by oil, countering Iran, intelligence sharing, and peacemaking with Israel—was simply too big and important to fail. In fact, the Biden administration has been one of the first U.S. administrations, in response to the assassination of Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen, to get tough by suspending offensive weapons sales and imposing the “Khashoggi Ban.”
As the administration considers a response to the OPEC+ decision, there are a number of elements to consider. First, is the response designed to change Saudi behavior or simply to punish? The former is much harder than the latter. Just take a look at the Biden administration’s early decision to suspend some weapons sales and freeze contacts between Biden and the crown prince. Not only did it fail to change Mohammed bin Salman’s behavior, but the administration also looked even weaker when it eased the pressure campaign only to find the crown prince pushing OPEC+ into significant production cuts.
Second, it’s hard to recall a single example of sanctions working successfully on an adversary—let alone a presumably friendly country—when it involved a matter of vital national interest or prestige for the target country. Third, as it responds, the administration doesn’t want to take actions that might make matters worse. Oil is a critical aspect of the relationship, but it’s still just one component. Cooperation on counterterrorism and Iran is also a key U.S. objective that shouldn’t be jeopardized.
One would be hard-pressed to identify a set of options that would suitably punish Mohammed bin Salman, alter his behavior, and prevent or deter future deleterious actions without jeopardizing other parts of the U.S.-Saudi relationship that are worth preserving.
But the crown prince’s middle finger of a decision in a relationship that’s supposed to involve reciprocity warrants a response. In the short term, there’s little Biden can do to restore production cuts or lower gas prices at the pump. The biggest spikes may well occur later in the year. Oil analysts have warned that drawing more crude from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, creating a gasoline reserve equivalent, or limiting exports of refined products won’t address the problem.
Options for retaliating against Saudi Arabia aren’t great, either. But they need to be considered, including restricting offensive arms sales and whether the United States really needs the numbers of forces it has deployed in Saudi Arabia and should evaluate a drawdown—if only to demonstrate that it is serious about resetting the relationship and pushing the Saudis to bring about some remedial action on their supply cuts. The Biden administration should use the very real threat of congressional actions on these issues to indicate just how fraught the U.S.-Saudi relationship has become.
Banning high-level contacts with Mohammed bin Salman also makes sense—but having seen this movie once before, this time it should be done informally with no public announcement. It will leak soon enough. The United States should also continue to highlight the importance of human rights and call out the Saudi government publicly.
Most of the cooperative efforts outlined in the Jeddah Communique should be suspended for now, and the United States should work with its European allies—especially the British and French—to see what they are willing to do to make their displeasure felt. After all, the OPEC+ decision in Vienna will likely affect their energy situation more than the United States’ as winter looms. The prospect of further supply disruptions once European oil sanctions on Russia kick in in December will only make the oil market more precarious.
If Saudi Arabia wants to avoid a long-term decline in its relationship with the United States, the Biden administration should make clear that Riyadh needs to start acting like a partner. Helima Croft of RBC Capital Markets—one of the smartest oil analysts in the business—told me that one critically important U.S. demand should be for the Saudis and other OPEC members to make a public commitment to backfill supply to Europe if disruptions become severe. Frankly, as others have noted, having humiliated the U.S. president at home and abroad, that would be the least the Saudis could do.
But with no formal treaty obligations, no coincidence of values, an increasingly episodic and unpredictable alignment of interests, and no strong base of domestic support for the relationship, Saudi Arabia is not a U.S. ally, and the Biden administration should stop describing it as such.
The Saudis don’t want a break with the Biden administration. Neither Russia nor China can effectively replace the United States as a security partner. But Biden has two years left in his first term. And it certainly doesn’t require a political genius to realize that Mohammed bin Salman would prefer the return of former U.S. President Donald Trump or a Republican avatar. Last year, from the fund Mohammed bin Salman manages, the crown prince bankrolled Jared Kushner’s private equity firm to the tune of $2 billion.
And even if the OPEC+ decision wasn’t a calculated effort to weaken Biden before the U.S. midterms, a self-obsessed 37-year-old likely to rule Saudi Arabia for half a century may simply not have cared what the consequences of his actions might be for a soon-to-be 80-year-old U.S. president he’s likely moved beyond.
Either way, Mohammed bin Salman will continue to be a problematic partner. Saudi hedging with Russia and China, the United States’ own diminished role in the Middle East, and the unpredictability of the would-be Saudi king will inexorably diminish U.S. influence with Saudi Arabia at a time when its oil is increasingly important to the global economy. Energy security will still loom large as the United States hopefully makes its transition to renewables and a greener future. But the challenge of bad allies and worse adversaries will remain as Washington tries to advance U.S. interests in a turbulent Middle East that is beyond its capacity to repair.
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