Washington did well to send a high-level delegation to Riyadh a few days following the Saudi crown prince’s television interview to clarify President Biden’s policy after reviewing the US policy in the region. The US delegation, which consisted of representatives from the White House and state and defense departments, held talks with officials in Riyadh. The delegation underscored the partnership between the two countries, and the US’s aspiration to strengthen it in all fields, as well as engaging in a strategic dialogue on all issues, including ones on which they have differing views.
Thus, the US delegation supports the crown prince’s remarks during the television interview on the importance of reinforcing the partnership with the United States and continuing dialogue between the two partners on possible issues of contention.
While these new assurances are important, it is necessary to translate them into practical steps in the near future. Time is of the essence, and any delay may create a security vacuum that can be exploited by the partners’ rivals, or lead to misunderstandings or uncalculated steps that neither of them wants.
When asked about Saudi-US relations, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman highlighted the fact that total agreement between any two countries cannot exist. There is often a margin of disagreement, no matter how strong the relationship is, and this applies to the Saudi relationship with Washington; with each new administration, the margin of difference may increase or decrease. Commenting on the current relations with the Biden Administration, the crown prince said that there was an agreement on 90 percent of the issues. As for the remaining ten percent, the two sides are working to find solutions and understandings to neutralize their negative impact on bilateral interests. He asserted that the Saudi-US partnership has spanned the last 80 years and has a significant positive impact on both countries.
Clearly, the Saudi and US sides are keen to strengthen this historic partnership, which began in 1933 and was founded on oil when King Abdulaziz granted a concession for oil exploration to US companies in vast areas of the Kingdom. Nonetheless, that partnership extended to include politics, economy, military cooperation, counterterrorism, environment, education, and others.
Today, the regional and international challenges render the Saudi-US partnership more urgent than ever. For example, the US plans to reduce its military presence in the region make it necessary to reinforce its partners’ forces, primarily Saudi Arabia, to avoid creating a security vacuum. The Kingdom and the US agree on most of the issues in the region, making their future coordination to address these issues mutually beneficial for the security and stability of the region. This is evident in counterterrorism as the Saudi-US partnership has made significant achievements against this threat and thwarted serious terrorist operations.
In the energy field, their cooperation became necessary after the United States became a major oil producer and exporter. Last year’s bilateral coordination enabled them to restore stability to the oil market and protect their interests. As for competition in international trade, the US needs strong partners like Saudi Arabia, which has the largest economy in the Gulf are and the entire Middle East.
Better results can be achieved in other new priority areas by boosting cooperation, such as climate change, where the cooperation has already begun in recent weeks.
However, there are some different opinions on some issues, which the crown prince said are only ten percent. He expressed the Kingdom’s readiness to engage in dialogue on these differences, aiming to “find solutions and reach an understanding to overcome them, neutralizing their risks on both countries while upholding our interests.”
The Kingdom is certainly no longer dependent on a single strategic partner, but has diversified its partnerships and sources to become stronger, starting with the GCC countries and the Arab and Islamic countries, in addition to its partnership with the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The Kingdom is also currently seeking to create important new partnerships with China, Russia, India, and a number of African and Latin American countries, among others.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that the United States remained a strategic partner for the Kingdom and that the Kingdom had been strengthening its cooperation with everyone for the sake of common interests. He added in a clear message: “At the end of the day, every country has its choice. If we could work with them to serve everyone’s interests, that would be great. Otherwise, there are a lot of other options out there.”
When asked whether the margin of disagreement between the two countries was a matter of different opinions or whether it included some pressure from the United States, the Crown Prince replied: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not allow for any interference in its internal affairs,” explaining that one of the most important pillars of the UN Charter is respecting the sovereignty of states and non-interference in their internal affairs.
The crown prince’s repeated references to the UN Charter illustrate Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the world order that is based on UN-derived rules in all areas, governing the conduct of states and their relations.
As Washington recalibrates its policy in the region, it is useful to keep the lines of communication open with Riyadh in order to serve their common interests. One of the most important factors of success in this regard is the decades-long strong personal relationship between President Biden and the Saudi leadership, which is likely to consolidate the partnership between the two countries during his tenure and overcome the recent difficulties. This will enable both sides to confront serious regional threats and global security and economic challenges.
During its visit to Riyadh, the US delegation stressed the importance of strong and effective relations between Saudi and US institutions that remain deep-rooted as individuals change. The institutional partnerships will ensure the sustainability and strength of bilateral cooperation.
In order to realize this institutional shift in Saudi-US relations, formal agreements and action plans must be drawn up to be implemented in areas of interest, in addition to maintaining open channels of dialogue, particularly on the ten percent of contention issues.
These formal frameworks in the form of agreements and channels of communication will have a positive impact in facilitating the management of Saudi-US relations and maintaining stability in the region, especially during the presidential transitions in Washington.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.