The US relationship with Saudi Arabia is at an all-time low. Without significant and timely course corrections by President Biden, who arrived in Jeddah today, and by the Saudi leadership the damage to both countries’ interests could be severe. Each side has acknowledged this. The Saudis don’t see the US as pursuing core strategic interests with a long-standing ally. Instead, Washington appears to prefer a values-based foreign policy that panders to the progressive wing of the Democratic while also attempting a rapprochement with the mullahs in Iran. On the other hand, the Biden administration disapproves of certain policies and actions of the Saudi government, especially those that relate to human rights, the war in Yemen and more recently oil production policy that is perceived to be overly restrained.
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The harm from the damaged relationship with Riyadh can be seen in an increasingly warm relationship between the Kingdom and China. President Xi, whose country is Saudi Arabia’s leading trade partner in both exports and imports, will be visiting Riyadh later this year and he will surely be very well received. The Chinese wish to strengthen their bilateral relationship at America’s expense. This might include trading oil in Chinese renminbi, which would harm the dollar as the global reserve currency.
The values rather than the realist approach of the White House have proven costly. Yet now Biden and his advisors are keen on renewing ties with Riyadh based on “mutual interests and responsibilities.” This can only signal a belated realization of the importance of Saudi Arabia on the global geopolitical stage. The outcome of the meeting between Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be a litmus test of the strategic nature of the relationship as opposed to being event driven.
In practice, Biden’s policy until recently has involved a downgrading of the strategic alliance with Riyadh while also targeting the crown prince with opprobrium. By doing this, the US was signaling its preference about who should be the next ruler of the Kingdom. Such interference in determining succession to kingship in Saudi Arabia is unprecedented. All previous American administrations realized that this constitutes an infringement on the sovereignty of the Saudi state and can destabilize the country.
Also implicit in the downgrading policy is a questioning of the utility of an alliance that has lasted for nearly eight decades and has been crucial in stabilizing global energy markets, the competing against Communism and the Soviet Union, and later defeating Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Reality now starkly confronts the Biden administration, and its more abstract and values-based policies have had to give way to certain hard truths about the Middle East. First, it has proven impossible to reach a resolution and improvement of relations with Iran on the nuclear deal because its militant antagonism to the US is inherent to the regime, and it is the glue that binds its elite together. Second, President Biden has had to acknowledge that without Saudi Arabia he cannot bring down oil prices nor can he secure the stability of allies like Egypt and Jordan among others. Higher food prices and rising interest rates on their debt are creating severe fiscal challenges for these countries. Nor can America pursue peace between Arabs and Israelis without the engagement of the Saudis.
The Biden administration is not the first to mistakenly see the relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in transactional terms. America’s two political parties have been myopic about the strategic importance of the Gulf countries. Many US officials derisively consider the Kingdom to be a “big gas station,” only paying Riyadh a visit to request extra barrels when tight markets raise the price of gasoline to levels that would harm electoral prospects. The entire relationship is often framed by the media and in policy circles as one based on an exchange of oil for security, which is what is alleged to have been the deal struck between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz at their meeting in 1945. In fact, no such agreement was ever struck, and the relationship has always been about much more than oil.
Still, during his stay in Jeddah Biden will surely ask for more oil, but this should not be the crux of the meeting since Saudi Arabia cannot realistically affect the price of oil without a lead time of several months to ramp up production. Instead, substantive issues ought to be discussed, and hopefully agreed upon. These include steps for ending of the war in Yemen and the reconstruction of that devastated country; improving the human rights conditions as well as enhancing the rule of law; assisting developing countries now facing major food and fiscal challenges because of higher wheat and energy prices; protecting Saudi Arabia from the missile and drone threat posed by Iran and its proxies as well as addressing Iran’s destabilizing regional activities; improving coordination on fighting terrorism; attenuating the negative effects of the war in the Ukraine; addressing the question of Palestinian rights and achieving peace with Israel; building on the positive social and economic changes that have been undertaken and with great success especially for Saudi women. And all these issues should be dealt with not in the highly personalistic and transactional manner that President Trump embodied, but rather on an institutional level between the two governments.
The opportunity to improve relations with the younger generation of leaders in the Gulf should not be missed, especially in the case of Saudi Arabia, which is the most important country in the region and whose interests remain closely aligned with those of the United States.