The troubled U.S.-Saudi relationship
As the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia continues to grow more strained, President Biden keeps arriving at Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s door with gifts to court the kingdom back. And the relationship continues to grow more strained.
The troubled U.S.-Saudi relationship – The essential trouble in the relationship is that the U.S. continues to arrive at Saudi Arabia’s door as the hegemon of a unipolar world demanding an exclusive relationship. But when the Saudis answer the door, they are looking out at a world that they no longer see as unipolar. Instead, they see a new multipolar world in which they have staked too much of their future on a now-waning America and not enough on the now-waxing powers like China. Saudi Arabia is not trying to break up with the U.S., but they are trying to balance their relationship to align it with a world that has changed.
The most significant sign of Saudi Arabia’s coming out in the multipolar world is its September 2021 admission as a dialogue partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO is the world’s second-largest international organization, after the UN, and includes Russia, China, and India. Its primary purpose is to rebalance the U.S.-led unipolar world into a multipolar world. Saudi Arabia is also seeking membership in BRICS, the other major Russia and China-led organization that seeks to balance U.S. hegemony and create a new multipolar world.
In the past few months, Biden has brought three gifts to Saudi Arabia. He has invited the “pariah state” back into the international community, he has protected Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) from prosecution and he has refused to terminate support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. In return, Saudi Arabia has partnered with Russia and China – America’s leading rivals – by partnering with Russia against the U.S.-led sanctions regime and signing a strategic partnership with China.
In July, Biden flew to Saudi Arabia seeking a reorientation in relations and an increase in oil production to offset globally rising prices caused by the sanctions on Russia and to enhance the efficacy of those sanctions. Biden offered Saudi Arabia an expanded “strategic partnership,” a “commitment to supporting Saudi Arabia’s security and territorial defense,” and a further commitment to upholding Saudi Arabia as the dominant power in the region.
In October, Saudi Arabia sent their reply. OPEC+ announced that they were cutting oil production by two million barrels a day, representing a 2% reduction of the daily global supply, which was larger than expected and the biggest cut in over two years.
But Saudi Arabia did not just turn Biden’s request down. They did not just refuse to join the sanctions on Russia. They sided with Russia. The decision to cut oil production was not an exclusive OPEC decision. The decision was made by OPEC+, an organization of OPEC and non-OPEC oil-producing countries that includes Russia. So, the Saudi decision is perceived by the White House as being coordinated with Russia and as evidence of Saudi Arabia overtly siding with Russia. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that “It’s clear that OPEC+ is aligning with Russia with today’s announcement.”
Despite Saudi Arabia’s rejection and what Annelle Sheline, Research Fellow for the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, called the “evidence from MBS that he is not interested in a close relationship,” Biden continues to court Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed bin Salman personally, with gifts.
Sheline told me that “there are certain players in the administration, including [Deputy Assistant to President Biden] Brett McGurk and [under secretary of defense for policy] Colin Kahl, who feel that the U.S. must maintain close ties to the Saudis (and Emiratis) no matter what.”
Sheline says that the dedication is “partly driven by antagonism towards Iran” and encouraged by weapons manufacturers: “Saudi Arabia remains the U.S. weapons industry’s most important customer.”
So, Biden continues to try to seduce Saudi Arabia back into an exclusive unipolar relationship. In 2018, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by a Saudi Arabian hit squad. In February 2021, a U.S. intelligence report that was finally released revealed that top U.S. intelligence officials believe that the hit squad was under the command of Mohammed bin Salman.
Despite having that knowledge of the Crown Prince’s responsibility and guilt, the Biden administration ruled in November that because he is a head of state, he enjoys immunity from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. That ruling left a federal judge in Washington no choice but to reluctantly dismiss the lawsuit against Mohammed bin Salman. “Despite the Court’s uneasiness,” the judge said, “the United States has informed the Court that he is immune.”
Still not enough to win MBS back, Biden brought one more gift. On December 13, yielding to strong opposition from the Biden administration, Senator Bernie Sanders withdrew his war powers resolution that would have ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen.
Perhaps the most devastating war in the world today, the Saudi-led coalition’s war has killed “almost 400,000 civilians, and left 16 million people on the edge of starvation.” The U.S. has financed “The world’s worst humanitarian crisis” with $55 billion. It has trained pilots, supplied aircraft, maintained weapons, and provided logistical and intelligence support.
The Yemen War Powers Act would have put an end to U.S. intelligence sharing and logistical support that enables the Saudi airstrikes. But Biden worked hard to put an end to The Yemen War Powers Act, supporting the Saudi-led war as one more gift to Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman. Biden’s hard work puts him “in the unusual position,” says The Washington Post, “of standing against an effort to punish a Saudi regime that has been anything but friendly to him.”
The White House circulated talking points to senators promising that “[i]f this resolution was presented to the President, his staff will recommend the President veto it.” The White House argued that the resolution could imperil the fragile pause in the war. It argued that the resolution was unnecessary given successful U.S. diplomacy. And, in the cruelest argument, it argued that, because the resolution names intelligence sharing and logistical support as “hostilities,” it “could have real ramifications for our support for Ukraine right now.” Brutally, the Biden administration is willing to let thousands starve and die in one war in order to protect participation in another.
But all of this courting was still not enough to entice Saudi Arabia back into an exclusive relationship in a U.S.-led unipolar world. Saudi Arabia pocketed the presents and then welcomed a visit by China.
On December 9, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia where the two countries promised “to firmly support each other’s core interests” and signed what their joint declaration called a “comprehensive strategic partnership . . . between the kingdom and China”.
XI called the visit the beginning of a “new era” in relations. He promised to continue importing large amounts of oil from the region and suggested, in a move that would weaken the U.S. and strengthen multipolarity, that the oil transactions be paid in the yuan.
Rejecting Biden’s insistence on an exclusive relationship in a unipolar world, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud insisted that they could have a relationship with both. “We do not believe in polarization or in choosing between sides,” he said.
Not polarizing or choosing between sides is the commitment to a multipolar world. Sheline told me that “from the Saudi perspective, China is the future: China is the Saudis’ most important customer.” According to reporting in The New York Times, “Prince Mohammed has accelerated efforts to diversify Saudi Arabia’s alliances, trying to move beyond its reliance on the United States as its main security guarantor and weapons supplier to forge a more independent path.”
Importantly, Saudi Arabia and China signed an alignment plan for “synergy” between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, further linking the two countries.
The meeting and the comprehensive strategic partnership are very significant development. It is not surprising, though. “China represents the future” for Saudi Arabia, Sheline told me, “partly because China has committed to working with the Saudis to diversify their economy, something that MBS has staked his whole reputation on, with Vision 2030, whereas the U.S. only really offers military hardware and the security cooperation it brings.”
The further linking of Saudi Arabia with China and Russia, two countries the U.S. sees itself as in a rivalry with for Saudi Arabia’s fidelity, is not a choice of one side over the other. Saudi Arabia no longer feels that it is in its best interest moving into the future to be pressured to choose sides. That is the nature of the new multipolar world that Saudi Arabia sees.
And that is the essential trouble in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The U.S. is still demanding an exclusive partnership in the unipolar world it is clinging to; Saudi Arabia now sees a multipolar world in which they have relied too heavily on one pole and seek to rebalance their international relations. The U.S. is desperately courting a relationship that Saudi Arabia’s worldview no longer allows it to enter into.