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In recent weeks, as Western sanctions on Russia over its war in Ukraine have roiled global energy markets, Saudi Arabia has continued to decline requests from U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration that it increase oil production. Although the kingdom’s pointed refusal to mitigate the pain of skyrocketing fuel prices clearly startled many American observers, inspiring a raft of commentary asking whether the 77-year U.S.-Saudi alliance was still worth maintaining, it should not have come as a surprise.
The United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia has been in a downward spiral since immediately after 9/11. After years of tensions over the U.S.-led “war on terror,” the American intervention in Iraq, Washington’s on-and-off pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and Riyadh’s human rights record, even former President Donald Trump’s open courtship of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) did little to improve trust and communication. Though some in the U.S. foreign policy establishment privately question whether the crown prince has learned anything from his initial years in power, they might more productively ask themselves what they have learned over the same time period. Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s actions over the past 15 months suggest that many U.S. policymakers fail to fully understand how fundamentally the kingdom’s attitude toward the United States has changed, especially in the five years since MBS became the de facto ruler.
This shift has occurred alongside the steady retrenchment of the United States’ political interest in the Middle East, with Biden leading the third U.S. administration in a row that has pursued a diminished commitment to military action in the region. Saudi leaders have sought to adapt to this drift by consolidating a more diverse set of global economic and security relationships. But Biden appears to have entered office confidently expecting what generations of American presidents could count on: a special friendship with Saudi Arabia based on arms sales, security coordination, and oil production. MBS, for his part, has made no secret of the fact that he intends to prioritize the kingdom’s interests in global oil markets and with other Western and non-Western powers to help shore up his control over his country. Instead of insisting on receiving the traditional benefits of the U.S.-Saudi relationship while at the same time withdrawing the global political cover and regional military protection American administrations have traditionally offered to Saudi rulers, the Biden administration should adopt a more pragmatic approach, seeking to expand bilateral ties and exercise U.S. influence in new ways.
Saudi rhetoric and foreign policy have both shifted significantly since the end of the Trump administration. At a January 2021 summit in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia initiated a process of reconciliation with Qatar—and rapprochement with Oman and Kuwait—while distancing its positions from those of its hawkish neighbor, the United Arab Emirates. Since then, Riyadh has stepped up its engagement with Iraq and its efforts to restore warm relations with traditional allies such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Pakistan. The crown prince has also continued a years-long project of closer engagement with China and Russia—partnerships with like-minded leaders-for-life that are far less likely to be upended by electoral politics and promise greater long-term solidarity.
Although the kingdom’s rhetoric has shifted little when it comes to confronting Iranian-backed actors in the region, it has adopted a more flexible approach to Iran in practice as the Biden administration pursues diplomacy with the Islamic Republic rather than the “maximum pressure” campaign that Trump initiated. In 2021, Saudi Arabia publicly admitted that it was pursuing ongoing talks with Iran to de-escalate tensions and expressed cautious support for the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It has dialed back its hopes of a military victory in Yemen, albeit while reserving the right to deal out harsh reprisals to Houthi attacks. Even with respect to Lebanon, which Saudi leaders had all but written off as under Iran’s control, MBS recently agreed to collaborate with France in order to defuse an economic crisis.
The United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia has been in a downward spiral.
At home, political control remains a paramount priority for MBS. To be sure, he has released a number of political prisoners and is rumored to be taking a softer approach to estranged royal family members. Yet the suppression of domestic threats continues to take priority, as shown most clearly by the kingdom’s March 12 mass execution of 81 prisoners on terrorism charges. With about half of these prisoners coming from the minority Shiite community, the executions led Iran to announce a halt in bilateral negotiations—a predictable response and a price that Saudi leaders were clearly willing to pay. Concern with domestic opposition also informs the Saudi government’s unprecedented and sometimes futile crusade to control any online and offline information that contradicts the official line. This control extends to the borderline criminalization of meaningful citizen interactions with foreign governments and civil society entities, especially those located in Western democracies (including the United States).
Despite increased political repression, however, many Saudi citizens value meaningful improvements in their day-to-day quality of life. Critics have dismissed the so-called Vision 2030 plan as a mere vanity project. But the initiative has relaxed government constraints on social liberties, improved the efficiency of many state services, given women access to legal, economic, and education rights, and made small but steady improvements in the non-oil economy.
Another notable trend: in recent years, Saudi decision-makers have overhauled the place of religion in the tightly controlled public sphere with comprehensive top-down changes that went as far as downgrading the historical role of clerical authorities in cementing the royal family’s rule. The government has sought to portray the crown prince’s Vision 2030 as a new source of legitimation, with each earth-shattering development hyperbolically hailed by authorities as “giga” projects, the “biggest” events, the “tallest” towers, and many “historic firsts,” serving as a testament to the political genius of MBS. More prosaic economic improvements, meanwhile, can in turn fall prey to state efforts to maintain full control over information and markets.
Confronted with dramatic changes in Saudi Arabia, Biden and his administration played up the idea of recalibrating the bilateral relationship to address the fallout from the crown prince’s initial years of foreign policy “activism.” The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the regime who the United States has concluded was killed on the prince’s orders, and the torture of imprisoned women’s rights activists have made MBS a political liability to American leaders; no amount of talk about Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance can undo that damage. Khashoggi’s murder intensified public concern about the Saudi-led coalition’s long military campaign in Yemen, putting arms sales to Saudi Arabia under perennial scrutiny by U.S. media outlets and generating efforts to block such sales in the U.S. Congress. Labeling Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the campaign trail and taking early action to sanction the crown prince’s entourage helped Biden demonstrate a commitment to a values-based foreign policy, in sharp contrast to that of the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s immediate policy priorities in the region—winding down direct U.S. involvement in Yemen and reestablishing a nuclear deal with Iran—reinforce Saudi skepticism about U.S. commitments to the kingdom’s (and the Saudi regime’s) security. U.S. policy toward Iran and its proxies has supplanted U.S. policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict as the main target of ire in Saudi Arabia, with the “Obama doctrine” of curtailing U.S. military commitments to longtime partners a target of intense criticism in Saudi foreign-policy discourse to this day. And even though the Trump administration courted Saudi goodwill (and arms deals) with a combination of tough talk, crushing sanctions, and occasional military action against Iran and its allies, Trump continued a trend of limiting U.S. military action by declining to respond to Iranian-backed attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure.
Instead of charting a new course for the relationship, the Biden administration has relied on a familiar playbook: safeguarding the kingdom’s ability to purchase U.S. weaponry (and excluding any price for Saudi human rights abuses) in exchange for security coordination and other policy concessions. Most of Biden’s Middle East policy appointees are firm believers in the importance of the partnership with Saudi Arabia and accept that their ability to shape the Saudi regime’s behavior has limits. Accordingly, discussions of values in the U.S.-Saudi relationship have given way to the familiar rhetoric of a partnership that is “a vital one,” in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s words. The Biden administration has dealt with the clearest evidence of change in Saudi Arabia—the paramount role of MBS in Saudi policymaking—by avoiding it entirely, opting to pretend that MBS is a typical crown prince who is merely working a day job in one of the kingdom’s prominent ministries and who can be excluded from bilateral discussions between the two heads of state. This short-term strategy has offended MBS while offering minimal cover for the fact that the administration has little interest in litigating Saudi human rights abuses.
Simply avoiding MBS is a reactive strategy, one reflected in other areas of the administration’s approach to the relationship. Unable or unwilling to secure green energy legislation that would reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, the Biden administration has settled for periodic potshots at Saudi Arabia over its unwillingness to increase oil production. This only increases Saudi Arabia’s sense of self-importance in global oil markets, with Saudi leaders reportedly demanding politically untenable concessions from Biden—such as increased support for the kingdom’s war in Yemen, legal immunity in the United States for MBS, and cooperation on nuclear activities—in exchange for production increases that could offset the price hike resulting from sanctions placed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. The result has left the Biden administration playing a game of chicken with a nominal security partner: trying to secure increased oil production for minimal concessions even as Saudi Arabia sees what it can get for production increases it would likely champion anyway.
The United States cannot take Saudi Arabia’s support for granted. Successive American administrations have underestimated the impact of post-9/11 U.S. policies in the Middle East on their standing in Riyadh. Consider the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States’ presumed role in the 2010-11 Arab revolts, the Iran nuclear deal, and Washington’s non-response to Iranian-backed attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure—memories of those events are the key reference points for today’s Saudi decision-makers. They have replaced the iconic images of U.S. forces liberating Kuwait in 1991 and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud meeting on the deck of the USS Quincy in 1945. The Biden administration appears to recognize this change and is now prioritizing Saudi acquiescence to a renewed nuclear agreement with Iran, taking a halfway position on the Yemen conflict (pressing for peace but providing cover for Riyadh’s reprisals, all while doing little to generate leverage with the Houthis), and saying as little as possible about the crown prince’s past behavior. MBS will continue to risk U.S. goodwill in pursuit of his own policy priorities, confident that his country’s oil reserves and wealth will deter official U.S. and Western backlash. Additionally, public defiance of U.S. and Western calls for increased production is playing well at home by highlighting the status of Saudi Arabia as a major player in the global economy.
Rather than responding to Riyadh’s periodic signals of discontent, U.S. policymakers should look to the kingdom’s long-term interests to identify points of leverage. Saudi Arabia’s interests are deeply intertwined with MBS’s personal ambitions for Vision 2030, and Riyadh will adapt or look for other sources of arms, investments, or technology whenever Washington shuts it out or American companies balk at making investments. For now, the United States still provides most of the armaments that secure the Saudi regime against foreign adversaries (not to mention domestic opposition), accounting for nearly 80 percent of Saudi arms imports from 2016 to 2021. China accounted for barely one percent of Saudi arms imports during the same time period, and Russia less than 0.1 percent. Nor can the kingdom easily transition to another arms supplier after decades of building its armed forces and security services around U.S. munitions.
The knowledge-economy aspirations of Saudi Vision 2030 form another means of U.S. influence, if not a direct source of leverage. U.S. universities are still the main target of Saudis seeking to study abroad: 55 percent of Saudi students studying abroad on government-funded scholarships were enrolled in U.S. institutions in 2019, compared with just 0.4 percent in Chinese schools. Furthermore, despite its growing reciprocal flirtation with China and Russia, Riyadh still measures prestige in terms of the approval of Western media outlets and cultural institutions.
This is all the more relevant as Saudi Arabia trades its traditional focus on influencing the Muslim world for burnishing its image as an example of enlightened, pro-globalization despotism. Educational offerings, cultural exchanges, and tourism ventures all offer new avenues to communicate American values and conduct public diplomacy at some remove from Saudi state censorship and repression.
Still, it is clear that Riyadh has invested far more than Washington has in building the diplomatic tools to shape the future U.S.-Saudi relationship. The kingdom’s state institutions draw on the expertise of hundreds of Saudis who have spent considerable time in the United States. Over the past few years, Saudi diplomats in the United States have made a concerted effort to present Saudi talking points to new constituencies, secure in the knowledge that downplaying the kingdom’s Islamic credentials will always appeal to Western audiences. Even as more top-down Saudi efforts to shape U.S. policymakers’ opinions have raised eyebrows in Washington, the Biden administration has failed to appoint an ambassador to Riyadh. Biden’s avoidance of MBS signifies discontent with MBS’s dictatorial behavior to Western audiences, yet no U.S. policies have sought to offset this stance by demonstrating any meaningful interest in ordinary Saudis. These failures reinforce the message that Washington only cares about Arab Muslim populations when they pose a threat, either by supporting terrorism or opposing U.S. interests.
The present standoff over oil production offers U.S. policymakers an opportunity to rethink the future course of the bilateral relationship. MBS and his advisers have clearly read the room in understanding that diminished American security commitments afford the kingdom greater leeway to act independently from the United States without triggering too much in the way of backlash. Instead of just increasing weapon supplies to the kingdom, the Biden administration can chart a new path for the relationship by finding ways to leverage the kingdom’s status anxieties to secure policy concessions and determining mutually agreeable compensation for any economic and strategic losses to the kingdom if it agrees to increase production. Or they can continue on their present path, with the United States’ agency to reshape the bilateral relationship declining by the month.