How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
What do you do with an oil-rich Arab leader that you can’t live with, but also can’t live without? That’s the dilemma President Joe Biden is confronting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Since the beginning of his administration, Biden has kept MBS (as he is commonly known) at arm’s length, refusing to deal with him because of his violent response to political dissent at home (jailing female protesters and beheading 81 dissidents) and abroad (ordering the killing and dismembering of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018), as well as his decision to intervene in an ongoing civil war in Yemen, making an already bad humanitarian situation much worse. Determined to reinsert values into U.S. foreign policy and bolster democratic leaders rather than autocrats, Biden declared as a presidential candidate that he would treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah.” But now, gas prices are climbing, fueling inflation. This is dragging Biden’s poll numbers down and threatening to severely handicap Democratic candidates in the midterm elections. The key to reversing this dynamic appears to lie in the hands of MBS, since his country is the only oil producer with sufficient excess capacity to calm the oil markets.
With this in mind, Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia in July. The trip is being justified by its proponents as a classic realpolitik bargain. The benefits of reconciliation are self-evident. For Biden, more oil on the global market should mean relief at the gas pump for Americans. By dropping objections to the way MBS governs, the Biden administration would diminish the Saudi government’s desire to expand its ties to China and Russia at the expense of the United States—important in an era of intense great-power competition. In return, the crown prince would no longer need to answer questions about the Khashoggi murder and his treatment of critics of his regime. The pariah would be transformed into a partner.
Biden is clearly uncomfortable with this approach. According to Politico, he initially opposed meeting MBS, telling his aides that the presidency “should stand for something.” Biden seems to have changed his mind. But his current strategy resolves none of the fundamental disagreements with Saudi Arabia; they would simply be swept under the rug. Although oil prices might moderate, they are unlikely to do so fast enough to help Americans this summer or Democratic candidates in November. Meanwhile, congressional criticism will likely grow, particularly (but not exclusively) from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, in which the abandonment of a values-based policy toward the Saudi crown prince will cause outrage. Arms sales already blocked by Congress would likely remain so. The Yemen conflict would continue to rankle.
For his part, MBS might enjoy being released from purgatory, but even though a presidential handshake might salve his wounded pride, it will do little to reassure him of American reliability. In time, therefore, with the effects of the war in Ukraine subsiding, the underlying logic of a relatively narrow reconciliation would inevitably weaken, rendering it more difficult to sustain. Biden should instead consider a more fundamental reconceptualization of the bilateral relationship. What both countries need is a new compact that focuses on countering a major strategic threat they both face: Iran’s nuclear program.
Gas prices may be the near-term motivating factor for Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia, but at the core of any rapprochement should be the common need to counter Iran. For the United States, Iran remains the principal source of instability in the Middle East. Washington therefore needs reliable and capable regional partners to balance and counter Tehran’s hegemonic and sectarian ambitions. Saudi Arabia can play an important role in that regard, not because of its military weight, which is insignificant in the Middle East balance of power, but rather because of its formidable influence in the global oil market and its leadership role in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
For Saudi Arabia, Iran similarly represents the principal threat to its interests, particularly the defense of its homeland, the protection of its oil interests, and the internal stability of its friends in the region. The Saudis worry that the United States prefers to accommodate rather than confront Iran’s regional ambitions. As Iran nears the nuclear weapons threshold, the Saudis have become focused on how nuclear capabilities could afford Iran protection for even greater regional troublemaking.
This explains why MBS has raised the idea with Biden administration officials of a security guarantee similar to NATO’s collective defense obligations, in which an attack on Saudi Arabia would be treated as an attack on the United States. Notwithstanding his pique at Biden’s treatment of him, MBS is looking to the United States to provide a more reliable deterrent against Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions and more effective means for Saudi Arabia to defend itself against the missile and drone attacks of Iran’s proxies. That opens the door to a more fundamental reimagining of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
The precise contents of a new compact between the two countries would require a detailed negotiation, but the basic elements can be outlined. Given the distrust that now exists in the relationship and the difficulty of some of the steps, it will be necessary to adopt an incremental approach, but Biden should try to establish a roadmap in his talks in Riyadh in July.
Because of Saudi Arabia’s low standing in Congress and with the American people, a NATO-like commitment to Saudi Arabia is simply unachievable even if it were desirable. But on his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden could publicly repeat his commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and add a more general pledge, first enunciated in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, to prevent any attempt by a hostile power to gain control of the Gulf region.
The United States could then enter into a strategic framework agreement with Saudi Arabia as it has done with Singapore, for example. That agreement provides a U.S. commitment to enhance bilateral defense and security cooperation to deal with common threats and promote regional peace and stability. While this combination does not provide a security guarantee, it would commit the United States to maintaining a favorable balance of power in the region and provide the means necessary for Saudi Arabia to defend itself through much closer defense cooperation with the United States. Those verbal commitments could be buttressed by establishing formal consultative mechanisms, joint military exercises, integrated defenses, and other hard-power manifestations of an American commitment to Saudi security. Over time, if a higher degree of reciprocation were justified by Saudi behavior, the United States could borrow from the Taiwan Relations Act and commit to treating an attack on Saudi Arabia as a threat to the peace and security of the Gulf and “of grave concern to the United States.” Similarly, Biden could commit to making available the necessary arms to enable Saudi Arabia to “maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.” That would, of course, require congressional acquiescence, which would only be forthcoming if the Biden administration could point to Saudi actions that justified it.
If the current negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal break down and Iran continues to advance its nuclear weapons program, the United States would also need to consider extending a nuclear umbrella to Saudi Arabia in exchange for a Saudi commitment to forswear any acquisition of an independent nuclear capability, including uranium enrichment. Providing Saudi Arabia with some form of nuclear umbrella would represent a far-reaching commitment by the United States to respond to a possible nuclear attack on the kingdom. But the United States has already committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The more that commitment seems in doubt, the more necessary extended deterrence will become. The alternative could well be a Saudi Arabia that seeks its own nuclear weapons, helping to fuel a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
At a time when Biden is fighting a proxy war with Russia, countering China in Asia, and contending with Americans who are weary of wars in the Middle East, a new security commitment to a Gulf ruler who is deeply unpopular on Capitol Hill would be difficult. To make it worthwhile for Biden and to improve his chances of marketing it to Congress and the American public, MBS would need to undertake several reciprocal steps that would demonstrate his willingness to be a reliable partner.
First, Saudi Arabia would need to make a more formal open-ended commitment to use its excess oil production to stabilize oil prices at reasonable levels, ending its production quota agreement with Russia, which restricts the amount of oil Saudi Arabia can provide to the market, and providing Europe with an alternative to Russian oil exports. Such actions would represent a strategic contribution to the efficacy of sanctions against Russia, improving MBS’s standing in Washington.
The United States would also need to come to an understanding with Saudi Arabia about ending its war in Yemen. In early April, MBS agreed to a two-month truce with the Houthis, which has just been extended. He also oversaw the establishment of a presidential council that is charged with pursuing a negotiated end to the Yemen conflict. Unfortunately, the Houthis have little incentive to cooperate in such a process while they still believe they can make gains on the battlefield. Resuming the Saudi bombing campaign in response to renewed Houthi military action will exacerbate the ongoing humanitarian crisis, fuel anger in the U.S. Congress, and do nothing to end the war. None of this serves Saudi interests, so MBS needs to begin planning—with U.S. cooperation—for a unilateral Saudi withdrawal from Yemen.
This approach will put the onus for continuing the war on the Houthis and help to salvage Saudi Arabia’s reputation in the United States. It would also provide the justification for Saudi Arabia to act in self-defense should the Houthis continue attacks on Saudi soil. By unilaterally withdrawing, the Saudis would avoid depending on Iran to deliver the Houthis to the negotiating table and therefore prevent it from extracting a price for doing so. A Saudi willingness to end the war this way would provide further grounds for the Biden administration to commit to Saudi Arabia’s defense, in particular by providing it with the weapons and technology to counter Houthi attacks.
A NATO-like commitment to Saudi Arabia is simply unachievable even if it were desirable.
In return for a U.S. security commitment, MBS would also need to take further steps toward normalizing Saudi Arabia’s relations with Israel, such as overflight rights, direct flights for Israeli and Palestinian Muslim citizens to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, direct telecommunications, Saudi participation with Israel in regional meetings, and opening of trade offices. This would help consolidate the Israeli-Arab strategic partnership that has found expression in the Abraham Accords and the March 2022 Negev Summit, which brought Egypt into the circle of the accords. These steps toward normalization would further legitimize Israel’s military role in the Arab world and facilitate strategic cooperation against Iran.
Taking meaningful steps toward normalizing relations with Israel would change the way Saudi Arabia is viewed by members of Congress who believe promoting Israel’s security and well-being serves U.S. interests. It would also garner support from the pro-Israel community in the United States. To justify such steps to King Salman and his subjects, however, MBS will require progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Israel, Saudi Arabia is the crown jewel in the normalization process. The United States could use Saudi willingness to start normalizing relations to encourage Israel to take reciprocal steps toward the Palestinians, such as freezing settlement activity beyond the Israeli security barrier and ceding more West Bank territory to Palestinian control, which would help rebuild trust and provide a basis for eventual final status negotiations on a peace treaty for Israelis and Palestinians. Overt Saudi participation in this effort, alongside Egypt and Jordan, could do much to contribute to the ultimate compromises necessary for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Finally, if Biden and his constituents are to overcome their revulsion with the human rights abuses committed during MBS’s de facto rule, the crown prince would need to stop suppressing peaceful political dissent and continue constraining the country’s religious establishment, restricting the religious police’s prerogatives, granting women equal rights, and promoting a reformist, inclusive, and tolerant image of Islam internationally. He should also repeat his public acknowledgment that he takes responsibility for the Khashoggi murder and will make sure something like it doesn’t happen again.
Admittedly, taking on a new security commitment in the Middle East might look like a repudiation of the last three presidents’ efforts to end U.S. engagement in the Middle East’s conflicts. Yet without U.S. support for a more stable Middle Eastern order, the United States will be dragged back into conflicts there sooner than war-weary Americans imagine because events in the Middle East directly affect American security interests. Moreover, the crisis in Ukraine and Iran’s advancing nuclear program have together created a malleable moment in which major adjustments to the U.S.-Saudi relationship become possible to contemplate and necessary to achieve.
Saudi Arabia, too, would have to make difficult sacrifices to achieve the new compact, breaking its oil pact with Russia and its burgeoning cooperation with China, and moving back into the American orbit with all that would mean for MBS’s policies at home as well as abroad. Nevertheless, to manage the multiple crises of this era in the Middle East and beyond, the United States needs a responsible Saudi partner, and Saudi Arabia needs a reliable American one. This is the moment for Biden to go big in his relationship with Saudi Arabia, or stay home.