Spring 2022

The U.S.-Saudi Conundrum

– David Ottaway

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has reached a tipping point after multiple crises. Can Israel help us find a way back to our oldest Middle Eastern ally?

Ever since the 1973 Saudi-led Arab oil boycott, relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have been pummeled by periodic crises that have left American analysts wondering whether its oldest alliance in the Middle East is nearing the tipping point. As in 1973, the issue today is Saudi use of its oil muscle as a foreign policy tool against America. Once again, too, its effect has been spiraling gasoline prices feeding the highest inflation rate American consumers have endured in decades.

A new Cold War may be breaking out again, but Saudi Arabia under the de facto rule of its ambitious Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman no longer sees the need to automatically line up on the side of Washington.

The causes of the current crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations are, however, entirely different. In 1973, the Saudis were wielding their newfound “oil weapon” to punish the United States for its military and political support for Israel, which had come under attack that October from Egypt and its Arab allies. Today, the trigger is Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, which has exacerbated an international oil supply shortage that only Saudi Arabia, with an enormous surplus production capacity, is in a position to alleviate. House Democrats are up in arms about the Saudi refusal to pump more oil and last month (April) three dozen of them wrote a letter to President Biden calling for a “recalibration” of U.S. relations with the Saudi kingdom.

A Shell gas station in Los Angeles, California, March 11th, 2022, as gas prices surged to more than seven dollars a gallon. Shutterstock/Alex Millauer.

The circumstances surrounding the current “oil shock” provide an excellent gauge of how much has changed in the U.S.-Saudi relationship over the past half century: A Saudi desire to preserve a new-found alliance with Moscow in oil matters has begun to expand into political and economic cooperation, and military purchases from Russia may not be far behind. From the United Arab Emirates to Morocco, Ukraine is proving a litmus test for other Arab partners of the United States that have sought to avoid taking sides as a new cold war between the U.S. and Russia engulfs Europe.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance was cemented by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, after which the two collaborated in sending billions of dollars in arms to Afghan “freedom fighters,” as President Reagan later called them.

A new cold war may be breaking out again, but Saudi Arabia, under the de facto rule of the ambitious Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), no longer sees the need to automatically line up on the side of Washington. MBS has developed far better personal relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping than with President Biden, and Saudi Arabia has ever-expanding economic interests with both their countries. The United States remains Saudi Arabia’s foremost supplier of arms by far, but it has lost credibility as its chief protector from foreign foes, notably Iran, its main rival for regional primacy.

In the half century I have been writing about Saudi Arabia, I never thought I would see the day when the kingdom’s rulers would have better personal relations with the leaders of China and Russia than with the American president. Certainly not the day when the Saudi crown prince will not even take the president’s phone call.

9/11 Radically Changes Saudi Arabia's Image

The budding Saudi-Russian relationship is only one gauge, however, of many new issues that have injected themselves into the U.S.-Saudi alliance since 1973. It was once summed up pretty accurately by the catchy adage of “oil for security”—a guarantee of Saudi oil for the American market in return for U.S. protection of the Saudi kingdom from its foreign enemies. Today, everything from oil and Iran to human and political rights—and even golf tournaments—has become intertwining contentious issues.

At the time of the 1973 oil shocks, the Cold War dominated U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and custodian of its two holiest sites, was a staunch U.S. ally as its monarchs also viewed communism as a global scourge. After the United States ceased being oil self-sufficient in 1971, the Saudis offered an assured supply and worked closely with the State Department and Pentagon to undermine the Soviet Union’s developing country allies. In early 1980, President Carter issued a declaration stating that the United States would respond militarily if the Soviet Union tried to move into the Persian Gulf. Saudi rulers looked upon this “Carter Doctrine” as an assurance of U.S. protection of their kingdom.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance was cemented by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, after which the two allies collaborated in sending billions of dollars in arms to Afghan “freedom fighters,” as President Reagan later called them. After the onset of the Iran-Iraq war in 1981, the Carter Doctrine was basically applied to Iran as well, and then to Iraq when its dictator, Saddam Hussein, sent his army into Kuwait in 1990. The Bush administration responded by sending 500,000 American soldiers to Saudi Arabia both to oust the Iraqis from Kuwait to protect the Saudi kingdom. This marked the apogee of U.S.-Saudi political and military cooperation.

The September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York’s twin towers and Washington’s Pentagon building radically changed the U.S. view of Saudi Arabia, as thereafter regularly reflected in Washington think tank conferences under the title “Saudi Arabia: Friend or Foe?”

The 9/11 attacks saw the end, too, of the undeclared policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom in place ever since the start of the U.S.-Saudi alliance in 1945. Not only was the mastermind, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, 15 of the 19 hijackers were too. The kingdom was suddenly cast as the main incubator of Islamic extremist ideology and terrorism aimed at the United States. Then Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, recounted to me later his utter disbelief and horror as he watched the image of his kingdom transformed overnight from one of a faithful American ally into a security threat to the United States.

For the first time, the U.S. government became extremely critical of the Saudi educational system and the kingdom’s ultraconservative Wahhabi religious establishment. The White House and Congress even pressed for radical changes in the kingdom’s monarchical rule. In November 2003, President Bush declared a new American policy toward the Arab Middle East which he called “a forward strategy of freedom.” He called upon Saudi Arabia and Egypt to show “true leadership” and begin making political reforms to help overcome the Arab world’s “freedom deficit.” This was followed by his State of the Union address in January 2004 when he directly linked the urgent need for democratic reforms to winning his war on terrorism and demanded “a higher standard from our (Arab) friends.”

With the arrival of President Trump in the White House, the Saudis once again had high hopes for a relationship reset.

The Saudi reaction was shock and anger. Crown Prince Abdullah, then the de facto ruler, huddled together with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to plot a common defense and denounce Bush’s freedom agenda. In March 2004, the entire Saudi cabinet did the same, asserting that Arab governments would follow their own “path of development, modernization, and reform,” in keeping with their “Arab identity.” But the Saudis did make one concession. In 2005, for the first time, they allowed partial democratic elections for the kingdom’s 178 municipal councils.

U.S. Image Sours in Riyadh

If Washington was dragging other issues into the troubled relationship, so was Riyadh. The U.S. invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003 resulted in Iran greatly expanding its influence there at Saudi expense. The late Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, voiced the Saudis' furor when he denounced the United States for handing Iraq to Iran “on a golden platter” and for provoking its disintegration. Suddenly the United States was no longer a source of security and stability for Saudi Arabia.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks and Yemen war had already projected Saudi human and political rights abuses to the forefront of U.S.-Saudi relations when MBS made a disastrous misstep: the murder of his most prominent critic, Jamal Khashoggi

Repeated attempts have been made to reboot the relationship in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. President George W. Bush twice invited Crown Prince Abdullah to his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Their first meeting in 2002 proved a disaster, but the second one three years later led to a determined effort by both sides to repair the 9/11 damage. They set up six joint committees to study how to re-knit fraying ties in all areas, from security to people-to-people programs. Abdullah launched a scholarship program that would send tens of thousands of Saudi students to study at American universities. President Obama made four trips to the kingdom—more than any of his predecessors—and his administration (2009-2017) pushed through Congress over $60 billion in new arms sales to show America’s continued commitment to the kingdom’s security.

Saudis Look for New Allies

Still, the Saudis had long since begun to hedge their bets and look elsewhere for arms and oil partners. In 1985, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, made the first of three secret trips to China, unbeknownst to the Reagan administration, including the CIA, to negotiate the purchase of Chinese intermediate-range missiles. Then, the 1990-91 Gulf War led Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations with China and reactivate those frozen with a Russia no longer viewed as the flagbearer for world communism. In a precursor of things to come, eight days after 9/11, Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi visited China and called for a “strategic relationship and partnership” in all areas. The first foreign trip Crown Prince Abdullah took after becoming king in 2005 was to China.

In an interview with me in 2004, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud only half-jokingly justified the Saudi search for new allies in these terms: the U.S-Saudi relationship was not a “Catholic marriage” where no more than one wife was allowed. It was a “Muslim marriage,” and the husband was allowed up to four wives provided he treated them all equally. Saudi Arabia was not seeking to divorce the United States, just to have other wives at the same time.

With the arrival of President Trump in the White House, the Saudis once again had high hopes for a relationship reset. His first trip abroad was to Riyadh in May 2017, when he was feted like a king and announced that the United States was ready to sell $120 billion in arms to demonstrate the United States recommitment to Saudi security. His son-in law, Jared Kushner, struck up a personal relationship with King Salman’s son Mohammed that would eventually birth diplomatic relations for Israel with four more Arab countries, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, in what came to be called the Abraham Accords.

However, the momentum toward improved U.S.-Saudi relations ran into headwinds. In 2015, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of nine Arab states in an invasion of Yemen in a bid to take back its government from Iranian-backed Houthis, which had seized the capital and much of the country. Both the Obama and Trump administrations initially backed the Saudi-led venture. But it quickly turned into the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, with a high death toll of civilians from errant bombings by Saudi and other pilots flying American planes. The result was outrage in Congress and a progressive cutoff of U.S. military support for the invasion.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks and Yemen war had already projected Saudi human and political rights abuses to the forefront of U.S.-Saudi relations when MBS made a disastrous misstep: the murder of his most prominent critic, Jamal Khashoggi, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The Saudi journalist had gone into self-exile, settled in the Washington area, and was a regular Global Opinions writer for the Washington Post. Making matters even worse, MBS unleashed a brutal crackdown on all his domestic opponents and critics, including a dozen women and their male supporters, whom he jailed for campaigning for Saudi women’s right to drive cars. 

The extent of the troubled U.S.-Saudi relationship came home to me on February 10, 2020. I was attending an extravagant party at the Saudi ambassador’s residence on leafy Chain Bridge Road, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the historic meeting on that date in 1945 between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud on a U.S. warship anchored in Egypt’s Suez Canal. Both sides consider the date as marking the start of their partnership. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan was there to speak warmly of the “special relationship,” as was Roosevelt’s grandson, Delano, who heads a U.S.-Saudi business council. Embarrassingly absent was any White House or even State Department official to offer similar kudos.

Trump Dumps Saudi Arabia

Ironically, it was Trump himself who probably did the most to undermine his own efforts to improve relations. In September 2019, Iran fired off two dozen cruise missiles and drones and knocked out two Saudi oil facilities, cutting its production in half. Instead of rushing to the kingdom’s defense, Trump declared that he saw no direct U.S. interests at stake and did nothing. In one blow, Iran had punched a big hole in the presumed U.S. security umbrella over the Saudi kingdom.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump join King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, and the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, Sunday, May 21, 2017, to participate in the inaugural opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead. Wikipedia.

The other half of the oil-for-security centerpiece in the U.S.-Saudi alliance also began crumbling during the Trump administration. With the growth of fracking, the United States suddenly became not only a major producer of oil, but also an exporter rivaling Saudi dominance of the global market. By 2020, American companies were churning out close to 13 million barrels of crude oil a day, making the United States the world’s top producer. By the same year, it was also exporting more than 3 million barrels after Congress had repealed a 40-year-old ban on oil exports in 2015. By comparison, in 2020, Saudi Arabia averaged a little over 7 million barrels in exports.

The new U.S. oil challenge was viewed as such a problem by the Saudis that in March 2020 they decided to flood the American market to drive the American companies responsible for the oil boom out of business. They hired 20 supertankers carrying 40 million barrels that overwhelmed an already saturated market hit by the coronavirus pandemic-induced recession. Many newcomers using the new fracking technology did indeed go out of business, and U.S. production fell by 2 million barrels a day. There was so much oil available that the price for a barrel briefly went negative for the first time in history.

This Saudi tactic caused an uproar in Congress and was a major faux pas for Trump. He at first hailed the flood of Saudi oil because he only saw it lowering gasoline prices, which could help him get re-elected that November. But he changed his tune after it caused a major uproar in Congress led by Republican senators. Thirteen of them sent a protest letter to MBS. They also made phone calls to Saudi Ambassador Princess Reema bint Bandar and Saudi Oil Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman, MBS’s older brother. They threatened to press for the withdrawal of U.S. military support for the kingdom and demanded the supertankers change course away from the U.S. market. MBS made no concessions and only more Republican enemies in Congress. 

MBS Turns to Putin

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Russia were cooperating ever more closely, the former leading the 13 member Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the latter leading an alliance of 10 other non-OPEC producers. Together, they had agreed on production levels to keep the market tight to boost sagging oil prices and keep them high.

The election of President Biden only further exacerbated the U.S.-Saudi alliance of partners ever more at deep odds. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden promised to render MBS a “pariah” in retaliation for his role in Khashoggi’s murder. A month after taking office, Biden was briefed on a CIA assessment that concluded MBS had “approved” the murder. The State Department announced a “Khashoggi Ban” on visas for 76 Saudis it judged had played a role in his murder. Biden decreed he would not even talk to the crown prince, only the king himself, though MBS had quickly become the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

With the crisis over Ukraine triggering soaring oil prices, Biden has been pressuring MBS to open wider the Saudi oil spigot wider since the kingdom has the world’s largest volume of surplus oil production, at least 2 million barrels a day. The president has had to make his pleas publicly because MBS will not take his phone calls to discuss the matter. Such a rebuff of an American president is rare, if not unprecedented.

How the Biden administration should go about repairing personal relations with the crown prince and re-establish a working partnership with the kingdom is not easy to answer. He would obviously have to recant his promise to make MBS a pariah and maybe travel to Riyadh, or meet him elsewhere, as an act of contrition. He has at least taken a first step, namely announcing a new ambassador to Riyadh, Michael Ratney, after leaving the post vacant for fifteen months. But Ratney is a career diplomat rather than a political appointee much preferred by Saudi rulers. Clearly establishing cordial relations between Biden and MBS does not seem in the cards.

How to repair the overall U.S.-Saudi relationship also looms a major challenge. A new U.S. agreement with Iran that only addresses limits on its nuclear program is of little consolation to the Saudis if the United States then turns a blind eye to that country’s ever expanding missile program, the most immediate threat to the kingdom. Biden’s worldwide campaign to promote democracy and counter autocracy is another obvious obstacle given MBS’ own defense of absolute monarchy. Any offer by Biden to restore U.S. military assistance to the stalled Saudi-led invasion of Yemen will likely meet a howl of protest from Congress. Given MBS’ harsh repression of all dissent or criticism, the issue of human and political rights also seem likely to remain a bone of contention. Even as Biden was imploring MBS to increase the flow of oil to the U.S., the U.S. representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva was calling upon MBS to release “prisoners of conscience” and lift travel and other restrictions on women’s human right activists already freed from prison.

Can Israel Replace the United States?

Ironically, the best hope for any improvement in U.S.-Saudi relations may lie with a country that has no diplomatic relations yet with the kingdom: Israel. Trump managed to engineer the breakthrough in diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, but not Saudi Arabia, before he left office. Still, Israel is holding talks with the Emirates' leaders and Bahraini rulers about setting up a common anti-missile defense system against Iran that would use Israeli technology and include Saudi Arabia. Since September, news reports have become increasingly specific about Saudi interest in the Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile system and its Barak missile to deal with Iranian drones and cruise missiles.  The scheme has strong backing from the Biden administration.

Israel may end up not by replacing the United States but by serving as a bridge to bring Saudi Arabia and the United States back together, this time in an expanded security partnership with Israel. What has been lacking is a common cause. Iran may yet provide it. This becomes even more likely if Biden’s current efforts to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal fail and Tehran turns to build a bomb, or is at least perceived to be doing so. The only “red line” Biden has declared so far in his Middle East policy is preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Whether he would resort to military action against Iran to hold that line remains to be seen. But if he did, a trilateral U.S.-Israeli-Saudi partnership would seem very much in the realm of the possible.   

David B. Ottaway received a BA from Harvard University, magna cum laude, in 1962 and a PhD from Columbia University in 1972. He worked 35 years for The Washington Post as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Africa, and Southern Europe and later as a national security and investigative reporter in Washington before retiring in 2006. He has won numerous awards for his reporting at home and abroad and was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Ottaway was a fellow at the Wilson Center in 1979-80 and again in 2005-06 and is currently a Middle East Fellow. He recently released a book about contemporary Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman: The Icarus of Saudi Arabia? (Lynne Rienner, 2021) His book before that, co-authored with his wife, Marina, is A Tale of four Worlds: The Arab Region After the Uprising (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Cover photo: President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump join King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, and the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, Sunday, May 21, 2017, to participate in the inaugural opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead. Wikipedia.