By Alon Ben-Meir*
The recent conflict between the United States and Saudi Arabia over Riyadh’s decision to cut its oil production by 2 million barrels a day should be addressed in the context of their long and extensive relationship.
For more than 70 years, the two countries have cooperated and collaborated on many levels, including the massive sale of US military hardware, collaboration on national security, joint economic development, and transfer of sensitive US technology, along with intelligence sharing.
The current conflict is not the first that has occurred between the two countries; in fact, in 1973 the Saudis imposed an oil boycott on the US as retribution for its aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, and in 2001 after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, relations became strained again due to (still unproven) allegations about the possible involvement of Saudi Arabia in the attack, as 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudi citizens.
These two major incidents certainly disrupted the relationship to a great extent; nevertheless, each time they restored the spirit and the practical dimension of their relationship because their shared interests on so many levels overrode their conflicting positions. I believe that this recent conflict will not change, as with previous conflicts, their bilateral relationship in any fundamental way.
President Biden stated that “… when the House and the Senate comes back, there’s going to be some consequences for what [Saudi Arabia has] done with Russia.” Congressional Democrats went as far as demanding taking unprecedented countermeasures against Saudi Arabia, including the cessation of all aspects of cooperation with Riyadh.
What precipitated this stern reaction by Biden and leading Democrats is attributed to several factors. The Saudi action was seen as an affront to Biden personally, especially given his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, with the purpose of reducing the tension between the two countries and persuading the Saudis to increase oil production.
Riyadh’s action is further seen as a barefaced anti-American move and as collusion with Russia against the US. Moreover, Biden and many Democrats view the Saudis’ decision as one that would worsen global inflation and undermine US efforts to bring down the price of gas, especially now just before the mid-term elections, while helping Putin in his war against Ukraine.
To be sure, they feel that the Saudis are ungrateful and unworthy of the US’ consistent defense assistance, which leads them to conclude that the Saudis are no longer a reliable ally.
The Saudi action appears to be as if they are taking revenge against the US, specifically because Biden, from the time he was running for president, called Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” whose leadership had “very little redeeming value.”
He accused Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of orchestrating the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and swore to never speak with him, and criticized the kingdom for its indiscriminate bombing in Yemen and its human rights violations. Finally, Saudi has been public in its opposition to Biden’s efforts to renew the Iran deal.
In a conversation I had a couple of days ago with David Rundell, former Chief of Mission in the American embassy in Riyadh, author of “Vision or Mirage,” and one of America’s foremost experts on Saudi Arabia, he emphasized that the conflict has a significant emotional component for the Saudis which the Biden administration failed to appreciate.
As Rundell stated, “The president did, I think that the only term you can use is insult, Mohammed bin Salman several times. He made it very clear that he did not like Mohammed bin Salman…The White House made it very clear that they were not going to see Mohammed bin Salman…Then the president refuses to shake his hand.”
Rundell further commented on the Saudis’ pride and independence which they hold high, and cautioned that “the Saudis acted in what they thought was their own self-interest. They will do so again. If the United States wants to try to isolate them or punish them, it will simply drive them closer to China and Russia, which is already happening.”
Although it is necessary to reevaluate the US-Saudi relationship in the wake of what happened, I concur with Rundell that it will be a mistake for the Biden administration to take any significant punitive measures against the Saudis which will only worsen their bilateral relationship at an extremely sensitive time. As Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated last year, the idea is “not to rupture the [US-Saudi] relationship, but to recalibrate [it].”
I believe that some Democratic senators, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, who said that he will propose a halt to “any cooperation with Riyadh until the Kingdom reassess its position with respect to the war in the Ukraine,” adding, “enough is enough,” and others, including Senator Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Ro Khanna who introduced a bill to “immediately pause all US arms sale to Saudi Arabia,” are going far beyond the pale of what needs to be done.
Other Democrats are calling for milder measures, including withholding intelligence, refusing the sale of certain weapons, restricting access to financial markets, and curtailing some elements of military training, along with slowing down major development projects.
This may seem necessary to send Saudi Arabia a message about the US’ displeasure, but it will be still the wrong message.
Indeed, given that both countries must take into full consideration the importance of their bilateral relationship and its overall regional security implications, they should not engage in a tit for tat which can only benefit Russia and China.
It should be noted that although Saudi Arabia depends on the US for much of its military hardware and national security guarantees, the Saudis feel that they have been all along reciprocating by helping to maintain regional stability, making considerable efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, joining hands with the US in fighting terrorism, and allowing the US to continue to have a military presence on their soil.
Furthermore, the Saudis have promoted a more tolerant version of Islam, and continue to trade oil with dollar, which strengthens the American currency.
The Saudis also fundamentally disagree with the US about their motivation to cut down their oil production. As they see it, their action was strictly motivated by business considerations.
They wanted to reduce oil production in order to increase prices, and insist that even with the cut of 2 million barrels a day, the price will remain in the vicinity of $80-90 per barrel of oil which is still far less than $130 per barrel, the high of the past few years.
The Saudis see it as a business decision, nothing to do with politics. Regardless of how disingenuous this may sound, there is a financial benefit which they can reap; it is the timing of the cut that troubled many American officials.
My position is that the Biden administration should not take any punitive counter-action against Saudi Arabia, certainly not before the midterm election, which allows for a cooling off period. Following that, the Biden administration should establish contact behind-the-scenes in an effort to mitigate their differences.
Given the critical importance of their bilateral relationship especially at this juncture, both sides must avoid any public recrimination which can only aggravate the relationship.
Indeed, the continuing discord between the US and Saudi Arabia will further encourage Russia and China to do everything they can to create a schism between the two allies, especially now when Biden has just declared that China and Russia are adversaries of the US.
This may sound like an appeasement of the Saudis, but it is not. Indeed, regardless of who is right and who is wrong—and in this case, both have their share of blame—any dispute between allies must be resolved through dialogue and honest discussion.
This is the time when Saudi Arabia and the US must demonstrate that given their long friendship and constructive relationship for more than seven decades, their alliance can and will stand the test of time.
*Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University (NYU). He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.