By Ivan Eland
The Saudi regime has long been correctly criticized—including during the recent LIV golf saga—for its abysmal human rights record, including the suppression of dissent at home and the murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
And under Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS’s) leadership, Saudi foreign policy was initially fairly aggressive—for example, its regional rivalry with Iran, sanctions against Qatar for being too friendly to Iran, and the aggressive prosecution of a regional war in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels that has killed way too many civilians. Yet as MBS’ leadership has matured, so has Saudi foreign policy into a more pragmatic and neutral stance, resulting in greater effectiveness.
The prince has seen three American presidents who want to cut back on American engagement in the Middle East, he feels that Saudi Arabia must do more for itself and its own security. For example, MBS refused to follow the United States and the West into imposing sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine; instead, the kingdom increased its imports of Russian petroleum products. In addition, Riyadh has diversified its foreign relations in general and especially with China, the largest buyer of Saudi oil and its greatest trading partner. The fruits of better relations with China have been realized with successful Chinese mediation between Iran and the kingdom, restoring diplomatic relations. This rapprochement may also help quell or solve other conflicts between the two countries in the Middle East, especially the brutal Saudi bog in Yemen.
However, Saudis are clearly trying to broaden their foreign policy, in part, to get the United States to pay more attention to the oil-soaked kingdom. The kingdom’s officials haven’t been subtle about this blackmail, claiming they preferred the United States to be their principal ally but needed to broaden their diplomatic horizons, given the lack of U.S. commitment. They have noted that former President Donald Trump did nothing in 2019 when drone and missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities—allegedly masterminded by their then-arch foe Iran—temporarily stifled roughly half of the nation’s oil output. The Biden administration hasn’t been spared either. MBS is quite conscious of how, during the 2020 election, then-candidate Joe Biden promised to make the Saudi prince a “pariah” over the killing of Khashoggi. Two years later, the Biden administration was angered when MBS allowed the OPEC+ oil cartel to cut production, raising short-term oil prices before the U.S. midterm elections.
No one can begrudge the Saudis for diversifying their diplomatic relations, prioritizing their own national interests, and realizing that they need to do more to safeguard their own security. The region-wide benefits of easing relations with Iran in the Middle East through Chinese mediation have enhanced Saudi Arabian security and should have facilitated the much-needed reorientation of U.S. foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific. In fact, over time, the Saudis had become too dependent on the arrangement reached during World War II between then-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then-King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud for the United States to defend Saudi oil fields in exchange for access to the oil.
If Saudi Arabia can be more pragmatic about its foreign policy, the United States can and should be more pragmatic about the Roosevelt-Saud arrangement, which was never an ideal arrangement in the first place—the overestimation by World War II and post-war U.S. presidents and policymakers of the importance of Saudi Arabia in the world oil markets have demonstrated as much. A more pragmatic U.S. policy needs to debunk such long-held myths about that market.
There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is a major oil producer and exporter, and is also an influential member of the OPEC+ cartel. But it alone cannot control the long-term price of crude oil. It may have an influence on the short- and medium-term price of oil, but cheating has always plagued natural resource cartels. Many producers have an interest in saying they will abide by their official production quotas but can make more money if they secretly export above the quota. Of course, in the long run, this severely impedes the ability of any cartel to keep the price of a commodity above the natural market price.
One added reason that the United States can be more pragmatic about cozying up to Saudi Arabia—which the Biden administration, despite its initial hostile rhetoric, has been doing again—is that it is likely to be cheaper to just buy oil at the going world market price rather than to spend U.S. taxpayer dollars to try and defend something that really doesn’t need defending. Saudi Arabia, Iran, or any other producer doesn’t even need to directly sell oil to the United States; putting oil on the market from anywhere reduces the world price.
Finally, the oil market is ever-changing, and the heavy U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf area is less needed now than ever before (and even that was a collective illusion in American policymakers’ minds). The fracking revolution in the United States has again made the United States the world’s largest oil producer, greatly enhancing U.S. “energy security.”
Congratulations to the Saudis for pragmatically diversifying their foreign policy. But Washington should not succumb to MBS’s attempt to play off improved relations with other powers—for example, China and Russia—to get an increased U.S. security commitment. The United States fell for that trick during the Cold War, when non-strategic developing countries flirted with the Soviet Union to get more out of Washington. Similarly, in the current Saudi case, the United States is spending vast amounts of money defending oil that is being exported mainly to China. America can no longer afford to be everywhere in the world. It ought to emulate Saudi pragmatism, which in the present moment means transferring attention and military resources from the Middle East to the more strategically significant Indo-Pacific region.
This article was also published in The National Interest