The US-Saudi relationship, though strained, was never at serious risk.
Neil Quilliam, Managing Director & Head of Strategy; Alice Gower, Director of Geopolitics & Security
Orginially published in Arab Digest, July 28, 2022
There was great interest in, and much speculation about, the outcome of US President Joe Biden’s July visit to Saudi Arabia. Once it moved from ‘will he, won’t he’ to ‘yes, he will’, it gave rise to a cottage industry of op-eds, analyses, and roundtables. There was much talk about Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) making up; Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords; Aramco increasing oil production; the primacy of Israeli security; and the creation of a so-called Middle East Defence Alliance, including the GCC and Israel – and, crucially, what the US and Saudi ‘asks’ of each other might be. In the end, the meeting’s outcome was modest, but critical – it re-established a direct line between the White House and the Saudi leadership (read MbS). This was most likely the optimum result for this administration – not a relationship overhaul or reset, but a recognition that functionality must win out and thus communication at the top was restored.
However, contrary to public perception, the fundamental relationship was never actually in peril. Granted, certain elements came under pressure, especially due to respective domestic political considerations, and personal tensions over difficult issues such as human rights, press freedoms, the Yemen conflict, and the Khashoggi murder played out on the international stage.
As is the case for all new incumbents, Biden’s initial focus was to set himself apart – by some distance – from his predecessor, as much for his international as for his home audience. His was a particular mission to return the US to the more stable and reliable foreign policy upon which the world had come to depend. However, in the Middle East, his challenge was different. The leadership in Saudi Arabia had fully embraced former President Trump, while in the West, political watchers had waited in vain for his brash style to be tamed by the weight of office. But he was never socialised by his position of power, leaving the incoming Biden administration to shift gears and, in the eyes of Democrats, course correct to a more traditional approach towards the Kingdom.
Biden’s assertive attitude towards Riyadh – from campaign through to entering the Oval Office – was more to address Democrat concern over Trump’s turning a blind eye towards behaviour considered morally questionable by the US political left than it was to chastise the Gulf state. His pressing priority was to show moral strength to his party, and he made a series of decisions that set him on a collision course with MbS. His early announcement that he would speak only to King Salman, citing protocol, was a clear snub of the Crown Prince intended to deliver a message: we are going to play by the rules, and we expect you to do so too. In February 2021, the White House both released the CIA report into the Istanbul murder of Jamal Khashoggi – which found MbS personally responsible for the order to assassinate the Saudi journalist – and halted US support for offensive operations in Yemen, suspending specific weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.
In response, MbS took his own hard line, which was intended to show both the Saudi population and international leaders that Riyadh’s policies will not be determined, or unduly influenced, by the United States. He was striking out and his sentiment was widely shared by Saudis and many others in the Gulf: that Washington no longer calls the shots in the Middle East. With the advantage of youth, MbS basically shrugged his shoulders at Biden and said ‘whatever’ as evidenced in his interview with The Atlantic in March.
Of course, it all changed when Russia invaded Ukraine. Biden’s calculus shifted as the US and its European allies sought to respond to Russia’s aggression and oil prices spiralled up close to $140 per barrel. He had little choice other than to reach out directly, following failed attempts by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to persuade the Saudi leadership to increase production and offset crippling price hikes. MbS’ well-publicised refusal to take Biden’s ‘oil’ call in March was something of a pinnacle moment: it not only inflamed personal animosity between the two, but also impressed upon both the necessity to dial things down and work together for the sake of their mutual national interests. Buoyed by a combination of high oil prices and being feted by French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, MbS must have felt vindicated that Biden now wanted to visit. These same global events, therefore, forced another gear change in the White House, as Biden succumbed to realpolitik and met with MbS in Riyadh, fist bump and all.
But underneath the public spat and the personal tensions, the multifaceted dimensions of bilateral ties – defence, trade, finance and investment – continued at pace, and in both directions. The trade volume between the two countries reached close to $25bn in 2021, a 22 per cent increase from 2020 following a significant rise in non-oil exports from the Kingdom to the US. And Biden is slowly thawing on defence sales with whispers that restrictions may be reconsidered in the near future – some might point to the need for more oil on the market to combat high gasoline prices as a driving force, while others note a broader strategy to push Arab-Israeli security cooperation to counter Iran, particularly now that the JCPOA looks to have died a death. The US allowed the sale of Patriot missiles and anti-ballistic defence systems to Riyadh following Houthi attacks against the Kingdom earlier this year, and if the shaky – but holding – recently extended truce in Yemen becomes a permanent ceasefire, the scope of US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia may broaden yet again.
While the Biden-MbS meeting drew most media attention, and many analysts – including this one – rolled their eyes at the suggestion of yet another so-called Arab NATO project, the Jeddah visit did lay down some tracks towards developing a multilateral regional security framework. Instead of focusing on the harder security elements such as air and missile defence, it will seek to bring onboard the members of the ‘Negev 9’ by engaging with them at different times, paces and spaces on softer security issues in a bid to work towards greater multilateral security integration, but with no precise end date in mind. By doing so, the Biden administration is continuing a long-held tradition of trying to develop a regional security architecture but one that now incorporates Israel – following the success of the Abraham Accords – in advancing on the long trek to normalisation. If successful, it would, on the one hand, allow the US to remain central to regional security and, on the other, reduce its level of commitment, as regional partners increasingly share the burden.
There is no question that the US would like to spend less time and energy on helping manage regional affairs, particularly given its focus on China. Its pursuit of a new regional security architecture bringing together ‘like-minded’ states to work collaboratively is a long-term project that may benefit from the catalyst of technological leapfrogging – where advances could spur quicker and more comprehensive cooperation. But there can be no doubt that its success will only be realised if Washington shows unwavering commitment and constantly reassures regional leaders that they are valued and never to be forgotten. Fist bumping with MbS may have stuck in Biden’s craw, but he knew that it was a necessary step to not only open up critical communications between the White House and the Saudi leadership, but also to serve as a small milestone in galvanising regional partners into a security framework to meet the challenge of Iran in a post-JCPOA era.
Image: this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.