U.S.-Saudi Ties Are at the Lowest in Decades. Here’s Why.

In recent months, ties between the United States and its longtime Middle Eastern partner, Saudi Arabia, have reached the lowest point in decades. The latest involved a cut in oil production by a group fronted by Saudi Arabia. On October 5, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+) – a cartel of 23 oil-exporting countries, including Saudi Arabia, formed to fix the worldwide supply of oil and its price in the global market in the 1960s– announced the reduction of oil production by 2 million barrels per day.

America Accuses Saudi Arabia of Favoring Russia

This move angered the United States, with America accusing its Gulf partner of siding with Russia. In the eyes of the White House, the cuts in oil production would only benefit Russia, who is a member of the oil-producing cartel, at a time when the United States and its European allies are working to impose a partial embargo and price cap on Russian oil as a means of further punishing Moscow for waging its war in Ukraine.

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The Saudis, for their part, tamped down any rumors of trying to target the United States. According to Saudi Arabia, the decision to cut oil production was technical, not political, and  one the Saudis describe as a “pragmatic move to avoid a supply glut and keep some spare capacity in reserve.” Interestingly though, the Saudis did bring politics into the debate by publicly announcing that the United States requested that the decision to cut production be delayed by a month. This announcement implied that the Biden administration  was politicizing oil production and increasingly higher gas prices ahead of the U.S. midterms at a time when Democrats may be slated to lose control of both the House and Senate.

The Foundation

For nearly 80 years, the United States and Saudi Arabia have maintained a close economic and security partnership. Since 1945, when former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with King Abdelaziz bin Saud on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal, the relationship has largely been defined as security in exchange for oil. In other words, “the kingdom keeps the oil flowing; America keeps the kingdom safe.”

Today, the United States keeps 2,500 forces in the kingdom continues to supply arms to Saudi Arabia, as America supplies nearly 75% of all weapons systems used by the Saudi military. In return, Saudi Arabia keeps the oil flowing to the United States, supplying only 6% of American oil imports.

In recent years, the United States has expanded the traditional scope of the relationship by criticizing its Gulf partner for its abysmal human rights record. In line with its pledge to place human rights back in the center of U.S. foreign policy, President Biden came to office with the intent of holding its Saudi partners accountable.

The Biden Administration’s Approach to Saudi Arabia is Inconsistent

The irony is that the Biden administration’s approach, despite his tough rhetoric, is inconsistent. At first, Mr. Biden took a hard-line approach. As a candidate, he vowed to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Upon taking office, Mr. Biden froze arms sale deals to the Saudis. He ordered the declassification of an intelligence assessment that indicated that the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, ordered the murder of Mr. Khashoggi in a bid to further highlight Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record.

The hard stance did not last long. In July 2022, despite knowing the criticism he would face, Mr. Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia, meeting with the Crown Price. Mr. Biden believed – incorrectly – that they could shore up Saudi support with a diplomatic visit to convince OPEC+ to increase oil production as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to lead to surging global fuel prices. Around the same time, the arms sales – air-to-air missiles and replacement missiles for Patriot air defense batteries – went through. The State Department approved another order of 300 Patriot missiles in August. It looked as though Mr. Biden was moderating his approach to Saudi Arabia.

Then, OPEC+ announced its decision to cut oil production, angering the Americans once more. “There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done,” Mr. Biden promised soon after the announcement. The move seemed to cause Mr. Biden to question the integrity and utility of the entire relationship, albeit briefly. He even noted that the administration would examine the longstanding relationship to see if it still served American interests. Since then, Mr. Biden has been slow to take action.

The Current State of U.S.-Saudi Ties No Longer Serves U.S. Interests

U.S. officials reason that the United States needs Saudi Arabia for more than oil, particularly addressing other Biden administration priorities in the region, including ending the Saudi-led war in Yemen, bringing Israel into the fold of the Middle East, and countering Iran. In fact, Mr. Biden is now looking to revive the ailing relationship between Washington and Riyadh. Oil is still a key factor, particularly because of Russia’s war in Ukraine driving up global energy prices, and will always figure prominently in U.S.-Saudi ties.

However, the Biden administration is trying to balance oil and global energy prices with repairing a relationship in order to accomplish other U.S. priorities in a tumultuous region. Yet, the inconsistencies in the Biden administration’s policies toward Saudi Arabia allow a once-steadfast Gulf partner to undermine U.S. foreign policy aims. The current state of the United States’ once important relationship with Saudi Arabia is no longer serving U.S. interests. The Biden administration must act with more haste and fortitude to hold Saudi Arabia accountable.

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