America’s Failing Saudi Policy

America’s Failing Saudi Policy

It’s time for an ultimatum: Riyadh must play ball or the security America provides will disappear.

Military adventures in far-off regions require a reliable forward outpost, friends in the neighborhood, and, most importantly, the fuel to get there. Since the Gulf War began in 1990, the United States has looked to Saudi Arabia to fill these requirements. In exchange for their hospitality, camaraderie, and oil at a reasonable price, the Saudis received American protection and weapons—adynamic colloquially called “oil for security.” The relationship between a strictly democratic state and an unapologetically authoritarian kingdom went steady for nearly two and a half decades. On paper, the partnership was an exceptional triumph of realpolitik in a period of idealistic geopolitics.

However, as America wraps up its interventions in the region, it no longer requires a forward outpost. Nor does it need a military ally in the region with whom to exchange intelligence. The only things keeping the partnership alive are Saudi Arabia’s vast oil deposits and leadership in OPEC. Yet Saudi oil policy has run contrary to U.S. interests. OPEC’s production quotas have kept oil prices worldwide high, twisting the knife in a struggling American economy. Additionally, the Saudi military intervention in Yemen using American weapons and intelligence has kept the region unstable and damaged America’s international reputation. Current U.S. policies have utterly failed to address these imbalances. It’s time for an ultimatum: Riyadh must provide the oil or lose the security.

The Middle East is a region lacking a structure for stability. It has neither a clear military and/or political hierarchy nor an effective economic union between its disparate states. The closest thing it has to an economic union is OPEC, whose mandate only coordinates oil production and as such only counts oil producers amongst its member states. And while the borders in the Middle East are artificially drawn, for the most part, the religious and ethnic rivalries are very real. This state of affairs leaves a constant power vacuum that no individual state can fill, while also making negotiation on a personal and political level extremely difficult.

Among the states in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is in the most unique position. The reach of its borders and the factors within them create peculiar geopolitical realities that serve as both boons and disadvantages.

Saudi Arabia lies upon one of the largest oil deposits in the world, earning it the envy of all countries—developing or otherwise. Oil is such a dominant industry in the country that any instability in its global price generally directly corresponds with instability in the Saudi economy. If tomorrow oil became worthless, or even just halved in price, Saudi Arabia’s economy would almost certainly collapse. To prevent this scenario from taking place, Saudi Arabia has aggressively maintained its position in OPEC, fighting to manipulate the global oil market and keep its economy flourishing, often at the expense of the rest of the world.

Also within its borders are the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the most important sites in Islam. Simply controlling these cities grants Saudi rulers a place high in the leadership of Islam. At the same time, their presence puts pressure on (or perhaps gives an excuse for) the state to adhere more strictly to the rules of the Quran, creating an extremely conservative, rigid society. It is because of this that foreigners are often unwelcome in the country, and relations with non-Muslim nations can often be driven by the sentiment of Muslims rather than the state apparatus itself.

While its leaders see regional hegemony as an obvious next step in Saudi power, the existence of Iran complicates this endeavor. The two states are roughly comparable in power and influence in the area, and have been locked in a struggle for dominance since the removal of Baathist Iraq as a relevant competitor in the early 2000s. The states’ adherence to rival branches of Islam only makes the competition more bitter. Iran has served as the champion of Shia Islam, backing numerous Shia militant groups throughout the Middle East such as Hezbollah and the Houthis. While Saudi Arabia’s arid climate and long borders make it an unattractive target for conventional warfare, they leave it dangerously open to infiltration by smaller militant groups.

To further its own influence and minimize the risk these groups pose to its stability and national defense, Saudi Arabia has committed itself to counter-militancy. This policy has manifested most clearly in the ongoing Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, the country in which the Houthi movement is based. With the help of U.S. training, weapons sales, and intelligence, coalition forces have led an intensive bombing and ground campaign with the aim of ousting the Houthis and restoring the former Yemeni government. The conflict has created one of the largest humanitarian crises in history. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, millions are displaced, and millions more are starving. The intervention has no clear end date, and beyond being a massive humanitarian catastrophe serves as a blight on American international reputation by virtue of its second-hand involvement.

While Saudi policy was more palatable during America’s own intervention in the Middle East, upon taking a step back it is clearly antithetical to American interests in almost every way. The United States needs cheap oil, or else its economy grinds to a halt: Saudi Arabia is directly involved in keeping oil expensive. The United States needs the Middle East to be stable so that it is not dragged into another conflict: the Saudi-Iranian rivalry endangers that stability. The United States needs to recover its international reputation after its disastrous Middle East wars: cooperation with Saudi intervention in Yemen makes that considerably more difficult.

Current U.S. policy does little to address these glaring relationship deficiencies. There has been a malaise in American Middle Eastern diplomacy since the Afghanistan pullout. Yet America’s leverage is considerable. Saudi Arabia needs American weapons for its national defense, and it needs American expertise to maintain these weapons. Despite the recent cooling of some tensions, there is no strong evidence that the country’s rivalry with Iran is a thing of the past. Additionally, Saudi Arabia is no longer vital to America’s interests. Completely severing the relationship now would have almost no effect in comparison to severing it ten years ago. Even in the economic area, there are possible alternatives to Saudi oil that could be explored such as Venezuela, Nigeria, the UAE, Brazil, or even America itself. The United Stat should utilize its leverage, and demand that Saudi Arabia hold up its side of the oil-for-security bargain or else look elsewhere for defense.

Gerard A. Neumann is a student at Columbia University.

This essay was a runner-up in the 2023 John Quincy Adams Society Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.