Since his first day in office, President Joe Biden has not spared any opportunity to castigate the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, especially Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). This folly has produced an unbearable cost; as the war in Ukraine raises global oil prices to unprecedented levels, the average gasoline price in the United States has jumped above $4 a gallon for the first time since 2008. The inflationary spiral is likely to impose a heavy political cost on the Democrats ahead of the upcoming midterm and presidential elections.
Only Saudi Arabia can help by calling on OPEC+—the oil cartel of twenty-three nations, including Russia—to raise crude production and bring gasoline prices down. Saudi Arabia has acted as a swing producer before, reducing or raising its oil output to oblige the United States. More recently, in 2018 and 2020, it averted global energy crises by playing this critical role at President Donald Trump’s request.
Having defeated Soviet Communism and combatted global terrorism together, the United States and the Gulf nations have been through thick and thin for decades. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are thought to be the only two major oil producers that can ramp up spare production relatively easily. With this in mind, why is Saudi Arabia currently reluctant to rescue the United States from its mounting economic woes? What went so wrong that MbS and his Emirati counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, now even refuse to speak with President Joe Biden, as U.S. media reports suggest?
Cordiality takes years to nurture in a relationship and it must be based on mutual respect for each other’s vital needs and interests. The foundation flickers the moment either side loses commitment to this. The Biden administration faces the same dilemma today in its sordid relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
For well over a decade, the United States has been disengaging from the Gulf. President Barack Obama kickstarted the process by failing to manage the post-Arab Spring turmoil in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), enabled Iran to undermine the security of Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations through proxy warfare waged by the Houthis, Hezbollah, and other militias affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Trump administration tried to redress its partners’ security grievances by renouncing JCPOA in 2018, but it failed to take on Iran when its drones and missiles hit major Saudi oil installations in 2019.
Biden’s approach has been more consequential in this regard. His political vendetta against Trump has clouded his flawed policy choices in the Gulf. He refused to deal with MbS on the pretext of frivolous allegations. Biden delisted the Houthi militia in Yemen as a terrorist organization and also pulled Patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia, which made Saudi Arabia vulnerable to Iranian drone and missile attacks. The Biden administration made the revival of the JCPOA its top foreign policy goal, ignoring the regional concerns about Iranian ballistic missiles and malign activities.
Consequently, Iran was emboldened again to intensify its proxy warfare against Saudi Arabia and extend its scope to the UAE, which has started to face Houthi missile attacks this year. Disillusioned by the Biden administration, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to strengthen relations with China, Russia, and India. That is exactly why the Saudis and Emiratis have opted for neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war. Like India, the UAE abstained from voting on the UN Security Council resolution against Russia.
Therefore, in a recent interview with the Atlantic, MbS advised Biden to focus on “the interests of America” instead of interfering in Saudi affairs. “We don’t have the right to lecture you in America. The same goes the other way,” the crown prince said. He underlined the stark differences between American democracy and Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, which, in his opinion, should evolve over time. MbS also emphasized the tangible progress that has been made in reforming the Saudi economy and society under the Vision 2030 plan.
Since its launch in 2016, this strategic plan has fundamentally transformed Saudi Arabia by weaning its economy off its overreliance on oil and reshaping its society along the modern values of gender equity, religious tolerance, and global openness. The progress is visible in several uniquely Saudi development projects that seek to make the kingdom a hub of global tourism and entertainment, high-tech industry, and modern living. It is also reflected in the empowerment of women, enforcement of the rule of law, and curtailment of the clerical powers.
As the kingdom hosts Islam’s holiest places, it forms the core of the Muslim world. Hence, the Saudi narrative on Islamic issues matters for Muslims all over the world. MbS is having a huge impact by popularizing an Islamic creed rooted in the Quran and Hadith, the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad. In particular, he has called for restricting the use of Hadith in jurisprudential matters to only verifiable accounts that are compatible with the Quranic text. This historic undertaking is exposing the extremist narratives, which promote terrorism by misinterpreting the true teachings of Islam. MbS is modernizing the kingdom incrementally—without undermining its cultural and religious values—and simultaneously promoting an eco-friendly developmental agenda in the Arab world.
Since the time of King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz almost half a century ago, Saudi Arabia has hardly seen a leader with such a sense of purpose. MbS is the type of Arab figure with whom Biden should have made common cause at this critical juncture. On the contrary, Biden decided not to cooperate with the young Saudi leader.
As a Saudi citizen with a long career in diplomacy, I know how much the Saudis cherish their historic bond with the Americans, and vice versa. For his part, MbS has expanded Saudi investments in the United States and welcomed major American businesses to invest in projects in the kingdom. Thousands of young Saudi graduates from American universities are now contributing to Vision 2030 projects. The kingdom also benefits from the presence of around 40,000 U.S. citizens, which make up the largest component of Saudi Arabia’s population of Western expats.
Hence, the current troubles in Saudi-U.S. ties are only of President Biden’s making. The Saudi leadership wants to overcome these issues. The crown prince also reiterated in the same interview that the kingdom has a “long, historic relationship” with the United States—and he aims to strengthen it. But MbS also wants future Saudi-U.S. ties to be based on mutual respect and reciprocity.
By refusing to cooperate with MbS and appeasing the expansionist Iranian regime, Biden has disrupted the reform process in Saudi Arabia and forced the kingdom to seek alternative partnerships with China and Russia. Since 1974, Saudi Arabia has conducted its oil trade only in dollars in exchange for security guarantees from Washington. By compromising these guarantees, the Biden administration has forced Saudi Arabia to even consider the option of pegging its oil sales to the Chinese yuan. Its trade, investment, and security ties with Russia have likewise deepened, something that is made clear from their shared approach to OPEC+ production cap. On the JCPOA, Biden has ended up straining relations with the Saudis and other U.S. allies in the Gulf while getting nothing in return; the Vienna talks have stalled in the wake of the Ukraine war. Why would American leadership reward a regime whose enmity with America is rooted in its expansionist constitution and terroristic history?
Seen in this backdrop, the current rupture in Saudi-U.S. ties is serious, and it cannot be fixed by the recent travels of U.S. officials like Brett McGurk or British prime minister Boris Johnson to the kingdom. Indeed, the redeployment of U.S. Patriot missiles in Saudi Arabia and the recent Saudi operation to rescue two American women from Yemen are positive signs. But they are insignificant, as the relationship needs a structural transformation. Only Biden can repair the present troubles by coming clean on Saudi Arabia and the United States’ security role in the Gulf. And he can do so without any volte-face.
Thankfully, the JCPOA is all but dead now. By acknowledging this, Biden would reassure Riyadh and other Gulf capitals about Washington’s renewed interest in regional stability. He can also go the extra mile by charting a new course in U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia on the basis of mutual respect and non-interference, while also helping its leadership defeat Iranian forces in the Gulf. These overtures will inevitably encourage a positive response from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, leading them to encourage Russia and other OPEC+ members to raise the monthly output of crude oil well beyond the limit agreed to earlier this month.
I am sure the Saudi-American bond is resilient enough to overcome its current troubles. The historic partnership dates back to 1945, when King Abdul Aziz and President Franklin Roosevelt met on a U.S. warship off the Saudi coast. They laid a strong foundation, which helped absorb the shock from the oil embargo in the 1970s. Subsequent irritants have also been worked out through mutual consultations. Pragmatism must prevail again in order to sustain the reform process in Saudi Arabia and overcome the current energy crisis in the world. It is time to heal the unfortunate wounds of the recent past and rebuild a strategic partnership that continues into the future.