The Real Cost of Breaking Saudi-U.S. Ties
With military confrontation with Iran looming, this hardly seems the opportune moment to freeze U.S.-Saudi military and security cooperation.
In late August 2001, then-Saudi crown prince Abdullah sent a fiery letter to President George W. Bush threatening to freeze political, military, and security cooperation with the United States unless he acted to halt a particularly bloody incursion by the Israeli military into the West Bank town of Hebron. Abdullah signaled he meant business by calling home a Saudi military delegation on a visit to Washington.
Abdullah’s initial twenty-five pages of talking points for his Bush letter were so menacing that Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan felt he had to tone it down to avoid a break in U.S.-Saudi relations. Still, the crux of the letter, as Bandar recounted and I detailed in my 2008 book The King’s Messenger, was: “You go your way. I go my way.”
What prevented that from happening was a far more serious crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations just two weeks later on September 11. Nineteen Arab terrorists hijacked three American commercial airliners and crashed one of them into the Twin Towers in New York and another into the Pentagon building, killing nearly 3,000 people. It turned out that fifteen of the hijackers were Saudis, and so was their inspiration, Osama bin Laden.
In the wake of 9/11, relations deteriorated so badly that it took Bush and Saudi rulers four years to put them more or less back on track while the American media continued to heatedly debate whether Saudi Arabia was a friend or foe. It also took two meetings between Bush and Abdullah at the president’s Texas ranch before the two sides devised a restart to the badly damaged relationship. Their first meeting was a near disaster. But their second meeting, in April 2005, was a success, with Bush taking hold of Abdullah’s hand to lead him up the path to his ranch.
Both sides had done their homework. Abdullah presented a plan for an increase in Saudi oil production capacity by almost 3 million barrels a day by 2010. They set up a permanent joint committee headed by their foreign ministers and formed six subcommittees to deal with every aspect of the relationship, from security and fighting terrorism to building closer economic ties. One subcommittee even addressed their “respective concerns” about each other as a result of 9/11. They agreed, too, on a massive scholarship program for Saudis to study in the United States that saw tens of thousands of Saudis attending American universities at Abdullah’s personal expense. The two sides also laid the groundwork for the additional Saudi purchase of $60 billion of U.S. arms.
The question naturally arises whether a similar approach would work today to patch up America’s fast-unraveling ties with the kingdom. Doing so promises to prove even harder than overcoming the post-9/11 crisis. Failure would mark the end of the longest alliance the United States has had with any Middle East nation since World War II.
If there is any chance for success, it is worthwhile reflecting on why the Bush approach worked. First and probably foremost, the American president and the Saudi crown prince were able to set aside their considerable personal and political animosity. Neither leader wanted to see a divorce despite the fallout from 9/11, which had left Congress and the American public up in arms against the kingdom. Bush went out of his way to demonstrate a renewed personal camaraderie by leading Abdullah hand in hand up the garden path to the front door of his Crawford, Texas, ranch.
The 2005 reconciliation also worked because the United States and Saudi Arabia had found a very strong common cause in fighting the massive upsurge in international terrorism, particularly after Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda launched a campaign of terrorist attacks inside the kingdom starting in 2003.
It is also important to remember that in 2005, the United States was importing 12 to 13 million barrels of crude oil and products per day to meet consumer demand, and that Saudi Arabia was either the first or second most important source of U.S. crude oil supplies. The kingdom was also a leading purchaser of U.S. arms, and Bush and Abdullah set in motion the largest deal yet—the $60 billion purchase that President Barack Obama announced five years later.
The contrast to today’s state of affairs between the two countries is striking from the very top on down. President Joe Biden began his time in office by declaring his intention to render Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) an international pariah in retaliation for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Biden’s trip to the kingdom in July to patch up his personal relations with MBS and get more Saudi oil on the market proved a disaster. Subsequently, MBS instead cut Saudi oil production, assuring high prices at the pump during November’s congressional elections. It is hard to see any improvement in their personal relations, certainly not an invitation from Biden to MBS to come hold hands outside his home in Delaware.
Nor have Biden and MBS so far found a common cause similar to the war on terrorism, which helped bolster the two countries’ ties in 2005. Oil has become a sorely divisive issue in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The United States has become the world’s number one producer and a rival exporter, explaining in part why Saudi Arabia has had to forge an alliance with Russia to maintain much higher prices. Nor has MBS shown any interest in lining up with the United States and Western Europe in their new Cold War-like feud with Russia.
Moreover, Biden has said there will be “consequences” for Saudi Arabia pushing the OPEC+ oil cartel to declare a cut of 2 million barrels per day at its early October meeting. What these might be remains to be seen.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions now loom as a real brake on Biden moving toward a divorce in the seventy-five-year-old U.S-Saudi marriage. Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb is fast becoming the missing common cause that might well serve to extend the life of the increasingly-fraught partnership. Common fears of a nuclear Iran may also become the catalyst for Saudi Arabia to raise its relationship with Israel from secretly below the table to publicly above.
Biden’s special representative for Iran, Rob Malley, has said the United States will not “waste [its] time” on the continuation of negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and repeated the president’s commitment to never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear bomb, even if it requires using the military option.
With military confrontation with Iran looming, this hardly seems the opportune moment to freeze U.S.-Saudi military and security cooperation. This is what cutting off or suspending arms sales to the kingdom—the proposal of an increasing number of lawmakers—seems certain to achieve.
Before taking such a consequential step, the Biden administration would do well to weigh whether exercising the military option against Iran requires a role for Saudi Arabia in its success.
Momentum is certainly growing in Washington for the United States and Saudi Arabia to finally go their separate ways. But they both need to figure out how they intend to deal with the prospect of a nuclear Iran before they do so.
David B. Ottaway is a Middle East fellow at the Wilson Center. He just released a book about contemporary Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman: The Icarus of Saudi Arabia? His book before that, co-authored with his wife, Marina, is A Tale of four Worlds: the Arab Region After the Uprising, published by Oxford University Press in 2019. He worked 35 years for The Washington Post as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Africa and Southern Europe and later as a national security and investigative reporter in Washington before retiring in 2006. He has won numerous awards for his reporting at home and abroad and was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Ottaway received a BA from Harvard, magna cum laude, and a PhD from Columbia University.