The governments of the Middle East, particularly the Gulf states, seem more and more convinced that a dramatically diminished U.S. interest in the Middle East region is in the works, up to an abandonment, if not total abandonment, of them, resulting in an uncertainty of security commitments to them. After decades in which, in exchange for low cost and abundant supplies of oil, the U.S. security umbrella was informally guaranteed to the Gulf monarchies, those same princes, kings, and emirs are growingly doubting the reliability of the U.S. side of that understanding. None is more uneasy in this than Saudi Arabia, the most significant country in the region. Washington’s perceived failure to respond forcefully to Iran-armed-and-sponsored Houthi drone and missile strikes against Saudi Arabia in 2019 and against both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2022 was just the most tangible example undergirding Gulf concerns about U.S. resolution.
A number of factors feeds the perception of U.S. abandonment, from the direct public and private pronouncements of key Biden administration officials to the changing state of U.S. foreign policy discourse. Yet in merits particular attention in Riyadh is the U.S. treatment of Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (colloquially, MBS)—the country’s crown prince, prime minister, and the designated heir to the throne.
Never a very warm relationship, the U.S.-Saudi bond has always been one of mutual and calculated advantage while still remaining the bedrock and anchor of U.S. standing and policy in the Gulf. Despite a few structural tensions regarding differing religious views, forms of government, and relations to Israel, the two countries have been in close embrace based on their security-for-oil bargain.
That, however, arrangement is now at risk from the Saudi perspective and perhaps even in America’s view—not that it will no longer guarantee the security of its Gulf partners, but that the guarantee will be more calibrated in light of the Chinese political, economic, and military challenges in the Indo-Pacific and globally. Gulf capitals worry (or fear) that the United States is neither a dependable partner nor perhaps even an honest broker, and their apprehension is grounded in U.S. words and deeds. As a result, these countries are increasingly taking an even more tenuously transactional view of their previously bedrock relation with Washington.
That uneasy, somewhat transactional relation with the Saudis was rocked by the horrific murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents (apparently with the knowledge and probable direction of MBS) inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A Saudi citizen and occasional columnist for the Washington Post, Khashoggi had turned from a supporter of MBS to an ardent critic. That horrendous execution shocked Western capitals, particularly Washington, with the Post ensuring regular and protracted coverage.
In response, during the November 2019, Democratic Party primary debate in Atlanta, then-Presidential Candidate Joe Biden labeled MBS and even more broadly all Saudi Arabians “the pariahs that they are” and their government of having “very little social redeeming value,” adding that “under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relation with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.” This attack by the likely next U.S. president only martyred the Saudi royal at home: who was this impudent foreign infidel to assault our prince, country, and society?
Ethics entirely aside, the assassination was a foolhardy and ultimately counterproductive move. Whereas Khashoggi’s occasional columns were critical of the Saudi regime, especially MBS, and had imperceptible effects on the U.S.-Saudi relationship, his murder, fanned by Turkey’s president (for foreign policy reasons) and by Khashoggi’s fiancé Hatice Cengiz (for obvious personal reasons), had substantial and prolonged effect in the United States and abroad.
Unfortunately for Biden, oil prices spiked in 2021–2022. The United States could itself have produced more oil and eased the skyrocketing price, but only with environmental effects unacceptable to Biden’s Democratic Party allies. Biden was forced, hat in hand, to fly to Riyadh in July 2022 and in effect beg MBS to increase Saudi production, which the Prince very publicly did not do. In fact, he did the opposite, leading OPEC+ to a production cut of 2 million barrels a day in coordination with—salt in the wound—Russian President Vladimir Putin. Very embarrassingly, on arrival Biden was forced also to greet MBS—which normally would have meant an embrace but, given the pariah remark, caused Biden to attempt clumsily at best to settle for a “fist bump” which MBS graciously accepted and reciprocated but did not forget.
The Price of Alienating Saudi Arabia
This breach in the relationship stands at odds with both America’s and Saudi Arabia’s national interests. If continued, it will have adverse impacts on both, and will also provide China and perhaps other challengers like Iran with a rare opportunity to advance their interests at the both the United States’ and Saudi Arabia’s expense. However appalling the Khashoggi murder, it cannot be allowed to rupture a critical geopolitical relationship for both parties.
Ironically, in many respects, MBS has taken Saudi Arabia down precisely the right road from both the Saudi and the U.S. perspectives. Under his Vision 2030, he has advanced tertiary education, defanged the religious police (the mutawa), and sought to “bring Saudi Arabia back to moderate Islam.” He has moved to diversify the bases of the Saudi economy away from sole dependence on oil and into technologically competitive goods and services, liberated women from harsh social, economic, and personal restrictions, provided them access to education and to the work force, and has all but broken the original deal with the desert tribes. He has run roughshod over other Saudi princes and families in doing this, but their fate is a domestic matter—it is not, or should not be, a core matter of U.S. national interest.
The potential for an accord between Saudi Arabia and China, however, should be. Just this last December, President Xi Jinping made an unusual trip to Saudi Arabia to meet and then sign agreements with King Salman and MBS—precisely to forge closer ties with the kingdom and then its Gulf neighbors, and to open another front against the United States and its interests. MBS gave him a conspicuously grand welcome and reception. Moreover, MBS has indicated that if Washington is not more willing to warrant Saudi fundamental national interests then he has other options. All of these are detrimental to U.S. interests, in particular closer relations with China, whose investments in the kingdom have mushroomed from almost nothing to around $12 billion over the past fifteen years and $5 billion this June alone.
Other developments paint a grim picture for U.S. interests. Along with Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia is now a Dialogue Partner in the China-founded and Beijing-based Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Thousands of Saudi and other Gulf state students are now studying in China rather than the United States. In May, Saudi Arabia joined Egypt and the UAE in warmly readmitting Syria into the Arab League, notwithstanding President Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of Syria’s Sunni population.
The attempt by the United States to forge a nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s, primary adversary, and to do so on terms the Saudis clearly regard as injurious to their vital national security interests has opened yet another potential fissure. It is a potential fracture which the Chinese have happily exploited as they midwifed a resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, its heretofore sworn adversary. The United States can in part thank its public rebuke of MBS for that remarkable about-face and China’s new standing. The recently closer ties among the U.S.-aligned Gulf states after their rift with Qatar (and the consequent deterioration of the Gulf Cooperation Council comity) has increased even more the stakes inherent in the Saudi-U.S. relation as has the recent feint of MBS and his Omani allies toward his border nemeses the Houthi’s in Yemen.
Mending the Relationship
The estrangement in the Saudi-US relation needs to be repaired. While it does not rise to the same strategic level of importance as the relation with China, it is necessary nonetheless even if only because of the opportunity any fracture affords precisely to China.
But the relation is important in its own terms and not just economically or (given the U.S. bases) militarily. The U.S. has vital geopolitical interests in a stable, friendly Gulf. Iran is a threat to those interests. So is China should it find Gulf bases or even refueling arrangements and with them the opportunity both to project force and economic power into a region hitherto prohibited to it and to thrust yet another dagger into a soft spot for the United States. Although it may be too late for Biden, he can try his best.
Likewise, it is not yet too late for his successors or co-equal branches. The now Republican-majority House should make a better relationship a clear objective. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs ought to take a trip to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries full of sincere interest and earnest expressions of amity, with particular attention to MBS. It should clarify that the United States will indeed “reassess our relation with the Kingdom” but in a way opposite to the way then-candidates Biden and Kamala Harris had in mind. House Democratic members should join rather than abjure let alone repudiate such a gesture.