US-Saudi relations have steadily declined since Joe Biden entered the White House. Relations hit a new low on Oct. 5 when Saudi-led OPEC+ announced it would cut oil production. A drop in oil production will drive up gas prices as the United States avoids a recession and provides Russia with much-needed revenue to fight its war in Ukraine. Both outcomes are unseemly for a seventy-seven-year-old strategic partner.
Although the announcement comes at an inopportune time for the Biden administration’s domestic and foreign policy, Saudi Arabia’s action comes as no surprise. President Biden mishandled US-Saudi relations. The drama that surrounded Biden’s visit to the kingdom in July and now the oil production cut are manifestations of the dangers and shortcomings of pursuing a progressively influential American foreign policy.
The seven-decade U.S.-Saudi relationship — forged in the heat of World War II, deepened during the Cold War and sustained through the post-9/11 era — is anathema to progressives. The Saudi way of life contrasts sharply with American culture. Saudi Arabia is religious, reactionary, patriarchal and monarchical. The United States is secular, liberal, egalitarian and democratic. For progressives, the United States and Saudi Arabia can no longer remain strange bedfellows. Either Saudi Arabia reforms its ways or the kingdom must be sidelined.
Although strong differences between Saudi Arabia and the United States have existed for decades, these differences have not stood in the way of a cooperative relationship. The defining feature of US-Saudi relations has been the mutually beneficial economic security dynamic. Saudi Arabia provides the United States with cheap access to its oil for the benefit of both economies. In turn, the United States provides Saudi Arabia with security and the means to defend itself.
So what has changed?
For a growing number of progressives, international relations go beyond economic and security issues. The cultural values and national structures of countries also matter. Progressives are also concerned with how states interact with other states and how governments interact with their respective populations.
Progressives seek an international environment where countries work through international institutions, seek justice and fight for equality. They support diplomatic resolutions, criticize military build-up and seek to reduce power differentials. Progressives are also champions of human rights and democracy. They believe that the characteristics and internal dynamics of states have the ability to reverberate beyond borders. Therefore, domestic politics and culture are of legitimate interest to US foreign policy.
A progressive’s respect for state sovereignty depends on the employment of certain practices and values. Western liberal standards, such as egalitarianism and democracy, are the benchmarks for assessing a country’s governance practices, societal structures, and values. As a result, a progressively influenced foreign policy is ideologically and culturally charged, especially towards non-Western countries.
Biden’s edict to “reset“US-Saudi relations reflect progressive influence. It interweaves the economic and security dynamics of the relationship with a focus on the politics and culture of Saudi Arabia. The administration believes that the continued existence of the seventy-seven-year-old partnership depends on the kingdom’s ability to reform and reorient the basic principles by which its society operates.
One of the justifications for the “reset” is the Kingdom’s treatment of dissenters. The Biden administration seeks responsibility for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and clemency for imprisoned malcontents.
The other justification is the Kingdom’s intervention in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is accused of exacerbating a humanitarian crisis and indiscriminate airstrikes on Yemeni civilians. The Biden administration is seeking an end to the Saudi military campaign and an end to the war.
During his campaign and the first months of his presidency, Biden has spoken out and acted on his displeasure with Saudi Arabia. He stated that he would “make them [Saudi Arabia] pay the price, and in fact make it the pariah they are. He put the crown prince “on notice”, after declassifying a report by the director of national intelligence according to which involved the crown prince in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The strange decision guaranteed a reduction American influence in Riyadh. Arms sales to the kingdom were temporarily postponed. He terminated US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen. He caught the Iran-funded and inspired Yemeni militia guilty of attacking the kingdom – the Houthis –stopped the Department of State’s list of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The United States too deleted missile defense systems amid Houthi missile and drone strikes.
Biden’s words proved ineffective.
His actions did not achieve the expected results.
The monarchy did not issue additional sentences to accomplices in Khashoggi’s murder. Long prison terms continue to be pronounced for political dissent. The Houthis have intensified their missile and drone attacks on the kingdom. The Yemeni conflict remains unresolved.
Biden arrived in Saudi Arabia on July 16 with an egg on his face after Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman refused Biden’s Phone calls and ignored calls for oil expansion production. The visit to the kingdom produced no “deliverables” and the contents of the discussions of the meeting are disputed by the unfortunate allies. To add insult to injury, three months later, Saudi-led OPEC+ announcement that would reduce oil production.
The sorry state of U.S.-Saudi relations and the vulnerability of U.S. policy in the Middle East are the result of Biden’s decision to embrace a progressively influential foreign policy early in his term. The policy is antagonistic in its approach to non-Western/European countries, unrealistic and unreasonable in its expectations, and myopic in its outlook.
Biden’s ‘reset’ is antagonistic to the kingdom’s existence. American criticism of the kingdom’s reluctance to tolerate dissent calls into question the viability of the monarchy. A monarchy is not a democracy. Dissent may be tolerated, but only within the parameters established by the government.
Demanding accountability for Khashoggi’s murder makes sense to most Americans. But the reality is that seeking justice for Khashoggi is a push for deep intervention in the politics of the Saudi royal family. Besides being a source of dissent, Khashoggi worked for a member of the Saudi royal family. His dissent and connection with family posed a potential threat to a monarchy in transition – the transfer of power within the Saudi dynasty from sons to grandsons. It is natural for monarchs like the crown prince to consolidate their power to ensure their ability to rule.
Beyond the expression of disgust at this appalling act, what reason does the United States have to intervene in a largely domestic Saudi affair? Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen. He was neither a US citizen nor a permanent resident. Khashoggi was assassinated in Turkey, not in the United States.
Biden’s ‘reset’ is antagonistic to kingdom security. US blame for Saudi intervention in Yemen is an affront to Saudi Arabia’s security. It ignores Saudi Arabia’s biggest security problem: Iran. The criticism also raises questions about whether the US has the kingdom’s best interests in mind.
The kingdom sees the Yemeni civil conflict as an existential threat as Iran funds and inspires the Houthi movement. The Houthis are trying to assert control over Yemeni territory, placing an Iranian proxy on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. The Houthis also periodically launch missiles and drones at the kingdom. The reluctance of the United States to support Saudi action to eliminate the threat shows Saudi leaders that this threat is not taken seriously in Washington.
The president’s policy is unrealistic in its expectations. What did Biden hope to accomplish by calling Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’? Provoking a revolution in Riyadh? Scare or humiliate the Saudi monarchy into tolerating dissent? Start a process of transforming the kingdom into a democracy? Producing these results would create considerable turmoil in one of the world’s largest energy producers. Does the president prefer instability?
Moreover, what exactly does the formal notice of the crown prince entail? If the crown prince makes another mistake, will Biden ask him to step down? The crown prince is popular, especially among Saudis youth. Does the president think the Saudi public will welcome the resignation of the crown prince, brought about by a state that many Saudis are beginning to distrust?
U.S. expectations of Saudi Arabia regarding Yemen are unreasonable. The Biden administration is asking the kingdom what the United States itself is not prepared to do: tolerate a threat on its southern border. Imagine the United States tolerating the presence of an Al-Qaeda or ISIS affiliate launching strikes from Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez. The threat would be eliminated in a day.
The most troubling aspect of a progressive-influenced foreign policy is its myopia. The focus on ideological and cultural politics threatens to undermine economic and security interests.
The US-Saudi relationship is multifaceted. Saudi assistance and cooperation in carrying out US policies is substantial and essential. Saudi Arabia plays a role in the fight against terrorism; thwart Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and support the production of hydrocarbons.
Biden’s myopia threatens to undermine one of the administration’s key and laudable foreign policy goals: to prevent the proliferation of nuclear capabilities in the Middle East by resuscitating the Iran nuclear deal. The Biden administration is confusing its priorities or choosing to ignore the link between its treatment of Saudi Arabia and maintaining nonproliferation of nuclear capabilities in the Persian Gulf.