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Improving U.S.-Saudi Ties Should be a Priority

With the 2024 presidential election quickly approaching, candidates have already begun to examine America’s foreign policy priorities and the state of U.S. relations with friends and foes. Amid heightened tensions with China and Russia and a growing number of adversaries bent on weapons of mass destruction and drone warfare, the next president must prioritize reinforcing the reality and perception of U.S. consistency and strength abroad. For this, developing a sustainable, reliable network of security partners will be critical. However, much damage has been done to many of Washington’s traditional relationships in recent years—foremost among them U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, which have badly deteriorated and are in need a major reset.

The Prince and the President

As early as 2019, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden painted Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state. He assured his supporters on the campaign trail that he would not sell Riyadh weapons, and stressed that he would make the Saudis “pay the price” for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. After entering office, Biden temporarily froze arms sales to the Kingdom, released a report implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in the journalist’s murder, and even refused to speak to MBS for over a year.

MBS soon reciprocated Biden’s negative attitude. When Russia invaded Ukraine, sending global oil prices spiraling upward, Biden attempted to call the Saudi leader and urge a production increase—only for the crown prince to refuse to speak with him, a previously unthinkable sign of contempt. Later that year, Saudi Arabia cut its oil production, further raising global prices and leading the president to vow unspecified “consequences” for Riyadh. In December, MBS alarmed Western policymakers when he rolled out the red carpet for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, heralding a “new era” in the two countries’ relations.

While Biden made his own trip to the Kingdom in mid-2022, it bore few tangible gains regarding his most important goals—a reduction in oil prices and normalization with Israel. Many of the issues driving questions about U.S.-Saudi relations resurfaced during the trip to Riyadh, and U.S. and Saudi leaders did not appear to engage in any frank exchanges on the partnership’s future.

In recent weeks, Biden has sent several top officials, including senior advisor for energy and infrastructure Amos Hochstein, Middle East advisor Brett McGurk, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to Riyadh to strengthen U.S.-Saudi ties. Prior to this trip, the administration even reversed its freeze on arms sales and notified Congress of the sale of at least $4 billion in arms and military services to the Kingdom. Biden’s about-face on Saudi Arabia underscores that the White House has finally recognized that in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington simply cannot afford to alienate powerful partners—especially when dysfunctional U.S. relations could force allies like Saudi Arabia to ramp up its engagement with U.S. rivals such as Russia or China. So far, however, the flurry of activity has not repaired the core problem: a lack of trust and mutual respect between the two countries’ leaders.

A New Relationship

With the 2024 election underway, and amid sharp divisions within the Republican Party on foreign policy matters, the candidates gearing up for the campaign trail must recognize that improving relations with Saudi Arabia is critical to ensuring America’s economic and national security. It is crucial to recognize, however, that the days of the grand bargain of “oil for security” are dead; instead, it is time to engage the Saudis more broadly, in a relationship of equals based on mutual trust and respect.

The Kingdom will remain a key American ally in counter-terrorism, stability in the Red Sea and Gulf, and addressing threats from Iran and its network of allies and proxies. Riyadh’s importance in this regard will only increase over time, as the U.S. attempts to shift its focus away from the Middle East and towards the Indo-Pacific. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s leadership position in regional affairs, and its vital role in global oil production, are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. While the U.S. may not be able to halt Saudi Arabia’s development of relationships with China and Russia, it can influence the nature of those relationships and prevent them from becoming a threat to American security interests by resuming close ties with the Kingdom. In order to do this, the presidential candidates should consider the following policy changes.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the United States must return to a relationship of mutual respect with Saudi Arabia. Candidates should prioritize building trust and cooperation with Saudi leaders through civility and open dialogue. By engaging in candid conversations, the United States can encourage Saudi collaboration in protecting U.S. security interests. Crucially, these conversations can also lead to meaningful reforms supporting human rights, democratic values, and press freedoms—so long as they are constructive rather than critical in nature.

Second, Washington must show consistency when it comes to regional security in the Middle East. The Saudis have valid cause for their concerns about America’s long-term interests in the region. Since entering office, the Biden administration has pulled support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, removed the Iran-backed Houthis’ terrorist designation, and removed Patriot and THAAD air defense systems from the Kingdom. Because U.S. commitment to Saudi security has always been a linchpin in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, these moves damaged Riyadh’s trust in the U.S. and raised doubts about the value of friendship with Washington. To assuage Saudi leaders’ fears and repair the damage already done, candidates should consider instituting a new Strategic Defense Framework that upgrades our security partnership with the Kingdom, establishing a fusion capability focused on Houthi missile and drone attacks by providing intelligence and real-time warnings, and creating an integrated air and missile defense architecture in the region with Saudi Arabia playing a leading role.

Regardless of who sits in the White House in 2025, security crises both predictable and unpredictable will distract and disrupt even the best leaders and their staffs—particularly with the likelihood of continued Chinese and Russian belligerence and confrontation with the U.S. around the world. The Middle East need not be a region where the U.S. faces opposition to its security and economic goals. The U.S. administration should make improving ties with Saudi Arabia a major foreign policy priority.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: U.S. – Gulf Policy
Country: KSA

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Emily Milliken is the Senior Vice President & Lead Analyst at Askari Defense & Intelligence, LLC, an Arlington, Virginia-based program management and consulting company.


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