No one appeared to have grasped in the early days after Biden took his oath of office how dramatically the earth had shifted under the foundations of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Despite having been established by those two giants, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz al-Saud (ibn Saud) on the cruiser USS Quincy on Valentine’s Day, 1945, the romance has gone out of the relationship. Perhaps we should be more surprised that it took so long to realize that we had grown apart long ago but still clung to one another like an old couple. President Joe Biden is likely to significantly alter the US-Saudi relationship from the pattern established by his predecessor, Donald Trump. It is unclear how Saudi Arabia will respond to Biden’s agenda, but there are initial signs that the Kingdom will be receptive to the changes. Understanding the challenges that face Biden and his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, however, requires a brief history of the US-Saudi relationship.
At the Beginning, American Protection
King Abdulaziz went to meet FDR in search of protection, not alliance. As World War II drew to a conclusion, the Saud family kingdom, at that time less than thirty years old, had not yet consolidated its control over the Hejaz, the Asir and al-Hasa; each of these provinces maintained an independent culture and history that held the Bedouin of the Nejd in contempt and that still had not reconciled themselves to Saudi rule. By today’s standards, the newly formed Kingdom was a very poor and backward country whose only sources of income were the Hajj – the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which at that time had never exceeded 60,000 mostly very poor foreign visitors — and the recently-developed oil fields of ARAMCO, the Arabian American Oil Company, that paid only pennies on the dollar for each barrel of low-priced crude oil. King Abdulaziz ruled the Kingdom collectively through the Al-Saud family; his power rested primarily on his military and strategic prowess and pure force of personality.
Nor could King Abdulaziz rest easy as he looked at his neighborhood. Britain still ruled the small sheikhdoms on the coast of the Gulf and aggressively defended their territorial claims contested by the Kingdom. The hated Hashemites, whose father had ruled the Hejaz before Abdulaziz conquered it, ruled the soon-to-be-independent kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq in alliance with the British. Saudi Arabia needed American protection. FDR, although ailing, was President of the richest and most powerful country in the world, on the eve of the final defeat of the Axis Powers. He stopped off to see the Saudi monarch on his way home from the Yalta Conference where he, Stalin and Churchill had just agreed to carve up the world. It would appear that FDR had two agenda items for the meeting: ensuring that American oil companies would play the key role in building the Kingdom’s role as a key supplier of oil and persuading the Saudi King to support plans to establish the State of Israel in Palestine. Abdul Aziz had no apparent problem agreeing to the former, but he strongly objected to the latter proposal. The old Bedouin King argued that justice demanded that the Germans pay for the genocide by ceding a part of Bavaria to become the new Jewish state. FDR was not impressed but the meeting ended cordially.
Fast Forward to Today
The political landscape that President Roosevelt encountered in 1945 would be unrecognizable to President Biden today. The Saudi-American relationship has changed dramatically, becoming in many ways worse for the United States. America has become the petitioner illustrated vividly in 2015 when President Obama secured Riyadh’s grudging acquiescence for the Iranian nuclear deal by agreeing to give carte blanche support for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. President Trump took American deference to an unprecedented level by covering for Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s (MbS) participation in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, disowning his own intelligence services in the process. Trump, in fact, boasted that he had “saved” Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) because of the billions of dollars the Kingdom spent buying American weapons.
Saudi Arabia has evolved from poverty to becoming the world’s market maker in the crude oil trade. However, that wealth created a rentier economy, with hydrocarbons providing ninety percent of government revenues and almost half the national GDP. As a result, declining oil prices have created budget deficits for the first time since the 1950s and the Kingdom has repeatedly failed in its efforts to diversify out of the oil trap. Saudi soft power, fueled by a combination of evangelical Islamist doctrine exports and enormous amounts of money, has made it arguably the single most influential Arab and Muslim country on the globe. The Arab Spring saw a dramatic change in the Kingdom’s foreign policy, as it began to use hard power in pursuit of its national security objectives, albeit with mixed results. In the first instance, Saudi Arabia took the lead supporting rebel groups against the Assad dictatorship in Syria with dire consequences across the Levant. Next, ostensibly to prevent an Iranian takeover, Riyadh organized a coalition of GCC states to intervene in the Yemeni Civil War. That intervention demonstrated the poor quality of the Saudi armed forces, exposed the Kingdom to retaliatory air attacks, and turned an existing humanitarian crisis into the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster.
Many of these changes in Saudi foreign policy stem from the radical upending of Saudi domestic governance under Muhammad bin Salman. MbS is not the first Saudi heir to exercise executive powers from behind the throne; Prince Abdullah did the same during the final years of King Fahd’s reign. However, MbS is the first to fundamentally change the governing structure of the kingdom; the crown prince has effectively ended, through intimidation and occasional violence, the power of the senior members of the ruling family that once made collective policy while the King played the role of a powerful Chairman of the Board. Although MbS still depends on his father’s indulgence and protection to exercise power, he has effectively transformed the Kingdom into an absolute monarchy in preparation for his ascent to the throne. In the process, he has gained the enthusiastic loyalty of Saudi youth by ending the Kingdom’s archaic social restrictions and humiliating the rich and powerful. Without doubt, the Crown Prince has imposed revolutionary changes, giving young Saudi citizens vastly increased choice in how to live their own lives. However, it must be noted that these changes were imposed from the top down, rather than accepted from the grassroots; even as he implemented the reforms, MbS continued to jail the reformers.
MbS has also made serious efforts to diversify the Saudi economy, such as planning to publicly sell shares in ARAMCO and encouraging the private sector to take on government responsibilities. He recognizes that the very large number of unemployed young Saudis represents the single greatest challenge to stability and the future of Al Saud rule. However, the Crown Prince’s chances for success are still uncertain. The decline in oil prices limits his ability to finance sweeping economic reforms and attract foreign investment. Furthermore, the increased turbulence in the region, the increase in domestic repression, the War in Yemen, and the damage wreaked by the Khashoggi affair, have harmed the Kingdom’s reputation and influence.
Options and Challenges for Biden’s Saudi Policy
The United States, usually divided along partisan political lines, was unanimous in its outrage at the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. During his presidential campaign, Biden called MbS a “pariah” and promised to downgrade ties with Saudi Arabia, and end America’s support for its intervention in Yemen, if elected. However, as the first President since George H.W. Bush to have considerable experience in national security, Biden understands that American interests require Saudi Arabia’s stability and wellbeing. If Saudi Arabia fails to modernize its economic model, its economic and ultimately its political stability will face existential challenges. Biden’s team also must know that MbS has cowed but not crushed his fellow Al Saud princes and the Wahhabi clergy. If history is any guide, should MbS falter, the long knives will come out, with unpredictable consequences for Saudi internal order.
MbS knows that he has a problem with the new American administration. His sudden decisions to end the blockade of Qatar, release some of the better-known political prisoners in the Kingdom, and propose a ceasefire in Yemen, were the first indicators that he wants to mend fences with Washington. The new administration, however, does not appear to want to return to the old status quo. Biden wants to restore the power balance with Riyadh; MbS has already received the message that he can no longer dictate American policy in return for buying guns. MbS knows he has no other attractive security options; neither Moscow nor Beijing can provide (or, indeed, have any interest in providing) the security guarantees he needs against a variety of enemies, not just in Tehran. At the same time, Biden understands that the Saudi political structure is today a great deal more fragile than it has been for generations. The future of hydrocarbons appears slim, undermining the social bargain that made autocracy tolerable for many Saudis. MbS has undone the governing bargain set up by King Abdulaziz, trying to replace it with an absolute monarchy. In the process, he has created enemies within his own extended house and the Wahhabi clerical establishment.
President Biden faces the conundrum created by both his predecessors who repeatedly promised, without success, to “get out of the Middle East.” Neither predecessor properly addressed how to do that without causing a resurgence in instability. President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, whatever its justifications, certainly opened the door to chaos that was then exploited by both ISIS and Iran. Trump’s refusal to respond to the Iranian attack on Abqaiq that briefly shut down half of Aramco’s oil production shook the foundations of Saudi security. Initial Saudi elation at Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and his “maximum pressure” and other provocations (e.g., Soleimani’s assassination) withered as Riyadh realized that it could lead to an unplanned, disastrous war.
Biden’s challenges to his declared intention of restoring American participation in the JCPOA also complicates the relationship with Saudi Arabia. Both Iran and the US are now engaged in a “you go first” exchange on how to restore the 2015 status quo. A restored JCPOA is by no means certain, and certain outside powers (notably Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu) have mounted a campaign against it. However, the US has made it clear to Riyadh (and Abu Dhabi) that they do not have a role in this decision.
Biden has taken clever first steps at cutting MbS down to size without directly threatening his power. Presidential spokesman Jen Psaki enunciated it tellingly when asked why Biden had not spoken with MbS. “The president’s counterpart is King Salman,” adding that Biden and the king would speak at an “appropriate” time. We should expect that MbS will have meetings with Secretary Blinken or Vice President Harris, but not with Biden. The president also ordered the release of a summary of the CIA report that concluded that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul could not have taken place without the Saudi Crown prince’s prior knowledge and approval, if not explicit orders. Biden then ignored bipartisan outrage that he had not taken any action against MbS directly. In fact, given the complexity of MbS and Al Saud family finances, it may in fact be difficult to target MbS without causing significant economic damage to the Saudi state and antagonizing potential partners elsewhere in Riyadh. Nor does Biden want to openly force MbS out, and risk an internal fight for power in the family. However, Biden has left open the door to others to do more. When that occurs MbS, whether he ultimately becomes king or not, may find himself in the petitioner role.
Biden has also taken steps to pressure Saudi Arabia to abandon its intervention in Yemen. He has stopped the supply of “offensive” weapons, primarily precision guided air-to-ground munitions, while insisting that the US is still committed to helping Saudi Arabia defend itself. While a good first step, this action will have little immediate effect. The Royal Saudi Air Force still has an inventory, albeit one that it is expending rapidly. Should it run out, it can rely on similar weapons from the UK. If that stops, the RSAF has huge quantities of “dumb” bombs, which, given their inaccuracy, will only increase innocent casualties. The Saudis also have the wherewithal to continue battlefield support for their ally in Yemen, the UN-recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, with or without American equipment. Furthermore, extracting the Saudis requires the cooperation of many other parties, not least the Houthis or Ansar Allah, who have not only often defeated the Saudi-led coalition on the battlefield but have launched numerous drone and missile attacks as well as cross border raids into the Kingdom proper. Withdrawing from Yemen without credible guarantees that the Houthi attacks will stop is a non-starter for Riyadh. The US special representative for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, has already spoken with Houthi representatives in Oman as well as the other GCC stakeholders: Oman, the UAE and Qatar. It appears that the Houthis have calculated that a Saudi withdrawal would lead to the collapse of the Hadi government and total victory, and see no reason to stop fighting. Even the withdrawal of Tehran, which has long backed the Houthis, is not certain to stop their offensive.
This introduces a larger dimension to the conflict. Iran, which has supplied the Houthis with weapons for years, despite a Saudi/UAE naval blockade (supported by the US Navy) has no incentive to stop what is in effect a very low-cost operation other than using it as a bargaining chip with the Americans over the JCPOA. Tehran’s participation might give MbS an opportunity to earn some goodwill with the Biden administration. If he supports the American game plan to return to the JCPOA and cooperates with the US in Yemen, he can then reasonably claim to have played a role in restoring the JCPOA and undercutting Iran’s regional policy.
The US administration faces enormous challenges in dealing with Saudi Arabia. It needs to restore the hierarchical balance between the two countries, bring the war in Yemen to an end, while ensuring the continued long-term stability of the Kingdom. This requires Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to adjust to the Americans. From his actions so far, it seems as though MbS has gotten Biden’s message. Hopefully, this will give Biden more flexibility in dealing with Tehran.
Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.