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Trouble in the Kingdom: A Rupture in U.S.-Saudi Relations?

How times have changed in the U.S.-Saudi relationship since 2017. That year, U.S. President Donald Trump met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. The three leaders placed their palms on that brilliant, glowing orb in Riyadh’s Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology. Since then, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has dimmed significantly.

A Struggling Relationship

The remarkable scene in Riyadh symbolized the high-water mark of U.S.-Saudi relations in the 21st century. President Trump’s trip to Riyadh—his first foreign visit as Commander-in-Chief—spurned fellow democracies and allied countries such as the United Kingdom or Canada, which American presidents traditionally visit first in their tenures. The Saudis lionized Trump. He participated in a traditional sword dance with King Salman and was greeted with enormous billboards advertising the bilateral relationship between the two countries. He addressed the heads of Islamic states convened by the Kingdom, delivering a full-throated call for cooperation against violent extremism. Along the way, Trump announced commercial deals worth $300 billion as well as arms sales amounting to $110 billion, by his accounting.

Today, however, the relationship has come under serious strain. The gruesome murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the U.S. Director of National Intelligence laid squarely at the feet of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, cast a dark pall over the young Prince’s ability to govern, and threw the Kingdom’s outrageous human rights abuses into sharp relief. The disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen provoked bipartisan legislation in Congress to end arms sales to the Kingdom, which Trump eventually vetoed. Meanwhile, presidential candidate Joe Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” if elected president, setting a negative tone that would prove hard to overcome in office. Indeed, as president, Biden ended American support for Saudi involvement in Yemen, permitted the release of the intelligence report blaming MBS for ordering the Khashoggi murder, and authorized the State Department to impose visa prohibitions on 76 Saudi individuals alleged to be complicit under a new “Khashoggi Ban.”  The Ukraine crisis has only exposed, and indeed worsened, the fractures in the bilateral relationship.

Ukraine Crisis Complicates the Relationship

At the onset of the Russian invasion, President Biden tried to place calls with both UAE Shaikh Mohammad bin Zayed (MBZ) and MBS.  Both reportedly stiffed the American leader, preferring to take calls from Vladimir Putin instead. These interactions (partly denied by the White House) typify the inauspicious trajectory of U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Emirati relations. Despite U.S. pressure, Saudi Arabia refused to go along with an American request for increased oil exports, instead choosing to hew to a common understanding with Russia on petroleum exports. This should not have come as a surprise, but it did reveal fundamental differences between Saudi Arabia and the United States regarding basic matters of foreign affairs and energy supply. As longtime Saudi observer David Ottaway put it, “Saudi Arabia has shown less and less interest in cooperating with the United States on oil matters as it has become a rival oil exporter to the Saudi kingdom.”

In addition, the Saudis have publicly contemplated accepting payment for oil exports in the Chinese yuan—a direct challenge to the role of the U.S. dollar as both the key medium of exchange in energy markets and a global reserve currency. In other words, adopting the Chinese yuan as an alternative to the dollar directly challenges American global leadership. The yuan has some distance to go before it will be in a position to challenge the American dollar as the premier reserve currency, and concerns about Chinese currency manipulation, among other issues,  may make the yuan less than ideal as a major store of value from the Saudi perspective. But as a diplomatic signal to the United States, it couldn’t be more clear.

Looking Elsewhere

The most recent downturn follows a series of setbacks in the bilateral relationship over the past two decades. In 2003, the Saudi leadership was taken aback by George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and for years excoriated American officials for the instability it unleashed. The Obama Administration launched its so-called  “pivot to Asia,” which the Saudi leadership saw as a sign of Washington’s desire to extricate itself from the Middle East, abandoning Riyadh in the process. Likewise, Saudi Arabia and some of its Gulf allies opposed President Obama’s efforts to change the dynamic of the U.S. relationship with Iran over its nuclear program that resulted in the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). President Obama’s failure to enforce his own red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria was, to Riyadh, a further blow to Saudi confidence in American leadership. In all, the Kingdom feels vulnerable to perceived U.S. disinterest and bad policy, and has diversified its international relationships accordingly.

This was made clear quite recently in MBS’s interview with The Atlantic, in which he expressed a certain nonchalance for a close relationship with the U.S. and an openness to broader ties with China. Asked about the U.S. administration’s view of him, he said “Simply, I do not care…It’s up to [Biden] to think about the interests of America…Go for it…I believe other people in the East are going to be super happy.”  A Saudi arms deal with Russia last year was one indicator among many that the Kingdom intends to show Washington it has alternatives.

Despite these inauspicious developments, certain facts continue to influence the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The first is that the U.S.-Saudi defense relationship is inextricable, for now; the Kingdom depends on American weapons and security guarantees to go about its business. Riyadh remains tightly integrated into the U.S. military supply chain—a dependency that cannot be easily broken, even if Saudi Arabia purchases flashy Russian weapons systems from time to time. China has no interest or inclination at the moment to replace the U.S. as the region’s principal security guarantor, nor has it expressed a willingness to police the Persian Gulf.

Second, the United States, whatever its aversion to Saudi human rights practices and its international double-dealing, is committed to the defense of the country, for reasons of American self-interest and geopolitical calculations. These geopolitical interests do not disappear overnight and will continue to guide U.S. engagement with the Kingdom.

Both the United States and Saudi Arabia seem to be sick of each other. So, where does the relationship go from here? Much depends, at the moment, on which side the Saudis choose to back in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Continued Saudi cooperation with Russia will severely complicate American arms sales to Riyadh and worsen congressional hostility toward the Kingdom. Boosting its contribution to the global oil supply would signal the good faith of the Saudi leadership. Siding with the West and supporting Ukraine would also be well-received by the U.S. government. The Kingdom currently exists in a liminal space in terms of relations with the United States, and it now needs to choose which path it will pursue. The pressure to divest from the United States may be strong (and satisfy MBS’ hurt feelings), but geopolitical realities continue to bind the two countries together.

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

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Charles W. Dunne is an Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington D.C., and a scholar with the Middle East Institute, also in Washington. Prior to that, he was Freedom House’s Director of the Middle East and North Africa programs, in which he focused on human rights and democracy promotion in the region. Before joining Freedom House, he spent 24 years as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service, with overseas tours in Cairo, Jerusalem, and Madras (Chennai), India. He was Foreign Policy Adviser to the Director for Strategic Plans and Policy at the Joint Staff in the Pentagon (2007-2008), and Director for Iraq at the National Security Council from 2005-2007. He served as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, where he contributed to the development of presidential initiatives to advance political reform and democracy in the Broader Middle East and North Africa. He is a member of the Democracy and Human Rights Working Group of the McCain Institute for International Leadership.

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