A Look to US-Saudi Relations in 2023: Irritants, Constraints and Opportunities

For many decades, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been loosely defined by the premise of oil for security. This premise arose out of a growing alignment of interests following the announcement of British withdrawal “East of Suez” in 1968, the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This mantra has been put to the test on numerous occasions, including during the 1973 oil crisis, as the US became a net energy exporter[i]; in 2019, when the US failed to directly intervene in response to Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais; and today, due to OPEC+ cutting production throughout the war in Ukraine. Whilst disagreements over Israel have endured for many years, and 9/11 impacted US views of the Kingdom, many other tensions—sparked by US intervention in the region—have accumulated throughout the 2000s.

For example, Saudi Arabia opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq which has been highly destabilising to Saudi and regional security. The Obama administration supported the removal of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt during the Arab uprisings, which undermined a long-standing ally of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. According to Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Adviser to President Barack Obama, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), then the de-facto Saudi ruler, merely tolerated the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran in the lead up to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, but thought that the administration should be “waited out.”[ii]

Progress has been slow to non-existent.

Saudi Arabia also failed to elicit a more robust US response to the conflict in Syria, a theatre in which Iran has been able to extend its influence and cooperation with Hezbollah. In the wake of the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Joe Biden, as a presidential candidate in 2019, labelled Saudi Arabia a “pariah.”[iii] The Biden administration, however, has found it difficult to maintain an ideological stance and will likely be forced to adopt a more Realpolitik approach in light of the need to counter adversaries such as Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine. Biden’s visit to the Kingdom in 2022 was intended to help end the war in Yemen, deal with the Iran nuclear issue and seek the help of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to lower oil prices.[iv] Progress has been slow to non-existent.

For its part, Saudi Arabia has tried to amend its relations with the US. Riyadh ended the blockade against Qatar as a “gift”[v] to the incoming Biden administration and took a more positive stance towards diplomacy with Iran, perhaps as a hedge. There was, however, little immediate progress, including on air defence. This was a result of the Biden administration’s concerns about human rights issues, the war in Yemen and having other policy priorities to contend with, such as Covid-19. After Saudi Arabia and Russia signed an undisclosed joint military cooperation agreement in August 2021, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin cancelled his visit to the Kingdom the following month.[vi] Instead, MBS welcomed Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the Committee on International Affairs of the Russian State Duma, to NEOM, the futuristic Saudi city which is currently under construction.[vii] When asked in March 2022 whether President Biden misunderstands him, Mohammed bin Salman replied “Simply, I do not care,” adding that it was up to Biden “to think about the interests of America.”[viii]

Saudi decision-making may become more amenable to working more closely with the US in 2023 as it seeks to bolster its security.

Whereas Saudi Arabia and China have both experienced strained ties with Washington over their support for the war in Ukraine and human rights issues, Saudi-Chinese ties have gone from strength to strength. This was most recently illustrated by plans for the Kingdom to host a China-Arab summit during Xi Jinping’s visit on 9 December.[1] The Saudis’ “Look East” policy reflects the Kingdom’s interests in the context of changing international energy markets, new defence priorities (including building indigenous capabilities) and new forms of economic cooperation facilitated by Saudi Vision 2030. These developments, as well as the emergence of a more multipolar world order in which there are greater opportunities for balancing or non-alignment, have translated into this more nonchalant Saudi attitude towards the US. This attitude was also epitomised by MBS’s refusal to take phone calls with President Biden at the onset of the war in Ukraine in March 2022. Knowing that Biden would request an increase in oil production to lower international prices, MBS put Saudi Arabia’s national interests above those of the United States.[ix]

The subsequent OPEC+ decision to cut production in October 2022 was the largest since 2020. The move has been interpreted by the Biden administration as a geopolitical decision by the Kingdom to side with the Kremlin and, by extension, assist President Vladimir Putin in offsetting Western sanctions during Russia’s war in Ukraine–coming so soon after President Biden’s visit to the Kingdom in July 2022, where he fist-bumped MBS in an attempt to reset relations. The move was particularly contentious; even more so as the decision fell within the U.S. midterm election cycle. This gives rise to the possibility that MBS is intent on supporting the GOP and waiting out the Biden administration with the hope that Donald Trump, who gave the Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates great sway through his emphasis on transactional policies, might return to the White House.

President Biden said there would be “consequences” for Saudi Arabia over its OPEC+ decision,[x] and Democratic lawmakers, who have often zeroed in on Saudi human rights abuses, have called for a freeze on US cooperation with the Saudis. This could include suspending recent advances in military cooperation, such as the Red Sands Integrated Experimentation Center in Saudi Arabia, established by US Central Command (CENTCOM) where air and missile defence capabilities are to be tested and integrated. Democrats are also calling for the transfer of Patriot missiles to be suspended.[xi]

Consequently, the Saudi-US relationship is full of divisive issues, but a significant response to major fractures, such as the murder of Khashoggi and OPEC+ policy, looks unlikely. MBS was appointed Prime Minister in September 2022, prompting the White House to recommend to a U.S. judge that he be granted immunity as a head of government in a lawsuit over the murder of Khashoggi.[xii] The Kingdom remains a vital US energy partner, and sustaining existing economic and security cooperation could at least provide a hinge and confidence-building measure for closer energy coordination and a broader alignment of interests in future. As custodian of the two holy mosques and with the fastest growing economy in the G20, Saudi Arabia is also vital to US regional and international interests, especially vis-à-vis the Abraham Accords with Israel. Despite the return of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power in Israel, and his contentious policies concerning the annexation of Palestinian territory, there is potential that Saudi recognition of Israel could produce tangible progress towards a two-state solution as a step within the Arab Peace Initiative.

A reinvigorated relationship will be crafted by politics over polls.

The US recognises that Saudi decision-making reflects the rapid transition taking place in securing a post-oil future and the need for large-scale financing. However, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which was passed on 28 September 2016 and allows lawsuits against Saudi Arabia over the 11 September attacks, continues to undermine economic relations and adds another level of friction. As Saudi Arabia develops relations with China and other Asian states and aims to maintain its international stature based on oil whilst constructing a new position in renewable energy markets,[xiii] its position in US policy circles and in military planning will no doubt be maintained.

With the expected and imminent failure of the JCPOA, the continued supply of Iranian drones to proxies and to Russia, and the potential for another escalation of tensions in the Gulf, Saudi decision-making may become more amenable to working more closely with the US in 2023 as it seeks to bolster its security through its leading military supplier and ally. However, it needs to balance the severity of threat with a U.S. military response that has been inconsistent at times and the paradox that U.S. military commitments are perceived as a threat by Iran, creating a security dilemma for the Kingdom. With 50% of Americans believing that Saudi Arabia is a necessary partner,[xiv] and 92% of young Saudis viewing the US as an ally,[xv] there is evidence to suggest that some social forces affecting the bilateral relationship are also open to change. In sum, a reinvigorated relationship will be crafted by politics over polls, and given the constraints imposed by the current strategic environment, we may have to look beyond 2023 and into the next U.S. presidential cycle to find a greater convergence of interests.

[i] Emily Burlinghaus and Jennifer T. Gordon, “Trade is the Key to US Energy Security, which Trumps US Energy Independence”, Atlantic Council, 13 November 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/energysource/trade-is-the-key-to-us-energy-security-which-trumps-us-energy-independence/
[ii] Ben Rhodes, “A Fatal Abandonment of American Leadership”, The Atlantic, 12 October 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/jamal-khashoggi-and-us-saudi-relationship/572905/
[iii] Jonathan Guyer, “Biden Promised a Harder Line on Saudi Arabia. Why Can’t He Deliver?”, Vox, 23 January 2022, https://www.vox.com/22881937/biden-saudi-arabia-mbs-khashoggi-yemen-human-rights
[iv] Joe Biden, “Why I’m Going to Saudi Arabia”, The Washington Post, 9 July 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/09/joe-biden-saudi-arabia-israel-visit/
[v] The New Arab, “Saudi Arabia to End Qatar Blockade as ‘Gift’ to Joe Biden: Report”, 28 November 2020, https://www.newarab.com/news/riyadh-end-qatar-blockade-gift-biden
[vi] Robert Mason, “Saudi—Russian Military Cooperation: Signaling or Strategy?”, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, 3 September 2021, https://agsiw.org/saudi-russian-military-cooperation-signaling-or-strategy/
[vii] Arab News, “Saudi Crown Prince Receives Russian Parliamentarian”, 10 September 2021, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1926106/saudi-arabia
[viii] Maher Chmaytelli, “Saudi Crown Prince Says he Does not Care if Biden Misunderstands Him—The Atlantic”, Reuters, 3 March 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/saudi-crown-prince-says-do-not-care-if-biden-misunderstands-him-atlantic-2022-03-03/
[ix] Aziz El Yaakoubi and Julie Zhu, “Saudi Arabia to host China-Arab Summit during Xi visit, sources say”, Reuters, 30 November 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/saudi-arabia-host-china-arab-summit-during-xi-visit-sources-say-2022-11-30/
[x] Ammer Madhani, “Biden Vows ‘Consequences’ for Saudis After OPEC+ Cuts Output”, AP News, 12 October 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-biden-business-saudi-arabia-middle-east-ea75287315c4e8a78014a4eccb114abe
[xi] Stephanie Kirchgaessner, “Democrats Suggest Shifting Weapons from Saudi Arabia to Ukraine”, The Guardian, 14 October 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/oct/14/democrats-us-weapons-systems-saudi-arabia-ukraine
[xii] Ken Klippenstein, “The Biden Administration Says Legal Immunity for Saudi Crown Prince was Unavoidable. Privately, they weren’t so sure”, The Intercept, 1 December 2022, https://theintercept.com/2022/12/01/saudi-prince-mbs-immunity/
[xiii] Hiroko Tabuchi, “Inside the Saudi Strategy to Keep the World Hooked on Oil”, The New York Times, 21 November 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/21/climate/saudi-arabia-aramco-oil-solar-climate.html
[xiv] Emily Sullivan, “US Public Views Saudi Relationship as One of Necessity”, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 5 May 2022, https://globalaffairs.org/commentary-and-analysis/blogs/us-public-views-saudi-relationship-one-necessity
[xv] Khaleej Times, “Over 90% of Saudi Youth View US as an Ally: Survey”, 15 July 2022, available at https://www.zawya.com/en/economy/gcc/over-90-of-saudi-youth-view-us-as-an-ally-survey-d8fq5hjf

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