Rough times in US-Saudi relations

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 18 Oct 2022

An anti-Saudi campaign has begun in the US in the wake of the OPEC plus decision to cut oil production, showing Washington’s apparently limited understanding of wider changes in the region.


The last ten days have seen tensions grow in the “strategic” and “historic” relations between Saudi Arabia and the US, or, to be more precise, between Riyadh and the administration of Democratic Party President Joe Biden and Democratic members of the US Congress.

The Biden administration, the Congress, and the media have reacted strongly against the decision of the OPEC plus group of oil-producing countries to cut oil production by two million barrels of oil a day effective next November. 

The Saudi authorities insist that the decision is based solely on economic considerations linked to the realities of the international energy markets as well as budgetary considerations. Saudi Minister of State Adel Al-Jubair told the US network Fox News that his country, in opting for such a cut in oil production, was not in any way politicising or weaponising oil.

The OPEC plus decision seems to have caught the White House and the Democrats by surprise. Judging from their harsh, and, some would say, panicky response, it was not a pleasant surprise either. Some went as far as to question the foundations of the strategic nature of US-Saudi relations since the summit meeting between US president Franklin Roosevelt and king Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud, founder of modern Saudi Arabia, on the USS Quincy in 1945.

For the last eight decades, bilateral relations between Riyadh and Washington have rested on common strategic interests, among them fighting the spread of Communism in the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s at the height of the Cold War. The Saudi role in bankrolling the fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1988 is also well-documented. The two countries have cooperated in containing and confronting Iranian overreach in the Middle East and the Gulf.

When the decision by the OPEC plus group was announced, an anti-Saudi campaign went into high gear in the US, one that says a lot about the lack of understanding in Washington that times are changing in the world and in the US itself. If US-Saudi relations over the last 80 years have developed in the context of the equation of the free flow of cheap Saudi and Gulf oil against US protection of Saudi Arabia and Gulf security and the political stability of the Gulf regimes, this equation has to be revisited in a post-oil world. 

We are not there yet, but looking ahead to the next half century the world’s dependence on oil is most likely to decrease, with correspondingly important strategic implications for the overall relations of the US with the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia. Add to that the changing of the guard in Riyadh and other capitals in the Gulf, and it is clear that things are not what they were.

The first salvo in this little-studied campaign came from Biden himself when he told the US network CNN’s Jake Tapper last week that the time has come for the US to “rethink” its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

John Kirby, spokesman of the US National Security Council, said last Thursday that the US is “re-evaluating [its] relationship with Saudi Arabia in the light of these actions.” He was referring to the decision to cut oil production. He added that the president “would consult with Congress on… tools and authorities to reduce OPEC’s control over energy prices.” 

This statement was seen as a veiled threat by the US administration to support what is known as the “NOPEC” bill in Congress that is intended, as the thinking in Washington goes, to end the influence of the OPEC cartel.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Rob Menendez (New Jersey – Democrat) called for an immediate freeze in US-Saudi relations that would include ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, save for those destined to provide support to the US military based in the country. 

In the same vein, three lawmakers from the Democratic Party introduced a bill last week to “end US protection to Gulf partners” by withdrawing US troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But in order to show how hasty the US reactions have been, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a research body, said in its annual report for 2021 that US arms sales to Saudi Arabia represent 24 per cent of total arms sales by the US worldwide.

It is difficult to see how any US administration could halt such highly lucrative arms deals.

Kirby accused Saudi Arabia of siding with Russia in Ukraine when he framed the Saudi support for the oil cut production by asking “do they want to stay on the side of Russia?” Note the words “to stay” here, which connote, from the US administration’s point of view, that Riyadh supported the Russian position in Ukraine after the outbreak of hostilities last February, something that the Saudi government has denied.

The Final Declaration of the Jeddah Summit between the six member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plus Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq and with Biden in attendance last July made it clear where Riyadh and the other participating countries stand in the war in Ukraine.

The more clear-eyed the Democrats in Washington are on the nature of the changes operating in the Middle East and the world, the more realistic and rational will be their reactions to regional and international developments.

They would also be more likely to pause before shooting themselves in the foot by seriously endangering the US-Saudi relations that have served US strategic interests in our part of the world quite well. If the US chooses to withdraw from the Middle East, other world powers will surely step in to take its place.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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