Why US-Saudi ties are strained but not broken
On 5 October, the Saudi- and Russian-led OPEC Plus cartel announced an oil production cut of two million barrels a day following a fall in oil prices from $120 to $80 since early June.
Widespread outrage in Washington has resulted, with US officials seeing the move’s timing as particularly damaging.
With America’s mid-term elections coming up next month, the war in Ukraine raging on, and the global economy facing major challenges, the Biden administration worries greatly about the ramifications of the cartel’s production cut.
Mindful of the White House’s sustained efforts to convince the Saudis and other oil-wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to boost production, US policymakers believe that Riyadh is defying Washington while pleasing the Kremlin.
From the Saudi perspective, reducing oil production makes financial sense. There is no denying that this cut serves the Kingdom’s economic interests, at least throughout the short-term future. Officials in Riyadh are adamant that OPEC Plus’ latest decision was not based on political factors or any Saudi agenda of supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine.
"Mindful of sustained efforts to convince the Saudis and other oil-wealthy GCC states to boost production, US policymakers believe that Riyadh is defying Washington while pleasing the Kremlin"
Instead, the line from Riyadh is that this cut will be good for the international economy. “Our track record has been clear—we have always worked assiduously to maintain stability in the oil markets,” said Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir in a CNN interview. “Saudi Arabia does not politicise oil. We don’t see oil as a weapon. We see oil as our commodity. Our objective is to bring stability to the oil market.”
Nonetheless, the US perceives the Kingdom as excessively aligned with Moscow while the war in Ukraine is Washington’s central foreign policy. As Washington sees it, it is unacceptable that Saudi Arabia is working to strengthen Moscow’s position by increasing the Russian government’s revenues and helping the country better withstand Western sanctions. All of this will help sustain the Russian war machine.
A perspective held by many in the US is that Biden’s controversial trip to Jeddah in July was simply not worth it. Trying to bring the Kingdom into closer alignment with Washington against President Vladimir Putin and increasing oil production were at least two of Biden’s motivations for visiting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) on a trip which did much to help the de facto Saudi ruler accelerate his post-Khashoggi rehabilitation among Western statesmen.
Some voices in Washington think MbS ran circles around Biden and humiliated the US.
Saudi Arabia's Ukraine foreign policy
In truth, Riyadh is not fully aligning with Russia against Ukraine and its NATO backers, despite Washington perceiving this to be the reality.
At the UN General Assembly, the Saudis voted in favour of US-drafted resolutions condemning the Russian invasion, occupation, and annexation of parts of Ukraine. On 14 October, MbS told President Volodymyr Zelensky that the Kingdom would provide Ukraine with $400 million in non-lethal aid - a move that was likely aimed at countering narratives in Washington about Riyadh supporting Moscow in the Ukrainian conflict while presenting the Kingdom as a balanced actor vis-à-vis the war.
Riyadh also used its relative neutrality in ways that have advanced American interests. For example, last month the Saudis and Turks played a pivotal role in facilitating a prisoner swap between Moscow and Kyiv that resulted in two US citizens who had fought on the Ukrainian side being freed from detention in Russia after their capture on the battlefield. Had the Saudis firmly aligned with the West against Kremlin since 24 February, it’s doubtful that Riyadh could have pulled that off.
But as accelerated East-West bifurcation increasingly defines the international geopolitical landscape, Saudi Arabia’s relative neutrality vis-à-vis Ukraine has not won the Kingdom favorability in Washington. Within this context, it is doubtful that the $400 million in assistance from Saudi Arabia to Ukraine will do much to change minds in Washington about Riyadh-Moscow relations.
“I believe that while Saudi Arabia has tried to undercut criticisms that it has cosied up to Russia through the announcement of non-lethal aid, its role in cutting two million barrels per day with OPEC Plus makes it clear that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is willing to make concessions to Russia in the name of market stabilisation,” Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Power Vacuums programme at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, said in an interview with The New Arab.
“The announced USD 400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine is just a 'Band-Aid' designed to cover this OPEC Plus decision.”
At this juncture, with some US lawmakers calling for action that would make the Kingdom pay a price for reducing oil production, such as ending most of the military support that Washington provides Riyadh, as well as Biden himself saying that the Saudis will face “consequences,” it is worth asking where this decades-old partnership between the two countries currently stands.
"Notwithstanding the tensions between DC and Riyadh currently, I do not see the strategic relationship between the two diverging in the long run, as there is more that ties them than just oil"
Interests, not values, are the glue in US-Saudi relations
Despite the many sources of friction between Washington and Riyadh, there is good reason to doubt that this rift over OPEC Plus will result in the partnership crumbling. Although the US and Saudi Arabia’s relationship has never been based on shared values, there are many mutual interests which have kept the two countries close since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.
When it comes to counterterrorism, pushing back against the Islamic Republic of Iran, trade, and many other areas of cooperation, the US and Saudi Arabia will likely conclude that they have too much to walk away from when it comes to their bilateral relationship. Looking ahead, these mutual interests will not vanish, notwithstanding issues pertaining to oil production and the Kingdom’s strengthening relationship with Russia.
“The fundamental basis of the US-Saudi relationship remains unchanged. Saudi Arabia needs the United States for security, a role that neither China nor Russia can supplant,” Gordon Gray, the former US ambassador to Tunisia, told TNA.
“Riyadh has certainly noticed the dismal performance of the Russian military in Ukraine as well as burgeoning Iranian-Russian military cooperation. At the same time, the United States relies on responsible Saudi oil production policy to keep the global price of oil from climbing even higher.”
Other experts have similar assessments of US-Saudi relations at this juncture. “Notwithstanding the tensions between DC and Riyadh currently, I do not see the strategic relationship between the two diverging in the long run, as there is more that ties them than just oil,” Dr Aziz Alghashian, a fellow with the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation project, and an expert on Saudi foreign policy, explained in an interview with TNA.
“The American-Saudi strategic relationship is not just based on oil, and it will be too reductionist to claim so.”
A less friendly partnership
Nonetheless, we are witnessing some gestures of frustration by the White House. For example, on 16 October, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN that Biden has “no plans” to meet MbS at next month’s G20 summit in Indonesia.
That statement came six days after the US State Department announced Assistant Secretary Barbara A. Leaf’s plans to visit three GCC states and Egypt this month “to reaffirm U.S. commitment to promoting security, economic prosperity, and strong ties with our partners” while Saudi Arabia was notably absent from her itinerary.
Dr Alghashian said that if the Biden administration continues with similar gestures down the line, such actions “can hinder strategic relations, but only so long as Biden is in the White House”.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration is expected to announce the release of 15 million barrels of oil from America’s strategic reserve, which is the White House’s direct response to OPEC Plus’s latest production cuts. For Biden and the Democrats, this is an important move ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, yet Saudi Arabia and other OPEC Plus members are likely to respond very negatively.
"US hegemony is steadily declining and GCC states are far more autonomous from Washington than they were at previous points in history"
Regardless of how tensions between the US and Saudi play out, OPEC Plus’s latest decision will have negative consequences for Saudi Arabia’s image in Washington. As a result of OPEC Plus cutting oil production, “we can expect more anti-Saudi sentiments emanating from the American capital,” Dr Alghashian told TNA.
The US-Saudi relationship is set to become less friendly, especially with Biden in the Oval Office, following the years-long fraying of this partnership. Yet, friction stemming from OPEC’s recently announced oil production reduction is “a symptom rather than a cause” of heightened friction between Washington and Riyadh, according to Gray.
“The bilateral relationship has deteriorated for two primary reasons. One is the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The other is [MbS’] over-the-top embrace of Donald Trump, which turned bipartisan support for a strong bilateral relationship into a partisan issue.”
Although not to be dismissive of how serious the tensions are in US-Saudi relations, it is important to see the friction over OPEC Plus’ oil production cut in a wider context.
Washington and Riyadh’s partnership has experienced many challenges over the decades such as the 1973 oil embargo, the fallout from the 11 September 2001 attacks, the Obama administration’s selective support for some Arab Spring uprisings and negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, along with the Khashoggi murder in 2018.
The lasting impacts of all those events have all contributed to problems in bilateral affairs which have, to varying degrees, served to erode trust between the two countries. Ongoing friction between the US and Saudi Arabia over OPEC Plus and Riyadh’s partnership with Moscow against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine will be difficult to address.
Mending fences between Washington and the Kingdom will be a challenging process that will probably not advance too far (if at all) with Biden in the White House.
A fact is that US hegemony is steadily declining and GCC states are far more autonomous from Washington than they were at previous points in history. With Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies acting more independently, they are set to make more decisions on international files that do not please the US.
But talk of the US-Saudi partnership being on the verge of collapse is overblown.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero