For now, the administration won’t directly sanction the crown prince. And Biden’s reluctance to do so is, in part, grounded in the antiquated notion that Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States. But at best, Saudi Arabia is a partner whose interests often run counter to Washington’s and whose values rarely coincide with those of the United States at all. Far from advancing U.S. priorities in the Middle East, the Saudis have often complicated them, especially in recent years.
The two countries continue to cooperate on important counterterrorism efforts and support for the normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab nations. For decades, the U.S. has agreed to sell Saudi Arabia various advanced military technologies. American firms have had longstanding ties to the Saudi oil industry. But the U.S.-Saudi relationship has grown increasingly uncertain and strained, especially in the wake of 9/11, Yemen’s civil war and Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations.
And the glue that cemented the U.S.-Saudi relationship for decades is cracked. The U.S. no longer needs Saudi Arabian oil; and despite billions in arms sales, Saudi Arabia no longer trusts the United States to guarantee its security. Even so, Blinken says, “We have significant ongoing interests. We remain committed to the defense of the Kingdom.” But any arguments that Saudi Arabia is too valuable to U.S. strategic interests to risk criticizing, or that Washington should not pressure an important American partner, don’t hold up under close scrutiny.
In the first week of this year, the U.S. imported no Saudi crude oil for the first time in 35 years. Those who argue that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is too big to fail point out that there is still a global oil market, the rest of the world depends on Saudi oil imports, and therefore a significant disruption of Saudi oil exports — as a result, say, of major instability in the kingdom or a sustained Persian Gulf conflict — would drive up oil prices, potentially triggering economic hardship, even recession. There is some validity to this argument, but the oil picture has substantially changed in recent decades.
Saudi Arabia depends on oil exports to fuel its economy and keep a lid on domestic economic and social discontent. Riyadh has incentives to maintain oil price stability irrespective of American preferences. Saudi — not American — interests more often than not drive Riyadh’s decisions on oil production and pricing. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and the United States are now more competitive with one another in the global oil market as the U.S. is experiencing an oil production boom. In 2014, the Saudis flooded the oil market to prevent U.S. shale oil from grabbing a bigger market share. In 2020, to end a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia that threatened to have a disastrous impact on the U.S. oil industry, President Donald Trump intervened and brokered a compromise.
While Saudi Arabia is the number two energy producer in the world (behind the U.S.) and remains the world’s top oil exporter, the U.S. has joined it as a “swing producer,” capable of offsetting extreme swings in the price of oil (though not as rapidly as the Saudis can). Moreover, there is an ample supply of oil in the strategic petroleum reserves around the world that could be used to cushion oil price shocks. Simply put, an interruption in the flow of Saudi oil would not have the same impact on oil prices that it had in the past. This proved to be the case, for example, in September 2019 when an Iranian-backed attack on critical Saudi oil facilities reduced the global daily oil production by 5 percent and, after a brief price spike, the global oil market was not significantly affected.
The Trump administration saw Saudi Arabia as the leader of a coalition of mostly Sunni Arab states to combat Iran’s regional influence. But Saudi Arabia’s actions in recent years strengthened, rather than diminished Iran’s influence: The Saudi-led boycott of Qatar had the counterproductive effect of strengthening Qatari relations with Iran. The Saudi military campaign in Yemen — carried out, until the Biden administration’s recent policy change, with support from the Trump and Obama administrations — has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe and furthered opportunities for the expansion of Iranian influence, via its support of Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The Saudis have talked a good game about countering Iran’s malign regional influence, but they have done relatively little to counter Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
The Saudis have provided valuable intelligence on al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations and are credited with warning the United States of several attacks. But it’s not clear how the Saudi military and security apparatus supports the U.S. approach toward containing Iran. Indeed, should the Saudis and Iran find a way to lower tensions or negotiate some sort of modus vivendi, it would lessen the burden on the U.S. military and further American interests in the Gulf, not undermine them.
And the deficit of shared values between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia undercuts any notion of a genuine alliance. Trump took a pass on defending human rights in the kingdom. On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to make the Saudi leadership “the pariah that they are.” But by declining, so far, to sanction the crown prince, the president has put American credibility on the line. The crown prince has touted social and economic reforms in the kingdom, but they have been accompanied by brutal repression. Saudi Arabia has been relentless in its campaign to intimidate and harm Saudi dissidents living abroad.
The U.S. still has a stake in Saudi Arabia’s stability. And much of the world relies on Saudi oil. But under the Trump administration, the U.S.-Saudi relationship became unbalanced. It needs to be brought into balance and reformed, not ruptured. The Biden administration can do more to seek actual changes in Saudi policies and activity, including demanding that the Saudis begin to release political prisoners and women’s rights and civil society activists. It should insist that the crown prince desists from persecuting dissidents abroad. And maximum pressure should be put on Riyadh (and the Houthis) to end the violence in Yemen. The Biden administration can make clear that if Saudi policies — and the crown prince’s behavior do not change — it will consider additional steps, including harsher sanctions, including sanctions directly against him.
The president has more leverage with Saudi Arabia than he may realize. Whether he ultimately uses it or not, he should recognize that as a partner, the kingdom has proved, in many ways, to be a liability, not an asset, to U.S. interests and values. Now, Biden has an opportunity to acknowledge it.