Saudi Arabia: why it’s time for the US to rethink its alliance with the kingdom

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Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

Joe Biden’s recent decision to publicly blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and the subsequent sanctions already enforced against some members of the Prince’s inner circle, appear to be a clear sign that the new US administration will not turn a blind eye on the human rights violations perpetrated by its close ally Saudi Arabia. 

This commitment could definitely be viewed as another attempt made by the new American President to patently differentiate himself from his predecessor Donald Trump, who was widely criticized for maintaining open and friendly relations with international leaders suspected of being responsible for serious human rights abuses. Trump’s choice not to release the US Intelligence report which directly incriminated Prince Mohammed in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder back in 2018 actually suggests an unwillingness to upset the Saudi leader, with whom the former US President had regular direct contacts. 

This marking public rebuke seems to introduce yet another period of high tensions between Saudi Arabia and the US, whose tumultuous relationship seems to have reached a stage where a full reconciliation appears impossible. However, those tensions might reshape this atypical alliance between a liberal democracy and a religious monarchy, for a growing number of prominent figures contend this relationship is not sufficiently beneficial to the US to overlook Saudi Arabia’s unpredictable behaviour and multiple human rights offences. 

Saudi Arabia, a historically unreliable ally 

Over the course of the seventy-five-year long alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia, the latter has often turned out to be a highly unreliable party, whose actions have undermined American prosperity multiple times because of conflicting interests.

The root of those recurring disagreements has often been the fundamental issue of Israel, which to this day is still one of the most divisive matters in international politics. One of the overarching objectives of Roosevelt’s visit to the tent of Saudi king Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, at Great Bitter Lake in the aftermath of World War II, was in fact to secure the monarch’s support for the creation of Israel. But, because of the Saudi king’s vehement opposition to this idea, Roosevelt allegedly swore that he would abandon this plan in order to facilitate the conclusion of a crucial agreement with the kingdom, which ensured American access to Saudi oil in exchange of US investments and military protection (Johnson, Gramer, 2020). Thus, the subsequent creation of the Hebrew state in 1948 was viewed as an unacceptable affront by the Saudis, who have always refused to recognise the country and normalize relations with it, considering it as the last manifestation of Western colonization in the Middle East (Ghosh, 2020). This radical position is definitely at odds with that of the US, which recognizes Israel and has always considered this nation as one of its closest allies, and as a stabilizing force in the conflict-torn Middle East. 

This profound disagreement has had very serious consequences for the US, regularly weakening the country on the international scene because of Saudi Arabia’s willingness to side with the anti-Israel forces and contribute to the increase of the anti-Israel sentiments prevalent in the Arab world. Many Saudi officials, and members of the Royal family’s inner circle have openly and aggressively criticized Israel and its policies, thus contributing to the Hebrew state’s isolation in the Middle East (Nereim, 2020). Even more concretely, Saudi troops were sent against Israel in the 1948 and 1973 wars opposing Arab countries to the former nation, whereas the US was actively supporting Israeli forces financially and militarily. This situation in which Saudi Arabia, America’s closest allies in the Middle East, openly and actively strives to work against US interests in the region was patently detrimental to the US international prestige and influence. The fact that Saudi weapons largely come from the US and that the kingdom benefits from American military protection rendered this direct Saudi opposition even more embarrassing for Washington (Johnson and Gramer, 2020). 

In addition to this open hostility, Saudi Arabia has even dared to use the US dependence on its oil to pressure Washington into changing its foreign policy on the matter. In fact, following the deployment of a 2.2 billion military aid package by the Nixon administration to support Israel in 1973, Saudi Arabia decided to impose an oil embargo on the US in order to punish the latter’s military intervention and constrain Nixon to change his position vis-a-vis the issue (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). This embargo decreased global oil supplies by 14%, which created mass panic in America over oil shortages and caused the country to suffer a major economic downturn. Furthermore, Nixon had to accept compromises in order to put an end to this crisis, as the Arab oil ministers demanded that the US actively advocate an Israeli-Syrian disengagement (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). This clearly emphasizes Saudi Arabia’s unreliability as an ally, and is definitely ironic since Saudi oil is used as a weapon against the American economy whereas the US substantially contributes to Saudi oil extraction sites’ security. 

Historically, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has thus regularly conflicted with US interests and even directly hindered its prosperity, as the cases concerning the two allies’ disagreements about Israel demonstrate. 

A decreasing US dependence on Saudi oil 

It could be argued that the US tolerance vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia’s aggressive attitude was forced and inevitable because of its crippling dependence on Saudi oil. However, the humiliating blackmail orchestrated by the kingdom in 1973 acted as a wake-up call for Washington and generated a major shift in the American energy policy. In fact, following this traumatising event, President Nixon formulated the “Project Independence”, aiming to reach energy independence by 1980 (Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). Although the objective was not achieved, it clearly showed that the US had realized how problematic its dependence on Saudi oil was, and was the first step of the long process that led to American current quasi-energy independence. In 2020, the US actually exported more oil than they imported, achieving a certain type of energy independence (Pearkes, 2020). Furthermore, efforts were made by different administrations to decrease the importance of Saudi oil exportations to the US. In fact, Canada became the largest single exporter of oil to the country in 2004, overtaking Saudi Arabia. Since then, Canada has firmly established itself as America’s first source of imported oil. In 2019, it represented 49% of the US total petroleum imports and 56% of the U.S. total crude oil imports, whereas Saudi Arabia’s import proportions were only 6% and 7% respectively (US Energy Information Administration, 2020).

Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy still threatens US prosperity 

However, in recent years in spite of these new U.S. energy capabilities, Saudi Arabia’s international behaviour has often conspicuously conflicted with American interests and caused damage to its democratically. 

The recent Saudi embargo on Qatar, which is a key American military ally in the Middle East, is a patent example of this pattern. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain actually have severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, closed their land and sea borders with the country, placed an air embargo on it, and boycotted Al-Jazeera. This embargo imposed on Qatar by a coalition of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia was enforced because Qatar was accused of supporting terrorist organizations, although no evidence corroborates this claim (Quilliam, 2020). This accusation was principally rooted in Saudi Arabia’s mistrust of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an Islamic transnational organization of which Qatar is an active member. This embargo prompted Qatar to decrease its dependence on Saudi agricultural imports and to significantly improve its relationship with Iran, which compensated for the Saudi embargo by sending large quantities of food exports to Qatar (The Maritime Executive, 2018). Thus, Saudi Arabia’s unilateral decision to organise this embargo ended up jeopardising its own position in the Middle East, and reinforcing that of Iran. This evolution is definitely detrimental to US interests in the region and even potentially to American national security. In fact, the embargo on Qatar has contributed to the normalization of relations between one of America’s key allies, Qatar, and the openly anti-US Iran (Quilliam, 2020). This situation was even more worrying because of the hard-line approach adopted by Trump concerning Iran and its nuclear aspirations at the time. Trump’s strategy consisted in exerting a maximal level of pressure on Iran through an economic embargo aiming to isolate the country and prompt it to abandon its nuclear programme instead of reducing the economic restrictions in order to achieve the latter purpose (Landler, 2018). In this context, Iran getting closer to Qatar clearly conflicted with America’s strategy, and thus encouraged Iran to continue its nuclear programme. As a consequence, Iran is currently in a much better situation to negotiate with Biden’s administration, whose wish is to rethink a nuclear deal with the country, and still pose a threat to the security of American allies in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s behaviour has also strongly increased the economic woes which have damaged the American economy in the context of the economic crisis generated by the global COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, because of a childish oil price war with Russia, Saudi Arabia slashed its barrel prices and increased its oil production in March and April 2020, which contributed to creating a massive decrease in oil prices globally. This in turn caused an unprecedented collapse in U.S. oil prices, which violently hurt the energy industry in the country, and particularly in Texas, by causing many bankruptcies and economic hardships (Johnson and Gramer, 2020). This major economic blow raised a wave of criticisms even from the Republicans, who are generally more inclined to support America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia than Democrats because they are less concerned about the kingdom’s human rights violations than their political opponents (Johnson and Gramer, 2020). 

Time to rethink the U.S.-Saudi relationship 

Therefore, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy still seems to be harmful to the US and the country’s importance relating to American oil imports has significantly decreased, which undoubtedly explains this new approach taken by President Biden’s administration regarding its historical “ally”. Although it would be highly unreasonable to end this alliance because of the economic links existing between the two countries, their cooperation on counterterrorism and the danger that Iran represents, the US has to be more responsive to Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy excesses and human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia’s importance and reliability as an ally are not sufficiently significant for the latter aspects to be overlooked by any US President’s administration.

References: 

Council on Foreign Relations (2017). “Oil Dependence and U.S. Foreign Policy” (Online). Available at: https://www.cfr.org/timeline/oil-dependence-and-us-foreign-policy (Accessed: 7 March 2021). 

-Ghosh, G. (2020). “Saudi Arabia Is in Nor Rush to Recognize Israel”, Bloomberg (Online). Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-12-09/saudi-arabia-is-in-no-rush-to-recognize-israel (Accessed: 6 March 2021). 

-Johnson, K. and Gramer, R. (2020). “How the Bottom Fell Out of the U.S.-Saudi Alliance”, Foreign Policy (Online). Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/23/saudi-arabia-trump-congress-breaking-point-relationship-oil-geopolitics/ (Accessed: 5 March 2021). 

-Landler, M. (2018). “Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned”, The New York Times (Online). Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/world/middleeast/trump-iran-nuclear-deal.html (Accessed: 7 March 2021). 

-Nereim, V. (2020). “Senior Saudi Prince Blasts Israel at Security Conference”, Bloomberg (Online). Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-06/senior-saudi-prince-blasts-israel-at-security-conference?sref=am1wYMj6 (Accessed: 7 March 2021). 

-Pearkes, G. (2020). “Forget peak oil: America’s booming oil industry has allowed the US to achieve a type of energy independence”, Business Insider (Online). Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/us-oil-exports-higher-imports-country-energy-independence-2020-9?r=US&IR=T (Accessed: 7 March 2021). 

-Quilliam, N. (2020). “Are Saudi Arabia and Its Gulf Neighbors Close to Ending the Qatar Boycott?”, World Politics Review (Online). Available at: https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/insights/28443/are-saudi-arabia-and-its-gulf-neighbors-close-to-ending-the-qatar-blockade (Accessed: 6 March 2021). 

The Maritime Executive (2018). “Facing Embargoes, Iran and Qatar Deepen Trade Ties” (Online). Available at: https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/facing-embargoes-iran-and-qatar-deepen-trade-ties (Accessed: 6 March 2021). 

U.S. Energy Information Administration (2020). “Oil and petroleum products explained: Oil imports and exports” (Online). Available at:https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/oil-and-petroleum-products/imports-and-exports.php (Accessed: 7 March 2021).

by Yann Guillaume

Yann Guillaume is first-year Bsc Politics and International Relations at UCL. He is passionate about current affairs, diplomacy and international politics, and is particularly interested in the American leadership in the post-Trump era.

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