The US rethinks its relations with Saudi Arabia: or does it?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

When asked who is America’s oldest ally in the Middle East, many people would immediately reply, “Israel”. The United States was the first to recognise the Jewish state after its creation in 1948 and has been its foremost security partner and diplomatic supporter ever since. Yet three years earlier, on Valentine’s Day of 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt, returning home from the Yalta Conference with Churchill and Stalin, stopped off in the Suez Canal to meet the Saudi monarch, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. The meeting took place on the USS Quincey and proved to be one of the most significant in defining the Cold War international order. The Saudis agreed to regulate the flow of Middle Eastern oil to the US, which was important for its economy and military operations. In return, the US agreed to protect the kingdom and its vital oil fields from outside predators, whether it be the Soviet Union or regional rivals.

This straightforward arrangement lasted for decades, and despite many ups and downs, both sides stuck to the deal. The Saudis went along with the creation of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the quadrupling of the oil price in 1973, but they always kept the oil pumping at prices and quantities that the West could absorb without too many shocks to their economies. The US, on its part, intervened frequently in the region to counter any threat to the Saudis, particularly from Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991 and more recently from Iran and its proxies, such as the Houthis in Yemen.

In return for this military protection, the Saudis bought massive quantities of American arms and provided the Pentagon with valuable military bases for its deployments in the region. The US came to recognise that, despite its fierce opposition to Israel, Saudi Arabia was a useful buffer against US adversaries, such as Iran after its revolution in 1979, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Assad’s Syria. It also served to keep the smaller Gulf Arab states safe from political turmoil at home and outside interference of these hostile regional neighbours.

During the Arab Spring in 2011, the Saudis sent their troops over the causeway into Bahrain to quell protests by that country’s Shia community that had been egged on by Iran. Later, the Saudis helped the US curb the radical influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, especially in the short-lived government of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, and against countries such as Qatar and Turkey. Once the global war against terror was underway after the September 11 attacks against New York and Washington, the Saudis provided useful intelligence to the US. However, this never succeeded in diverting attention from the fact that most of the Al Qaeda terrorists on 9/11 came from the kingdom; its firebrand preachers and Wahabi strain of Islam had fired up radicalism across the Middle East for years.

This measured response will inevitably be Biden’s first major foreign policy decision to be criticised as much by his own party as by the opposition

All this underscores the contradictions that have long been at the heart of the US-Saudi relationship, making it an alliance of convenience rather than of love. While needing US protection, the Saudis have tried to keep US influence at arm’s length. They relocated US forces from cities to new bases in the desert. On the US side, strategic interests had to be balanced against constant criticism regarding the Saudis’ lamentable human rights record from both Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as the US media and NGOs. This also applied to their ambivalent attitude towards Islamist extremism, as long as the extremists directed their attacks abroad rather than against Saudi Arabia itself. Some of the military personnel it sent to the US for training ended up implicated in terrorist attacks.

Yet the incoming Biden administration seems ready to tilt this balance towards human rights and a distinct cooling of the US-Saudi relationship. President Biden has announced the end of US military supplies and intelligence-sharing for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen against the Houthis. This ill-starred intervention has been more successful in exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the country than in driving back the Houthis or achieving any near-term power-sharing agreement.

Biden has also refused to speak directly to the controversial Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Sultan, preferring to contact King Salman directly instead. As Mohammed bin Salman is the Saudi defence minister, Biden has left this job to his own defense secretary, Lloyd Austin.

Yet Biden’s biggest step has been to declassify and publish a CIA report into the death of the Saudi journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by Saudi intelligence operatives in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. His dismembered body has never been found but Turkish and US intelligence services have produced overwhelming evidence of the Saudi government’s involvement.

As international outrage and pressure mounted after the killing, the Saudi government denied responsibility at first but was then forced into a humiliating U-turn. Eight Saudi intelligence agents were subsequently put on trial and three received death sentences, which have now been commuted. Yet all along the Saudis strongly denied that the Crown Prince had ordered the killing of Khashoggi. This has now been rebutted by the new CIA report, which not only clearly implicates Mohammed Bin Salman in the organisation of this operation, but also places him at the centre of a wider campaign to suppress dissent and free speech within the kingdom. The Biden administration has followed up the release of the report with a ‘Khashoggi list’ of 76 Saudi officials, including the Deputy Director of Intelligence, who will now be subject to US sanctions. The Crown Prince is, however, not on the list.

This omission has provoked a good deal of criticism against the administration, from both sides of the aisle. The Washington Post, for which Khashoggi worked as a columnist, has been especially perplexed. As so often happens with a policy of partial and selective retaliation, Biden’s decision risks upsetting an important ally without satisfying his own camp at home. Although this measured response will inevitably be Biden’s first major foreign policy decision to be criticised as much by his own party as by the opposition, it is nonetheless the right one. Allies are never perfect, and Washington has had disputes and difficulties with nearly all its allies over the last decades, in the Middle East, Europe and Asia – even Israel was caught spying on the US. Yet as Winston Churchill reminds us: “The only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them.” In this vein, a close partnership with Saudi Arabia is still a key strategic interest for Washington and the West in general.

The US has succeeded in transforming some hostile relationships in the past

In the first place, this is because the US will still need to constrain Iran and it will need its Gulf allies to do this. Although Washington hopes to reinstate the nuclear deal with Iran – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – that Trump withdrew from in 2018, it seems unlikely that Tehran will come back to the negotiating table any time soon. It wants all the sanctions to be lifted against it first – something that Biden, who does not want to face criticism from Congress on being soft on the Iranians, is clearly not going to do. At the same time, Tehran’s rapidly advancing nuclear weapons programme will make it necessary for the US to demand more Iranian concessions and guarantees if the JCPOA is to be resuscitated. Biden has made overtures to the Iranians, such as rescinding the ‘snapback’ sanctions that the Trump administration had tried to persuade the UN Security Council to support, as well as lifting travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats in New York.

Yet these gestures do not seem to have impressed Tehran. In recent days it has put new constraints on UN nuclear weapons inspections, impounded a South Korean cargo vessel, and is thought to be behind an attack on an Israeli ship in the Gulf of Oman. All this is to suggest that even if the JCPOA is rescued, relations between the US and Iran will remain complicated and confrontational. Although the US has succeeded in transforming some hostile relationships in the past – for instance with India or Vietnam – this doesn’t seem likely with Iran anytime soon. Washington and Riyadh will continue to be united first and foremost by the threat of Iran’s missile capabilities and its regional reach into Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, not to speak of the sizeable Shia community within Saudi Arabia’s own eastern provinces.

A second common concern will be with the behaviour of other Gulf Arab states. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has intervened in Libya on the side of General Haftar and his Libyan National Army and against the UN-recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli. There have been reports that the UAE has financed Russian mercenaries supporting Haftar, such as those in the Wagner Group. Yet now the UN has brokered a new deal for a Libyan transitional government that will take the country forward to national elections on 24 December. This a good time for Riyadh to put pressure on its neighbour in Abu Dhabi to uphold the UN arms embargo, insist on the withdrawal of foreign forces and push its contacts in Benghazi and eastern Libya to get behind the UN process and its new unity government of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. At the same time, Riyadh needs to pressure Abu Dhabi to stop supporting separatist factions in southern Yemen, which have undermined the anti-Houthi front and made a future power sharing arrangement more difficult.

Qatar is another sensitive issue. It has aligned with Turkey and supported radical Islamist causes in Syria, Egypt and the Gaza Strip, among others. This led the Saudis and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states to put Qatar in political quarantine over the past five years – yet now Doha has been allowed back into the fold. Soon to be in the international spotlight as the host of the football World Cup, it has an interest in cleaning up its act. But suspicions between Qatar and the other Gulf Arab states still run deep. Saudi Arabia has a crucial role to play in reuniting the Gulf Arabs behind a coherent foreign policy, especially vis-a-vis Iran, an effective strategy to combat extremism and terrorism and a constructive stance on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The Saudis are notoriously reluctant to change their positions, at least publicly

In third and final place are the relations with Israel. One of the few foreign policy successes of the Trump administration was the rapprochement of Israel with Arab and Muslim countries such as Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco and Sudan. They have normalised their diplomatic relations and established flight connections. However, this normalisation will not be complete in terms of reshaping the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East or building a united front towards Tehran, as long as Riyadh does not recognise Israel.

Certainly, the countries have warmed to each other and their military commanders and intelligence chiefs have held many discreet talks; there are even reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu has made a secret visit to the kingdom. Yet the Saudis are notoriously reluctant to change their positions, at least publicly. They have refused to join NATO’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative even though the offer has been on the table since 2002 and most of their Gulf neighbours have already signed on. In typical fashion, the Saudis are content to turn up at the meetings as observers but not to formally join the initiative. Thus, a future challenge for US diplomacy will be to nudge the Saudis towards a normalisation of their relations with Israel.

This may be easier after the Palestinian elections in July. If a new democratic mandate emerges behind some fresh Palestinian leaders – the current President, Mahmoud Abbas, has stayed in office for more than a decade beyond the expiry of his electoral mandate – the Israelis might be ready to restart the process, particularly as Biden is unlikely to keep Jared Kushner’s winner-takes-all peace plan, which was a non-starter for the Palestinians. More movement in the peace process may give the Saudis useful diplomatic cover to move closer to Tel Aviv.

For all these reasons, the Biden administration is right not to want to burn its bridges when it comes to maintaining close relations to Riyadh. That does not mean that it should give the Saudis a free pass when it comes to human rights abuses and self-destructive foreign policy moves. It is US-supplied Patriot missiles that are currently protecting Saudi cities, airports and oil production facilities, and it is the US Navy which is keeping the Straits of Hormuz open to Saudi oil exports. The US has real leverage.

There are better models for the kingdom’s future than hunkering down and hoping that nothing will – or even needs to – change

It is encouraging that the Saudis have recently released two female human rights activists from jail, although they are still not being allowed to travel and many more still languish in captivity. The US should also keep up the pressure on the Crown Prince to disband his infamous Rapid Deployment Force, also known as the Tiger Squad, which carried out the murder of Khashoggi and has harassed other regime opponents. Bin Salman needs to pay more attention to diplomacy in Yemen to create a roundtable peace negotiation and a formula for decentralised power sharing; he must also act urgently on the alarming humanitarian crisis in the country, which the UN Secretary General has described as the worst in the world. Just this week the international donors conference on Yemen fell far short of raising the $3.5bn that the UN says is the minimum to stave off mass starvation. Many Western countries, gripped by the COVID-19 crisis, pledged less than half of what they contributed last year.

Mohammed Bin Salman remains something of an enigma. When he was first designated as heir-apparent, he came across as a reformer willing to shake up the ossified Saudi system. He allowed women to drive and hired McKinsey to produce a blueprint for the transition of the fossil fuel dependent Saudi economy to a knowledge-based digital society by 2040. In view of the greening of the global economies and Saudi Arabia’s own massive youth bulge and need for job creation on a massive scale, many observers felt that these reform initiatives had not come a moment too soon. The kingdom also floated on the financial markets a portion of Saudi Aramco, the largest oil company in the world.

Yet after this promising start, the Crown Prince seems to have lost his way. He needs to be less sensitive to criticism and see it as a key driving force of every healthy and vibrant society. Moreover, if the kingdom needs extra revenue to balance its budget, the sensible thing to do is to introduce a progressive income tax, rather than lock up dozens of the richest Saudis in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh at gun point and shake them down for a portion of their wealth. At a time when the UAE is deep into a far-reaching technology-based transition plan and has even sent an exploration probe to Mars, there are better models for the kingdom’s future than hunkering down and hoping that nothing will – or even needs to – change.

In sum, the Biden administration still needs the Saudis, if not for their oil as Roosevelt did, then certainly for regional stability in the Middle East. The challenge will be to reassure Riyadh over its security while not indulging it in its excesses either at home or abroad. Persuading the Crown Prince to leave foreign policy to his professional diplomats and recommit his energy to reform at home will be part and parcel of this task. We can only hope that the significant moral and reputational sanction that the Prince has faced following the Khashoggi murder will make him more moderate and prudent in the future. The US-Saudi relationship once more reminds us that managing difficult allies and alliances can be an even greater headache for diplomats than finding new ways to deter and contain nasty adversaries.

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