Biden prepares ground for a shake-up of US engagement with Saudis

Biden prepares ground for a shake-up of US engagement with Saudis
US President Joe Biden has lifted former president Donald Trump’s veto on allowing the IMF to allocate $650-billion in SDRs to help countries fight the Covid-19 pandemic and recover from its economic fallout. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Anna Moneymaker / POOL)

The Joe Biden administration in the US is carrying out a full court press on the Covid-19 epidemic and the national economic malaise, but foreign policy questions are also vexing — and the complex relationship with Saudi Arabia may be even more of a question than others, given the importance the new administration has placed on re-engaging on an agreement with Iran over the earlier nuclear accord.

Truly I tell you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. — Matthew 19:24

Along with everything else on his plate these days, US President Joe Biden is engaged in attempting to thread the eye of a particularly awkward foreign policy needle. Ever since President Franklin Roosevelt’s tête-à-tête with King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud during the World War II (on Valentine’s Day 1945, no less), aboard the USS Quincy, anchored in the Red Sea, the fortunes of Saudi Arabia and the US have come to be increasingly intertwined. Following that meeting, the two nations have found themselves bound together by both black gold and strategic threads.

Despite that history, within the past several weeks, Biden’s administration has taken cautious steps to distance the US somewhat from that troublesome Saudi embrace. Achieving this may be a more complex, awkward puzzle than most officials probably expected, however. 

During the presidential campaign, candidate Biden had (and emphatically) promised he would make Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a pariah vis-a-vis the US government. This would be in contrast to the love fest the prince had achieved with former presidential aide Jared Kushner and his father-in-law. The former president had made his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia, endorsed massive sales of military hardware to the kingdom and given it a near-blank cheque in its campaign in Yemen against the Houthi rebels sponsored by Iran. (This was not the first time the Saudis had embarked on a campaign in Yemen. Decades earlier, in the 1960s, they backed the then-ruling Yemeni emir in his ultimately unsuccessful fight with rebels backed by Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Arab nationalist Egypt.)

In many ways, the previous administration’s embrace of Saudi Arabia and its ruling family was the high-water mark of an upward trajectory that had evolved out of that 1945 meeting. Previously, Saudi Arabia, along with protectorates along the Persian Gulf coast, had been largely within the sphere of British influence.

In the post-war years, American oil and gas companies built the powerhouse that became Aramco (the Arabian American Company) out of a petroleum exploitation company established in 1933 and which found its first viable oil field in 1938. In the years that followed, the company became the global oil extraction powerhouse that explored, drilled, extracted, marketed, sold and transported Saudi petroleum out into the global oil network.

By 1951, Aramco’s early explorations led it to exploiting the highest producing oil fields in the world. Eventually that company became jointly owned between the US oil companies and the Saudi government, and then as a wholly owned Saudi entity. However, American oil service companies continued to supply the technological wherewithal for this production — as well as much of the operational effort, the downstream marketing and transporting of the oil, tasks that remained highly profitable. These ties kept the US petroleum industry closely tied to Saudi oil. Given that connection, assuring the security and stability of Saudi Arabia (and its oil production and reserves) became a significant element of American Middle Eastern foreign policy.

In the aftermath of the oil rationing imposed with Saudi encouragement following the 1973 October War between Israel and Egypt/Syria, the per-barrel price of petroleum rose sharply from around $2+/barrel, along with production limits — following the decisions of OPEC (the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) nations. Importantly, even at that lower price, Saudi oil fields had been so productive and the cost of their operations so low that they had still been profitable. The great oil shock of the 1970s and the consequent rationing with long queues for automobile petrol, and electrical power brown-outs in various nations, demonstrated how much the world had become dependent on oil from the Persian Gulf — and especially Saudi Arabia’s abundant black gold.

When the Iranian revolution in 1979-80 threatened further difficulties in global oil supply chains (especially as US dependence on oil imports had begun to grow, even if most American oil imports did not come from the Middle East), including the possibility of sealing off the Persian Gulf to shipping, oil prices continued to rise and the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia grew even tighter. The kingdom was now deemed a key bulwark against a malign Iranian influence in the region as well as a strategic economic partner.

Along the way, Saudi engagement with the world was not limited to oil and the wealth it generated. The Saudis also found ways to fund a range of Wahabi-ist fundamentalist religious teachers across the Arab world. Ultimately, most of the participants in the 9/11 airplane hijackings attacks had come from Saudi Arabia, though they had been studying in the US and their efforts had been guided by Osama bin Laden, the rebel son of a prominent Saudi family that ran a major regional construction company.

Important military staging areas and air bases were built up in Saudi Arabia as well as other Gulf states. These facilities were designed to bolster American influence and flexibility in the region, to give confidence to the Gulf states of America’s backing, and to provide the military muscle necessary for the protection of the region’s oil fields and the maritime supply lines out through the Gulf.

Meanwhile, the US military supply pipeline to the Saudis became increasingly important as Washington strategists saw the Saudis as an essential regional counterweight to radical Islamicist fervour and military activity emanating from Iran. The US-Saudi tie became more important still in the wake of the American-led 1991 Gulf War to free Kuwait from an Iraqi occupation, and then during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, on the pretext the Iraqis were heading towards possession of those “weapons of mass destruction”.

Important military staging areas and air bases were built up in Saudi Arabia as well as other Gulf states. These facilities were designed to bolster American influence and flexibility in the region, to give confidence to the Gulf states of America’s backing, and to provide the military muscle necessary for the protection of the region’s oil fields and the maritime supply lines out through the Gulf.

By the time the last administration had taken office in 2017, the alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia had a seemingly all-encompassing flavour, apparently giving the Saudis the sense they could do no wrong (at least with regard to the US) concerning internal dissent, the voices of external critics or foreign opponents. With the rise and rise of the young crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and his friendship with the White House via a personal connection with Jared Kushner, the Saudi regime seemed to believe the previous US presidential administration had their back, come what may.

But then there was the gruesome murder of Saudi, US-based, journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate general premises in Istanbul. All along, there was also the deeply rooted, seriously repressive nature of Saudi society towards women. And, third, there was that destructive military effort by the Saudis in Yemen, this time opposing an Iranian-backed and supplied rebellion in a civil war that had reduced much of the nation to Hobbesian misery. On the Saudi side of that conflict, the fighting relied upon military aid and direct sales from the US. There were numerous critics of this US-Saudi tie, on all of these grounds, but from the White House itself there was never a discouraging word of criticism over Saudi actions and policies.

In the meantime, in the wake of the global anger about Khashoggi’s death, the American intelligence community undertook an extensive review of the evidence and concluded it was a virtual certainty his death had been premeditated, that a specialised team had flown into Istanbul to carry out the deed, that there had been very high-level authorisation and support for the mission and that there was a devastatingly high probability that MBS had given the go-ahead. But the previous administration held back any release of the report during its time in office, even if the main points had already become widely understood and outrage over the killing had become increasingly widespread — in the US and beyond.

When the report was released by the Biden administration, The Economist described it by saying: “It was hardly a fitting epitaph for one of the Arab world’s best-known journalists — three pages of dry, bureaucratic prose that revealed nothing new. On February 26th America released an intelligence report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by the Saudi government in October 2018. The report should have been published two years earlier, but was blocked by the administration of Donald Trump, in a brazen effort to shield Saudi Arabia from the consequences.

“By the time the CIA assessment finally emerged it was an anticlimax, its conclusions already known: America believes Muhammad bin Salman, the kingdom’s crown prince and de facto ruler, approved the operation to capture or kill Mr Khashoggi.”

Still, The Economist judged the Biden response to the conclusions of the report as less than the making of the Saudis and their prince into pariahs. It went on to say: “The consequences were underwhelming as well. America announced sanctions, including asset freezes, on a Saudi official, Ahmed al-Asiri, who was implicated in the murder plot; it also imposed visa bans on scores of Saudis accused of targeting dissidents. There were no sanctions for the crown prince, who has previously denied ordering the killing, just the promise of a difficult relationship with President Joe Biden.”

Nevertheless, the table has been set for the Biden administration to begin to roll out a gradual shakeup of the country’s policy of total engagement with the Saudis, based on revulsion over the latter government’s action over Kashoggi, the ongoing war in Yemen (with the draw-down of US military aid for the fighting) and the basic repression of Saudi society as an underlying circumstance.

Now, add to that mix the Biden administration’s push towards renewable energy and the earlier need to placate the Saudis over almost everything is beginning to recede. This will go hand in hand with the decline in global oil production trying to match low demand because of the general state of the global economy and keep a floor under prices, along with the US’s general condition of energy independence. Thus it is fair to predict there will be no Biden sword dance or gazing upon glowing orbs on any state visit to Saudi Arabia any time soon.

Trying to sum up the shift, The Economist added, “Mr Biden, who as candidate called Saudi Arabia a pariah, seems determined to end the embrace. Aside from releasing the report, he has pointedly refused to call the crown prince. Aides explain this as a simple matter of protocol. ‘The president’s counterpart is King Salman,’ said Jen Psaki, the press secretary (the two men spoke on February 25th). The task of calling Prince Muhammad, who is also the Saudi defence minister, instead fell to Lloyd Austin, America’s defence secretary. The protocol argument is not wrong — but, were Mr Biden so inclined, it would hardly be beneath his station to speak with the crown prince of a longtime American partner.

“Mr Biden’s silence, and his alacrity in releasing the report, speaks to America’s exasperation with Prince Muhammad. The list of grievances is long. There is the war in Yemen, now in its seventh year, a strategic failure and a humanitarian disaster. On February 4th Mr Biden announced that America would end its military support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting there. Many Democrats are also angry about the kingdom’s sweeping crackdown on critics. Mr Khashoggi’s case attracted the most attention, but authorities have targeted everyone from conservative clerics to women’s-rights activists. (A Saudi court released Loujain al-Hathloul, a well-known activist, on February 10th, though she remains under a travel ban and other restrictions.)”

There is yet another reason for this shift. The strategic conditions on the ground — occasioned partly by the prior administration’s success in nurturing those diplomatic accords between Israel and Morocco/Sudan/ Bahrain/the UAE, with their tacit acceptance by the Saudis, to balance Iranian efforts to expand influence — together with the avowed Biden policy of re-engaging with Iran over the nuclear accord, have actually made the American full-hearted embrace of Saudi Arabia less crucial. In turn, this has given the Biden team some flexibility in tamping down that alliance as it responds to all those other imperatives of changing the energy supply balance and re-engagement with the Iranians.

But the real trick for Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and company will be in getting that shift in the mix just right and in not sacrificing the still-remaining importance of the Saudi connection, as they search for what might yet become an unreachable goal of finding the right deal with the Iranians. DM


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