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Five ways Biden can 're-evaluate' the Saudi relationship now

Failure to respond to the Kingdom's slights would reinforce the perception that Washington is a mere oil dependent, susceptible to demands.

Analysis | Middle East

The White House has stated that it will “re-evaluate” Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia following the announcement that the Saudis and the rest of the OPEC+ oil cartel will cut oil production by two million barrels per day. The production cut will drive up the cost of fuel just weeks before next month’s midterm elections, and critics have characterized the move as effectively constituting election interference.

While Saudi Arabia is free to pursue its own interests in hiking oil prices, this sudden and drastic cut does not reflect the behavior the United States can reasonably expect from a partner, especially one that relies so heavily on the U.S. for security assistance and protection.

Yet Riyadh believes that it has the upper hand, as demonstrated by an op-ed published by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s media adviser, Turki Aldakhil. His piece details how Saudi Arabia could hurt the U.S., including by pricing oil in Chinese yuan rather than dollars and halting the purchase of U.S.-made weapons and other military equipment. The op-ed can be reasonably understood as reflecting MBS’ position.

A re-evaluation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship is clearly in order, as President Biden appears to have finally recognized. Failure to respond would reinforce MBS’ perception that America’s dependence on Saudi oil renders Washington powerless to resist his demands and will thus fuel more reckless Saudi conduct.

How might the U.S. go about such a re-evaluation? Biden has several options at his disposal, all of which can help create a healthier balance in the bilateral relationship. None of these steps are designed to rupture the relationship. Saudi Arabia is an important country, and the U.S. can benefit from positive ties with the kingdom. But the current relationship is anything but positive, and it is inaction on Biden’s part that makes a full breakdown of U.S.-Saudi ties more, rather than less, likely.

One: Freeze all U.S. security support to Saudi Arabia.

Freezing support would make clear to the Saudis that U.S. partnership is not unconditional, while also allowing cooperation to resume if Riyadh decided to again act as a partner. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez has already called for such a freeze, “including any arms sales and security cooperation.” Rep. Ro Khanna and Sen. Richard Blumenthal have also proposed bipartisan legislation to pause all arms sales and military supplies. Such measures could be useful. However, merely pausing and then resuming security cooperation may prove inadequate to change Saudi behavior.

Two: Pass the Yemen War Powers Resolution in Congress.

Passage of the Yemen War Powers Resolution would achieve two objectives simultaneously: it would both signal U.S. discontent with the Saudi decision on reducing oil production and cripple the Saudis’ ability to bomb and blockade Yemen, finally ending U.S. complicity in that devastating conflict, one of President Biden’s earliest foreign policy commitments.

Members of Congress have introduced a bill that would end all U.S. military support for Riyadh’s military intervention in Yemen; however it has not yet been brought up for a vote.

Three: Withdraw U.S. troops and military assets from the Kingdom and the region.

About 3,000 U.S. troops are based in Saudi Arabia, while the UAE hosts around 2,000 more. 

Reps. Tom Malinowski, Sean Casten, and Susan Wild plan to introduce a bill to require the removal of U.S. troops and missile defense systems from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, another key OPEC+ member that also relies on Washington for national defense.

The bill is similar to one introduced by Republicans in 2020, when Trump also sought to pressure the Saudis to increase oil production. However, it was Trump who sent American servicemembers back to Saudi Arabia in 2019 after a 16-year absence: in response to concerns that the presence of U.S. soldiers was aiding terrorist recruitment across the region, the Pentagon withdrew them from the kingdom.

Clearly, the removal of U.S. troops from the Kingdom did not lead to the downfall of the House of Saud. Losing the security provided by the presence of U.S. troops and missile defenses would remind Saudi Arabia, as well as the UAE, that they remain dependent on Washington’s good will. The Saudis and Emiratis are likely to turn to China or Russia, but, although Beijing and Moscow may sell them weapons, they will be unable to provide the same security. Preoccupied by its faltering invasion of Ukraine, Russia cannot do so, and China does not see such a move as in its interests.

Four: Enforce the Leahy Laws regarding the transfer of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

At present, the U.S. does not consider Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations to constitute a violation of the Leahy laws that prohibit the transfer of military assistance to states that engage in gross human rights violations, including torture, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, and rape. However, credible allegations of such behavior by the Saudi state, including the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, would arguably justify the application of the Leahy Laws to Saudi Arabia. Enforcing U.S. law would pressure Saudi Arabia to address its worst human rights violations while also underlining the Kingdom’s reliance on U.S. security cooperation.

Five: Increase investment in alternative energy to reduce U.S. dependence on oil.

Although oil will remain important to the global economy for the foreseeable future, the impact of the price of gasoline on American politics reflects a massive vulnerability. By investing more heavily in alternatives, like electric vehicles, public transportation, and less car-dependent communities, the outcomes of American elections could no longer be swayed by oil exporters. This would also help shield American elections from interference by foreign actors.

The Biden administration has realized, however belatedly, that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is broken and that appeasing Riyadh will not fix it. If the Saudis continue to insist on behaving in a manner that not only undermines U.S. objectives in Ukraine but also threatens to undermine the American democratic process, Washington must cease pretending that Riyadh is a friend. Only by taking strong action can the U.S. re-establish a functional relationship with Riyadh, one based on shared interests and mutual respect.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrive for the family photo during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit (GCC+3) at a hotel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia July 16, 2022. Mandel Ngan/Pool via REUTERS
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