By Azin Sahabi

U.S. and Saudi: A green light that turns to amber 

March 8, 2021 - 11:42

TEHRAN- While Donald Trump gave Saudi Arabia a blank check, a change in U.S. policy vis-à-vis the kingdom is looming large and the glue that cemented the bilateral ties for decades has been cracked. 

Thanks to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's recognition of the strategic essence of oil, the U.S., first through its oil industry and afterward through government contacts, established a relationship with Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdelaziz Ibn Saud, which evolved into close ties, particularly in the energy and security sectors. 

According to the Pentagon, the Americans have been the major supplier of Saudis’ arsenals of various kinds of sophisticated armaments since the 1950s which culminated in 2017. 

During Trump’s May 2017 trip to the kingdom as his first official foreign visit, Washington and Riyadh signed a series of arms deals expected to total some $350 billion over a decade. According to the deal, Saudi Arabia’s total arms imports faced a dramatic rise in comparison to a decade earlier, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported.

Regardless of Riyadh's determinant role in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as the leading U.S. tool to counter the Islamic Republic of Iran, the White House has enjoyed firm support from the oil-rich monarchy for the normalization of relations between Israel and some Arab nations. 

There exists fundamental divergence between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in terms of values, the system of governance, and ideology. The former’s operational policies are quite in contrast with the stated ones the latter expresses; however, the geopolitics of the region in which the oil factor is pivotal has contributed to this long-lasting amity.

While Trump gave the monarchy a blank check to realize its regional ambitions, maybe in the wake of Joe Biden's pledge to “reassess” relationship, a change in Washington’s policy toward the kingdom is looming. 

The historically complicated relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been a matter of controversy, especially since Biden’s inauguration. In this regard, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), one of the world’s leading foreign-policy think tanks, has not hesitated to speculate on the issue. 

In a commentary published on March 4, Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow, argues that the kingdom with interests and values quite in contrast to those of the U.S. is at best a “partner” not an “ally.”

He believes that Saudis’ manner, especially in recent years, has not been in favor of fulfilling Washington’s interests but just made the regional dynamics more complicated for the U.S. to manage. 

Carnegie points out that a recently released intelligence report outlined the role Mohammed bin Salman played in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist. To discuss how the Washington-Riyadh ties might alter given the crime,

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that “the relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual. We have significant ongoing interests. We remain committed to the defense of the Kingdom.”

Against this backdrop, Miller describes the notion to consider Saudi Arabia a close ally of the United States as “antiquated” and stresses: “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 scrutiny.”

To clarify the matter, Miller analyzes the current dynamics from different angles. 

A changed oil picture 

The expert argues that due to a series of developments the West Asia theatre has witnessed in terms of political economy, an interruption in the flow of Saudi oil to the global market would not be a total game-changer. Concerning this, Miller underlines that the oil picture has substantially changed in recent decades, therefore, the argument that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is too big to fail is still valid but needs to be modified and revised. 

In this regard, he says now that the U.S. is experiencing an oil production boom that has made it a “swing supplier”, Washington and Riyadh are now more competitive with one another. Saudi Arabia’s oil-addicted economy serves as the primary driving force of Riyadh’s decisions on oil production and pricing, not the U.S. interests. 

The expert also points out that while Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, can disrupt the oil market with oil price shocks, an abundant supply of oil in the strategic petroleum reserves all across the globe can prove a proportionate antidote. 

Besides, Miller argues that Riyadh as the major destination of U.S. arms sales has been hardly efficient to counter Iran and writes: “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 (Persian) Gulf, not undermine them.”

Saudi Arabia’s stability, one of the pillars of the "twin pillars" of U.S. policy to serve Washington interests’ in the region is significant for Washington. In this regard, Biden's changed rhetoric towards Saudi Arabia, with no meaningful move indicating a fundamental

policy shift, should not raise eyebrows. 

 A liability not an asset

Miller, who served six secretaries of state as an advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations, underlines Biden’s administration should comprehend that “as a partner, the kingdom has proved, in many ways, to be a liability, not an asset, to U.S. interests and values.”

Therefore, it makes sense that the bilateral relationship would be balanced and reformed. In fact, as Biden pledged to “reassess” the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the green light that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman enjoyed during Trump’s era may turn to amber under his successor.

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