US-Saudi Arabia alliance will stand the test of time – OpEd – Eurasia Review
By Alon Ben-Meir*
The recent conflict between the United States and Saudi Arabia over Riyadh’s decision to cut its oil production around 2 million barrels a day were to be addressed as part of their long and extensive relationship.
For more than 70 years, the two countries have collaborated and cooperated on many levels, including massive sales of US military hardware, national security cooperation, joint economic development, and the transfer of sensitive US technology and intelligence sharing.
The current conflict is not the first that has arisen between the two countries; In fact, the Saudis imposed an oil boycott on the US in 1973 in retaliation for its aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, and in 2001 after the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 unproven claims of Saudi Arabia’s possible involvement in the attack , since 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudi nationals.
These two major incidents certainly severely disrupted the relationship; Yet each time they restored the spirit and practicality of their relationship because their common interests overruled their conflicting positions on so many levels. I believe that this latest conflict, like previous conflicts, will not change their bilateral relations in any fundamental way.
President Biden specified that “…when the House and Senate come back, there will be some consequences for what [Saudi Arabia has] No more Russia.” Congressional Democrats went so far as to call for unprecedented countermeasures against Saudi Arabia. including the cessation of all aspects of cooperation with Riyadh.
What prompted this harsh response from Biden and leading Democrats is attributed to multiple factors. The Saudi action was seen as an affront to Biden personally, particularly in light of his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, aimed at defusing tensions between the two countries and persuading the Saudis to increase oil production.
Riyadh’s actions are also seen as a shameless anti-US move and collusion with Russia against the US. Furthermore, Biden and many Democrats view the Saudis’ decision as one that would exacerbate global inflation and undermine US efforts to cut gas prices, especially now as the midterm elections approach, while also aiding Putin in his war against Ukraine .
Certainly they consider the Saudis ungrateful and unworthy of consistent US defense assistance, leading them to conclude that the Saudis are no longer a reliable ally.
The Saudi action seems like they are taking revenge on the US, especially since Biden has been running for president ever since called Saudi Arabia is a “pariah” whose leadership has “very little reparation value”.
He accused Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of orchestrating the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and vowed never to speak to him, and criticized the kingdom for its indiscriminate bombing of Yemen and human rights abuses. Finally, Saudi has publicly opposed Biden’s efforts to renew the deal with Iran.
In a conversation I had a few days ago with David Rundell, former head of mission at the American Embassy in Riyadh, author of “Vision or Mirage” and one of America’s leading experts on Saudi Arabia, he emphasized that the conflict there is a significant emotional component to the Saudis that the Biden administration failed to appreciate.
As Rundell explained: “The President did it, I think the only term you can use is insult, Mohammed bin Salman several times. He made it very clear that he didn’t like Mohammed bin Salman… The White House made it very clear that they would not see Mohammed bin Salman… Then the President refuses to shake hands with him.”
Rundell further commented on the Saudi pride and independence they hold dear and warned that “the Saudis were acting in their own self-interest. You will do it again. If the United States wants to try to isolate or punish them, they will simply be pushed closer to China and Russia, which is already happening.”
While it is necessary to reassess US-Saudi Arabia relations after what happened, I agree with Rundell that it will be a mistake for the Biden administration to take significant punitive action against the Saudis who their bilateral relations will only deteriorate at an extremely sensitive time. As Secretary of State Anthony Blinken specified Last year the idea was “not to break that [US-Saudi] relationship, but to recalibrate [it].”
I believe that some Democratic senators, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, who said that he will propose “ending all cooperation with Riyadh until the kingdom reassesses its position on the war in Ukraine,” adding, “Enough is enough,” and others including Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Ro Khanna, who introduced a invoice “to immediately halt all US arms sales to Saudi Arabia” goes well beyond what needs to be done.
Other Democrats are calling for milder measures, including withholding information, refusing to sell certain weapons, restricting access to financial markets and restricting some elements of military training, and slowing down major development projects.
This may seem necessary to send a message to Saudi Arabia about US displeasure, but it will still be the wrong message.
Given that both countries must fully consider the importance of their bilateral relationship and its overall implications for regional security, they should not engage in a tit-for-tat that only Russia and China can benefit from.
It should be noted that while Saudi Arabia is dependent on the US for much of its military equipment and national security guarantees, the Saudis feel they have reciprocated all along by helping to maintain regional stability and have made significant efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, join forces with the US in the fight against terrorism, and allow the US to continue to have a military presence on its soil.
In addition, the Saudis have promoted a more tolerant version of Islam and continue to trade oil with dollars, strengthening the American currency.
The Saudis also fundamentally disagree with the US on their motivation for curbing oil production. From her point of view, her actions were strictly economically motivated.
They wanted to cut oil production to raise prices, and insist that even with a 2 million barrel-per-day cut, the price will remain in the vicinity of $80-90 per barrel of oil, which is still well below $130 per barrel Barrel is , the high of recent years.
The Saudis see it as a business decision that has nothing to do with politics. Regardless of how disingenuous this may sound, there is a financial benefit they can reap; It’s the timing of the cut that worries many American officials.
My position is that the Biden administration should not take punitive countermeasures against Saudi Arabia, especially before the midterm elections, which allow for a cooling off period. The Biden administration should then reach out behind the scenes to defuse their differences.
Given the critical importance of their bilateral relationship, especially at this time, both sides must avoid any public blame, which can only aggravate the relationship.
Indeed, the ongoing discord between the US and Saudi Arabia will further embolden Russia and China to do whatever it takes to create schism between the two allies, especially now that Biden has just declared that China and Russia are adversaries of the US.
That may sound like appeasing the Saudis, but it isn’t. Regardless of who is right and who is wrong – and in this case both have their share of the blame – any dispute between allies must be resolved through dialogue and honest discussion.
This is the time when Saudi Arabia and the US must prove that their alliance can and will stand the test of time given their long friendship and constructive relationship for more than seven decades.
*dr Alon Ben-Meir is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University (NYU). He taught courses on international negotiations and Middle East studies for over 20 years.