The Degrading US-Saudi Relationship

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Kicked off in 1933 with crude oil exploration in the Kingdom, the US-Saudi relationship stretches back almost a century. The relationship between the two countries is based on economic and security cooperation and was going great until Biden happened. In his campaign, Biden promised his administration would fundamentally change US-Saudi relations. Biden during his presidential campaign in 2019 said:

“Jamal Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the crown prince. I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them. We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are. There is very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia, […] And I would also, as pointed out, I would end subsidies that we have, end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children (referring to Yemen), and they’re murdering innocent people. And so, they have to be held accountable.”

Since President Biden assumed office, the US-Saudi relationship has been going through a turbulent period, and has hit its lowest point in decades. In his bid to recalibrate the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, after being elected as POTUS, Biden refused to speak or meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, also known as MBS. The White House announced that “Biden won’t be making a call to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman because his ‘counterpart’ is King Salman”. In February 2021, the Biden administration released an intelligence report declaring that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the brutal assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. In the same month, President Biden revoked the terrorist designations of Iran backed Ansarallah (also referred to as Houthis). The US also reduced its support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, imposing a freeze on the sale of precision-guided missiles. 

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent US lead western sanctions on Moscow, including the energy import, altered the geopolitical dynamics. The evolving situation forced President Biden to appeal Saudi Arabia for an increase in crude oil production but the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rejected the request from the White House to speak with Biden about the oil crisis brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Once again in April 2022, the White House requested a call with the Saudi Crown Prince to boost its crude oil production but was again rejected. However, the Saudi Prince took a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin and affirmed Riyadh’s commitment to maintaining its oil deal with Moscow.

After being repeatedly rebuffed, the Biden administration had to abandon its efforts to get the Kingdom to pump more oil. Instead, the White House is now pleading with Saudi Arabia not to do anything that would hurt the West’s efforts in Ukraine.

In Mid-April 202, CIA Director William Burns secretly met MBS in Jeddah. It was the first meeting between the US top Spy and the Saudi de facto ruler. Burns was deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration & lead the secret negotiations with Iran that resulted in the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. The meeting was to make yet another appeal to Saudi to boost oil production and discuss Saudi weapon purchased from China. The top US spy requested the crown prince not to pursue the purchase of ballistic missiles from China under the secret program code-named ‘Crocodile’. The Biden administration seems to be scared that Riyadh will align more closely with China & Russia, or at least remain neutral on issues of vital interest to the US, as it has on Ukraine. 

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Sino-Saudi growing relationship include not only defence & security but also infrastructure and civil nuclear projects. Post-2016, there has been a significant increase in Saudi weapons purchases from China. Between 2016 and 2020, Saudi defence purchases from China went up by 386 per cent compared to 2011-2015. Since last year, Saudi Arabia has grown even closer to China, deepening ties militarily, culturally, and economically. Beijing is also helping Saudi Arabia develop its ballistic missiles with Chinese technology. Saudi crown prince visited China earlier this year to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics when Western leaders boycotted the event over human rights.  

The Saudi crown prince does not like his treatment by the Biden administration or the US approach to Yemen. The US-Saudi strategic partnership has never been as difficult as it is today. Despite multiple visits by US officials, there is only modest progress & Biden administration is still trying to identify an official to whom the Saudis will listen. 

Notes:

  • Joe Biden, in Departure From Obama Policy, Says He Would Make Saudi Arabia a “Pariah” https://theintercept.com/2019/11/21/democratic-debate-joe-biden-saudi-arabia/
  • White House says Biden won’t be making a call to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman because his ‘counterpart is King Salman’ https://www.businessinsider.in/politics/world/news/white-house-says-biden-wont-be-making-a-call-to-saudi-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-because-his-counterpart-is-king-salman/articleshow/81012914.cms
  • Absolute Power https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/04/mohammed-bin-salman-saudi-arabia-palace-interview/622822/
  • Saudi Crown Prince Is Held Responsible for Khashoggi Killing in U.S. Report https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/26/us/politics/jamal-khashoggi-killing-cia-report.html
  • Saudi, Emirati Leaders Decline Calls With Biden During Ukraine Crisis https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-emirati-leaders-decline-calls-with-biden-during-ukraine-crisis-11646779430
  • How U.S.-Saudi Relations Reached the Breaking Point https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-u-s-saudi-relations-reached-the-breaking-point-11650383578?page=1
  • US stops asking Saudi Arabia to pump more oil, report says https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/us-stops-asking-saudi-arabia-pump-more-oil-report-says
  • Revocation of the Terrorist Designations of Ansarallah https://www.state.gov/revocation-of-the-terrorist-designations-of-ansarallah/
  • CIA Chief Met Saudi Crown Prince Last Month in Push to Mend Ties https://www.wsj.com/articles/cia-chief-met-saudi-crown-prince-last-month-in-push-to-mend-ties-11651588201
  • The Middle East: An emerging market for Chinese arms exports https://armstrade.sipri.org/armstrade/page/values.php
  • Saudi Arabia appears to be building its own ballistic missiles with China’s help, report says https://www.businessinsider.in/international/news/saudi-arabia-appears-to-be-building-its-own-ballistic-missiles-with-chinas-help-report-says/articleshow/88455837.cms
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