Neil Quillam is Associate Fellow, Middle East & North Africa Programme at Chatham House and Alice Gower is Director of Security at Azure Security. Both have authored this article for Arab Digest.
There was great interest in, and much speculation about, the outcome of US President Joe Biden’s July visit to Saudi Arabia. Once it moved from “will he, won’t he” to “yes, he will,” it gave rise to a cottage industry of op-eds, analyses, and roundtables. There was much talk about Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) making up with the US, Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords. Aramco increasing oil production, Israeli security gaining primacy and the US leading the creation of a so-called Middle East Defense Alliance, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Israel—and, crucially, what the US and Saudi “asks” of each other might be.
In the end, the meeting’s outcome was modest, but critical—it re-established a direct line between the White House and the Saudi leadership (read MBS). This was most likely the optimum result for this administration—not a relationship overhaul or reset, but a recognition that functionality must win out and thus communication at the top was restored.
The US-Saudi Relationship Was Never in Danger
Contrary to public perception, the fundamental relationship was never actually in peril. Granted, certain elements came under pressure, especially due to respective domestic political considerations, and personal tensions over difficult issues such as human rights, press freedoms, the Yemen conflict and the Khashoggi murder that played out on the international stage.
As is the case for all new incumbents, Biden’s initial focus was to set himself apart—by some distance—from his predecessor, as much for his international as for his home audience. His was a particular mission to return the US to the more stable and reliable foreign policy upon which the world had come to depend. However, in the Middle East, his challenge was different. The leadership in Saudi Arabia had fully embraced former president Trump, while in the West, political watchers had waited in vain for the crown prince’s brash style to be tamed by the weight of office. But MBS was never socialized by his position of power, leaving the incoming Biden administration to shift gears and, in the eyes of Democrats, course-correct to a more traditional approach towards the Kingdom.
Biden’s assertive attitude towards Riyadh—from campaign through to entering the Oval Office—was more to address Democrat concern over Trump’s turning a blind eye towards behavior considered morally questionable by the US political left than it was to chastise the Gulf state. His pressing priority was to show moral strength to his party, and he made a series of decisions that set him on a collision course with MBS. His early announcement that he would speak only to King Salman, citing protocol, was a clear snub to MBS. Biden intended to deliver a message: we are going to play by the rules, and we expect you to do so too. In February 2021, the White House did two things. First, it released the CIA report on the Istanbul murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The report found that MBS had personally ordered the assassination of the Saudi journalist Adnan Khashoggi. Second, the White House halted US support for offensive operations in Yemen and suspended sales of specific weapons to Saudi Arabia.
MBS Plays Hardball
In response, MBS took his own hard line, which was intended to show both the Saudi population and international leaders that Riyadh’s policies will not be determined, or unduly influenced, by the US. He was striking out and his sentiment was widely shared by many Saudis and others in the Gulf. MBS was the personification of the feeling that Washington no longer calls the shots in the Middle East. With the advantage of youth, MBS basically shrugged his shoulders at Biden and said “whatever” as evidenced in his interview with The Atlantic in March.
The US calculus towards Saudi Arabia changed when Russia invaded Ukraine. The US and its European allies sought to respond to Russian aggression even as oil prices spiraled to around $140 per barrel. Rising oil prices left Biden with little choice other than to reach out directly to MBS after attempts to do so by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan failed. Sullivan was unable to persuade the Saudi leadership to increase production and offset crippling price hikes.
MBS’s’ well-publicized refusal to take Biden’s “oil call” in March was something of a pinnacle moment. It not only inflamed personal animosity between Biden and MBS, but it also impressed upon both of them the necessity to dial things down and work together for the sake of their mutual national interests. Buoyed by a combination of high oil prices and the fact that he was feted by French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, MBS must have felt vindicated that Biden wanted to visit. Global events had forced another gear change in the White House: Biden succumbed to realpolitik and met MBS in Riyadh, fist bump and all.
But underneath the public spat and the personal tensions, the multifaceted dimensions of bilateral ties—defense, trade, finance and investment—continued at pace, and in both directions. The trade volume between the two countries reached close to $25bn in 2021, a 22% increase from 2020. There was a significant rise in non-oil exports from the Kingdom to the US. Now, Biden is slowly thawing on defense sales with whispers that restrictions may be reconsidered in the near future. Some might point to the need for more oil on the market to combat high gasoline prices as a driving force, while others note a broader strategy to push Arab-Israeli security cooperation to counter Iran, particularly now that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) seems to be dead. Earlier this year, the US allowed the sale of Patriot missiles and anti-ballistic defense systems to Riyadh following Houthi attacks against the Kingdom. If the shaky, but still holding, recently extended truce in Yemen becomes a permanent ceasefire, the scope of US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia may broaden yet again.
While the Biden-MBS meeting drew most media attention, and many analysts, including your authors, rolled their eyes at the suggestion of yet another so-called Arab NATO project, the Jeddah visit did lay down some tracks towards developing a multilateral regional security framework. Instead of focusing on the harder security elements such as air and missile defense, the US and Saudi Arabia will seek to bring onboard the members of the ‘Negev 9’ by engaging with them at different times, paces and spaces on softer security issues in a bid to work towards greater multilateral security integration, but with no precise end date in mind.
By doing so, the Biden administration is continuing a long-held tradition of trying to develop a regional security architecture that incorporates Israel—following the success of the Abraham Accords—and advances Israel’s long trek to normalization of ties with Arab states. If successful, it would, on the one hand, allow the US to remain central to regional security and, on the other, reduce its level of commitment, as regional partners increasingly share the burden.
There is no question that the US would like to spend less time and energy on helping manage regional affairs, particularly given its focus on China. Its pursuit of a new regional security architecture bringing together ‘like-minded’ states to work collaboratively is a long-term project that may benefit from the catalyst of technological leapfrogging that could spur quicker and more comprehensive cooperation. But there can be no doubt that its success will only be realized if Washington shows unwavering commitment and constantly reassures regional leaders that they are valued and are never to be forgotten. Fist bumping with MBS may have stuck in Biden’s craw, but he knew that it was a necessary step to not only to open up critical communications between the White House and the Saudi leadership, but also to serve as a milestone in galvanizing regional partners into a security framework to meet the challenge of Iran in a post-JCPOA era.
[Arab Digest first published this article and is a partner of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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