After a long period of drift and diverging interests, Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut oil production—and potentially spike gas prices—on the eve of the U.S. midterm elections has driven the relationship with the United States to a crisis point.
President Joe Biden should seize the golden opportunity afforded by the crisis, recalibrate the American bargain with Saudi Arabia, and initiate a longer-term reset with other Gulf partners who perceive Washington to be retreating from the region.
There will be costs for both the United States and Saudi Arabia, from lost contracts and domestic political blowback to the possibility of increased regional instability. But these costs are worth it; an American correction with Saudi Arabia will strengthen Washington’s other, healthier alliances, and better position the United States in the global Great Power competition, which has intensified with the Ukraine war.
Saudi Arabia’s defection from its oil-for-security bargain with the United States comes at a historic juncture. The Ukraine war has catalyzed a global realignment. Democracies like the United States are seeing their alliances with new clarity, and must establish new arrangements with autocratic partners like Saudi Arabia, whose political systems and core interests often run squarely counter to the United States and its closest democratic allies.
The United States should treat Saudi Arabia as a critical test case. An effective reset will send a message to other partners and allies about American willingness to pay short-term costs in order to set clear expectations. And it ought to serve as a model for Washington’s other partnerships in the Gulf, all of which are important but have sunk to varying levels of dysfunction because of the distorting effects of arms contracts, oil prices, and threat inflation.
What would a reset look like? To start with, the United States should freeze arms sales and, after a comprehensive review, cancel many Saudi contracts. At home, the United States should invest in high-quality replacement jobs for defense workers, perhaps in renewable energy. Over the long term, quitting the dangerous addiction to Gulf arms contracts can contribute to another, equally important strategic shift: downsizing the U.S. military footprint in the Gulf. The United States will remain an important weapons supplier and security guarantor in the Gulf, and will retain extensive financial and policy ties with its partners there. But it can do so with vastly scaled back commitments and expectations, with a more circumspect view of partners who hedge during an epochal order-shaping moment.
Biden—who, let’s not forget, controls American foreign policy—can directly implement these major shifts. All it takes is a presidential decision.
The United States is deeply involved in the Ukraine war, which directly implicates NATO, along with Russia’s allies. Tensions with China have escalated. In an era of significant and risky Great Power competition, the United States cannot afford its massive overinvestment in a huge, costly, and rigid military infrastructure in the Gulf.
Biden—who, let’s not forget, controls American foreign policy—can directly implement these major shifts. All it takes is a presidential decision, for which there is a well-articulated rationale and plenty of support from progressives, liberals, and realists in Congress.
The old Saudi-U.S. partnership was based on one central, transactional bargain. The U.S. military would guarantee the security of the Saudi monarchy, even when that meant undermining U.S. values and competing interests; and the Saudi monarchy would use its unparalleled oil supply to support critical U.S. strategic goals, even when that meant sacrificing the kingdom’s own interests.
The energy-for-security bargain hatched by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in 1945 was never a union of shared values, like NATO. In fact, Saudi Arabia and the United States are bound by no treaty—they’re not allies, just partners. The relationship has waxed and waned. It collapsed after the 1973 Arab–Israeli War and the Arab oil embargo that followed. The relationship rebounded in the 1980s, when Saudi royals enjoyed particularly warm personal relationships with both presidents Bush. In the aftermath of 9/11, Saudi support for extremists tested the partnership. The two countries also diverged over reckless U.S policies in the early 2000s, when Saudi Arabia counseled against invading Iraq, and promoted a peace plan for Israel and Palestine more viable and equitable than anything pushed by the United States. After each hiccup, the relationship returned to the oil-for-security framework, but with growing distance.
Now, at long last, the rationale for the bargain has been exhausted.
Saudi Arabia opposed Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, arguing instead for confrontation. Partly to assuage fears of Iran, Obama joined Saudi Arabia in its ill-conceived war in Yemen, which exacerbated every security risk it was meant to resolve. Along with Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia tried to block the Iran deal, and immediately began lobbying for its repeal. Washington’s Middle East partners got what they asked for when Donald Trump adopted a “maximum pressure” policy with Iran and pulled out of the nuclear agreement. They applauded some of Washington’s most destablizing moves, including the assassination of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.
Even under Trump, however, Riyadh felt exposed. Trump didn’t respond when Iran bombed the crucial Saudi refinery at Abqaiq with drones in September 2019. Saudi Arabia correctly understood that, even with a friendly president in the White House, the United States was not going to play the kind of active military role in the region that it had during the years of its peak involvement in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.
This summer, during his unfortunate state visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden asked Saudi Arabia to increase oil production, or at least delay cuts. The kingdom responded with a major production cut in October—according to some reports, Saudi pushed for production cuts that ended up being twice what Putin wanted. It’s possible, as Saudi Arabia claims, that Saudi leadership didn’t mean for its actions to be perceived as a direct choice of Russia over the United States, Ukraine, and Europe, and that the kingdom was simply stabilizing higher oil prices in order to balance its budget, indifferent to Washington’s appeal for help. But facts matter, as do consequences. The production cut does, in fact, serve as an infusion for Putin, and a political intervention on the side of one political party in the U.S. elections.
The context is key: a major international realignment is underway. We’re experiencing a hinge point: what Marc Lynch calls a “an international order-defining event, a generational moment in which international alliances and norms are being reshaped in real time.”
Two Saudi moves have particular importance. First is Saudi Arabia’s decision to view its relationship with the United States through a partisan lens, openly preferring Republican presidents and implying, with the rollout of the OPEC+ production cut in October, that it would be happy to help Republicans in the U.S. midterm elections. (Leaks and Saudi media make clear that some Saudi leaders expect the oil price spike to help Republicans in the midterms, like this triumphalist report in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that describes the OPEC+ price cut as a golden opportunity for Republicans that has cornered Biden.) Second and more important is the global hinge moment. The United States and its treaty allies are more focused than at any point since the end of the Cold War on the importance of alliances and the risks posed by militarized, authoritarian states. Saudi Arabia has misread the moment, misconstruing the Ukraine war as another contretemps on which it can agree to disagree with the superpower on whom it depends for security.
Saudi Arabia has misread the moment, misconstruing the Ukraine war as another contretemps on which it can agree to disagree with the superpower on whom it depends for security.
The clarity is bracing, and welcome. The United States has never been willing to provide security guarantees, precisely because of the limited trust and shared interests connecting the two states. So long as it was convenient to paper over the chasm, both states were willing to move forward. Now, the price of sticking with the bargain exceeds the cost of breaking up.
The Way Forward
The United States maintains a colossal defense infrastructure in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. It has already taken some steps to downsize, but it should move faster. There are plenty of other points on which Washington can move with relative speed: There are the official arms contracts, currently worth at least $100 billion; Saudi Arabia is the United States’ largest weapons customer. There is indirect military support through contractors and retired officers who enable the Saudi security sector to function. That flow could easily be reduced, or possibly cut off.
The United States can freeze weapons deals, eliminate any remaining indirect U.S. support for the Yemen war, divert Patriot missile defense batteries from Saudi Arabia to Ukraine, and, in general, let Congress move ahead with a spate of legislation that would restrict Saudi Arabia’s deals with Washington.
Some smart studies have begun to look at what first steps might look like in a right-sized U.S. basing infrastructure for the Middle East. The current Saudi rethink offers the opportunity to go even further. The United States doesn’t need a huge force deployment to monitor the region, intervene against future iterations of the Islamic State, and reduce the likelihood of regional war. Meanwhile, a cut in Washington’s Middle East force posture would enable the Biden administration to dedicate resources to its strategic priorities, Russia and China.
The United States’ sprawling military footprint in the Gulf cannot eliminate the risk of another regional war, but it creates a moral hazard that enables risky escalation by regional belligerents. The United States should do less with less. A smaller U.S. military infrastructure reduces the path dependency on military tools and the likelihood of getting ensnared in regional wars like the Yemen conflict.
If Iran attacks Saudi Arabia and Saudi oil facilities again, as some Iran analysts speculate it might do in the face of a spreading popular revolt, will the Saudis turn to Moscow? Probably not—and the United States would want to help, because despite Saudi Arabia’s recent misjudgments, the United States wants a stable world energy market, and a better-contained Iran.
There are costs to a reset with Saudi Arabia. Other partners in the region might take umbrage and provoke further crises. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran could break into direct conflict. Saudi Arabia could, in theory, use the “oil weapon” to provoke a global financial crisis, although most energy experts believe that’s no longer feasible or in Saudi’s economic interest.
In the long term, the United States should look to more enduring sources of security. On energy, the U.S. should cut consumption and expand its investment in energy sources that don’t depend on fossil fuels, reducing the power of oil producers over the global economy and international energy markets. On geopolitics, Washington must prioritize genuine alliances with states that value democracy and share long-term American aims, over short-term transactional deals with unreliable autocrats.
Rather than running from this moment, the Biden Administration should embrace it as a fantastic opportunity to show the vision and courage to make bold corrections to U.S. alliances and partnerships.
President Biden is in charge of foreign policy. Early in his administration, he tried to chart a middle course between status quo realists, who focused on the costs of disrupting troubled partnerships, and progressives who argued that relationships aligned with American values (democracy, rights, transparency, equality) ultimately provide a better path to security and stability. Biden took the view that major foreign policy shifts are rarely worth the short-term political costs. But the Saudi divergence has forced the U.S. hand. Rather than running from this moment, the Biden Administration should embrace it as a fantastic opportunity to show the vision and courage to make bold corrections to U.S. alliances and partnerships.