This report is part of an ongoing TCF series that offers progressive policy proposals for America’s most pressing international priorities.
The time has come for a course correction in U.S.–Saudi relations. Both countries’ foreign policies are evolving amid domestic turbulence, in ways that have already strained the partnership—and set the stage for deeper changes to come. The United States is less dependent on Gulf oil imports than at any point in recent memory, and exhausted from recent wars in the region.1 Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many experts wondered if the United States could afford to “do less” in the region, and with Saudi Arabia in particular.2 As Saudi Arabia undertakes seismic societal changes and prepares for a formal leadership transition, the kingdom has departed from decades of quiet diplomacy to adopt an assertive, sometimes confrontational approach beyond its borders.
Against this backdrop, the policies of both Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (known in policy circles as MBS) and U.S. president Donald Trump have crystallized, for many in both major U.S. political parties, the need for large-scale changes. Prince Mohammed has sought to transform Saudi Arabia from a status quo power into a disruptive force in the region.3 Under the mantle of generational change, he attempted to raze or remake several pillars of the country’s domestic and foreign policies, from reining in the religious police to replacing consensus-based decision-making within the royal family with something approaching one-man rule. From the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has pursued a pattern of ill-considered choices that have undermined U.S. interests and values, rightly drawing bipartisan condemnation.
At almost every turn, Trump has encouraged and even defended these actions. Not only did he shamefully side with Khashoggi’s killers under the pretext that the U.S. economy needed Saudi weapons purchases, but he has also deployed the majority of his presidential vetoes to shield Riyadh. Meanwhile, Trump’s mix of provocation and passivity toward Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief adversary, has yielded meager positive results, while pushing the region to the brink of war and leaving it stalemated there. The administration’s permissive response to the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and others distracted and divided the United States and its regional partners, and undermined regional security cooperation. Together, these failings have revealed the shortcomings of both “maximum pressure” on Iran and maximum latitude for Saudi Arabia. A new direction is needed.
U.S. policy should press Saudi Arabia to make meaningful policy changes to avoid diminished ties, though both paths should remain open, depending on Saudi choices.
To achieve a progressive course correction, the United States should reassert its considerable leverage, reinforce lapsed expectations regarding Saudi behavior, and reorient regional diplomacy. The new diplomatic goals should be de-escalating tensions and ending the civil wars and proxy conflicts that have ravaged the region over the past decade. Some analysts have well-founded doubts that the U.S.–Saudi relationship should be sustained in anything resembling its current form. But the greater dangers lie in the risk of a costly, chaotic rupture, and the aim of a progressive policy should be to reform a partnership that still holds value. U.S. policy should press Saudi Arabia to make meaningful policy changes to avoid diminished ties, though both paths should remain open, depending on Saudi choices. Saudi actions to end the campaign in Yemen, engage in constructive regional diplomacy, and address human rights issues would unlock continued U.S. support for the partnership. A six-month U.S. strategic review of all aspects of U.S.–Saudi cooperation would correct recent excesses, lend coherence to disparate efforts, and provide U.S. leverage. American support for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen would end. Washington would redouble efforts to help Saudi Arabia defend against legitimate threats from the Houthis and Iran. Cooperation would continue on issues such as counterterrorism, economic modernization, securing vital waterways, and shared regional challenges. Finally, a progressive course correction would enlist Saudi Arabia in a regional dialogue that, alongside renewed nuclear diplomacy with Iran, aims to pave the path for a less militarized U.S. policy and presence in a more peaceful, stable Middle East.
Reform, Not Rupture
Over the past year, in addition to discussions in Riyadh in November 2019, the author conducted more than fifty interviews with policymakers on how to achieve a progressive course correction of U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia. The former U.S. diplomats, previous Democratic political appointees, congressional staff, academics, think tank officials, and activists interviewed were nearly unanimous in critiquing the current approach. (Their identities have been kept anonymous for this report, so that they could speak freely.) But beneath that rhetorical convergence lay divergent understandings and approaches when it comes to translating critique into policy. Some, whom this report terms “resetters,” quietly argue for the enduring value of U.S.–Saudi relations and warn of the downsides of U.S. abandonment and Saudi hedging. While critical of Riyadh and Trump, they propose resetting the terms of cooperation, and engaging in “tough love” to influence Saudi actions.4 Others, referred to in this report as “rethinkers,” draw on a more fundamental critique of Saudi Arabia and U.S. foreign policy priorities. They advocate for a departure from past U.S. commitments to what they consider an unreliable, unpalatable, outdated, and overrated partnership.5 Adjudicating these differences and drawing on the best of the insights that both camps offer will be critical for crafting and carrying out a more progressive policy toward Saudi Arabia in the future.
Alongside concerns about Saudi actions, there are also reasons for caution in how far and how fast the United States should seek to change relations. A functioning bilateral relationship is no American favor to Saudi Arabia, either—such cooperation advances important U.S. interests, and can continue to do so. Washington and Riyadh already work closely together on counterterrorism, energy, and regional issues; the United States benefits from this work as much as Saudi Arabia does. Despite reduced U.S. imports of Gulf oil, recent Saudi actions to collapse global oil prices (though the kingdom ultimately relented under U.S. pressure) demonstrate the continued importance of Saudi production and the flow of Middle Eastern oil to the U.S. and world economies. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has taken important steps to build a strategic partnership with Israel. It has emerged as perhaps the single most influential Arab state and a key player alongside the United States (and formidable potential opponent) on many regional files of U.S. interest. Despite serious differences, Riyadh’s seventy-five-year alignment with the United States stands in stark contrast to the Iranian government’s foundational anti-Americanism. Alternatively, a Saudi Arabia that is unstable—whether due to failed reforms, terrorism, economic instability, or internal strife—could disrupt the global economy and create dangerous openings for U.S. adversaries and terrorists in the region, severely harming U.S. interests.
None of these interests or concerns require the U.S.–Saudi relationship to be set in stone. And indeed, there are significant costs to retaining the status quo even without Trump. The Yemen war, which began at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, makes it clear that the problems with the U.S.–Saudi relationship didn’t begin when Trump took office.
A shift toward a more progressive policy on Saudi Arabia should factor in both foundational critiques and compelling counterarguments, drawing on the best insights and guarding against the weaknesses of each of the competing frameworks outlined below. A sound new policy should downgrade expectations while preserving a relationship. Through deft diplomacy and clear priorities, Washington can leave open a viable path for Riyadh to adapt to a meaningfully updated strategic partnership with the United States. At the same time, a progressive new policy should prepare for a more dramatic rethinking of the relationship if the kingdom chooses a different course. Such an approach requires the United States to exercise its leverage to alter the terms of cooperation and Saudi behavior via an early strategic review encompassing all aspects of U.S.–Saudi cooperation. It should present Saudi leaders with a stark choice when it comes to U.S. relations: preserving close ties with the United States will only be possible if the kingdom charts a more constructive path forward.6 And it should seek to elicit Saudi confidence-building measures, including on Yemen and on human rights concerns, as part of reestablishing a close relationship post-Trump.
The United States should honor the will of Congress and privately set a date for phasing out its support for Saudi bombing of Yemen. By setting a deadline, it would also give Saudi Arabia an opportunity to act beforehand to declare a ceasefire, ease the siege of Hodeida, and advance a credible peace plan. The United States should double down on efforts to help Saudi Arabia defend its own territory and critical infrastructure from Iranian threats while pressing the kingdom and its Arab neighbors to reconcile among themselves and join an internationally backed regional dialogue to lower tensions with Iran.
This approach to a more progressive policy on Saudi Arabia requires careful and deliberate diplomacy to rebalance relations. Saudi leadership has grown accustomed to Trump’s reflexive rhetorical support, and a rupture could occur if Saudi leaders prove unwilling to meet the redefined terms of cooperation—or strike out angrily and reject them outright.
However, the end of the Trump administration presents an opportunity. Saudi Arabia has much to gain from preserving strategic cooperation, and will continue to accept judicious bargains that advance such partnership. The desire to sustain cooperation post-Trump will create diplomatic leverage for the American administration that comes after Trump—just as the desire to repair relations after Obama’s presidency created leverage for Trump, though he misused it.
From Mutual Frustration to Blank Check
After decades rooted in a bargain of security for oil, the U.S.–Saudi relationship has entered a period of turbulence and uncertainty. Ties have whipsawed from the traumas of 9/11 to profound differences over regional policy under Obama. Most recently, an unconditional rhetorical embrace from Trump has enabled a pattern of aggressive Saudi policies, raising bipartisan objections and all but assuring the next course correction to come.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, carried out by a terrorist organization led by a Saudi and involving fifteen Saudi hijackers, precipitated a new phase in U.S.–Saudi relations. Alongside the Cold War hallmarks of arms sales, oil exports, and protection from external aggression came cooperation on counterterrorism—and an increasing sense of frustration on both sides. While Saudi rulers came to embrace the fight against al-Qaeda once the group threatened the kingdom in 2003, Riyadh still struggles with enduring political fallout from the ways that its ultraconservative interpretations of Islam have helped lay the ideological groundwork for groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Still, beginning in 2003—despite some U.S. frustrations regarding Saudi methods, propagation of ideology, nongovernmental financing, and support for Salafi proxies—Saudi–U.S. cooperation on counterterrorism has been deep, sustained, and significant.7 At the same time, Saudi rulers have grown increasingly frustrated with U.S. Middle East policies, warning President George W. Bush that invading Iraq would empower Iran, becoming furious at the bloodshed of the Second Intifada, and chafing at the “freedom agenda” demands for reforms within Saudi Arabia.8
The sense of strategic divergence only increased under the Obama administration. From 2011 on, Saudi leaders became alienated from an Obama administration that simply had other priorities, embracing a policy approach that Saudi Arabia and other regional leaders felt underappreciated Washington’s role in forming and sustaining the Middle Eastern order it came to critique. A subsequent series of pivotal decisions widened the gap: above all, the Obama administration’s cautious embrace of revolution in Egypt that overthrew Hosni Mubarak (a pro-U.S. dictator); the decision not to use force against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria; the policy to “rebalance” resources to Asia and the Pacific; and secret diplomacy that yielded a historic nuclear agreement with Iran. The United States sought to mollify Saudi criticisms through high-level dialogues; action plans; and record-setting arms sales; as well as the Obama administration’s regrettable decision to support Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen. But the damage of the administration’s other actions was done. And the mistrust and hard feelings were mutual. In April 2016, Obama called Saudi Arabia a “so-called ally” that would eventually have to find a way to “share the neighborhood” in a “cold peace” with Iran.9 That prospect, whatever its merits, was anathema to Saudi leaders, who pointedly slighted Obama on his last visit to Saudi Arabia, in April 2016.10 Especially after the 2016 election, many Democrats also came to see Saudi Arabia as inappropriately enmeshed in U.S. politics—staunchly aligned with Trump and other critics of Obama.11
Upon taking office, Trump saw an opportunity to differentiate himself from his predecessor, and seized it wholeheartedly. Where Obama sought, at times, to bridge regional divides—between Saudi Arabia and Iran, secular autocrats and Islamists, regimes and citizens—the Trump White House has emphatically taken sides. Trump made Riyadh the destination of his first overseas trip—famously photographed alongside the Saudi monarch caressing a glowing orb. He has embraced an activist Saudi foreign policy. Trump’s approach seems to rest on an assumption that, if given unconditional support, Saudi Arabia can make a dramatic difference in advancing the core U.S. regional ambitions of rolling back Iran, achieving Israeli–Palestinian peace, and domestic job creation in the United States—and perhaps even provide Washington an eventual ticket out of its intense regional entanglements. None of these hopes has borne out.
Trump seems to hope that, given unconditional support, Saudi Arabia can dramatically assist in rolling back Iran, achieving Israeli–Palestinian peace, and creating U.S. jobs—and maybe even help Washington out of its intense regional entanglements. None of these hopes has borne out.
In the meantime, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has spiked tensions across the region. There have been numerous maritime attacks that the United States has attributed to Iran, and an escalation in missile attacks into Saudi Arabia from Iranian proxies in Yemen and, reportedly, Iraq. The U.S. response has been a mix of new military commitments and questioning of older ones: on one hand, the United States has stationed thousands of troops inside Saudi Arabia for the first time since 2003—a shift particularly notable because al-Qaeda used the previous U.S. military presence as a justification for jihad.12 Meanwhile, Trump did not respond militarily when Iran launched missiles at Saudi territory. “This was an attack on Saudi Arabia and it wasn’t an attack on us,” he said, warning that countries should be “protecting their own ships” in the Strait of Hormuz, where a predominant U.S. security presence protecting shipping lanes has been a cornerstone of U.S. regional policy.13
Despite its unevenness, Trump’s approach earned significant Saudi goodwill. For example, Saudi Arabia created a close bilateral channel with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In November 2017, soon after being designated the heir to the Saudi throne, Prince Mohammed endorsed Trump as “the right person at the right time.” In general, Saudi Arabia has shown a degree of deference to the Trump administration’s top priorities.14 Saudi Arabia remained quiet as Trump discriminated against Muslims through his travel ban, announced an abrupt U.S. military departure from Syria, and even—initially, at least—as Trump moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.15
There are, however, signs that Saudi Arabia recognizes it has overinvested in Trump—and overextended itself beyond its borders, based partly on that support. The lack of a U.S. military response to Iran’s attacks on Saudi oil refineries in September 2019 made clear that, while the Trump administration was willing to push the region to the brink of war, it was not willing to protect Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from the consequences of the confrontational U.S. approach they had championed. Since then, Saudi Arabia has sought to mend fences with Qatar, to reach a ceasefire with Yemen, and even reportedly to engage in backchannel diplomacy with Iran, albeit all with little success.
Growing anti-Saudi sentiment in Congress marks another notable development in the relationship. Congressional antagonism toward Saudi Arabia did not begin with Trump or Prince Mohammed—or even 9/11—although each added fuel to the fire. Indeed, at the end of the Obama administration, Congress overrode a presidential veto to pass a law that limited Saudi Arabia’s sovereign immunity from the families of September 11 victims. Congress continues to demand a full investigation of the Khashoggi killing, which also helped galvanize lawmakers in the unprecedented passage, in January 2019, of a bipartisan War Powers Resolution urging an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen. Most recently, Republican senators from oil-producing states hit hard by the Saudi-Russian oil price war have joined the ranks of Saudi Arabia’s critics on Capitol Hill.16 While Trump has exercised his veto on congressional action against Saudi Arabia, a raft of legislative proposals with bipartisan support from senior senators have sought to rein in U.S.–Saudi cooperation on issues ranging from the Yemen war to arms sales to nuclear cooperation to post-Khashoggi investigations and sanctions.17
Resetters and Rethinkers
For many progressives, Prince Mohammed has come to rival Vladimir Putin as a symbol of the Trumpian pro-authoritarian foreign policy they seek to repeal.18 It follows that a willingness to dramatically shift U.S.–Saudi relations represents a key test of commitment. And indeed, Democrats have been united with some Republicans in calling for major changes.19 A consensus progressive critique has emerged: unconditional U.S. diplomatic cover for a variety of reckless acts has encouraged behavior that hurt U.S. interests, while reports of private understandings and lavish Saudi stays at Trump hotels call into question the conduct of the relationship.20 Progressives also widely express the view that the United States is not beholden to Saudi oil or weapons purchases, and can afford to test its leverage and take markedly greater distance.
However, beneath this consensus critique, progressives agreed more on the direction that changes in U.S.–Saudi relations should take—more pressure, accountability, and conditionality; less belligerence and enabling—than on the desired destination. Interviews revealed two main currents with different assumptions and goals: resetters and rethinkers. Before further unpacking the distinctions, it is worth noting the areas of overlap across these two camps. Even the most cautious resetters seek major alterations to inject transactional elements into U.S.–Saudi ties. Almost all rethinkers hope to preserve close U.S.–Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism and other issues.
The Reset Camp
Resetters believe in the continued importance of close U.S.–Saudi ties for U.S. interests. They have greater confidence that the United States can leverage its influence to shape Saudi behavior, including that of Prince Mohammed, within the context of a reformed partnership. Their paradigm is “tough love” (as several interviewees put it), in which the United States demands concrete but significant changes in Saudi policy, but in exchange offers a path back to U.S. reassurance. For example, for Yemen, resetters want aggressive U.S. policy to end the war—but privately worry an abrupt cutoff of U.S. military aid would damage relations without ending fighting on the ground. Knowing that Saudi Arabia fears losing Trump and his veto pen, resetters argue for treating those concerns as leverage to see if Prince Mohammed is willing to adapt to preserve close ties with the United States. They make the following core arguments:
- Saudi Arabia’s government is a pro-American regional anchor. Resetters approach the relationship from the premise that the United States benefits from close cooperation on counterterrorism, Iran, and regional issues. The global economy still depends on stable supplies of energy and on Saudi production choices. Early this year, when Saudi Arabia collapsed global oil prices, it devastated U.S. producers. Then the kingdom partially relented under U.S. pressure—putting the lie, resetters said, to the notion that domestic “energy dominance” gave Washington the ability to wash its hands of the Gulf.21 Many resetters are skeptical about the implementation of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform plan, which aims to wean the kingdom’s reliance on oil revenue and diversify its economy. However, resetters argue that recent major religious and societal reforms—from taming religious police, to women driving, to opening the country to tourism—hold genuine promise to lessen extremism. Resetters acknowledge that Riyadh undercut Obama and overcompensated in the other direction with Trump. However, they insist that Saudi leaders, in stark contrast to their Iranian counterparts, remain sympathetic to the United States and its interests. Saudi Arabia, whose activist foreign policy some resetters explained as trying to fill a void left by U.S. retreat and Iranian encroachment, leads an Arab bloc that has overcome decades of embargo to form a quiet strategic and security partnership with another close U.S. partner, Israel.22 Moreover, Saudi economic statecraft remains a vital fiscal backstop to several Middle Eastern states where the United States also has a stake.
- Rupturing ties risks Saudi stability and the United States’ position. Some resetters look over the horizon to great power competition to warn against cutting loose partners in that struggle. They note that Saudi Arabia’s geostrategic significance as China’s main energy supplier could grow, even as exports to the United States wane. As Middle Eastern states implode, Washington underrates Saudi internal stability at its own peril. One think tank analyst compared Prince Mohammed to the shah of Iran, and warned that the consequences of Prince Mohammed’s downfall for the United States could be even worse than the Iranian Revolution of 1979.23 Some interviewees warned that plummeting oil revenues and COVID-19 could leave Prince Mohammed and his country more vulnerable than many observers realize. Resetters believe that Saudi instability—due to failed reforms, an economic crash, ruling family splits, or religious backlash—would harm U.S. interests, disrupt the world economy, and create openings for Iran and Sunni jihadists.
- The United States should maintain a steady relationship with Prince Mohammed. Resetters maintain that a new administration should develop a relationship with and thereby cultivate influence over Prince Mohammed. For all his sins, Prince Mohammed may lead his country for decades and leave a transformative mark. It would be costly to make him a U.S. adversary. Moreover, some suggest that Prince Mohammed’s outreach to the Houthis, Qatar, and Iran since late 2019 suggests that he has recognized that he overreached and has learned from his mistakes. (Rethinkers counter that Saudi Arabia took actions to roil world oil markets months later.) What extent Saudi leaders will prove willing to recognize and learn from past missteps and change course remains a vital question. “The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is whether MBS can learn and change,” one former U.S. diplomat said in January.24 Resetters want to test the proposition.
- Overcorrection risks incoherence and the perception of “switching sides.” While wary of being tarred as an apologist for Prince Mohammed in defending U.S.–Saudi ties amid public backlash, numerous resetters quietly warned to beware of an overcorrection between presidencies, and between Riyadh and Tehran. While prominent on other issues, the resetters’ voices are not often captured in public or legislative debate regarding Saudi Arabia. They worried that politicized antagonism contributed to a dismissive attitude about the downside risks of Saudi instability. As one centrist think tank analyst put it in October 2019: “‘Fuck these rich assholes’ is a very cavalier attitude to take with a country that’s too important to fail.”25 Saudi Arabia is precisely that significant because of what resetters perceive to be an enduring and center-stage threat from Iran. Especially for Democrats, pairing a punitive Saudi downgrade with overeagerness toward Iran risks conveying not merely a rebalancing post-Trump, but effectively switching sides—discarding seven-plus decades of Saudi partnership and four-plus decades of Iranian anti-Americanism.
The Rethink Camp
By contrast, rethinkers describe different realities and propose more fundamental changes. Behind the litany of Saudi mistakes—Yemen, detaining Lebanon’s prime minister, blockading Qatar, jailing businessmen at the Ritz, needless feuds with Canada and Germany, Khashoggi, infiltrating Twitter, and now oil price wars—rethinkers see a partnership that is unreliable, outdated, and risks implicating and entangling the United States in conflicts not of its choosing.26 They see Saudi Arabia behaving increasingly as a rogue, destabilizing actor in the region, without performing its past role funding and stabilizing U.S. partners.
- The value proposition isn’t there—especially as both countries change. Rethinkers question whether the U.S.–Saudi relationship does more harm than good.27 They point to the damage to U.S. objectives of ill-considered Saudi moves—which they see as increasingly contributing to regional chaos. They also argue that changing U.S. interests should lead Washington to question whether it “needs” Saudi Arabia anymore.28 “What do we get?” was a common refrain from rethinkers. “Saudi Arabia causes more regional disruption than it resolves and routinely fails to deliver meaningful support to stabilize crises,” one rethinker said. “It will pursue internal reforms, whether or not it has a blank check from us.”29 Rethinkers suggest that Saudi counterterrorism and religious reform are securely driven by self-interest rather than fealty to the United States, and will continue with or without a full embrace from Washington. Still, others—in an apparent contradiction—also note Saudis’ conservatism and past role in fueling religious extremism.
- Prince Mohammed’s leadership is irreconcilable with U.S. values and interests. Rethinkers tend to see Prince Mohammed as, personally, a lost cause, and they believe the United States could do little to affect stability inside the kingdom. For them, the Khashoggi murder crossed a fundamental moral and legal line. They see volatility at the top in Saudi decision-making that will make implementing a strategic partnership all but impossible. “We still don’t know why the hell he kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon,” one interviewee said in February, referring to Saad Hariri’s mysterious sojourn in Saudi Arabia in 2017, during which he briefly resigned from the premiership—apparently under duress. Prince Mohammed “certainly didn’t learn that from his father,” the interviewee added. “What does it mean about his character?” Multiple rethinkers worried about the prospect that Saudi Arabia, given its recent trajectory, could evolve into something approaching a rogue state.A related critique is that Prince Mohammed and other regional leaders have essentially become partisan actors within U.S. policy debates. Saudi rulers disrespected and sought to undermine Obama, but went all in for Trump, reportedly including inappropriate engagement in U.S. politics. In doing so, the rulers became hostile to Democrats or progressives themselves—or at least to their key priorities. Where resetters and rethinkers largely diverge is whether past behavior necessitates a punitive reckoning or forward-looking deterrence. At a minimum, rethinkers warn others not to wish away the probability of a renewed political battle over Iran and other policies on which they see Saudi Arabia and other regional governments—in partnership with Congressional Republicans—as adversarial influences within the U.S. system.30 Rethinkers (along with many resetters) believe there have to be consequences and tight conditionality to punish any future Saudi actions that resemble meddling in domestic U.S. politics. They argue that such measures will help reestablish a norm of reciprocity and nation-to-nation ties, rather than the opaque relationships between ruling families (Saudi or American) when Republicans are in charge.
- Breaking the status quo is essential for a progressive shift. For most rethinkers, major changes in Saudi policy often nest within a larger critique. Several presidencies, in their view, have overinvested in the military and hyped the Iran threat.31 Instead, many embrace “normalizing” ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran: a distant, evenhanded approach rooted in diplomatic tools—not military solutions. Many rethinkers see a decisive distancing from Saudi Arabia as a critical test of progressive commitment. They seek the symbolism as well as the substance of an immediate cutoff in U.S. military support to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, and advocate not just for security cooperation reforms but also an arms sales cutoff. Some predicted other oil importers would step in and secure sea-lanes if the United States pulled back. More than one wondered if higher oil prices might helpfully hasten a post-carbon future,. “Spending on security to provide a subsidy to Saudi oil is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing,” said one interviewee in October 2019.
Although the U.S.–Saudi relationship needs urgent, significant changes, a working U.S.–Saudi relationship remains in the U.S. interest. This means that the post-Trump United States must articulate and execute major changes to the terms of U.S.–Saudi cooperation without defaulting to old habits or rupturing relations in seeking to change them. The goal should be to employ U.S. leverage to responsibly recalibrate U.S.–Saudi relations and test whether the United States can still effectively shape Saudi choices. A Saudi Arabia that makes a different choice would necessitate moving to a more fundamental rethink and right-sizing of what would be a demonstrably diminished partnership.
Offer a Choice and Seek Confidence-Building Measures
A progressive course correction can benefit from Saudi worries about fundamental changes in relations. It should offer Riyadh a choice: Saudi Arabia can reset its relationship with the United States by demonstrating a desire to work closely with Washington to craft a more consultative, less confrontational approach across a range of issues. If Riyadh fails to do this, it can expect to see strategic cooperation with Washington grow increasingly limited as other nations take precedence. Under this model, step by step, greater Saudi responsibility would beget greater reassurance from the new administration. If achieved, steps such as a ceasefire and easing air and sea passages into Yemen, releasing political prisoners, pledging to end extraterritorial abuses of dissidents, and participating in a regional dialogue with Iran would unlock improved relations with a post-Trump U.S. administration.
If Saudi Arabia persists in sudden, surprising, and destabilizing policy moves that negatively affect U.S. interests, that will be damaging for the partnership’s prospects. However, even if things go well, future disagreements should be expected in Washington and Riyadh. In the past, both sides have felt burned by the other. A better approach would be to set an expectation of “no surprises.” While they will disagree, wherever possible both should consult before taking important or disruptive policy steps.
Reset the Terms of Cooperation, Including a Six-Month Strategic Review
Certain aspects of the relationship deserve closer examination. The next administration, with Congress, should institute a time-bound, six-month strategic review of U.S.–Saudi cooperation.32 The areas warranting a closer look post-Trump include arms sales, reforms to govern the actions of U.S. private intelligence firms that have facilitated Saudi human rights abuses; and nuclear cooperation.
If the Saudi-led bombing campaign persists in Yemen without U.S. support, the administration should work with Congress to further restrict American arms shipments to Saudi Arabia.
One important outcome of a strategic review would be reforms to security cooperation. If the Saudi-led bombing campaign persists in Yemen without U.S. support, the administration should work with Congress to further restrict American arms shipments to Saudi Arabia. Going forward, the U.S. should make clear that it does not view arms sales to Saudi Arabia as a simple commercial transaction to which Saudi Arabia is entitled—let alone one that, paradoxically, leaves Washington beholden (what one academic interviewee described in January as “reverse leverage”). To that end, Washington should impose a temporary moratorium on major new arms sales. It should seek to refocus defense cooperation and sales, where it can, away from advanced fighter jets and toward Saudi defensive deficiencies in need of quick and significant U.S. cooperation such as naval defense, and antimissile, rocket, and drone technologies to protect critical infrastructure. Looking to the wider region, the United States should think carefully over time about where reducing the flow of offensive weapons and sensitive systems might contribute to regional stability, and how to mitigate any U.S. economic disruption that might cause. Moreover, Trump has broken the usual review process on arms sales, including through emergency declarations.33 A new administration must work closely with Congress to restore more meaningful engagement. Even with new restrictions and oversight, the value proposition of cooperation with the world’s most powerful military will likely hold. Global reforms to U.S. security cooperation and arms sales policies to favor transparency, consultation with Congress, and performance indicators would help update Gulf partnerships without feeling targeted or punitive.34
Broaden and Institutionalize Ties
The mode of U.S.–Saudi cooperation should change as well. Early in the next presidency, the U.S. administration should send a trusted, empowered ambassador to Riyadh to manage ties. A civilian of stature, such as a former senator or cabinet member, would be an ideal voice to deliver difficult messages on the president’s behalf and resist clientelism while building ties. Washington should press for as full an accounting for the death of Jamal Khashoggi as it can get—as well as the firmest possible Saudi commitment against repeating such crimes. Neither the accounting nor the commitment is likely to be particularly satisfying. Nor can either fully insulate the U.S.–Saudi relationship from hyper-personalized rule or questionable decisions. But as long as Prince Mohammed remains the preeminent Saudi decision-maker, it would be wise for senior U.S. officials to be in regular contact with him and his closest advisors. If Saudi Arabia takes confidence-building steps, this should eventually include leader-level meetings overseas.
End the War in Yemen and Help Saudi Arabia Defend Its Territory
The war in Yemen, whatever its original justifications, has resulted in humanitarian catastrophe and strengthened U.S. and Saudi adversaries. Furthermore, Congress has spoken, sending legislation to Trump’s desk seeking to end U.S. support. Working closely with Congress, the incoming administration should privately make clear to Saudi Arabia that an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led anti-Houthi campaign is coming by a date a few months later. It should also, however, press Saudi Arabia to act ahead of that date to seek a nationwide ceasefire, table a credible peace deal, and meaningfully open up the port of Hodeida under international supervision. These steps would serve as early signs of seriousness about sustaining U.S.–Saudi relations.
In demanding a Saudi ceasefire, the United States should be ready to make exceptions for counterterrorism support against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. It should also be ready to make exceptions for the territorial defense of Saudi Arabia, which should be allowed to respond proportionally if Houthis continue to launch rocket, missile, or drone attacks on its territory, critical infrastructure, or vital international shipping lanes. Many interviewees preferred an immediate U.S. cutoff to send the strongest possible message. But the author believes it is worth first spending several months trying to use U.S. leverage to achieve an end to the fighting without a step that Saudi Arabia will view as punitive—while being ready to act decisively by a date certain to end U.S. support. Riyadh can sell this approach as refocusing on the Saudi people and economy, by choosing to end a costly war. The ultimate goal should be to end the war on the ground. There is a risk that telegraphing a pullout emboldens the Houthis, prolongs the conflict, and diminishes U.S. leverage. Recognizing the limits of direct and even indirect U.S. influence over the Houthis, the United States will need to work to push all sides to accept UN peacemaking efforts and make meaningful concessions. The United States should designate a Yemen envoy to help.35 An approach focused on helping Yemen requires restoring and expanding U.S. humanitarian aid. The United States will also need to press Saudi Arabia, despite collapsing oil revenues, to invest in Yemeni reconstruction. Alternative sources of investment will be scarce during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is squeezing economies all over the world.
If the goal is to recalibrate rather than rupture, then the United States needs to recognize that Saudi Arabia faces legitimate security threats.
If the goal is to recalibrate rather than rupture, then the United States needs to recognize that Saudi Arabia faces legitimate security threats from Houthi-held territories as well as Iran, compounded by severe limitations in its ability to defend itself. Since mid-2019, the United States has deployed thousands of troops and advanced defensive capabilities inside Saudi Arabia to defend against missiles and drones from Iran and its proxies. This deployment sent a diplomatic message and helped protect Saudi infrastructure. A progressive policy could decide to sustain the defensive deployment so long as Saudi Arabia works constructively to uphold a ceasefire and advance peace talks, and agrees to good-faith engagement in regional talks with Iran.
As Policies Diverge on Iran, Offer a Mix of Consultation, Reassurance—and Pressure
A policy of “no surprises” means close consultation on the strategy to confront both Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its destabilizing regional policies. As the United States seeks to establish deterrence and pursue diplomacy with Iran, close, transparent consultation with regional partners will be vital. Should the next U.S. administration work to reenter a nuclear agreement or seek a more comprehensive follow-on deal with Iran and the international community, U.S. regional partners, including Saudi Arabia, will seek a voice in what “more for more” with Iran ultimately means—and risk playing spoiler roles if dissatisfied.36 In returning to a nuclear agreement or undoing other Trump-era policies that Saudi Arabia supports, the United States should also seek an initial bargain of “calm for calm” from Iran that would lessen the threat to Gulf partners as well as U.S. forces. The United States should seek opportunities and policies that send the message that U.S.–Iranian rapprochement does not mean a blank check for malign activities by Iranian proxies or an end to support for Saudi territorial defense. In returning to diplomacy with Iran, providing the right kind of “reassurance” to Saudi Arabia means working closely with regional partners to responsibly address concrete concerns—not blessing misguided or unwise initiatives. The emphasis should be on defensive military capabilities—from maritime interdiction, to missile defense, to helping shore up Saudi Arabia’s cyber defenses, to a U.S. decision to maintain troops and advanced capabilities on Saudi soil as part of Riyadh’s buy-in to its approach on Iran.37
As diplomacy with Iran proceeds, the United States should press Saudi Arabia and other regional actors to take a wait-and-see approach. Washington should send a firm message that attempting an end run around the incoming administration on matters of top priority would do consequential damage to broader prospects for future cooperation. From the start, the United States should offer regular and transparent strategic briefings at high levels and working levels alike. Riyadh is unlikely to be completely satisfied. But good-faith efforts to be transparent and inclusive and to factor in partners’ preferences and fears—combined with firmness behind the scenes—will yield the best chance to win buy-in from Congress and acquiescence from regional partners, insofar as it is possible. Ultimately, the United States should define its own interests and objectives in seeking nuclear and nonnuclear agreements with Iran. But it will have to contend with—and should aim to shape, through inducement and pressure—partners’ responses.
Create a Regional Track that Brings Together Gulf Countries and Iran
The United States should encourage Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf Arab partners to further explore and deepen their own diplomacy with Iran.38 Instead of stifling regional talks, U.S. diplomacy should push for the establishment of a structured regional dialogue, with firm encouragement and support from the permanent members of the UN Security Council. This would not require a formal new institution or treaties. It could involve an inclusive format, with flexible participation and agenda—and with exploratory talks first as wary competitors take stock. Some conversations on regional security would best be held with U.S. support but without an American in the room—to ensure Gulf countries don’t feel their interests are being negotiated away. Others will be bilateral in nature, and still others might directly involve significant players outside the region, such as Russia, Turkey, and European allies.
Some conversations on regional security would best be held with U.S. support but without an American in the room—to ensure Gulf countries don’t feel their interests are being negotiated away.
The major protagonists in such talks are Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two countries would have a great deal to discuss.39 Least ambitious would be counter-narcotics, scientific cooperation, or cultural exchange. While recriminations over Iran’s response to COVID-19 complicate matters, the two could build on past confidence-building efforts over the hajj to Mecca and other pilgrimages.40 More significant would be for Saudi Arabia and Iran to agree to respect each other’s territorial sovereignty, curb state-sponsored “information warfare,” and refrain from supporting groups seeking regime change in each other’s countries. Such an agreement could grow to include smaller Gulf states such as the Emirates or Bahrain. Verification would be quite challenging, but tangible effort could lower tensions and create a template on which to build. More ambitious still—and quite possibly out of reach—would be conversations on Yemen and Syria, each of which matters far more to one side than the other: Saudi Arabia is heavily invested in Yemen, while Iran has poured blood and treasure into propping up Syria’s regime.
Iran’s government has come to rely on ballistic missile capabilities as a critical form of deterrence. But the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and other regional partners should explore whether, in the context of a larger regional détente, Iran might commit to transparency and monitoring arrangements; or to limit the further spread of advanced missile parts and capabilities to its militia partners, such as Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi militias.41 In the end, such an arrangement may well prove unworkable, requiring changes to U.S. arms sales or the U.S. force posture that Washington and Gulf states aren’t ready to negotiate with Iran—let alone concede. Another benefit of engaging multilaterally on these issues would be needed transparency on the Saudi missile program.
The United States will have to thread a needle in combining nuclear and regional diplomacy. Verifiably halting Iran’s nuclear progress should not be made conditional on the success of a regional dialogue. Nor should the United States trade away nonproliferation needs for regional steps. However, it is reasonable to seek “calm for calm” on regional issues in pursuing diplomacy; and the United States should seek to create an incentive structure where the pace, depth, and full extent of U.S. sanctions relief are connected to Iran’s regional as well as nuclear behavior.
Reset the Terms of Cooperation with the United Arab Emirates and Seek to End Qatar Blockade
Abu Dhabi has emerged as Riyadh’s most capable and assertive regional partner, and one of Washington’s as well. At the same time, the relationship between the United States and the Emirates is another relationship in need of reorientation post-Trump. The United States needs to strongly encourage the United Arab Emirates, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to act quickly to end their feud. More broadly, the new administration should present Saudi Arabia and the Emirates with a similar proposition: leadership will have to actively dispel the perception that their respective countries have become politicized actors. Regional countries cannot both campaign to undermine the policies of a U.S. administration within the U.S. system and expect unstinting partnership in return. That said, the United States will need to strike a distinct balance on the Emirates: on the one hand, the Emirates has overplayed its hand opposing Obama, embracing Trump, and cheerleading maximum pressure on Iran. On the other, if Emirati leaders are receptive, there is significant strategic and security value in preserving close ties. There is also strategic and security value in inducing Abu Dhabi to build on recent efforts to strike a more independent posture and lead the way in embracing regional dialogue, as it has recently done with both Israel and Iran.
Maintain Cooperation on Counterterrorism and Other Areas of Mutual Interest
U.S.–Saudi counterterrorism cooperation is neither self-sustaining nor self-implementing. The United States should work to maintain close counterterrorism ties with Saudi security and intelligence agencies. The U.S. should publicly encourage and privately support constructive moves against extremist ideology, as well as recent efforts to address Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.42 Moreover, while Prince Mohammed’s economic modernization program faces major challenges as COVID-19 and low oil prices dry up funding, it remains in the American economic and strategic interest to help Riyadh advance its goal to open up and diversify its economy. Strengthening the Saudi economy will avoid instability down the road. The next administration also has a continued interest in influencing Saudi oil production to avoid cratering oil prices, which bankrupt American producers of oil and clean energy alike. It should designate a high-level official responsible for engaging Riyadh on this—with the president’s support to exert intensive pressure, as needed.
The U.S. should publicly encourage and privately support constructive moves against extremist ideology, as well as recent efforts to address Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.
Saudi economic statecraft has become an important backstop for poorer states in the Arab world and beyond, and will remain so even as Riyadh pulls back during the COVID-19 pandemic. So long as the United States remains engaged in the Middle East, with scarce funds for non-military programming, it can benefit from working complementarily with Saudi Arabia. Shared priorities include investing in reconstruction and humanitarian aid in Yemen, support for Syrian refugees, and the fiscal and political survival of the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. As the United States works to restore U.S. aid to and diplomatic engagement with the Palestinians post-Trump, it should encourage Saudi leadership to up its commitment as well. Even small Saudi increases could set the tone for other nations. The United States should also seek to deliver tangible results to build on Saudi Arabia’s important rapprochement with Iraq, which also gives Iraqis a Middle Eastern alternative to Iranian dominion.43
Washington and Riyadh will continue to have differences on regional issues, as they did in political transitions in Egypt and Sudan. But open channels for constructive cooperation, quiet pressure, and occasional forthright disapproval in both directions will be needed.44
Elevate Human Rights
Both Saudi Arabia’s brutal campaign against nonviolent opponents and Trump’s acquiescent response run counter to U.S. values and interests. After Trump, the United States needs to signal a decisive change, starting with pressing Saudi Arabia to release political prisoners, including women’s rights activists and human rights activists. It should demand ironclad commitments from Saudi Arabia to cease assaults and coercion of dissidents and critics overseas—especially those with U.S. ties. Directly sanctioning the presumptive next king of Saudi Arabia, for all his reported culpability, seems likely to cause a prolonged rupture in ties and a punitive response that damages U.S. interests. Instead, the United States will have to stake out—and hold to—a firm line against future abuses. To that end, the United States should make clear to Saudi Arabia that future behavior such as this will cause a crisis in relations neither side can afford. Washington should also warn privately that, in such an instance, it will not stand in Congress’s way, as Trump did. Finally, while the United States should focus on ending the Yemen war and preventing future wars, the U.S. military should offer assistance to train Saudi forces to protect civilians in future conflicts.
Be Ready to Reassess and Respond
As several interviewees who spent time inside Saudi Arabia underscored, there is a great deal that the United States does not know. For the next administration, an early intelligence assessment of both Saudi leadership and the stability of its governing structures (including the potential for backlash from clerics or neglected regions) would be invaluable. Low oil prices and COVID-19 restrictions closing down public space that Prince Mohammed opened up could create cracks in the system and risks to Saudi stability that U.S. policy would need to take care not to exacerbate.
Saudi Arabia and others may be tempted to forestall the difficult conversations described above. In the run-up to November, it will be vital for leaders in Congress and elsewhere to signal—ideally on a bipartisan basis, but along party lines if necessary—that any Saudi or other foreign attempts to interfere in U.S. elections (either directly or indirectly) will be met with a severe, punitive response, and set U.S. relations on a decisively different course. Politicized actions since 2016 have already damaged ties with Democrats in ways Gulf leaders will need to work to correct. Gulf partners need to know the prohibitive costs of continuing this behavior into the 2020 U.S. elections.
Crucially, Saudi Arabia will have its own choices to make and its own nationalist constituency to satisfy. If it pursues a more conciliatory course, the United States should be ready to assist. Saudi Arabia’s recent past leaves reason for concern, from the Qatar blockade, to Khashoggi’s killing, to its declared interest in a domestic nuclear fuel cycle, to its recent partisan orientation within U.S. policy. If that past proves a harbinger of more aggressive policies on the horizon, then a far deeper rethinking of relations will be warranted. That rethinking would include significant curtailing of defense cooperation, arms sales, and the high-level attention that has been a hallmark of past close ties. It would also mean less diplomatic cover and fewer presidential vetoes of legislation adverse to Saudi interests. As both sides find their footing, a new U.S. administration will need to weather diplomatic and political pressure. It will need to convey its resolve not to be bullied into the old status quo, to distinguish Saudi posturing from genuinely worrisome steps, and to listen carefully for opportunities for affirmative cooperation as well as risks of rupture.
Seek Opportunities to Lessen the American Footprint
The United States should take advantage of regional de-escalation to update its regional force posture.45 Different U.S. policies toward Afghanistan and Iran may reduce the need for some forward-deployed land, air, and sea forces and assets in the region. While the United States hopes to no longer be on a hair trigger, it should maintain a credible, last-resort military option against Iran, and maintain the capabilities for nimble redeployment in concert with other diplomatic tools. Should de-escalation fail, the United States will face harder trade-offs. But Washington can nonetheless take calculated risks to redeploy assets to other theaters.
The Road Ahead
Taken together, these proposals would constitute a progressive course correction in the U.S. approach to Saudi Arabia—one that takes seriously opponents’ critiques, as well as pragmatic counterarguments. Such an approach would encourage wiser choices going forward, while continuously testing underlying assumptions and being ready to reevaluate the strategy as new dynamics develop. It would seek to responsibly manage a recalibration of the relationship, making necessary changes to the terms and process of cooperation, while seeking to avoid an outright rupture or crisis. Some rethinkers would find it satisfying to jettison the relationship in retaliation for Saudi Arabia’s recklessness in the region, repression at home, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. A sound progressive policy would look squarely at these transgressions and enforce guardrails against future repetitions. The goal would be a renewed effort to shape Saudi choices that more faithfully reflect U.S. interests and values, not a campaign to punish Saudi Arabia for past sins. A progressive policy toward Saudi Arabia would lower expectations in Washington for what Saudi Arabia can deliver to the United States in the region; and, in Riyadh, for what deference to Saudi policies the United States should offer in return. And it would prepare for greater distance between the two partners if Saudi Arabia responds with a sustained, disruptive response to reasonable American limits.
Some rethinkers would find it satisfying to jettison the relationship in retaliation for Saudi Arabia’s recklessness. But a sound progressive policy would instead enforce guardrails against future transgressions.
In the years to come, the U.S.–Saudi relationship will be buffeted by changes in both countries and in the region as a whole. Between presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, relations have whipsawed from mutual mistrust to moral hazard. The next U.S. administration should instead seek a balanced approach—one that creates incentives for constructive Saudi behavior, but also allows for the fact that the country’s internal dynamics and new leadership may push it in a different direction. An initial reset could create more durable terms for cooperation and the management of disagreements that will inevitably arise.
Saudi leaders and nationalist supporters may well chafe at some of these changes. The United States should seek to weather that pushback and keep the door open to working together. Even in a more balanced relationship that better reflects U.S. interests and leverage, what is on offer from the United States ultimately remains of higher value to Saudi Arabia than what Russia, China, or any other nation can match. Benefits of a good relationship with the United States include protection from external aggression; partnership with the world’s most capable military; and world-class expertise from universities and energy, petrochemical, and banking firms. These recommendations won’t return U.S.–Saudi relations to the high points of the past. Each side, in its own way, has evolved. But they do constitute a necessary progressive course correction for a relationship—and U.S. regional policies—that have been thrown badly out of balance. Getting U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia right will not solve all of Washington’s challenges in the region. But it would lay an important foundation for a more progressive and more effective U.S. policy in a more peaceful Middle East.
header photo: A woman takes part in a candlelight vigil to remember journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate on October 25, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and critic of the Saudi regime, was murdered inside the consulate earlier that month. Source: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
- Brian Katulis, Peter Juul, and John Halpin, “America Adrift: How the U.S. Foreign Policy Debate Misses What Voters Really Want,” Center for American Progress, May 5, 2019, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/news/2019/10/25/476433/america-adrift-listening-americans-want-u-s-foreign-policy/.
- Marlin Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes, “America’s Middle East Purgatory: The Case for Doing Less,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2018-12-11/americas-middle-east-purgatory; Martin Indyk, “The Middle East Isn’t Worth It Anymore,” Wall Street Journal, January 17, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-middle-east-isnt-worth-it-anymore-11579277317; Ben Rhodes, “The 9/11 Era is Over,” The Atlantic, April 6, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/its-not-september-12-anymore/609502/; Katulis, Juul, and Halpin, “America Adrift.”
- F. Gregory Gause III, “Is the Saudi Crown Prince Too Disruptive Even for Trump?,” New York Times, October 12, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/12/opinion/khashoggi-saudi-arabia-america-trump-mbs.html.
- Several interviewees used this phrase.
- U.S. progressives, interviews with the author, June 2019–June 2020; Susan E. Rice, “A Partner We Can’t Depend On,” New York Times, October 29, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/opinion/khashoggi-mbs-saudi-arabia-susan-rice.html.
- Derek Chollet and Ilan Goldenberg, “The United States Should Give Saudi Arabia a Choice,” Foreign Policy, November 30, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/30/saudi-arabia-should-be-given-a-choice-stop-the-surprises-or-suffer-the-consequences-mbs-khashoggi/.
- Daniel L. Byman, “The U.S.–Saudi Arabia Counterterrorism Relationship,” The Brookings Institution, March 24, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/the-u-s-saudi-arabia-counterterrorism-relationship/.
- Helene Cooper and Jim Rutenberg, “A Saudi Prince Tied to Bush Is Sounding Off-Key,” New York Times, April 29, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/29/washington/29saudi.html; Marwan Mausher, “The Death of the Arab Peace Initiative?” The Atlantic, November 23, 2011, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/11/the-death-of-the-arab-peace-initiative/248910/; “Freedom Agenda,” The White House: President George W. Bush, n.d., https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/infocus/freedomagenda/.
- Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic, April 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/.
- Ian Black, “Obama’s Chilly Reception in Saudi Arabia Hints at Mutual Distrust,” The Guardian, April 20, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/20/barack-obama-saudi-arabia-visit-king-salman-relationship.
- Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman, and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Trump Jr. and Other Aides Met with Gulf Emissary Offering Help to Win Election,” New York Times, May 18, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/19/us/politics/trump-jr-saudi-uae-nader-prince-zamel.html.
- Ahmed Al Omran, “Saudi Welcome for U.S. Troops Reflects Relations with Mohammed bin Salman,” Financial Times, July 23, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/209804d8-abc9-11e9-8030-530adfa879c2.
- Steve Holland and Rania El Gamal, “Trump Says He Does Not Want War after Attack on Saudi Oil Facilities,” Reuters, September 18, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-aramco/trump-says-he-does-not-want-war-after-attack-on-saudi-oil-facilities-idUSKBN1W10X8; Vivian Salama, “Trump Calls on Countries to Protect Own Ships in Strait of Hormuz,” Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-calls-on-countries-to-protect-own-ships-in-strait-of-hormuz-11561380556; Steve Holland and Rania El Gamal, “Trump Says He Does Not Want War After Attack on Saudi Oil Facilities,” Reuters, September 16, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-aramco/trump-says-he-does-not-want-war-after-attack-on-saudi-oil-facilities-idUSKBN1W10X8; Omran, “Saudi Welcome for US Troops.”
- Callum Paton, “Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman Says Iran Leader Is Like Hitler but Trump Is Right Man for the Job,” Newsweek, November 24, 2017, https://www.newsweek.com/saudi-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-says-iran-hitler-trump-right-man-job-721261.
- Aya Batrawy, “Arab Leaders Meet to Unify Ranks with Eye on Iran, Jerusalem,” Associated Press, April 16, 2018, https://apnews.com/5c6c6d7c5e264f9b977d0914efcbd46b/Arab-leaders-meet-to-unify-ranks-with-eye-on-Iran,-Jerusalem.
- Keith Johnson and Robbie Gramer, “How the Bottom Fell Out of the U.S.–Saudi Alliance,” Foreign Policy, April 23, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/23/saudi-arabia-trump-congress-breaking-point-relationship-oil-geopolitics/.
- Patricia Zengerle, “U.S. Lawmakers Still Plot to Push Saudi Arabia on Rights, Despite Trump,” Reuters, August 1, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-saudi-arms/u-s-lawmakers-still-plot-to-push-saudi-arabia-on-rights-despite-trump-idUSKCN1UR5T1.
- See the transcript of the Democratic presidential debate on March 13, 2019, available at https://www.rev.com/transcript-editor/shared/NvXWvBxaD_8JwQd_3F2grzbrLmSvLUQBKx_NbjMoJk6HUV-Ot2HBKjkTl7ej6gxMZ2omFzpYB3o-nTvjE5GhLfoKH84?loadFrom=PastedDeeplink&ts=57.08.
- Evan Vucci, “The U.S.–Saudi Alliance Is on the Brink,” The Atlantic, July 1, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/07/trump-blocking-big-change-us-saudi-alliance/592504/.
- David A. Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell, “Saudi-Funded Lobbyist Paid for 500 Rooms at Trump’s Hotel after 2016 Election,” Washington Post, December 5, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/saudi-funded-lobbyist-paid-for-500-rooms-at-trumps-hotel-after-2016-election/2018/12/05/29603a64-f417-11e8-bc79-68604ed88993_story.html; David D. Kirkpatrick, Ben Hubbard, Mark Landler, and Mark Mazzetti, “The Wooing of Jared Kushner: How the Saudis Got a Friend in the White House,” New York Times, December 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/08/world/middleeast/saudi-mbs-jared-kushner.html.
- Meghan L. O’Sullivan, “U.S. Is Forced to See It Is Far From ‘Energy Independent,’” Bloomberg, October 19, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-10-19/u-s-needs-saudi-oil-despite-talk-of-energy-independence; “Remarks by President Trump on Iran,” The White House, January 8, 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-iran/.
- “Arab Quartet Meets in Riyadh to Discuss Regional Developments,” The National, July 23, 2018, https://www.thenational.ae/world/gcc/arab-quartet-meets-in-riyadh-to-discuss-regional-developments-1.697858.
- Interview with the author, October 2019.
- Interview with the author.
- Interview with the author.
- Kevin Sullivan and Kareem Faheem, “A Year after the Ritz-Carlton Roundup, Saudi Elites Remain Jailed by the Crown Prince,” Washington Post, November 5, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/a-year-after-the-ritz-carlton-roundup-saudi-elites-remain-jailed-by-the-crown-prince/2018/11/05/32077a5c-e066-11e8-b759-3d88a5ce9e19_story.html;
Alex Kantrowitz, “How Saudi Arabia Infiltrated Twitter,” Buzzfeed News, February 19, 2020, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/alexkantrowitz/how-saudi-arabia-infiltrated-twitter.
- Indyk, “The Middle East Isn’t Worth It Anymore.”
- Karlin and Wittes, “America’s Middle East Purgatory.”
- Correspondence with the author, May 2020.
- Susan E. Rice, “A Partner We Can’t Depend On,” New York Times, October 29, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/opinion/khashoggi-mbs-saudi-arabia-susan-rice.html.
- Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, “America’s Great Satan: The 40-Year Obsession with Iran,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2019-10-15/americas-great-satan.
- U.S. Policy in the Arabian Peninsula: U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, 116th Cong. (2019) (testimony of Jake Sullivan).
- Michael LaForgia and Walt Bogdanich, “Why Bombs Made in American Have Been Killing Civilians in Yemen,” New York Times, May 16, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/16/us/arms-deals-raytheon-yemen.html.
- Tommy Ross and Melissa Dalton, “A Roadmap for Better Choices from Security Partners,” War on the Rocks, January 17, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/01/a-roadmap-for-better-choices-from-security-partners/; Melissa G. Dalton et al., “Oversight and Accountability in U.S. Security Sector Assistance: Seeking Return on Investment,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, February 2018, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/180207_Dalton_OversightAccountability_Web.pdf?9CJj6j5KVqQgWAlLSLJkOpdCga.Yz28l.
- “Saving the Stockholm Agreement and Averting a Regional Conflagration in Yemen,” International Crisis Group, July 18, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/yemen/203-saving-stockholm-agreement-and-averting-regional-conflagration-yemen.
- Elisa Catalano Ewers et al., “Escalation or Negotiation? Conclusions of a Tabletop Exercise on the Future of U.S.-Iran Relations,” Center for a New American Security, June 26, 2019, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/escalation-or-negotiation.
- Brian Katulis and Peter Juul, “Putting Diplomacy First: A Strategic Alternative to President Donald Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Approach on Iran,” Center for American Progress, March 12, 2020, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2020/03/12/481512/putting-diplomacy-first/.
- Daniel Benaim and Jake Sullivan, “America’s Opportunity in the Middle East,” Foreign Affairs, May 22, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2020-05-22/americas-opportunity-middle-east.
- The author wishes to acknowledge Ilan Goldenberg and the Center for New American Security, whose Iran-related convenings contributed important ideas to this section.
- Toby Matthiesen, “The Coronavirus Is Exacerbating Sectarian Tensions in the Middle East,” Foreign Affairs, March 23, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2020-03-23/coronavirus-exacerbating-sectarian-tensions-middle-east.
- Robert Einhorn and Vann H. Van Diepen, “Constraining Iran’s Missile Capabilities,” The Brookings Institution, March 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/research/constraining-irans-missile-capabilities/.
- Adam Rasgon, “Senior Saudi Religious Leader Set for ‘Groundbreaking’ Visit to Auschwitz Thurs,” Times of Israel, January 22, 2020 https://www.timesofisrael.com/senior-saudi-religious-leader-set-to-make-groundbreaking-visit-to-auschwitz/.
- Matthew Lee, “Tillerson Seeks Arab Help in US Effort to Isolate Iran,” U.S. News, October 23, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2017-10-22/us-pushes-saudi-arabia-iraq-on-united-front-to-counter-iran; Mehiyar Kathem, “A New Era Beckons for Iraqi-Saudi Relations,” War on the Rocks, February 2, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/02/a-new-era-beckons-for-iraqi-saudi-relations/.
- Rod Nordland, “Saudi Arabia Promises Aid to Egypt’s Regime,” New York Times, August 19, 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/20/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-vows-to-back-egypts-rulers.html; “Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution,” International Crisis Group, October 21, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/sudan/281-safeguarding-sudans-revolution.
- Melissa Dalton and Mara Karlin, “Toward a Smaller, Smarter Force Posture in the Middle East,” The Brookings Institution, August 28, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/08/28/toward-a-smaller-smarter-force-posture-in-the-middle-east/.