Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine sixweeksago, America’s problems with its traditional allies have come to the surface. After Putin’s announcement of Russia’s military operations against Ukraine, the US started exerting great efforts to guarantee a strategic defeat for Russia. To achieve this, theUS has successfully appliedintensive pressure on previously reluctant Western countries to fortify their front against Russia’s military expansion.
US attempts to exert similar such pressure on its Middle Eastern allies however, has revealed a serious gap between both parties. The US’s traditional securitypartnersin the region – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, the UAE, Egypt, and Pakistan – have all chosen to be neutral in this conflict, distancing themselves from the US-led camp. Saudi Arabia’s neutrality has exposed a great failure in US foreign policy as Saudi oil is an essential factor in defeating Putin. Yet, the Saudi shift to ally with America’s strongest competitor, China, indicates an unprecedented deterioration in the relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Alongwithother countries, Saudi Arabia’s relations with the US have experienced considerable tensions during the Biden administration. In the past, relations between the two states were always based on a kind of “give-and-take” approach, with the US providing protection in return for lucrative financial rewards. Under President Trump, this formula was reaffirmed in October 2018, when rather undiplomatically, Trump warned King Salman that “[he] would not last two weeks without [the US],” and that Saudi Arabia would have “to pay” for US military support. These statements seemed to please the Saudis more than embarrass them since President Trump ranked Saudi Arabia as a privileged ally.
It was therefore not surprising that Saudi Arabia was Trump’s first international destination as US president – a situation that has been completely reversed under the Biden administration. Fifteen months into his presidency, and President Biden has still not visited Saudi Arabia, with no immediate plans to do so. Even phone calls with King Salman and Crown Prince bin Salman have all but been suspended. But how did this situation come about and where will relations between the two sides ultimately end up?
When Biden first came to office, he surrounded himself with a team of advisors, led by Jake Sullivan, some of whom were known for their anti-Sunni stance. It was Sullivan, for example, that had engineered a series of secret meetings with Shi’ite Iran. But such views were apparent even earlier in Biden’s statements as presidential candidate when he threatened to reveal damning US intelligence which seemed to implicate Crown Prince bin Salman in the murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Denouncing the Saudi regime as a “pariah” with “very little social redeeming value,” later, as President, Biden translated these statements into real, practical consequences with the suspension of US arms sales to the Saudi state.
In this context, Trump’s previously established “protection-for-cash”formulahas started to lose some of its meaning, with the US now no longer willing to provide unconditional support for its Saudi ally. Despite, for example, UScondemnation of repeated attacks by pro-Iranian Houthi militias on Saudi facilities, the US has actually done little to prevent any of these attacks.
Using Iranian-supplied drones and ballistic missiles to hit airports, ships and oil facilities, jeopardizing international straits and fuel resources, Houthi militias have been able to act with complete impunity. Other Iranian backed militias in Iraq and even the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have also directly participated in attacking Saudi Arabia on a number of different occasions, with the last Houthi attack directly hitting an Aramco oil depot on 25 March. This came at a particularly critical moment, given the disruption to international oil supplies and the global shortage of fuel as a result of sanctions imposed on Russia.
Had it wished, with its extensive military presence in the Arabian Peninsula and surrounding seas, the US could have created an effective coalition to deal with these assaults, undermining the Houthi ability to threaten Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, and simultaneously depriving Iran of an important proxy in the region.
Instead, statements by the US Special Envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking in a congressional hearing during which he urged Saudi officials to “pursue peace seriously,” stating that “there is no military solution to [the Yemeni] war,” only seemed to have emboldened Houthi insurgents who took this as a sign of greater US willingness to countenance Houthi attacks. Paradoxically, just as the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s airstrikes on the Houthi targets have drastically decreased, Houthi militia have stepped up their attacks on Saudi targets, gaining ever more success on the ground.
Much to Saudi Arabia’s dismay, even after the Houthi attacks on sensitive facilities in the UAE, the US has still avoided re-designating Houthis as a terrorist organization.
This contrasts greatly with the Trump presidency during which the US declaredthe Houthis tobe a terrorist organization during Trump’s last days in office. Among the justifications given by the then US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, for this classification were cross-border attacks by Houthi rebels, “threatening civilian populations, infrastructure and commercial shipping.” The Biden administration’s decision to reverse this designation has only given the green light to Houthis who launched a fierce attack on the city of Marib, an important stronghold of the legitimate government of Yemen.
While the Biden administration justified its reclassification on humanitarian grounds to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, under Trump however, the US had already agreed to exempt aid workers and similar groups from any negatives repercussions of US policy. One NGO caseworker, Baraa Shaiban, criticized the Biden administration for ‘rushing’ to relinquish any “leverage points they have.” In an interview with Al Jazeera, Shaiban stated that the US “should have focused on ensuring humanitarian access while still maintaining pressure” on the Houthis.
As the Houthis have considerably increased their assaults, Saudi fears that the US may have traded Saudi security and the US-Saudi alliance as part of a wider nuclear agreement with Iran seem to be based on solid grounds. Statements by negotiators that the two sides have come close to agreement have been paralleled by an almost incomprehensible US leniency towards Iran and its proxies. The revival of the nuclear agreement has clearly come at Saudi Arabia’s expense and led to an even worsening of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
This contrasts with previous US policy under the Trump administration, which abrogated the P5+1 agreement in order to punish Iran for its destabilizing cross-border activities in the region. Under Trump, the US imposed punitive sanctions against a number of Iranian individuals and companies, and stepped up its pressure with the targeted assassination of General QasimSuleimani, head of the Quds Force, the most influential part of the IRGC. These anti-Iran policies cameasarelieftomany countries which had been destabilized by Iranian activities in the region, including Saudi Arabia. In return for US support, deals of up to tens of billions of dollars were signed between Saudi Arabia and the US, reaffirming Trump’s “protection-for-cash” formula. However, a drastic shift in US policy from an anti- to a pro-Iran position has thrownthis equation intodisarray.
Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, and his team were quick to reverse all of the anti-Iranian policies implemented during Trump’s Presidency, particularly the abrogation of the nuclear agreement. After months of US negotiations with Iran, a new agreement now seems to be in its final stages. Throughout this period, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have been totally excludedfrom any participation in the negotiations, and their concerns and interests have largely been bypassed, with the Iranian President, Hasan Rohani, completely rejecting the possibility that any “person will be added to the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action].”
Other states also share the fear that Iran sees this agreement as some kind of reward and encouragement for its destabilizing activities in the region. The Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, for instance, has expressed deep concerns that this agreement “will give Iran billions of dollars that it would be able to use for its regional malign activities and to arm its proxies.” The Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollahin Lebanon will, no doubt, interpret this agreement as a clear-cutsignal to carry out further attacks on their neighbors and on international energy resources. Therefore, with the news that the US and Iran are close to an agreement, and with Houthis stepping up their attacks against Saudi Arabia, this has only ignited greater calls from within the Kingdom for Saudi Arabia to retaliate.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have provided the Saudi state with the perfect opportunity to do so. Russia’s six-week-old invasion of Ukraine has caused international tremors, particularly affecting energy and food supplies. As severe sanctions have been imposed on Russia, mainly targeting its fuel sector, nearly all countries around the world have been directly or indirectly affected by these sanctions. Oil and gas prices have skyrocketed, adding billions of extra dollars in costs for importing countries. The US eagerness to foil Putin’s plans in Ukraine requires the full commitment of the international community to boycott Russian oil and deprive Putin of an important source of revenue. The more oil that is pumped into the world market (from other oil exporters), the more committed theboycotters will be. In order to achieve its goal, the US needs a positive response from Saudi Arabia, the largest oil exporter, to compensate for the loss of Russian oil.
Saudi Arabia’s response however, has come as little surprise for many observers, or perhaps for the Biden team itself. Far from falling in line with US aims, Saudi Arabia has rejected any oil production increase, while Crown Prince bin Salman has refused to take a call from Biden. This has forced the US to turn to its rivals, such as Venezuela and Iran, to increase oil output, and to consider the undesirable option of releasing millions of barrels from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve. This may, to some extent, alleviate concerns among America’s Western allies, but in the long-term, the US knows that without any increase in Saudi production, this only risks jeopardizing its own strategic reserves, one third of which is due to be released in 6 months.
A further expression of Saudi dissatisfactionis apparent in its shift towards the US’s strongest rival, China. An acceleration of talks between Saudi Arabia and China seems to be the expected response in the tug of war between US and the Saudi state. However, if these talks end up in pricing Saudi oil in yuan rather than in dollars, this would undoubtedly be viewed by the US as a hostilestep which could spur one of two reactions (or possibly both of them together).
First, the Biden administration could reconsider its anti-Saudi policies. This would require that the concerns of Gulf countries about the Biden team’s pro-Iran inclinations, particularly the nuclear agreement, be given greater consideration. If Biden tried to see the issue from the opposite angle, he would conclude that favoring Saudi Arabia over Iran would be more important, beneficial, logical, and even perhaps humane. Even if bin Salman is suspected to have had a hand in Khashoggi’s murder (which is what the Biden team have used as a pretext for US pressure on Saudi Arabia), there is little doubt that Iran has also carried out similar human rights violations, and is responsible for the death and displacement of millions of people in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
Moreover, even without acquiring nuclear weapons, Iran still poses a danger through its direct support for terrorist proxies which have undermined international peace and security. Iran’s extremist propaganda is arguably much more dangerous than its nuclear program, as it is this propaganda which fuels sectarian violence and conflicts throughout much of the region. Therefore, any future agreement with Iran must bring an end to its cross-border interventions for the sake of regional stability.
Second, if the Biden administration insists on its pro-Iran position at the expense of the US’s traditional allies, those allies will only seek outnew strategic alliances. The Saudi-China talks serve as a warning to the US of possible new realignments, with other states, not just Saudi Arabia, demonstrating similar levels of frustration at US policies in the region (e.g. Mohammad bin Zayed of the UAE has also declined Biden’s phone call). It is noteworthy that many of the states that used to be among America’s closest allies (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, the UAE, India, Pakistan, and Egypt) have now distanced themselves from the US concerningits actions in Ukraine. Although their neutrality does not imply that they are now siding with Russia, it is a clear indication of the level of resentment at Biden’s policies in the region. The successive summits among the region’s leaders, first in Egypt and later in Israel, along with an increase in bilateral contacts, bypassing the US altogether, indicate a new approach towards the US. Since the US is increasingly perceived as an unreliable ally that could let down its partners at any moment, it is important that states are able to reach agreements among themselves, without relying on US support to achieve stability in the region.
A Saudi-Turkish agreement is already on the horizon, promoting pro-Saudi change on the ground in the Yemeni crisis and demonstrating a greater level of independence for both countries, free from US influence. The US shift from its traditional allies could only exacerbate instability if the US seeks to remove some of the leaders in the region it no longer shares common interests with, such as bin Salman or Erdogan. Biden administration’s policies therefore only ensure that the US has neither friends nor allies and that its interests rank first above all other concerns.
However, it is hard to see how the US can gain from its current foreign policy in the Middle East. On the contrary, if Trump is to be believed, with increased tension between the US and its allies, it is only “Russia and China [that] would be the enormous beneficiaries,” with Biden’s policies, in the words of Trump, serving as “a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States.”