The US' misperception of its bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia on a number of fronts has contributed dramatically to the present heightened tension between them. It is critical that at this juncture the two countries recalibrate their relationship and renew their geostrategic partnership
Righting the Wrong
Even a cursory review of the US-Saudi Arabia relationship over the past several years suggests that the US has generally misperceived its bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia. The prevailing notion is that the Saudis need the US much more than the reverse, which presumably puts the US in a position to make demands on Riyadh rather than work closely as allies with a shared geostrategic interest. I maintain that the current heightened tension between the two countries would not have reached its nadir had President Biden been given sounder advice about the nature of US-Saudi relations, both during his campaign for president and since he entered the White House nearly two years ago.
While running for president, he called Saudi Arabia a "pariah," whose leadership had "very little redeeming value." And when OPEC decided to cut oil production by two million barrel a day, he threatened the Saudis by stating that "… when the House and the Senate comes back, there's going to be some consequences for what [Saudi Arabia has] done with Russia." He added insult to injury when he vowed to never talk to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, the de facto king. And perhaps worst of all, he took over a year from taking office to appoint an ambassador to Riyadh, whose nomination is still pending, which the Saudis view as the most glaring disrespect that the US could possibly demonstrate.
One would think that once he decided to visit the Kingdom, primarily to ask for an increase in oil production in the wake of the energy crisis precipitated by the war in the Ukraine, he would make an effort to mend the relationship. In fact, the precise opposite happened. He insulted MBS by refusing to shake his hand, and lectured the Saudis on their human rights violations. Furthermore, MBS is a new and inexperienced leader who does not necessarily appreciate the importance of the alliance, which further rattled the foundation of the US-Saudi relationship. To be sure, it was an ill-fated visit. Biden should have undertaken the trip with the intent of mending the relationship between the two countries; the result of the trip without that intent simply made matters worse, especially because of his disdain for the Saudi monarchy which was on display for the past two years.
Moreover, the Saudis interpreted the US' steps to reduce its reliance on Saudi oil, and its pivot toward Asia to contain China's growing influence, as a sign of the US' abridged interest in safeguarding their geostrategic partnership and its implication on their national security. And finally, Biden's continuing public criticism of the Saudis' human right violations further alienated MBS, who views himself as a reformer and rejected off-hand the US' meddling in their domestic affairs, which they attribute to the US' arrogance and divorce from reality.
From the Saudis' perspective, the US misperception about the country manifests itself in several areas:
Arms sales: When high-ranking Democrats make bold foreign policy statements, as when Senator Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Ro Khanna introduced a bill to "immediately pause all US arms sale to Saudi Arabia" in the wake of the oil production cut, it demonstrates where the party's position as a whole generally lies. Furthermore, Biden has yet to speak against this bill, which shows how flawed the administration's views are on the entire enterprise of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
To begin with, selling arms to the Saudis is not a charitable contribution. They pay tens of billions of dollars to buy arms, from which the US military industry greatly benefits financially. It allows the US to have a solid foothold in Saudi Arabia through trainers, logistical support, and military personnel, which serve the US strategic interest throughout the Middle East, all while strengthening the ties between the two countries which yields billions in economic benefits.
National interests: As the Saudis see it, the US policy approach toward them is based on the premise of what is best for the US as the superior power in their bilateral relations. That is, the US has been rather categorical in its demands in terms of Saudi loyalty, posing to the Saudis essentially two options, as Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz kept hearing: "are you with us or against us?"
The US has minimized the Saudis' political interests and often economic considerations, as was manifested by Riyadh's decision to support OPEC's oil cut. In particular, the Saudis wanted to keep the price stable especially because of their concern over an impending global recession, and in addition they want to prepare for the increased oil demands of an uncertain winter. By viewing the relationship in black and white, the Saudis feel shortchanged and constrained which they are no longer willing to tolerate.
Human rights violations: This issue is one the Saudis fervently resent as they despise being lectured at and criticized publicly. Although there are human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, the question is, if the US wants the Saudis to end or significantly curtail their human rights abuses, would that be achieved through public chiding or through behind the scenes discussions? The answer is clear; denouncing and humiliating the Saudis publicly about their human rights record serves the opposite of the US' ultimate goal. Instead, the US can point out in private settings how much the monarchy can benefit if the people feel freer and more creative, and not subject to arbitrary detentions, disproportionate penalties, gender inequality, etc.
What is needed now is the opening of a new chapter in the relations between the two countries, specifically by recognizing Saudi Arabia's critical role on several fronts: