Biden’s Saudi balancing act
3 Feb 2021|

While a great deal has been written about US President Joe Biden’s Iran conundrum, there hasn’t been enough discussion about his projected approach to Saudi Arabia, the other major power in the energy-rich Gulf region. In some ways, Saudi Arabia is the polar opposite of Iran. It has been a longstanding ally of the United States both in strategic terms and in the arena of oil pricing and supply.

In the strategic domain, Riyadh has been Washington’s principal collaborator in US efforts to contain Iran. In the energy sphere, Saudi Arabia, as the swing supplier of oil, helped keep the market on a relatively even keel by using its excess capacity to increase or reduce the flow of oil in order to try to stabilise the international economy at critical junctures.

After the oil embargo of 1973, there were no visible strains in the US–Saudi relationship until the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which Riyadh had initially opposed but later accepted reluctantly. The rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his adventurist policy in Yemen has also cast a large shadow on US–Saudi relations by alienating leading members of both parties in the US Congress who are appalled at the enormous human cost of the venture.

US–Saudi tensions were heightened in 2018 after the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which the CIA indirectly holds MbS responsible for. While the Trump administration turned a blind eye to this heinous act, criticism of the Saudi regime in Congress, the media and the general public reached new heights.

Biden will have to conduct an intricate balancing act to preserve Washington’s strategic relationship with Riyadh while reprimanding it for its violations of human rights. During last year’s election campaign, Biden severely criticised MbS for Khashoggi’s murder and declared that Saudi Arabia should be treated as ‘a pariah’ for committing this crime.

During her confirmation hearings, Avril Haines, Biden’s director of national intelligence, declared categorically that she will declassify an intelligence report into the murder of Khashoggi. This means that the US is likely to officially assign blame for Khashoggi’s murder to MbS thus increasing friction between Riyadh and Washington.

The Biden administration has also put on hold the sales of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia and F-35 aircraft to the United Arab Emirates, Riyadh’s principal regional ally, which the Trump administration had approved during its waning days. These decisions conform to Biden’s campaign pledge to ensure that American weapons aren’t used in the Saudi–UAE campaign in Yemen that has wreaked havoc on the country’s civilian population. The new administration has also reversed Trump’s decision to declare the Houthis a terrorist group because it could have highly negative consequences for the delivery of international aid to Yemen’s civilian population.

All of these actions point towards a major reassessment by the Biden administration of Washington’s relations with the Saudi regime. But what has the Saudis and their Gulf allies most worried is Biden’s explicitly stated intention of returning to the nuclear agreement with Iran, which would entail removing the stringent sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on Tehran. Revival of the JCPOA won’t be an easy matter and the new administration will have to clear major hurdles before a deal with Iran is reached. These include opposition from American lawmakers as well as the forthcoming presidential election in Iran that is likely to produce a hardline government. There’s also a serious lack of trust in Iran towards the US because of Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018.

There is also a wide gulf between the American demand that Iran return to observing its obligations under the agreement before the US can contemplate removing sanctions and the Iranian expectation that the removal of sanctions and rolling back of Iranian actions would be undertaken simultaneously. However, despite these obstacles the Saudis, like the Israelis, are very worried that the US and Iran will return to the deal because of the express willingness of both governments to do so. This common concern has led to a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia in order to present a common front on Iran before the US.

Notwithstanding the prognosis that the US–Saudi relationship is likely to face heavy weather under the Biden administration, Riyadh is far too important to the US for Washington to allow its ties to the kingdom to be determined by human rights concerns or its eagerness for a rapprochement with Iran. While the US is no longer dependent on Gulf oil, the importance of Saudi oil supplies for the health of the global economy on which US prosperity depends will act as a brake on the Biden administration’s inclination to punish Saudi Arabia for its transgressions.

Above all, the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia to the US in the context of its policy towards the Gulf region and the broader Middle East is likely to outweigh most other considerations. Under the Trump administration, the US military presence in Saudi Arabia increased manyfold. Several thousand American troops, jet fighters and other weaponry have been stationed at Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan Air Base since 2019 to respond to perceived threats from Iran. This is a process not easily reversible unless US–Iran relations improve radically and go beyond the nuclear deal to address Tehran’s regional ambitions and its ballistic missile program. Such a scenario sounds highly unlikely in the short term, which buttresses Riyadh’s strategic value for Washington.

Finally, Saudi Arabia’s support for the normalisation of Israel’s relations with the Arab world is very important. The recent spate of Arab countries establishing diplomatic relations with Israel would be unthinkable without implicit Saudi approval and encouragement. Therefore, while US–Saudi relations may have to traverse a rocky road in the immediate future, they are likely to emerge relatively unscathed in the long run.