For decades, ever since President Roosevelt talked with King Saud on the USS Quincy on Feb. 14,1945, the United States has labored under the delusion that the primitive kingdom, in thrall to Wahhabi Islam and largely owned by a single family, was our loyal ally. This fiction was maintained because we didn’t want to look too closely into the nature of Saudi society, and didn’t want to find out about the Saudi effort to spread a particularly malignant form of Islam throughout the world. All we cared about were the colossal deposits of oil that American geologists found in the Kingdom, and that we, along with the rest of the Western world, relied on for much of our energy. The public beheadings, the spreading of antisemitic propaganda through the Saudi-controlled World Islamic Congress, the crushing of the slightest political dissent in the Kingdom – no one in Washington much cared, as long as the oil kept flowing.
And Saudi Arabia liked to spend its money – lots of it – on American weapons, which the Americans were happy to sell, earning them hundreds of billions of dollars. The defense industry became Saudi Arabia’s most effective lobby in Washington. On May 20, 2017, President Trump and King Salman signed a series of letters of intent for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to purchase arms from the United States totaling US $110 billion immediately, and $350 billion over 10 years. The intended purchases include tanks, combat ships, missile defense systems, as well as radar, communications, and cybersecurity technology. It is the largest arms deal ever made.
There have been times in our complicated relations with the Saudis when It might have been fitting to look more critically at the Kingdom. The most obvious of those moments was just after the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, when it was discovered that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and the leader of Al-Qaeda, which had been behind the attack, was Osama bin Laden, the son of a billionaire Saudi contractor with close ties to the Saudi royals. But the Saudi lobby in Washington, including defense contractors, stood firm in defense of the Kingdom, and the US-Saudi “alliance” continued, undamaged.
The killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in 2020, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, on the orders of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, did cause many Americans to rethink our ties with such a regime; it was not so much the killing but the horror-movie dismemberment, that caught people’s attention and elicited such revulsion. Joe Biden made much of the Khashoggi killing, and during his presidential race he said he would treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” because of that murder. And for eighteen months he did so, until he finally decided to attend a summit of the GCC held in Jeddah this July. He met with King Salman, and with the Crown Prince, too. He took care not to shake hands with MBS, but deigned to deliver a fist bump; that was enough to garner furious criticism at home. His fellow Democrat Congressman, Adam Schiff, said the fist bump was a “visual reminder of the continuing grip that oil-rich autocrats have on U.S. foreign policy.”
In Jeddah, Biden spent two hours talking to MBS, mainly on matters – we are told – related to energy security. But he also discussed the ceasefire in Yemen, Saudi participation with American companies in major infrastructure projects around the world, and Iran.
Fast forward to today and the war in Ukraine, which has taken much of Russian oil and gas off the market. The price of oil, and of gasoline, has skyrocketed. Biden knows that if the price of gasoline at the pump does not soon decrease, this could spell disaster for the Democrats at the midterm elections. So he has been trying for months to persuade the Saudis not to cut production at the October meeting of OPEC+. He failed. Instead the Saudis, and the greatly increase the cost of heating oil and, especially, gasoline.
Biden feels personally betrayed by the Saudis, which seems strange, since it was he who proudly proclaimed that he would treat the country as a “pariah.” Some commentators seem to think that Saudi Arabia has decided to form a geopolitical alliance with Russia, to replace the Saudi-American one that the Saudis have lost faith in, given the ballyhooed American “pivot” away from the Middle East to East Asia. I see no signs of this supposed alliance. The Saudis made a perfectly rational decision to maximize their profits from the sale of oil. And that’s what the Russians, and 20-odd other oil producers, also did. That’s all that they, and the Russians, and the other members of OPEC+, were after: more money. American capitalists ought to be able to understand that.
Biden’s “re-evaluation” of the American relationship with Saudi Arabia is reported on here: “Biden reevaluating US relationship with Saudis after OPEC decision,” by Omri Nahmias, Reuters, October 11, 2022:
President Joe Biden is re-evaluating the US relationship with Saudi Arabia after OPEC+ announced last week that it would cut oil production, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday.
“I think the president’s been very clear that this is a relationship that we need to continue to re-evaluate, that we need to be willing to revisit,” Kirby said in an interview with CNN. “And certainly in light of the OPEC decision, I think that’s where he is.”
Biden is willing to work with Congress on the future of Saudi relations, Kirby added.
Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Monday called for a freeze on cooperating with Saudi Arabia, including on most arms sales, accusing the kingdom of helping to underwrite the Russian war in Ukraine after OPEC+ announced last week that it would cut oil production.
Biden was disappointed in the OPEC+ decision, Kirby said, and “he’s willing to work with Congress to think through what that relationship ought to look like going forward.”
“And I think he’s going to be willing to start to have those conversations right away. I don’t think this is anything that’s going to have to wait or should wait, quite frankly, for much longer,” Kirby added.
The issue does not only concern the war in Ukraine but it is a matter of US national security interests, Kirby added.
Does it make sense to weaken our ties to Saudi Arabia, to treat it as a “pariah” not because of the killing of Khashoggi, but because the Saudis want to maximize their profits from the sale of oil? Suppose we were to downgrade our ties with Saudi Arabia. What then happens to the $350 billion deal for American weapons that the Saudis signed in 2017? Isn’t it likely that the Crown Prince would cancel that deal, and then do the very thing we fear, which is to go to Russia, or China, or both, for weapons, providing both countries with hundreds of billions of dollars from such sales? And what would be the consequences in Yemen of our withdrawal of support from the Saudis? If the Saudis can no longer count on American support, diplomatic or military, they might then be compelled to yield more territory to the Iran-backed Houthis in that theatre of war. Yemen might be partitioned, with the Houthis controlling part that would then be made available to Iranian military bases, similar to what Iran has had in Syria. These bases would pose a constant threat both to the Saudi oil installations, and to the Israelis, whose ships travel to Asia through the Red Sea, and would pass perilously close to any Iranian outposts in Yemen.
Another effect of Biden’s choosing to downgrade relations with Saudi Arabia would be that the vast infrastructure projects now underway in Saudi Arabia – just one of his planned megacities, NEOM, is estimated to cost upwards of $500 billion, and may go much higher – could be declared off-limits to American companies now hoping to take part in the building bonanza. South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, Germany, France, Italy, the U.K., are the countries whose contractors could most likely replace the Americans. What a colossal loss that would mean for the American economy.
Biden has had his anti-Saudi fit, and now he should relapse into studied silence. Let the cooler heads among his handlers prevail. There’s a lot of money at stake, and the U.S. is in no condition to let already agreed upon weapons sales of $350 billion be canceled by an angry Crown Prince, or to let itself be locked out of a trillion-dollar market for building Saudi infrastructure.
We don’t have to “reevaluate” our relations with Saudi Arabia. It’s a despotism. It’s a nasty place. The Crown Prince is most unpleasant. Its only claim on the world’s attention is its oil, and what its oil revenues can buy. But that, I deeply regret having to admit, is more than enough for us to keep relations with the Saudis on an even keel.