June 13, 2023

IntelBrief: The Riyadh-Washington Partnership Remains Volatile

Ahmed Yosri/Pool via AP

Bottom Line up Front

  • Neither the mid-2022 visit of U.S. President Biden nor the June 2023 trip by U.S. Secretary of State Blinken to Saudi Arabia resolved the differences between the United States and the Kingdom.
  • Saudi engagement with Moscow and Beijing, and its rapprochement with Tehran, reflect Saudi doubts about the long-term U.S. commitment to Persian Gulf security.
  • Riyadh’s recent decisions on oil production frustrated U.S. officials seeking to grapple with still-high inflation rates.
  • The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are working together to settle conflicts in Yemen and in Sudan and against regional terrorist groups, but Saudi officials remain reluctant to normalize relations with Israel.

In early June, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to continue efforts, begun by U.S. President Biden during his July 2022 trip there, to stabilize U.S.-Saudi relations after a series of disputes. President Biden came into office in early 2021 after identifying the Kingdom as a “pariah” state, based in large part on the U.S. assessment that de-facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), approved the October 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet, neither U.S. visit seemed to quell continuing doubts on both sides. Nearly three months after President Biden’s visit, Saudi and Russian officials engineered a 2 million barrels per day oil production cut by the world’s major oil exporters. That decision came as U.S. officials were wrestling with taming a nearly 40-year high in the U.S. inflation rate – an objective made more difficult by Saudi efforts to keep oil prices elevated. Secretary Blinken’s June trip followed an unexpected unilateral decision by the Kingdom to cut production by 1 million barrels per day, although a relatively weak global economy muted the effects of the announced reduction. The oil production decisions continued to fray the longstanding implicit U.S.-Saudi bargain under which the Kingdom tries to keep oil prices relatively stable, partly in exchange for a U.S. guarantee to help defend Saudi Arabia from a range of regional threats. Yet, changes in Saudi oil policy were perhaps inevitable as the U.S. hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) industry makes the United States more self-sufficient in oil production.

The declining U.S. need for imported oil, coupled with successive U.S. national security strategy announcements emphasizing threats from Russia and China, have fueled Saudi leadership doubts about the U.S. commitment to securing the Kingdom and its Arab Gulf state allies. Saudi officials cite some U.S. regional policies as compounding their doubts, including the U.S. refusal to support Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak against Arab Spring demonstrators that brought his regime down in 2011; the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal that was perceived by Gulf leaders as intended to shrink the U.S. military posture in the Gulf; the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan that paved the way for a return of the Taliban to power in Kabul in August 2021; and, most notably for Saudi leaders, the U.S. refusal to retaliate against Iran for its September 2019 cruise missile and armed drone attack on key Saudi oil production facilities. During his visit to Riyadh, which included meetings with MBS, Secretary Blinken sought to assuage Saudi concerns, noting that the United States remained committed to countering Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region and would counter aggressive Iranian actions in the Gulf. U.S. military officials stress that the United States, despite its increased focus on Russian aggression in Ukraine and the “pacing threat” from China, maintains the robust military presence in the Gulf that it has had for more than two decades.

From the U.S. perspective, Saudi policies that have prompted questions about the Kingdom’s commitment to the partnership include cooperation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on oil and other issues, despite his brutal aggression against Ukraine; Saudi Arabia’s growing diplomatic and security engagement with China; and Saudi Arabia’s decision to welcome Syria back into the Arab League. In March, Saudi Arabia turned to China to finalize a long-negotiated rapprochement with Iran, intended to de-escalate tensions with Tehran amid uncertainty about the U.S. resolve to counter Iran.  Press reports note that Saudi Arabia has contracted with China to develop an indigenous Saudi missile production capability – a capacity the United States will not provide because of U.S. anti-proliferation laws and adherence to global proliferation conventions. In the context of Secretary Blinken’s June visit, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud indicated that the Kingdom wanted to procure U.S. technology for its still rudimentary civilian nuclear program but would turn to other suppliers – presumably Russia or China - if U.S. anti-proliferation restrictions prevented such sales. During his meetings in Riyadh, Secretary of State Blinken sought to downplay U.S.-Saudi differences on China, asserting that the United States supported the rapprochement with Iran and was not seeking to pressure Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states to reduce their trade or diplomatic ties to Beijing. Blinken and other officials have also sought to downplay differences with Saudi Arabia on Syria, noting that Saudi leaders have committed to pressing Assad to negotiate a lasting political solution in Syria as envisioned in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015) and to curbing the Syria-based trade in the illicit drug Captagon.

Despite some fissures, there has been improved Washington-Riyadh cooperation on some major regional issues, including settling the longstanding conflict in Yemen and the recent outbreak of fighting between the two main military forces in Sudan. The United States and Saudi Arabia have jointly led efforts to engage with Sudan’s two warring generals to try to obtain a lasting ceasefire that would increase the flow of humanitarian aid into the country and eventually pave the way for the formation of a civilian-led government. Similarly, Washington and Riyadh have overcome past differences over civilian casualties caused by Saudi-led military operations against the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen. U.S. and Saudi diplomats have been working together, in partnership with U.N. officials, to institutionalize a ceasefire between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed Republic of Yemen Government and eventually achieve a permanent political solution there. As stated during Secretary Blinken’s visit to Riyadh, U.S. and Saudi officials are engaged in mutual cooperation against Islamic State, including attempts to repatriate the families of ISIS fighters living in camps in Syria.

In advance of the Blinken trip to Riyadh, press reports indicated that the Secretary might focus on another potential avenue of cooperation – Saudi normalization of relations with Israel. U.S. officials indicate that the Kingdom has prepared the groundwork for such a move, including opening its airspace to flights to and from Israel and undertaking broad but quiet cooperation with Israel against Iran. However, Saudi Arabia is a leader in the Muslim world and the author of the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 that conditioned normalization with Israel on a settlement of the Israel-Palestinian dispute. Many experts have assessed that the Kingdom’s agreement to normalization - in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement - would require major U.S. security and other inducements. If a breakthrough on this issue was an objective of Secretary Blinken’s trip, it did not appear to have been achieved. Foreign Minister Al Saud, at a joint press briefing with Blinken, indicated that Saudi normalization with Israel would only follow a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. His comments seemed to support the view of many experts that U.S. and Israeli officials need to lower their expectations of an early Saudi normalization with Israel.