The world has changed, and now Biden needs to change how the US deals with Saudi Arabia

Joe Biden Saudi Arabia
Then-Vice President Joe Biden with Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz at Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, October 27, 2011. REUTERS/Fahad Shadee
  • President Joe Biden’s recalibration of US-Saudi relations is long-overdue.
  • Blowing up the relationship wouldn’t be wise, but the US does need to stop treating Saudi Arabia like it’s still the 20th century, writes Defense Priorities fellow Daniel DePetris.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The US relationship with Saudi Arabia is in a state of turbulence.

Persistent drone and missile attacks by the Houthis, including a March 7 strike on a major Saudi oil export facility at Ras Tanura, has led Washington to reiterate its “unwavering” commitment to the defense.

Yet at the same time, the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi underscores just how urgent a recalibration of US-Saudi relations really is.

The Biden administration has taken pains to thread the needle between accountability for the killing of a journalist and permanent US resident and the need to maintain a constructive relationship with the kingdom. In general, this is the correct approach. As despicable as bin Salman’s behavior has been since he rose from obscure prince to day-to-day ruler, the US blowing up the entire relationship would not be wise.

This, however, doesn’t mean the relationship isn’t in need of serious work. The US has too often based its engagement with Saudi Arabia as if the world was still in the 20th century.

President Joe Biden needs to reset the terms at an institutional level, getting away from an oil-for-security paradigm no longer as durable today as it was 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. Instituting a travel ban on problematic Saudis, slapping financial sanctions on certain Saudi entities and cutting Prince Mohammed off from Biden are surface-level gestures. What Washington needs is real reform.

Mohammed Bin Salman
Mohammed bin Salman, then Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, arrives at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4, 2016. Etienne Oliveau/Pool Photo via AP

Washington and Riyadh established their strategic relationship at the tail end of World War II, when US President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud struck a transactional arrangement that would come to be known colloquially as the oil-for-security scheme.

In return for the Saudis opening their taps and providing a reliable supply of crude oil into the market, the US would grant the kingdom the defense articles and military training needed to protect itself from external threats. The understanding proved to be a pragmatic and largely effective one for both countries, both of which were wary of the Soviet Union and concerned about what Soviet expansionism in the Middle East would mean for the world’s most valuable energy source.

For US officials at the time, having one of the world’s biggest oil producers in Washington’s corner was simply common-sense.

Times, however, have changed. The Soviet Union, America’s adversary for over 45 years, has been in the history books for nearly three decades. While fossil fuels remain vital for the global economy, the tremendous progress being made in green energy is giving the world, including the United States, an opportunity to diversify its energy sources and thereby lessen its dependence on crude oil.

As a consequence, Riyadh has lost some of its influence over geopolitics. In 1991, the US imported 1.8 million barrels of Saudi oil per day. According to the Energy Information Agency’s own data, that figure has gone down to 530,000 barrels per day – the lowest since 1985.

Just because the US is importing less Saudi oil, of course, doesn’t mean the kingdom’s oil reserves are not important. But what it does mean is that the old oil-for-security model that has dominated bilateral relations for so long is less relevant in 2021 than it was during the Cold War.

Back then, a rival superpower dictating Persian Gulf oil prices was at least a plausible scenario for US policymakers and defense planners. Nobody can seriously make the same argument today – Iran and Russia are far too weak militarily and economically to reach hegemonic status, and China doesn’t seem particularly interested in bogging itself down in the Middle East.

Riyadh Saudi Arabia

The Biden administration’s recalibration of US-Saudi relations is long-overdue.

The president’s decision last month to end offensive US military support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen was a big step in the right direction, distancing Washington from Riyadh’s reckless air campaign and sending King Salman and his favorite son a message that the US won’t automatically be at the beck and call of the kingdom – especially when the kingdom’s own actions are a big part of the problem.

But a recalibration will stall if the Biden administration thinks all it needs to do is reprimand Crown Prince Mohammed and put the brash heir in his place. And it won’t succeed at all if Washington neglects three critical points: 1) Saudi Arabia is not a formal US treaty ally, 2) US and Saudi interests are more likely to diverge than coalesce, and 3) What is good for the kingdom in the Middle East does necessarily correlate with what is good for the US.

Biden has a golden opportunity to rewrite the old, 75-year-old contract governing the US-Saudi relationship, one where the US approaches the kingdom like any authoritarian state with a terrible human rights record: skeptical and at arms-length, but ready to do business when US national security interests demand it.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.