The Puzzle of U.S.-Saudi Ties

By most accounts, the Biden administration is pleased with the results of its policy toward Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leadership has stepped up its efforts to end the war in Yemen, it has generally stayed mum about the administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran, and it has opened up its own dialogue with Iran to try to reduce tensions. Domestically, several advocates for women’s rights have been freed from jail, and the extraordinary effort to harass—and in at least one instance, kill—prominent Saudi critics overseas has been dialed back.

Saudis seem less satisfied, though. They feel the Biden team has pocketed their efforts at partnership and has given little in return. They also express wonderment that the kingdom is undergoing a deeper transformation in economics and society than any in the country’s history and it is happening at breakneck speed, yet their closest and most important partner neither notices nor cares.

One might argue that mutual disappointment has been a consistent theme in the countries’ bilateral relationship. Anyone who has spent time working on ties between the two countries has heard a lot of griping. Expectations have rarely been met. Even so, cooperation has been vital for both. It is worth asking, though, if there might come a time when Saudi Arabia would interpret U.S. disinterest to be permanent and act accordingly. Many Americans would welcome such a development now, but they are likely to come to regret it.

Saudi Arabia and the United States are unlikely partners. Rare among world powers, each has a long history of believing it plays a unique role in God’s plan for the world—yet those roles are dramatically different. The U.S. system was predicated on a division between church and state, and freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution. Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law states that Islam is the religion of the kingdom, and the “holy Quran and the traditions of the Prophet” are its constitution. While there are pockets of Americanized Saudis, the societies operate on profoundly different premises.

For a half century, a shared commitment to anti-communism and a desire for global energy security were enough overcome those differences. The 9/11 attacks shook that bargain. The growing divergence between oil security and energy security makes the future of the relationship even more uncertain.

Saudis know this, and the government is vigorously trying to change the kingdom to meet the challenges of the new century. Whether it is going about it the right way and whether it will be successful are two separate questions. What seems beyond doubt is that Saudi Arabia is in transition to something new.

A basic question is whether the United States has any interest in whether Saudi Arabia and its neighbors succeed. Some argue that the answer is no. When the energy transition has occurred and the oil bonanza has run its course, the argument goes, the United States will have no need for most of the Middle East. With that on the horizon, the United States should begin now to pull up stakes and reduce U.S. exposure. Ultimately, the region can fight with itself over the diminishing scraps of its one-time wealth.

Yet, the United States is unlikely to benefit from a Middle East in freefall. In a region of half a billion people, many of them young, it is not hard to imagine what might happen if real desperation set in. One possibility is a spike in terrorism, which has already shown its global reach. A second is mass migration across the Mediterranean, which we have already seen seep into Europe. Proliferation challenges could increase as interstate tensions grow unchecked. Of course, the world will be using oil for decades to come, and these sorts of events will further increase oil price volatility, harming the global economy.

While many Americans profess indifference, the United States does have an interest in facilitating the Middle East’s transition to more diversified economies. It has an interest, too, in encouraging its partners to have more open societies that will be resilient in the face of global change. Not all of Saudi Arabia’s potential partners have much interest in either. For the Saudis, this will be hard work, and it will take decades. The time is now to make it a central part of U.S. strategy toward the region.

Saudi Arabia is not the only target for this reorientation, but it is one of the most important. The Saudis have broad influence throughout the Middle East, deep pockets, and a leadership that is serious about change. But the change underway in Saudi Arabia is about more than the leadership. Saudi youth are energized about redefining their country and its role in the world.

Five years ago, it was common to hear people in Washington say, “We have to ensure Mohammed bin Salman succeeds.” After the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the harassment of other critics of the leadership, a ruinous war in Yemen, and a series of other seemingly impetuous moves by the crown prince, that sentiment has become rare.

But it was always correct to see it as important to U.S. interests that Saudi Arabia succeeds, as well as other countries in the region. The United States cannot remake other countries in its image, but it can certainly partner with them to reinforce their positive instincts and discourage reckless adventures. Saudis see their future success built on the foundation of a partnership with the United States. The Biden administration should be looking for ways to partner with Saudis and others on projects that help move the Middle East in a direction that advances mutual interests. The United States has a stake in the future of Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis are highly incentivized to work with the United States. That creates leverage, and the administration should use it.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program