US-Saudi Relations: Temporary Tension or Strategic Shift?
Mary Maher, Nouran Awadin, and Rehab Al-Ziyadi
Arab and Regional Studies Unit
The decision of the OPEC Plus group, on 5 October 2022, to reduce oil production by two million barrels per day as of November 2022, has escalated tensions in US-Saudi relations. The US administration has vowed to respond “systematically” to what it considers a Saudi alignment with Moscow, while bipartisan calls have emerged in the US Congress to stop security assistance to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, however, maintains that the OPEC Plus decision was taken in accordance with considerations of national economic interest.
This is the is the most recent episode in US-Saudi tensions, in a clearer form since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war, which requires examining the course of development of US-Saudi relations up to the moment when tensions began to surface publicly, as well as examining the course of these relations and the possibilities of their continuity.
The Ebb and Flow of US-Saudi Relations
The history of the US-Saudi alliance dates back to 1943, when the two kings Faisal bin Abdulaziz and Khalid bin Abdulaziz visited the White House at the invitation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, where they agreed that the US would guarantee the Kingdom’s security against any internal or external risks in exchange for its commitment to secure cheap oil for the US and the continued Saudi preference for American oil companies’ access to the Kingdom (oil for security). This was formalized in 1945 when King Abdulaziz Al Saud and President Roosevelt met face to face aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. The bilateral relationship developed into a broader security alliance on 17 January 1951, when they signed the first formal defense agreement known as the Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement, which provided for the sale of US weapons to Saudi Arabia and US training for the Saudi military. During the Cold War, the Kingdom served as a key supporter of maintaining the free flow of oil and keeping Soviet influence out of the region.
However, bilateral relations regressed in 1973 as a result of the oil embargo imposed by the Kingdom on the US headed by Richard Nixon for supporting Israel in the October War. Nevertheless, Saudi-US cooperation was resumed in the wake of the peace process, and the 1980s and 1990s witnessed unprecedented cooperation between the two countries to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan as well as during the war to liberate Kuwait. Yet, deterioration was noted again in 2000 when US President Bill Clinton failed to achieve a Syrian-Israeli peace at the Shepherdstown Peace Conference nor a Palestinian-Israeli peace at Camp David. The then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah felt that Clinton had failed to pressure Israel strongly enough to make territorial concessions. He believed that the Syrian-Israeli deal was highly possible in 2000 and would have taken Damascus out of the Iranian axis, isolated Hezbollah and paved the way for a Palestinian-Israeli deal. Prince Abdullah was also deeply disappointed when President George W. Bush sided with Ariel Sharon during the Second Intifada in 2001, and the prince refused to meet with Bush or visit Washington despite the Bush appeal (Father and Son). Then came the attacks of 11 September 2001 to exacerbate tensions in bilateral relations between the two countries after it was found that there were 15 people with Saudi nationality among the 19 perpetrators. The War on Iraq and the end of the policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq caused a decline in mutual trust between Washington and Riyadh.
During the era of former President Barack Obama, tension prevailed in Saudi-US relations. Although the roots of the Saudis’ wariness against Obama go back to his comments as a senator in the Senate in 2002, when he described the monarchy in Riyadh as an alleged ally, the American response to regional and international changes reinforced fears and the state of Saudi loss of confidence in the democratic administration, especially because of its support for the outcomes of the Arab Spring, which overthrew some stable regimes. This was regarded with suspicion by Saudi Arabia, which saw it as a message of disappointment from Washington to its regional allies. The Obama administration even considered the Muslim Brotherhood a moderate group that can be integrated into the political process and lifted the official ban on communication between its diplomats and the group. The US administration’s sympathy with the moves in Bahrain in 2011 was another factor for straining relations, as well as Obama’s retreat from his red line that he set against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after he decided not to launch a military strike against him against the background of the alleged use of chemical weapons in 2013, only coordinating with Russia on the dismantling of Syrian chemical weapons.
In addition to Obama’s strategy to focus on Asia, which Riyadh saw as a US abandonment of its security commitments to the Middle East, as well as focusing his regional efforts on reaching a nuclear deal with Iran, Riyadh was not included in his initial secretly held negotiations in Oman in 2013, which enabled Tehran to improve its international standing and domestic economic environment, end decades of Iranian isolation, and gradually expand its regional influence through joint actions with Russia in the two civil wars in Syria and Yemen. This ignored the concerns of Saudi Arabia, which viewed the nuclear deal as a strong threat, while not achieving the desired balance in a Middle East shared by Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) according to Obama’s vision. Adding to the tension is Congress’ passage of the JASTA Act, which allows families of victims of the 11 September attacks to sue other governments, including Saudi Arabia, for compensation, and congressional opposition to arms deals on the grounds that they could be used in the Yemen war.
Yet both countries had a common vision about Yemen. After the Houthi coup in 2014, the Obama administration supported the Kingdom in Operation Decisive Storm, which was launched in March 2015 to confront the Houthis, not only to help and protect Riyadh as an ally but also to protect its interests in the region and deal with the threat of al-Qaeda in Yemen. It sent a US advisory mission to Saudi operations headquarters, sold weapons and ammunition to the kingdom, and announced new arms deals to the kingdom in 2015 and 2016 to replenish its stockpiles. US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen may be seen as an attempt to improve relations with Riyadh after the nuclear deal with Iran.
These variables have introduced Saudi-US relations into a phase of decline and doubts, the most prominent manifestation of which was the lukewarm reception of Obama during his visit to the Kingdom in April 2016 to hold a summit with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, where he was received by the Emir of Riyadh and former Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, unlike other Gulf leaders who were received by King Salman. The Obama-bin Salman meeting on the fringe lines of the summit showed the wide differences between the American and Saudi vision to achieve common security goals. While the Saudi King stressed the use of strength to deal with threats, President Obama emphasized the need to include diplomacy as well.
However, as the US administration recognizes the need for the US to maintain its alliances with stable countries in the Middle East and pursue its common security interests with the Kingdom including the war against terrorist groups, it has sought to alleviate Saudi concerns, especially about the Iran nuclear deal, by pushing for the signing of new military and security deals. The US arms sales to Riyadh increased during the Obama administration estimated at more than $115 billion through 42 separate deals between 2009 and 2016, in addition to four deals in October 2010 worth more than $60 billion, exceeding any deal made by any US administration since the establishment of relations between the two countries, and being the largest value of arms sales to a single country in US history. The Kingdom also maintained its position as one of the largest oil suppliers to the US; it was the second largest exporter of crude oil to the US after Canada in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Riyadh was also one of Washington’s largest trading partners in the Middle East, as the volume of Saudi exports to the US in 2016 amounted to about $16.9 billion and the volume of American exports to the Kingdom was about $18 billion.
Trump’s ascension to the US presidency has helped ease some of Saudi Arabia’s concerns that arose from Obama’s policies in the Middle East. The Kingdom has become more dependent on Washington than it was when Obama was in office, as Trump has taken steps to improve US-Saudi relations and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has established a close relationship with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Trump has made Riyadh one of the cornerstones of his Middle East strategy, considering it a US important strategic partner in maintaining regional stability and world economic security. This was manifested in Saudi Arabia being his first destination for his international tour, only 4 months after being in office. It was a fruitful visit witnessing three meetings; an US-Saudi summit, an American-Gulf summit chaired by Saudi Arabia, and an Arab-Islamic-American summit in the presence of more than 50 heads of Arab Islamic countries, which provided an opportunity for Trump to address the leaders of the Islamic world, which some considered a confrontation with Obama’s famous speech in Cairo in 2009 when he stressed US commitment to world democracy and human rights. The visit also saw the signing of a $110 billion arms contract with a follow-up package to the tune of $350 billion in the next decade.
Trump has viewed US-Saudi relations with the logic of a pragmatic businessman rather than an ideological political president. The issues of democracy and human rights did not occupy a central place in bilateral exchanges, with the primacy of economic interests, which was manifested in his rejection of congressional calls to stop future arms sales to Saudi Arabia against the backdrop of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, considering that such a decision would not be in Washington’s interest and would push Saudi Arabia to turn to Chinese and Russian companies to meet its defense needs, which means stopping an investment estimated at $110 billion. He also regarded the Kingdom as an important ally in his fight against Iran.
Added to this is Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and launching a campaign of maximum pressure from sanctions. Moreover, the Trump administration has not used the Yemen war as a means of pressuring Saudi Arabia, on the contrary, has continued its military support for Saudi forces in Yemen, including aerial refueling of Saudi warplanes, intelligence sharing, logistical support, the presence of US military advisers providing military advice, improving border security, and ballistic missile defenses. This was met attack by Congress and international rights groups, prompting them to argue that the US administration encouraged Riyadh and gave it carte blanche to pursue its policies in Yemen. In April 2017, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis asserted that the US supports the Saudi war in Yemen as a defense against Iran’s moves in the region, and that Saudi Arabia has been the best partner in the fight against terrorism. Trump vetoed a congressional resolution to end US military assistance in the Saudi war in Yemen, as well as three other measures aimed at preventing arms sales worth more than $8 billion to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The Trump administration has also taken a neutral stance on the crisis between the Arab Quartet and Qatar and called on GCC states to negotiate and settle their disputes. President Trump also stressed that the US will continue to support the Kingdom in its efforts to strengthen Saudi society and economy in accordance with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030. He described the decision on Saudi women’s right to drive as a positive step towards promoting women’s rights and opportunities.
However, the Kingdom pursued a more cautious policy as a result of the uncertainty in Trump’s non-ideological or predictable foreign policy, his call for an “America First” approach to global affairs, his focus on potential Asian threats, and his decision to withdraw Patriot air defense batteries from Saudi Arabia, which led to a state of unease inside the Kingdom, especially as it waited for a US retaliatory military strike – albeit limited – on Iran following its attacks on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities on 14 September 2019, but Washington was satisfied Trump adopted the position of a staunch ally of the Saudis.
The Rise of Saudi-US Tension under Biden
A new era of US-Saudi relations seemed to be taking shape during the election campaign and the early days of Joe Biden’s tenure as president of the US, both in terms of bilateral relations and in terms of their coordination abroad.
During his election campaign President Joe Biden confirmed that he seeks to revive the nuclear deal with Iran. This talk was reinforced by the new US administration’s decision on 12 February 2021– during its first days– to revoke the designation of the Yemeni Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, under the pretext of supporting international humanitarian aid in Yemen. These moves confirmed Saudi suspicions about the decline in US-Saudi relations. It can even be said that these doubts have been further strengthened by statements about the discussions of the new agreement with Iran, where the US side tended to conclude an agreement with Iran whose main focus is on Iran’s nuclear program, without taking into account– again– Iran’s regional interventions or ballistic missile program. This means that the new agreement will not address the security threats issued by Iran and its proxies against the Gulf countries in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular. Complicating the situation, Saudi Arabia saw as a “slow and ineffective” US response to Iranian and Houthi missile and drone attacks on Saudi civilian targets.
In light of the repeated American talk about the imminent withdrawal from the Middle East, and coupled with the scene of withdrawal from Afghanistan, the question grew among the regional partners of the US, including Saudi Arabia, about the credibility of the US as a responsible partner, and thus the need to reassess positions and policies towards the post-withdrawal reality, which makes the responsibility for resolving regional issues the sole responsibility of the countries of the region without relying heavily on the inevitability of American participation as before.
The results of this reassessment can be seen through new partnerships emerging in the region, based on calming the region’s crises through dialogue, which was highlighted in rounds of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the return of Saudi-Turkish relations, as well as work to resolve the Yemeni crisis.
Yet in light of the development of the international conflict, including the Russian war on Ukraine, coupled with the failure to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, the US has repositioned its relations with Saudi Arabia as a priority, especially in light of the role it can play in the path of stabilizing the global oil market, given the Kingdom’s ability to increase production, as well as its influence on the OPEC Plus alliance. On the other hand, the war on Ukraine highlighted the new Saudi approach to its relationship with the US, which was highlighted in the Saudi commitment to follow a neutral policy towards the parties to the conflict: condemnation of the war as well as rejection of sanctions imposed on Russia or any policy that would isolate Russia at the international level, which means a categorical rejection of everything demanded by the US. This led to the likelihood of speculation about the existence of some form of tension in the relationship between the two countries. The Ukrainian crisis only confirmed it.
- The Oil Factor in US-Saudi Relations: Since the outbreak of the war, the US and its European allies have been demanding that Saudi Arabia increase crude oil production. In response, Saudi Arabia made clear its adherence to the provisions of the previous OPEC Plus agreement with Russia to increase oil production to 400,000 barrels per day. However, on 31 March 2022, the OPEC Plus alliance met and agreed on a slight increase in oil production, while US President Joe Biden was confirming the launch of additional quantities of the strategic petroleum reserve. OPEC Plus alliance members saw that it was possible to meet growing global demand by increasing production to 432,000 barrels per day, but the amount that the US believes is appropriate is more than double that figure of 1 million barrels per day, while total global demand is about 100 million barrels per day.
Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman hinted at this conclusion by announcing at an energy conference in Dubai on 29 March that “everyone should put politics aside”. Yet with the rapid rise in prices and increasing fear of global market shortage, OPEC Plus Alliance members decided to alter July and August production with an estimated rise of 648,000 barrels per day (instead of the previously set 432,000 barrels per day). The American side welcomed such move and appreciated the Saudi role in achieving this consensus. This was followed by President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in mid-July 2022, among which objectives was seeking to convince the Kingdom to increase its oil production, however the following facts proved a failure to achieve this goal.
In August, OPEC Plus announced an increase in production by only 100,000 barrels per day during the month of September, due to weak production capacity resulting from a lack of investment in the oil sector, in addition to the fact that most of the group’s members are already pumping near their maximum production capacities, and are unable to meet US calls to increase production to help cope with rising prices. This was followed in October by the recent decision of the OPEC Plus group to cut production by two million barrels per day.
Immediately after the announcement of the production cuts, there were several official US reactions rejecting this decision. For his part, President Biden stated that there will be consequences for Saudi Arabia because of its decision within the OPEC Plus alliance. This was preceded by a statement by the spokesman for the US National Security Council John Kirby who explained that the US president wants to conduct a “reassessment” of the relationship between Washington and Riyadh in order to “ensure the [the relationship] serves the interests of the national security of the US”, given its key role in the decision to reduce production, which was not justified by market conditions, is short-sighted, and beneficial to Russia “at a time when no one- in any capacity- should try to benefit Russian President Vladimir Putin”.
Kirby later clarified in a statement on 13 October that the US had provided Saudi Arabia with an analysis showing that there was no market basis for cutting oil production prior to OPEC Plus’ decision to cut production, and that such a decision could have been made during the OPEC meeting scheduled for November.
Talks in the US Congress on freezing arms sales and security cooperation with the Kingdom were discussed, as well as the passage of the No Oil Production and Export Cartels (NOPEC) bill, which “prohibits a foreign country from engaging in collective action that affects the market, supply, price, or distribution of oil, natural gas, or any other petroleum product in the US”.
On the other hand, the Saudi Energy Minister explained that the proactive decisions taken by OPEC Plus contributed to maintaining a sustainable oil market, noting that this agreement, which reduces production levels, will extend until the end of 2023. In a statement issued by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, all statements issued towards the Kingdom describing the OPEC Plus decision as “a bias towards the Kingdom in international conflicts and a politically motivated decision against the US” were rejected It also stressed that the Kingdom’s government has made it clear during its continuous consultation with the US administration that all economic analyses of postponing the decision to reduce for a month– proposed by the US– will have negative economic consequences.
The recent OPEC Plus decision and the subsequent statement by the Saudi Foreign Ministry confirmed the tension between Saudi Arabia and the US. Despite what was raised about Biden receiving Saudi promises to increase oil production during his recent visit to Riyadh, the details of the meeting between the US president and the Saudi crown prince indicate a widening gap of tension between the two sides. In response to Biden’s talk about the importance of respecting human rights, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pointed to the double standards of America on the subject of human rights, highlighting the issue of the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli fire, and the American mistreatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison. He also pointed out that efforts to impose some values on other countries may be counterproductive. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s refusal to implement the US proposal to postpone the decision to reduce production for a month coincides with the US midterm elections, and the attempt of Biden and his Democratic administration to maintain their majority in Congress, in light a fragile economic situation fueled by high inflation rates and high fuel prices. Accordingly, the Biden administration attempted to convince Saudi Arabia to postpone the decision to reduce production in order to avoid the resulting rise in prices that would contribute to influencing voter preferences.
- Saudi non-alignment: It seems that there is another goal that the US president failed to achieve during his visit to the region, explained in his article in The Washington Post on 9 July 2022: to counter Russian aggression, position the US to compete with China, and promote regional stability, which must be dealt with directly with countries that could influence those outcomes.
The Russian war has already highlighted a Saudi hedge internationally. In this context, it is worth noting Saudi Arabia’s growing political and economic relations with both China and Russia.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia extended an official invitation in March 2022 to Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit. Reports have also revealed that there are Saudi-Chinese talks on using the yuan instead of the dollar in payments for Saudi oil destined for China. Although the move has little impact on strengthening the yuan’s position in the global financial system, it also reinforces evidence of US-Saudi tension.
In terms of the relationship with Russia, the cooperation between the two countries within the framework of the OPEC Plus formula, as well as the Saudi success in arranging the release of 10 prisoners of the Morocco, the US, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Croatia, within the framework of a prisoner exchange between Moscow and Kiev, indicate the success of the Saudi-Russian coordination.
In terms of military cooperation, data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicate that Chinese arms exports to Saudi Arabia amounted to about 210 million TIV during the period 2016-2021 (SIPRI uses the Trend Indicator Value or Trend Index Measurement Unit, known as TIV, to measure trends in the flow of weapons between countries, in other words, the index provides a measure of transfers of military capability rather than its financial value). Russian arms exports to Saudi Arabia amounted to 12 million TIV in 2019.
Although the volume of these exports is weak compared to the size of those imported from the US, the cooperation itself and Saudi Arabia’s tendency to purchase weapons from both China and Russia in particular reveal the current state of tension, as Riyadh tends to buy weapons from countries Washington consider a threat to its influence at the global level, in response to Washington’s abandonment of its allies in the Gulf. In general, Saudi moves in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine indicate the adoption of a new approach in its relations with the US, being a strong partner among other partners, which makes the Saudi side seek to achieve balance in its relations with all these partners.
Shifts in American attitudes during various administrations towards Saudi Arabia in particular, and the Gulf in general, have had an impact on the nature of relationships between the two countries. Concerns were raised about the credibility of the US as a partner, reflected in relationship tension at times, and Saudi Arabia’s tendency towards diversifying partnerships with other powers, including Russia and China, and thinking about solving regional issues individually without relying heavily on the participation of the US. However, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region remain central to the US European allies because of their energy resources, and the US military presence in the Gulf states remains of great importance to the US to protect the waterways there and maintain its influence in the region.
Accordingly, below are some possible repercussions of the US-Saudi dispute:
• Temporary tension: The decision of Saudi Arabia and OPEC Plus countries to reduce oil production by two million barrels per day came at a critical time for the Biden administration, especially as it was approaching the mid-term congressional elections in December 2022, which meant that such decision may weaken the chances of the Democratic Party in the elections after the rise in oil prices. Some interpretations suggest that Saudi Arabia’s decision is interference in US policy to harm the Biden administration before the elections, and that Saudi Arabia is interfering alongside the Republicans. The decision is also in favor of Russia, bringing Moscow enormous financial resources, increasing its influence over Europeans, especially in light of continued inflation in the context of the war and the worsening energy crisis during the winter.
This made Biden announce a review of relationships with Saudi Arabia following its bias towards Russia in the decision of OPEC Plus to restrict global oil supplies. Talks of reducing military sales to Saudi Arabia were also proposed. Senator Bob Menendez called for an immediate freeze on all aspects of cooperation with Saudi Arabia, and a reduction of the US military presence in the Gulf countries, reflecting the tension that has hit relationships.
As noted above, Congress members called for the revival of the Oil Production and Export Ban bill known as NOPEC. But according to a poll conducted by Morning Consult and Politico, more than half of Democrats and two in five Republicans support the bill, while some institutions such as the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association of the oil and natural gas industry, oppose the bill and consider it harmful to American interests (commercial and military). US Trade Chamber believe that the legislation will have no effect in taming gasoline prices.
On the other hand, the US has taken countermeasures by planning to release an additional 10 million barrels of oil from its strategic petroleum reserve in November to partially compensate for the decline in OPEC production.
The OPEC Plus decision reflects Saudi Arabia’s tendency in its policy to determine oil production and pricing independently of Washington, that it is working to achieve its economic and geostrategic goals, and has a fear of a global recession, prompting it to raise oil prices, which help protect the country from low revenues due to the economic slowdown, especially since there were efforts by Washington to set a maximum price for Russian oil.
Saudi Arabia seeks to diversify its economic relationships worldwide, especially Asia. Japan, for example, is a key partner in Saudi Vision 2030. There are also internal shifts in Saudi Arabia regarding women’s rights– such as the right to drive, travel freely, serve in the security services and military, and visit stadiums with families as part of its Vision 2030, reflecting a shift in its leaders’ vision for the future of the country that will certainly be reflected in its external paths.
Despite individual moves by both Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries away from American dependency, during Biden’s visit to the region, Saudi Arabia signed several important agreements with the US in various fields such as clean energy, cybersecurity, space exploration, public health, maritime security and strengthening Saudi air defense, which indicate the impossibility of a rupture in relations. The current dispute may be classified as temporary tension. The UAE and US signed on 1 November 2022 a strategic partnership to invest $100 billion in the implementation of clean energy projects with a production capacity of 100 gigawatts.
On the other hand, the US national security strategy in the various administrations reflects the geopolitical interests of the state and how to manage it to ensure the security of the region. The Biden administration was keen on the region’s security and not allowing forces from outside or inside the region to disrupt freedom of navigation in the sea lanes in the region, including the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab, and deter actions that threaten regional stability, while working at the same time to reduce tension, end the conflict through diplomacy, and establish political, and economic and security ties among US partners, including the establishment of integrated air and maritime defense structures, while respecting each nation’s sovereignty and independent choices.
Obama also outlined the themes of his Middle East strategy in fighting terrorism and ensuring energy security, the safety of sea lanes, and the security of Israel. Trump focused on not being an incubator for terrorism or under the control of any anti-American force, and contributing to the stability of the energy market.
Accordingly, the aforementioned data confirm that US-Saudi relations are based mainly on interests, and face moments of disagreement and tension. Differences have worsened against the backdrop of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
• Strategic hedging and diversification of partnerships: Saudi moves, especially after the Russo-Ukrainian crisis, do not take one side at the expense of the others. On the one hand, it attempts to play the role of mediator in the Russo-Ukrainian war, as shown in the prisoner exchange deal that Mohammed bin Salman worked on, and at the same time humanitarian aid was provided to Ukraine with about $400 million.
The disputes with the US have prompted Saudi Arabia to diversify its partnership with Russia and China, and that there is a shift towards greater capabilities and independence in the security sectors of the Gulf countries, whether with China or Russia. The Chinese have a production line for new Saudi military industries (SAMI), as well as an assembly line (CH-4) in Saudi Arabia. Chinese specialists help Saudi technicians to produce ballistic missiles, and there is talk of helping them develop Riyadh’s nuclear program. In 2017, there was a joint venture between the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. China is also working to build a Ch-4 drone factory in Saudi Arabia similar to the American MQ-1 Predator, in addition to talk of a Saudi-Chinese negotiation on the use of the yuan instead of the dollar in payments for Saudi oil directed to China. Cooperation with China extended to the field of education; in 2019 Saudi Arabia was the first Arab country to add Mandarin (Chinese) as a third language in the national education system. In 2020, UAE launched its Chinese program in public schools.
Combined, all these factors reflect scenes of US-Saudi tension rather than a total shift in relations. Despite diversifying partnerships with other international actors, replacing Saudi Arabia’s defense infrastructure is unlikely in the medium term.
In conclusion, international and regional crises reveal that US-Saudi relations are more pragmatic than strategic. They may witness a kind of rise at times and falls at other times, due to the vision and interests of each party. The US failure to guarantee the security of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf countries prompted it to diversify its partnership. The shift in recent Saudi decisions, especially the OPEC Plus decision despite Biden’s attempts to attract these countries, reveals a move away from American dependency yet not a total loss, especially since relations with Saudi Arabia at the level of administrations, whether Republican or Democratic, reflect the pragmatism of these relations, and that the two countries share strategic security interests, not just oil.
It is likely that relationships will return either under a new coming administration or the current one if they continue after the elections due to the nature of the interests on which relations are based. The recent tensions are not a reason to abandon the long-term relationship, and Riyadh remains an important player in the region for the US, and an indispensable market for US arms sales, accounting for 24 percent of all US arms sales in a 2021 SIPR report. Washington is also keen on the free flow of oil and gas from the Gulf. On the other hand, there are estimates that NATO members are likely to raise military spending to two percent of their respective GDP, or an estimated additional 100-120 billion USD per year— much of which will flow into the US defense industry, and that this new large influx will diminish the importance of the GCC as a major buyer of US arms.
There is a possibility and a last chance of consensus during the OPEC Plus meeting scheduled for December 2022, allowing Saudi Arabia to reach understandings on oil prices and production rate in line with US aspirations and ease the current tension.