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A Bad Deal with Saudi Arabia

The U.S. gave Saudi Arabia a lot, and didn’t get much in return.

US President Joe Biden in Saudi Arabia
(Photo by Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Taking off from a runway promising to force a Saudi royal family with “very little social redeeming value” to “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” the president’s flight to Saudi Arabia was declared “a defeat for Mr. Biden” by the New York Times before his plane had even touched the landing strip. It got worse.

Biden’s flight to Saudi Arabia as a supplicant seeking oil and a reorientation of relations was, as the Times article said, “a personal and political triumph for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.” The Saudis, banished from the international community, only had to wait for Biden to need their oil and call his bluff. Mohammed bin Salman was no longer a pariah: He was a head of state meeting with the president of the United States.

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A reset of relations was the primary victory for Saudi Arabia. But they got more. They got a public reaffirmation of the value the U.S. places on their relationship. The two countries' joint statement reiterated and expanded their “strategic partnership.” Calling it “a cornerstone of regional security,” they promised to “continue to strengthen their strategic partnership.” Not bad for a supposed pariah.

They also got a “commitment to supporting Saudi Arabia’s security and territorial defense, and facilitating the Kingdom’s ability to obtain necessary capabilities to defend its people and territory against external threats.” That is a promise to continue to sell arms to the Saudis. The Biden administration is already considering lifting its ban on selling offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia.

And they got a renewed commitment from the administration to support Saudi Arabia as the dominant power in the region in an anti-Iran coalition. The joint statement “underscored the need to further deter Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of other countries, its support for terrorism through its armed proxies, and its efforts to destabilize the security and stability of the region.”

Saudi Arabia got a "welcome back" into the international community, an enhanced strategic partnership with the U.S., a promise of weapons, and a promise of their primacy opposed to Iran. Did they give anything?

Though Biden asked for an increase in oil to offset rising prices caused by sanctions on Russia, the joint statement contains only a vague Saudi “commitment to support global oil markets balancing for sustained economic growth.” The two sides agreed to “consult regularly on global energy markets.”

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In his remarks on the meetings with Saudi Arabia, Biden could boast only that “we had a good—we had a good discussion on ensuring global energy security and adequate oil supplies to support global economic growth. And that will begin shortly.” But there were no real details nor commitments, and the Saudis got their gains “without specifying how much additional petroleum the Saudis and their allies in the United Arab Emirates would pump starting in the fall,” according to the Times.

What the White House and the president did not say is that the reality is worse. Rather than succumbing to intense U.S. pressure to clearly state a side, condemn Russia, and support sanctions by increasing oil production, Saudi Arabia has aided Russia by more than doubling its imports of Russian oil, importing 647,000 tons compared to 320,000 tons the same time last year.

Saudi Arabia has hedged its relationship with the U.S. and started to balance it with Russia and China. At the beginning of the year, Saudi Arabia announced they are seeking "to enhance military ties [with China] to a higher level." In 2021, Saudi Arabia signed an agreement with Russia to develop joint military cooperation. Saudi Arabia and China have referred to their relationship as a “strategic partnership,” and, in the line that should alarm the U.S. the most, China’s defense minister, Wei Fenghe, said that China and Saudi Arabia should “strengthen coordination and jointly oppose hegemonic and bullying practices.” That sentence is a clear reference to a U.S.-led world and to the potential for Saudi Arabia to join China and Russia in their attempts to promote a multipolar world.

That is not the only move Saudi Arabia has made away from committing to U.S. leadership. In September 2021, Saudi Arabia was admitted to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a dialogue partner. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a crucial organization that is a high priority for both Russia and China, the purpose of which to act as an economic and foreign-policy counterweight to the U.S.

Even regarding its archrival Iran, now a permanent member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Saudi Arabia may be softening its commitment to support U.S. policy. At the start of 2020, Saudi Arabia started talking to Iran. The talks have continued, and the two have met several times, including at a regional summit in Baghdad at the end of August and another meeting in September 2021. On April 25 of this year, Saudi Arabia and Iran held “a fifth round of ‘positive’ talks in Baghdad...on normalising bilateral relations," per Reuters.

Once solidly opposed to entering a nuclear agreement or even negotiating with Iran, Saudi Arabia has signaled for the first time that they may be able to live with a nuclear deal with Iran as long as it denies Iran nuclear weapons. In November 2021, the Gulf Cooperation Council “welcomed the upcoming seventh round of JCPOA negotiations.”

Saudi Arabia and Iran have also recently agreed to restart Iranian exports to Saudi Arabia. Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud called trade talks between the two countries "cordial." If the ongoing negotiations are successful, Iran says there could be "a special development" in exports to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has gone so far as to discuss helping Iran circumvent U.S. sanctions.

While Saudi Arabia was welcomed back into the international community with growing military support from the U.S., they seem to have given America very little in return.

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