For better or worse: Which way will US-Saudi relations go under Biden?

For better or worse: Which way will US-Saudi relations go under Biden?
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Stepping back for a moment from the tension between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over the role of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, what are the fundamentals of the relations between our nation and theirs? What should they be, and what could they be?

For decades, defining the relationship boiled down to the simple adage of oil for security: “You supply the world with oil. We will provide you with security.” In those days, the threats to the kingdom came from the Arab nationalism of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, Iraq and Syria, rather than Iran, then still ruled by Mohammad Reza Shah.

Things changed with the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the Arab oil embargo, which prompted a dramatic price increase. (The architect, Saudi oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani, died this week.) We quickly learned that the oil part of the deal meant “oil at reasonable prices,” and there was little agreement on the definition of “reasonable.” But Riyadh still needed U.S. security and was extravagant in its purchase of American weapons and support services. And after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, a new threat to Gulf stability appeared.


The attacks of 9/11 on the United States again rocked the ties, especially because it revealed an apparent Saudi trade-off with its Islamic militants: “Don’t cause trouble at home and Riyadh will turn a blind-eye to (and even fund) your activities elsewhere.” We will be hearing more of this as the legal efforts to gain compensation for those killed that day gain pace ahead of the 20th anniversary in September.

If you half-close your eyes, and forget Khashoggi, for a moment, the Saudi Arabia of today is all good. Oil is historically cheap, its Islam has been moderated (women can drive!), and it is pushing a domestic economic transformation that is modeled on the West. And although it hasn’t “normalized” with Israel itself, it has given the green light for the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and others to do so. What would have been dismissed as fantasy a year ago — Israelis vacationing and eating kosher food in Dubai, having flown there on Israeli aircraft through Saudi airspace — is now commonplace (although COVID-19 restrictions have temporarily curtailed it).

The trouble for Saudi Arabia is that the Biden administration has not forgotten Khashoggi, nor women activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul, released from prison but unable to leave the country for five years. And for the White House, the crown prince known as MbS may be the de facto ruler but they don’t want to acknowledge it. The fact that he was the crucial interlocutor during the Trump years is irrelevant. Senior officials are not buying the line that MbS is the future of Saudi Arabia. They don’t think its Islam has moderated well — for example, the 2019 rampage by a Saudi military trainee at the Pensacola naval air station. And Vision 2030 for transforming the kingdom is just the latest iteration of overreach by the regal imagination.

Instead, Biden officials apparently regard Khashoggi’s death as merely the best known of MbS’s sins, which run the gamut from the 2017 detention, torture and forced resignation of the Lebanese prime minister, the arrests of more than 300 business and princely rivals in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, and last year’s sudden oil price war with Russia.

Unfortunately for the Biden administration, it is hard to see an alternative to MbS in the House of Saud, which looks increasingly like narrowing down to the House of Salman. The transition has essentially already taken place. King Salman, as prime minister, notionally continues to chair the weekly council of ministers meetings but, at age 85 this year and in declining physical and mental health, he is really just a figurehead.


A question for MbS is whether his Saudi Arabia can find an alternative to the United States.  Britain and France supply weapon systems but not on the scale of the U.S. supply chain.  Previous princes have flirted with China — the 1988 delivery of several dozen missiles capable of hitting Tehran and/or Tel Aviv was a shock to Washington, all the more so because officials were blindsided until an alert analyst noticed on a satellite photo the missiles trundling down a road from a private royal airstrip. What about Russia? MbS often seems to be Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails Overnight Hillicon Valley — Ex-US intel operatives pay to settle hacking charges General promises 'surge' to fight ransomware attacks MORE’s sort of guy, but Russia cannot provide any of the economic progress that the prince dreams of.

So the Biden administration may quickly have to change gears from recalibration to accommodation. One assumes that the White House has a plan for going forward after the Khashoggi revelations. But that plan may have to be adjusted in light of how Riyadh responds.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.