With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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An April 2 call between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman left no doubt about the state of U.S.-Saudi relations. Trump reportedly told the crown prince that if Saudi Arabia didn’t immediately move to resolve the oil price war with Russia and drastically cut production – which would salvage what was left of the devastated U.S. shale oil industry – Washington would withdraw its military forces from the kingdom. Those troops had been bolstered in 2019 amid increasing tension with Iran including attacks on Saudi oil fields, so the gravity of this threat was unmistakable. The Saudis hurriedly moved to convene the OPEC+ oil producers group, and after several days of intensive wrangling, secured an agreement with Moscow – which was also suffering significant economic woes due to the price war – and others to stabilize the market. But how did it come to this?
As Trump’s intervention demonstrates, Saudi Arabia and the United States may be experiencing one of the worst rifts in a long history of cooperation, with pockets of support for Riyadh in Washington dwindling over a complex series of disputes. The Pentagon now says it is removing Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia and may also withdraw some of the extra U.S. troops deployed in the military buildup over the past year, with the rationale that the Iranian threat is receding. It is hard not to read this in part as a message to Riyadh, especially given the timing of the announcement. Although there are many reasons to believe the partnership can endure, the need for both parties, particularly Saudi Arabia, to repair the bilateral relationship has rarely been more urgent.
The current strains are a historical anomaly, even though the strategic affiliation between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which dates to the 1940s, has endured numerous strains in the past. Among the worst of these were the 1973 oil embargo and the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 al–Qaeda attacks. But in those instances, a bedrock of official support for the relationship on both sides – informed by urgent geostrategic imperatives such as the Cold War or, later, the struggle to combat terrorism and Iranian hegemony – helped overcome the divisions. Over the past 18 months, however, it has become increasingly difficult to identify consistent pockets of goodwill in Washington toward Riyadh amid myriad signs of mounting unease.
Tensions in the Second Obama Term
Disquiet between Saudi Arabia and much of the Democratic Party surfaced during the second term of Barack Obama. The then president frequently advocated a U.S. strategic “pivot to [East] Asia” and implicitly away from the Middle East. He expressed the view that the Middle East and its strategic energy reserves were no longer as important to bolstering the U.S. global position as they had been in earlier decades. He also referred to Saudi Arabia and other U.S. Middle East partners as “free riders,” who were not doing their fair share in their own defense. And, finally, he criticized Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries on human rights and women’s rights, critiques he did not apply to their principal regional antagonist, Iran.
It was on Iran that the deepest divisions emerged. Saudi Arabia, along with its Gulf allies and Israel, left no doubt it was deeply concerned over the U.S.-led international nuclear negotiations with Iran. Riyadh was concerned the agreement, which emerged in the form of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, unduly advantaged Tehran and could be the first step in a broader rapprochement between the United States and Iran without any fundamental restructuring of Iran’s regional policies. Saudi Arabia and its allies eventually endorsed both the negotiations and the subsequent nuclear agreement but remained concerned by the potential outcomes.
As it was, none of that played out. Under Obama, Washington was never able to pivot away from the Middle East, toward Asia or anywhere else, and maintained its robust regional military and commercial presence. Iran proved unreceptive to additional outreach and was disinclined to alter its destabilizing regional conduct, particularly support for armed sectarian militias in neighboring Arab states.
The Trump Era Intensifies the Partisan Divide
Yet the experience left a bitter taste in the mouths of both sides. Many Saudis and their allies were relieved there was no “pivot to Asia” or broader understanding with Iran but continued to doubt the intentions of those who provoked those fears in the first place. And many Democrats persisted in seeing Saudi Arabia in the often negative terms Obama had defined. All of this was greatly exacerbated when Trump became president. He quickly embraced Saudi Arabia as a key ally and consumer of U.S. military goods and services. With great fanfare, his first trip abroad as president began with an extended stay in Riyadh, and he touted numerous contracts he claimed had brought unprecedented profits to U.S. companies and employment to U.S. workers.
Throughout the Trump administration’s first term, the existing tensions between Democrats and Saudi Arabia rapidly deteriorated, partly because Washington and Riyadh went to such lengths to emphasize their strategic alignment. Democrats were looking for a foreign policy issue to focus their attacks against the administration and for a variety of reasons that focus fell on Saudi Arabia. In particular, objections to the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen became a rallying cry against administration policy on Capitol Hill as the humanitarian situation in the country deteriorated, and the war increasingly became a quagmire for Riyadh and its allies.
Ill will intensified when Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and instituted a campaign of “maximum pressure” sanctions against Iran. Democrats were dismayed at this all-out assault on what most considered Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishment. And many of them blamed the governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel for encouraging and enabling this radical policy shift. Israel, however, is largely protected by its deep reservoir of bipartisan political support in the United States. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies can call on no such domestic political support to secure their interests and defend their positions.
Yemen and the Killing of Khashoggi Alienate Key Republicans
By the summer of 2018, Saudi relations with Democrats, who were months away from regaining control of the House of Representatives, had deteriorated severely. However, Riyadh maintained strong ties with the White House and, for the most part, with internationalist Republicans, especially in the Senate, despite growing unease over Yemen. However, the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. permanent resident and columnist for The Washington Post, at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 proved a hammer blow to Saudi relations with congressional Republicans. The killing, which the Saudi government asserts was carried out by its agents acting without authorization, is believed by many to have been ordered by the crown prince, fueling congressional outrage.
Many prominent and influential Senate Republicans who had stuck with Riyadh despite growing unease over the military stalemate and humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen – including Lindsay Graham and Marco Rubio – lost their patience with Saudi Arabia’s constantly evolving and unconvincing explanations for Khashoggi’s killing. The slaying dovetailed with a growing bipartisan desire to assert Congress’ role in U.S. military actions overseas and led to the unprecedented assertion in April 2019 of the War Powers Resolution over U.S. involvement in the Yemen campaign by majorities in both houses of Congress. Trump vetoed this effort to legislatively prohibit continued U.S. participation in the Yemen war, via arms sales and logistical support for the Saudi-led coalition, but it was a rare instance in which the president had to push back against Republicans as well as Democrats.
For the past year, therefore, the Saudi government was left almost entirely dependent on Trump and the White House for continued support in Washington. Bipartisan pressure to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen continued to grow. Democratic politicians’ resentment over the continued maximum pressure campaign against Iran and reciprocal military attacks intensified. Concerns mounted over a continued political crackdown in Saudi Arabia, particularly the jailing and abuse of women’s rights and other human rights activists, some connected to the United States. There were ongoing accusations that Saudi officials were helping their nationals flee criminal prosecutions in the United States. And a shooting spree in December 2019 by a Saudi military trainee at a U.S. naval base in Pensacola, Florida that killed three U.S. citizens and wounded eight others added to the sense of unease and mistrust.
The Oil Price War Pushes Relations Close to a Breaking Point
Throughout it all, the Trump administration appeared to stick with Riyadh. But that all changed with the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia in which U.S. shale-oil producers were among the most damaged parties. From a Saudi point of view, the confrontation with Moscow was provoked by Russia walking out of an OPEC+ meeting that was intended to create market stabilization and its refusal to continue with an existing production cut agreement.
The Saudis were pushing for burden sharing to control the price of oil, and they got it. In the process, they demonstrated their importance in managing global oil markets. However, that came at a huge cost to its relations with the United States. The Trump administration holds fossil fuels in high regard and has been committed to a program of U.S. global “energy dominance.” The rise of U.S. fracking and shale oil production was a major pillar of this claimed policy success. Now, instead, the centrality of Saudi Arabia to global oil markets has been clearly reaffirmed.
The confrontation came at a particularly disastrous time for the U.S. economy, given the massive contraction associated with the coronavirus pandemic and the maturing debts of the U.S. shale oil industry. It infuriated not only Trump, but 13 key senators from oil-producing states, including Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, who on March 18 penned a letter urging Riyadh to resolve the dispute with Moscow and increase the price of oil. “If you want to behave like our enemy, we’ll treat you like our enemy,” said Cruz, traditionally a congressional ally of Saudi Arabia. The president’s threat to withdraw all U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia appeared to pick up on Cruz’s theme, suggesting that Washington would no longer feel bound in any way to protect Saudi Arabia’s national security and even its territorial integrity. It was essentially a threat to end the relationship.
Relations are Salvaged But Much Work Remains
Saudi Arabia moved quickly to respond to these threats, and particularly to Trump. In doing so, Riyadh has probably salvaged its relationship with the White House and possibly some Republican senators. However, ongoing tensions over Yemen, Khashoggi, and other issues suggest there is much work to be done with traditional Republican allies on Capitol Hill. As for Democrats, there is little doubt that Saudi Arabia remains a convenient and preferred target, not only on the far left but also within the mainstream. With Democrats well positioned for the November elections, Riyadh may be increasingly aware of the urgent political repair work required.
However, the Saudis still have added value. No matter how infuriating the oil price war was to many U.S. citizens, Riyadh managed to demonstrate two key points that may have needed reinforcing: first, the continued centrality of its oil to U.S. economic and strategic interests, and second, the unique role it inevitably plays in stabilizing and managing global energy markets. In other words, for all the anger it generated, Riyadh demonstrated it’s an ally worth having and keeping.
Additionally, if Democrats win the presidential election in November, the discussion within the establishment about rejoining the JCPOA and returning to the strategic approach of the second Obama term will not survive. Practically speaking, the JCPOA no longer exists. And everything else relevant to this question has changed since 2016. So even a Democratic White House would have to look at the challenges facing Washington in the Gulf region in 2021 to calculate its position. A strong alliance with Saudi Arabia will almost certainly count as an existing and valuable asset once real policy planning begins. That means the Saudis will have an opportunity to reset relations. But to succeed, they will have to move quickly, while recognizing the extent and urgency of the challenge they face in repairing ties in Washington.
Brigadier General Ismail Qaani’s public remarks offer some insights into the fundamental tenets of his thinking and ability to deal with delicate political problems, however they do not reveal Suleimani-style coded messages to the United States and Israel.
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