Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Still Need Each Other

The Joe Biden administration has been widely criticized for its response after declassifying an intelligence report that found Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for an operation to “kill or capture” the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that the administration would not sanction the crown prince directly, despite the intelligence finding. This has led to predictable allegations that the desire to buy Saudi oil at least in part explains the administration’s actions, or lack thereof. 

However, these criticisms don’t stand up under scrutiny.

It’s true that the White House did not sanction the crown prince individually, as it did other Saudis involved in Khashoggi’s death. This focus on sanctions demonstrates a narrow and unimaginative definition of accountability, perhaps reflective of Washington’s longtime obsession with sanctions as a tool of first resort. But it is possible to hold an individual accountable for his or her actions without necessarily employing sanctions. 

The Biden team has taken a number of steps to ensure that the crown prince, known widely as MBS, will pay some price for his role in the murder. The measures may be less dramatic and bold than sanctioning him directly, but they are significant. The public censure by the U.S. government and Biden himself was unequivocal and extraordinary. It will likely send MBS back into an international deep freeze, just when it looked like he was emerging as a legitimate international figure again, if attendance at January’s so-called Davos in the Desert investment forum was any indication. 

The crown prince’s contacts with the U.S. government have also been downgraded. Rather than having direct access to the White House as he did under President Donald Trump, MBS (who is also the kingdom’s defense minister) will be treated as the counterpart to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Measures announced by the State Department last week, known informally as the Khashoggi Ban, will affect the ability of MBS to squelch dissidents living abroad; many in his network will think twice about risking a prohibition on travel to the U.S. if they are found harassing critics or journalists. Finally, should the current ban on the sale of offensive weaponry to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen become permanent, it will diminish the kingdom’s capacity to wage a war that is personally associated with the crown prince.

Moreover, the Biden administration may take additional steps both to hold MBS accountable for the Khashoggi murder and to recalibrate the overall U.S.-Saudi relationship away from the exceptional status it had under Trump. As it presents the results of its ongoing strategic review of bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, the administration has the option of extending the ban on weapons sales to include what are considered defensive ones, curtailing intelligence sharing with Saudi security units, and even sanctioning some business entities closely connected to MBS. 

The Biden administration could also announce positive as well as punitive actions to reshape the core relationship. With social groups making gains under the crown prince’s reforms, the U.S. might make more of a commitment to support civil society in Saudi Arabia and to provide technologies to help organizations combat disinformation.

The gap between American values and American policy toward Saudi Arabia under Trump was a major problem, and the Biden administration is correct to seek to close it. But the remaining question is not so much whether the crown prince will pay any price for his role in Khashoggi’s horrific death. It is more a question of whether the U.S. can continue to advance a complex array of interests in the Middle East after downgrading its relationship with the crown prince, who like it or not is the most important decision-maker in the kingdom and, arguably, the Arab world.

The U.S. can only fully succeed in its efforts to counter Iran, combat terrorism, build on the wave of normalizations with Israel by Arab states, and address the horrific humanitarian situation in Yemen if it has the cooperation of the Saudis. The U.S. learned the hard way in Iraq after the 2003 invasion that shaping dynamics in the Middle East in the face of Saudi indifference or, worse, opposition is incredibly hard.

Energy is of course another interest the U.S. has in common with Saudi Arabia. Biden’s own words have suggested that the allure of Saudi oil has often been too much for U.S. policymakers to overcome; in October, he promised to “make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.” But the idea that Washington is beholden to Saudi Arabia in order to buy its oil is outdated. The U.S. purchase of Saudi crude has been more or less on a downward trajectory since 2003; for the first time in 35 years, the U.S. imported exactly zero barrels of Saudi oil in the last week of 2020.

Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Still Need Each Other

Interestingly, energy may have played a role in the Biden administration’s decision about how to handle Mohammed bin Salman and his culpability, but in a way that will be surprising to many. Rather than being concerned that Saudi Arabia will cut the U.S. off from oil supplies, or even drive the price of oil to uncomfortable highs at a time of a fragile economic recovery, the White House may have been concerned about the opposite. 

Last spring, a Saudi feud with Russia over prices — in the context of the worsening pandemic — resulted in a massive oversupply of oil in global markets, which drove the price of oil in the U.S. into negative territory in the weeks that followed. The U.S. oil industry faced tremendous hardship overnight, leading Trump to intervene and help broker a deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

While Biden may be less concerned about crippling the U.S. oil industry than his predecessor, he would care deeply about another oil glut materializing given the difficulties it could create for one of his top foreign policy concerns: climate change. The transition away from fossil fuels will be aided by a stable price of oil, not a widely fluctuating one or one so low it makes it hard for alternative energies to compete. In short, success in dealing with climate change demands a cooperative relationship with Saudi Arabia, which could otherwise choose to be a spoiler to U.S. and international efforts.

We have often heard the Biden administration talk of the need to confront a country on some fronts while cooperating with it on others. Usually that is in reference to China. Yet the first test of the administration’s ability to turn this framework into action has come with Riyadh, not Beijing. Successfully recalibrating the relationship with Saudi Arabia without rupturing it may feel like an impossible task. But it is an essential one if the U.S. is to reclaim some the soft power that comes from aligning values with policy, while at the same time gaining Saudi cooperation on vital interests in the Middle East.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Meghan L. O’Sullivan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, the North American chair of the Trilateral Commission, and a member of the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations and the board of Raytheon Technologies Corp. She served on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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