Rising oil prices have hit all countries and Western sanctions on Russia are causing economic distress and undermining food security globally. Sanctions are also hurting Russia but have not deterred Russia. US President Joe Biden has announced that he is planning to visit Saudi Arabia in July. Biden will first travel to Israel, USA’s longstanding ally, and then to Jeddah. His visit is clearly to mend fences with Saudi Arabia. Having promoted a narrative about the world being in two camps, democracies and autocracies, Biden is bending to the demand of realpolitik. He had famously said during his electoral campaign that he would make a “pariah” out of Saudi Arabia. The US’s primary goal is to further its proxy war against Russia and bring down the price of oil. For these goals, Biden is willing to sup with autocrats.
Saudi Arabia and the US became formal allies in 1951 when they signed the Mutual Defence Assistance Programme. This alliance is based on the bilateral compact that the US will extend security guarantees to protect Saudi Arabia and the Al Saud family’s grip on power and Saudi Arabia will reciprocate by providing cheap oil and will quote prices in US dollars [hence the term Petro-dollars]. Additionally, Saudi Arabia agreed to back the US in its foreign policy initiatives globally, including the fight against communism. The Kingdom provided huge funding for the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
The two countries are the most unlikely of allies. They are poles apart in tradition and values. Yet their alliance has endured through the vicissitudes of international politics for over eight decades. The US is the oldest democracy and Saudi Arabia is a deeply conservative Islamic state and a family-ruled oligarchy which imposes the harsh tenets of Islamic Sharia law and gives no democratic freedoms to citizens and foreign residents. The Saudi-USA relationship is a classic example of national interest taking precedence over human rights, democracy, freedom of speech and religious freedom, issues on which the US lectures other countries, including India, the world’s largest democracy. Saudi Arabia also generously funded the US military-industrial complex by buying huge quantities of military hardware which it has deployed in its intervention in the Yemen civil war.
This cosy relationship ran into trouble after the 9/11 attacks and deteriorated further after the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist. American Intelligence pointed the finger at Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, popularly referred to as MbS, as the mastermind behind the killing. There is no evidence in the public domain to corroborate this conclusion. MbS is the de facto ruler. He is the 7th son of the ailing 86-year-old, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz. The 38-year-old has emerged as a reformer and introduced several policies that have liberalized the strict Sharia-based Islamic laws. He has the support of the younger generation of Saudis in this liberalization.
The US could not ignore the public outcry that followed the Khashoggi murder and sanctioned Saudi individuals associated with the murder. Biden, however, shied away from applying sanctions on MbS. This soured bilateral ties. Saudi-USA ties were also impacted when the US became a net exporter of oil, following the shale oil boom. The US’s dependence on Saudi oil disappeared and public perception of Saudi Arabia in the US became sharply negative. Energy security was tied to American interest in the West Asian region. Realizing this, Saudi Arabia charted an independent line on production and pricing of oil. Saudi Arabia also remains unhappy with the US’s inconsistent support for Saudi intervention in the Yemen civil war.
Saudi Arabia is the 3rd-largest oil producer after the U.S. and Russia. The Kingdom has ignored Biden’s requests for increasing oil production but may now be amenable to doing a deal with the US and help control the surging oil prices. Iran remains under sanctions and is steadily advancing its nuclear weapons programme. A deal with Iran will also help release more oil into the global oil market and ease prices. Saudi Arabia is the de facto leader of the OPEC and non-OPEC alliance and has a readily available spare capacity to boost oil production.
The Ukraine war’s fallout on energy and food security has led to a rethink. Inflationary pressures have hit the US market, angering American consumers and Biden’s popularity ratings have plummeted. The first step in this reconciliation will be the Biden visit, during which he will try to persuade Saudi Arabia to increase oil production and release the supply-side pressure. He is likely to encourage closer coordination between Saudi Arabia and Israel, both wary of Iran’s ambition in the region and its growing missile and drone capability. Saudi Arabia still does not officially recognize Israel and stayed out of the Abraham Accords which normalized relations with other Arab countries. Biden will certainly make a bid for persuading Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.
Biden’s forthcoming visit has already come under attack from political opponents and other lobbies for reneging on his promises. Biden has recently praised MbS for his support for the ceasefire in Yemen. MbS has played hardball with the Biden Administration but has also cooperated on the military side by taking part in meetings with American and Israeli defence officials, to discuss joint programmes to counter Iran. Israel’s sophisticated military arsenal and missile defence systems are the main attraction for Arab countries.
India will be watching Biden’s visit with some anxiety. Both the US and Saudi Arabia have moved closer to India over the last decade and India will eagerly await a deal on additional oil production that will lower prices. A reduction in India’s oil import bill will be most welcome when economic growth in India is showing signs of rejuvenation.
Former Secretary in MEA and former Ambassador; a founder-Director of DeepStrat and Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi