It was only a short time ago when Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, was assembling world leaders at conferences in the Saudi desert and impressing global investors with grandiose plans of economic and social modernization. Next month will mark the third anniversary of MBS’s PR tour around Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and New York, pressing the flesh with titans of industry like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Disney’s Bob Iger—and convincing lawmakers on Capitol Hill that Saudi Arabia under his tutelage was a country brimming with opportunity.
Much has changed in a few years. The Saudi crown prince is no longer categorized as a widely-hailed reformer of the Middle East, but as a thick-headed, rash, and impatient young autocrat whose tenure is filled to the brim with an endless list of poor decisions. MBS’s latest gamble, which involved dumping more Saudi crude into the global market to coerce Russia into returning to the negotiating table on pricing and output quotas, has caused significant strain for American shale oil companies.
It would be convenient to pin all of the blame on MBS. But the truth is that Washington bears some culpability. Lawmakers are just now waking up to the fact that the underlying premise of the special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia—oil for security—is no longer applicable. In refusing to acknowledge reality for so long, the U.S. has given the Saudis far more leverage to shape the relationship to its own advantage.
During the Cold War, the U.S.-Saudi relationship could fairly be described as a pivotal one. Soviet dominance of Persian Gulf energy resources would have given Moscow an irrefutable card to play over Washington. Pragmatic cooperation with Riyadh helped avoid this worst-case scenario and earned the U.S. a key partner in an energy-rich region that at the time was strategically important.
Yet over the last decade, the bilateral relationship first envisioned by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz aboard a U.S. warship in February 1945 has changed in more ways than one. While Saudi Arabia may still be the world’s preeminent foreign exporter of crude oil, the United States no longer relies on Riyadh as a supplier as it did in the past. Thanks to the combination of alternative fuels, emerging technologies in the energy industry, and the exponential increase in American oil production courtesy of fracking, Saudi Arabia’s biggest point of leverage over Washington has taken a dent. In 2001, the U.S. imported an average of 2.66 million barrels per day of Saudi crude. In 2018, that number declined to 1.47 million barrels per day, a 44 percent reduction. By the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s own figures, Saudi Arabia only accounts for 6 percent of Washington’s total crude imports.
Of course, Saudi Arabia is still an important player in the global oil market. Riyadh’s decision this month to rapidly increase supply in order to pressure Moscow and recapture some of the market share lost to American companies illustrates just how volatile the market can be depending on Saudi behavior.
But if there is a lesson to be learned from this recent price war, it’s that Saudi Arabia is not the U.S. ally so many policymakers and lawmakers long presumed it to be. In fact, Saudi Arabia has never been a U.S. ally. Saudi leaders, especially MBS, will conduct policy through the prism of what best serves the interests of the Kingdom and its people. The United States shouldn’t delude itself into believing otherwise.
Because MBS will inherit the crown from his ailing father and could very well rule the monarchy for the next 50 years, it would be counterproductive to simply write off the next Saudi monarch completely. If there are points of convergence where the U.S. and Saudi leaders can collaborate together in a respectable fashion, then Washington shouldn’t hesitate to explore the opportunity.
But as it does so, the U.S. foreign policy elite should also keep its eyes wide open. A more comprehensive reappraisal of the U.S.-Saudi relationship is necessary.
This reappraisal will require Washington to understand that Saudi Arabia needs the United States far more than the United States needs Saudi Arabia. The Saudis may be major players in their neighborhood, but they have also proven themselves to be extreme risk-takers, often to the detriment of Middle Eastern security as a whole. From the ugly, humanitarian abomination ushered by Riyadh’s war in Yemen to the long, geopolitically pointless standoff against neighboring Qatar, Saudi Arabia under MBS’s leadership has been as destabilizing to the Middle East as its Iranian rival. For Washington to do what it has often done in the past—unblinkingly support Saudi initiatives—would be to enable Riyadh’s most reckless behavior, provide Saudi Arabia with a veto over U.S. policy, and risk tying the U.S. military another unnecessary security commitment.
Foreign policy is rarely, if ever, a game of black and white. Relationships have changed since the Cold War and U.S. policy should change along with it.