“There’s going to be some consequences,” he said. Yet Biden's decision to conduct a review still doesn’t have a timeline, despite years of behavior from an ally undermining U.S. interests. Politically and strategically, opportunity has knocked for Biden to make Saudi Arabia the case study for all the strategy rhetoric of yore, by focusing on energy independence at home and walking the talk of putting human rights first abroad.
Biden's decision to conduct a review still doesn’t have a timeline, despite years of behavior from an ally undermining U.S. interests.
The morning after these strong words, Biden released the National Security Strategy, his first formal vision for building relationships with the global community. He stated: “the United States will lead with our values… we will not leave our future vulnerable to the whims of those who do not share our vision for a world that is free, open, prosperous, and secure.” About the Middle East specifically: “We have too often defaulted to military-centric policies… we will encourage energy producers to use their resources to stabilize global energy markets, while also preparing for a clean energy future and protecting American consumers.”
Biden made strides domestically with the Inflation Reduction Act, a landmark climate change bill that incentivizes Americans to use clean energy. But before many of those economic benefits could even hit the American pocketbook, Biden’s plans were undermined by the Saudi-led oil cartel’s decision to cut the global oil supply and ally with Russia. It is usually difficult to put a price tag on integrity, but making decisions to increase gas prices less than a month out from your alleged bestie’s pivotal election is a pretty clear-cut case of dine and dash. Today, protecting American consumers means actually holding Saudi Arabia accountable for being the opportunistic, sometimes murderous, friend it appears to be.
Despite stating a desire to have Middle East policy rooted in something other than military might, the U.S. has five military bases in Saudi Arabia alone. Bilateral collaboration is still rooted in a desire to influence military engagement in the Middle East without getting American soldiers’ hands dirty. As Biden said about his recent visit and notorious fist bump with the crown prince, “We made sure we didn’t walk away from the Middle East.” But surely there is something in between leaving friends in the cold and making Saudi the single largest customer for U.S. weapons. There are currently more than $100 billion in active U.S. accounts supporting Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense, the National Guard and the Ministry of Interior. Both countries use this money and American military support to constrain a common enemy, Iran, and create a Middle East where U.S. and Saudi interests dominate.
But Saudi Arabia actively undermines U.S. interests while taking American support. Despite a fierce backroom campaign to stall this decision, OPEC+ recently dramatically cut oil production by 2 million barrels a day. The U.S. ally’s decision will likely spike gas prices right before a pivotal midterm election and will help fund Russia’s war on Ukraine. Not only is Saudi Arabia negating the value of the billions of dollars in military aid given to Ukraine and the economic sanctions NATO countries placed on Russia, it is doing so with other people’s money: Saudi Arabia has the lowest petroleum extraction cost at $3 per barrel, so when it decides to sell oil for $100 a barrel, it’s all profit.
Not only is Saudi Arabia negating the value of the billions of dollars in military aid given to Ukraine and the economic sanctions NATO countries placed on Russia, it is doing so with other people’s money.
While Biden promised unspecified consequences, the Saudi energy minister said in an interview with Saudi TV last week that the kingdom is “concerned first and foremost with the interests of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” In recent years, those interests appear to have included:
killing and dismembering a U.S. resident and journalist, Jamal Khashoggi;
using weapons provided by the U.S. to conduct a devastating war in Yemen, leading to the starvation of millions of people;
proselytizing a rigid, literalist version of Islam to poorer Muslim countries and radicalizing millions more under the guise of education assistance;
providing citizenship and space to Osama Bin Laden and the majority of the 9/11 hijackers; and
using the government’s moral police to keep women under strict guardianship laws, despite a public campaign to present the crown prince as a feminist reformer.
Yet the Saudis have a glaring weakness: the world is culturally and economically moving beyond the model that gives the kingdom its power. Saudi ARAMCO, the world’s largest oil production company, is worried about the value of its stock. Its initial public offering in 2019, the first time the Kingdom opened up its oil industry to outside investment, did not go as well as hoped. In an era when green technology is seen as the future, investors weren’t looking to prop up an oil company subject to the mood changes of a crown prince. The Saudi economy needs business partners like the United States, so you would think they would not openly thumb their nose at Biden.
Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle who are keenly aware of the value Saudi Arabia is getting from the United States are issuing full-throated condemnations and demands for immediate action. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Sen. Bob Menendez called for the United States to “immediately freeze all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia.” He called the oil price hike “a terrible decision driven by economic self-interest.”
Chasing the ping-pong ball of keeping Saudi Arabia happy is no way to build a stable business or economic relationship, or really any kind of relationship. Looking to the future well-being of the United States means taking steps now, not at some unspecified point in the maybe-future, to check Saudi Arabia’s royal arrogance.