President Franklin Roosevelt first met with the king of Saudi Arabia in the final months of World War II, ostensibly for the ambitious American leader to secure a place in British-controlled Palestine for 10,000 displaced Jews.
But what emerged from the fateful meeting of February 1945 – apart from a deep personal relationship between leaders who considered themselves like-minded – became one of the most momentous and enduring global arrangements of the last century, far beyond of the subsequent “arms and security for all”. oil” that the two countries negotiated aboard the USS Quincy.
“More important, in a sense, in the long run was America’s belief that oil scarcity was always on the horizon,” historian Scott Montgomery of the Jackson School of International Studies at UCLA told History in 2018. of Washington, based on stories. since then, “and it could really only be mediated by the gigantic and cheap reserves mined under the Saudi desert.”
Those fears have rarely materialized as clearly as they have in the past month, following the Saudi- and Russian-orchestrated OPEC+ oil-producing cartel’s forceful decision to cut production and effectively raise US gas prices, a unsubtle machination weeks before the US midterm elections. It is time for the West to seek to punish Moscow for its devastating invasion of Ukraine.
That move has angered a broad collection of US political leaders, particularly Democrats who fear consequential losses in November. They now seem more ready than ever to dismantle an 80-year relationship that is one of the most transactional in America and, most would say, morally compromised, centered on more than $100 billion in active arms sales deals.
Several current and former officials and analysts believe the move was long overdue.
“Too often, US security cooperation is viewed as a right and not the US foreign policy instrument that it actually is,” says Elias Yousif, a research analyst at the US Conventional Defense Program. Stimson Center think tank. “The serious misalignment of interests between Washington and Riyadh, exemplified by OPEC+ energy production cuts, suggests that the status quo arms relationship is not fit for purpose and needs serious reconsideration.”
Across a wide swath of congressional leaders, calls have grown in volume and seriousness for the US to suspend its military relationship with Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, or perhaps even the completely break up as punishment for his latest acts of disloyalty.
“This notion that gas prices are going to go up and we’re supposed to look the other way and call them good old folks, to hell with that,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 House Democrat. he told CNN last week. “I want to say that this is a terrible regime. It’s a kingdom in the 21st century that should be out of business.”
The usually moderate Senator Richard Blumenthal, in an interview with CNN on Thursday, called the OPEC+ decision a “huge mistake by the Saudis that goes against their own interests, as well as a threat to the global economy.” ”.
“It should be a catalyst to rethink this whole relationship with Saudi Arabia,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “We have transferred technology to the Saudis in massive amounts, highly sensitive weapons that we would never want to see fall into the hands of the Russians, who are now apparently good friends with the Saudis, if not allies.”
The ruling government in Riyadh, made up of ties and branches of the ruling family, expressed surprise at the chorus of outrage.
“We are stunned by the accusations that the kingdom is siding with Russia in its war with Ukraine,” Saudi defense chief Khalid bin Salman said. wrote in a post on Twitter. “It is telling that these false accusations are not coming from the Ukrainian government.”
The Saudi minister linked to what has become a common type of post by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanking the kingdom for its financial and diplomatic support, in this case $400 million in humanitarian aid. That kind of promise represents the latest example of how the kingdom often tries to support multiple sides of the same issue abroad and sometimes keeps its promises.
However, the damage seems irreversible. Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, threatened last week not to approve any new arms sales to the kingdom “beyond what is absolutely necessary to defend American personnel and interests” until he “reassesses his position regarding to war in the Ukraine.”
“Enough is enough,” the New Jersey Democrat said.
But, as Menéndez mentions, the move is not without its complications, leaving aside the mutually lucrative economic benefits of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, commonly known among US military leaders as one of the “anchor states” in the region. .
More than 3,000 US troops are also based there in a handful of bases, representing a strategic boon for operations in the region. They also serve as perhaps the most tangible symbol of endorsement of US foreign policy in a predominantly Muslim region by the royal house that declares itself the protector of Islam’s holiest sites.
“In fact, I’m concerned that we’re overreacting to the Saudis right now,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I really don’t see a way to navigate the current challenge in global affairs without their help or at least a benign role.”
“MBS killed one person, or maybe a few. Putin has killed tens of thousands and threatens millions,” adds O’Hanlon. “We may have to choose the lesser of two evils in order to more effectively deal with the greater problem or threat.”
Tensions have escalated after a US administration under Donald Trump that appreciated its dealings with the Gulf hegemon gave way to President Joe Biden, who has sought to distance himself from reliance on fossil fuels. Instead, the current White House has criticized Riyadh for its appalling human rights record, including the crown prince’s complicity in the gruesome 2018 murder of US-based dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
On Thursday, Biden said his administration is “about to talk” with Saudi Arabia about recalibrating their current relationship following the OPEC+ decision, without providing further details. However, administration spokesmen have since confirmed that he is, in fact, considering going ahead with such drastic threats.
“The arms sale will certainly be one of the options that we look at to see if it needs to be recalibrated,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told Fox News.
However, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday that Biden has no plans to meet his Saudi counterpart at the G20 economic bloc summit in Indonesia next month.
“The president is not going to act rashly,” Sullivan said. “He’s going to be methodical, strategic, and he’s going to take his time to consult with members of both parties and also to have the opportunity to get Congress back so he can sit down with them in person and discuss the options.” .
Meanwhile, other political leaders have warned of the dangers of moving toward abandoning the US relationship with Saudi Arabia altogether.
Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview with CNN last week that he agrees the United States should put pressure on the Saudi government.
“But what it would mean in the short term is that Saudi Arabia would be in a position where it would be closer to Russia and closer to China and further away from us,” the Washington Democrat said.
“I think you could say that the leverage we have over Saudi Arabia is that we can stop selling weapons to them, but we’re not the only people in the world who sell weapons,” Smith added. “There would certainly be an awkward transition for Saudi Arabia. Weapon systems are not interchangeable. But they would move in that direction.”
Analysts generally agree with Smith’s point about interoperability. Nearly a century’s reliance on American-made military equipment would make it difficult for the Saudis to suddenly start trying to integrate weapons made in Russia or China, a quagmire currently facing India and Ukraine as they try to break away from their Soviet Union. reservations of the era towards more Western military technology.
And, add several, the Saudis remain pragmatic.
“They know that the US remains a leader when it comes to producing high-quality, sophisticated weaponry,” says Colin Clarke, a senior investigator at private intelligence firm The Soufan Group.
“I also don’t think Russia’s military performance provides much reassurance to Saudi Arabia, because the way Russia has fought in Ukraine, I don’t think we can continue to regard Moscow as a so-called ‘great power’,” Clarke adds. “There is a small chance that China will usurp the US in the Gulf, but I think that is still many years away. Also, for Beijing, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. Becoming the guarantor of the security of countries like Saudi Arabia can be ungrateful and carries serious conditions.”
Ash Carter, who served as President Barack Obama’s last defense secretary, lamented America’s current reliance on Saudi Arabia in a book he published in 2019, calling for “rebalancing” it.
“I am not advocating a complete break with the Saudis,” he wrote at the time. “We remain essential to their security, and they remain important players in the Middle East due to their size, their strategic location, their wealth and the fact that they are home to the two holiest sites in Islam.”
“But we must be realistic about the extent of their importance to us, and not be swayed by their abilities as propagandists and lobbyists,” Carter added, noting how Saudi leaders “abuse American politicians, journalists and think tanks with copious amounts of money.” money”. “As for the US arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which seems to be so high up in President Trump’s thinking, I support it. But US arms sales are not a gift we give to the Saudis, nor are they an act of generosity on the part of the Saudis. They are simple transactions of mutual and balanced benefit, and should be considered as such, neither more nor less”.
He pointed to the controversy surrounding the crown prince, particularly regarding Khashoggi’s murder.
“Whatever happens with MBS, our relationship with Saudi Arabia is likely to remain troubled,” Carter concluded, “two partners who share some values while deeply in conflict with others, uncomfortably bound together by a mutual need for friends on one side. from the world where friends are hard to come by.”