How to describe the strange relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia? It has been variously called a “friendship,” a “partnership,” and—despite the lack of any formal security agreement—an “alliance.” All these words tend to obscure the fact that this relationship has always been purely transactional, a matter not of shared values but of complementary interests. We needed their oil; they needed our guns, bombs, and warplanes. In 1943, less than a decade after Standard Oil discovered huge oil reserves in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States.” That claim has remained the basis of U.S. policy ever since.
The special relationship between the two countries is perhaps best described as a marriage of convenience, one that has endured many trials: two Saudi-led wars with the State of Israel (also a “partner” of the United States); a Saudi-led oil embargo that triggered a decade of stagflation; the discovery that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals; and, more recently, the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, reportedly approved by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
In the wake of this last event, presidential candidate Joe Biden said he found “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” and promised that, as president, he would make the Saudi government an international “pariah.” For a brief moment, it looked as if he would make good on that promise. Just weeks after being sworn into office, he ordered the release of a classified U.S. intelligence report that concluded Prince Mohammed had indeed ordered the assassination of Khashoggi. Grave consequences seemed to be in the offing. And then…nothing happened—no significant changes of policy toward Saudi Arabia, no sanctions on the crown prince, no real explanation of Biden’s apparent change of heart.
And there was worse to come. In July, the president flew to Saudi Arabia and shared a fist bump with Prince Mohammed himself. Evidently, this seemingly casual gesture had been carefully choreographed, and was intended by the White House to signal something less than a full rapprochement. But the damage to Biden’s credibility was done—one does not bump fists with a “pariah.” Nor was this just a case of “bad optics”; the president now appeared willing to rehabilitate the Saudis only because he needed a favor from them. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the lingering effects of the global pandemic had reduced the world’s fuel supply, increasing the price of gasoline in the United States. Biden sought, and thought he received, an assurance from the Saudis that they would increase their oil production in the fall. So, yes, the president may have abased himself, but at least it wasn’t in vain. Cheaper gas was on the way.
That was the expectation until the first week of October, when the OPEC Plus oil cartel, led by Saudi Arabia and including Russia, decided to cut oil production by two million barrels a day—amounting to a 2 percent reduction in the world’s total supply. The Saudis insisted that this was just a sober financial decision, not an insult or a betrayal: if they didn’t cut supply soon, they claimed, the price of oil would soon fall too low, threatening their main source of revenue. If higher oil prices also helped Russia fund its war machine, that wasn’t Saudi Arabia’s fault, or its intention. Business was business.
This very public refusal to grant Biden’s request made his fist bump in July look even worse, and he knew it. “There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done with Russia,” he promised. Other Democrats were more pointed. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said it was “time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without this alliance with these royal backstabbers.” Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the chairman of the foreign-relations committee, called for a freeze “on all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia,” while Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who is introducing legislation that would stop U.S. arms sales to the Saudis, urged Biden to do more than just “re-evaluate” our current policy. “I would act immediately,” Blumenthal said. “[Biden] has been misled and double-crossed, and I don’t think he should or will take it lightly.”
That remains to be seen. So far, at least, there have been no specific proposals and no timelines. It is possible that this latest outburst of tough talk will have as little practical effect as all the other expressions of outrage that U.S. presidents have resorted to whenever the House of Saud defied or embarrassed them. But it is also possible that the war in Ukraine will embolden Washington to finally shake free of this disgraceful and anachronistic “friendship.” The problem is not just that the Saudis have disrespected and inconvenienced a U.S. president, or that Americans may have to pay more for gas as a result. The problem is also—and far more importantly—that Saudi Arabia is an enemy of democracy and a frequent violator of basic human rights, a country that stages mass executions and uses terrorism courts to prosecute its critics. Unlike its relationship with the United States, its friendship with Putin’s Russia is much more than a marriage of convenience: it is a natural affinity between two authoritarian regimes. No president can credibly denounce one while bumping fists with the other.