“The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians,” Barack Obama told The Atlantic in 2016, “requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”
What current U.S. Middle East policy, which was designed by Obama, means in practice for America’s friends is difficult to pin down. From one side of its mouth, the administration led by his former vice president has pledged to “recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” threatened to “sideline the crown prince in order to increase pressure on the royal family to find a steadier replacement,” and promised to “make [the Saudis] pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” From the other side, it has attempted to persuade Mohammed bin Salman to pump more oil and help disguise the ill effects of the White House’s domestic energy policy. Now Biden administration officials and associated influencers in the Washington foreign policy community are dangling a Saudi-Israeli peace deal, which promises to reward Riyadh with the arms it was previously refused when the kingdom was merely trying to defend itself from Iranian-backed militias on its southern border.
That the Saudis themselves don’t know what to make of these seemingly conflicting signals is hardly surprising. “The Biden White House thinks they can treat us like garbage and we have no choices but to accept it,” a Saudi media consultant told me in the register of a jilted lover, which I heard repeatedly during Tablet’s recent reporting trip to Riyadh and Jeddah. “We were America’s partner in the Cold War,” he continued. “The world looks the way it does because we worked together.”
The U.S.-Saudi relationship dates back to 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt struck a deal with the founder of the modern Saudi state, King Abdulaziz: protection in exchange for cheap oil. The alliance struck by the two men, in one of FDR’s last significant acts which shaped the postwar order before his death, helped forge a mighty empire on two oceans that underwrote the global economy. Cheap energy was also the linchpin of U.S. economic and national security, fueling the U.S. Navy’s constant patrol of vital international shipping lanes, and guaranteeing the Pentagon’s ability to deploy massive forces in the event of a Soviet incursion on allied territory in Europe and beyond.
In exchange, the check for American security guarantees was cashed by the Saudis against nearly every adversary the kingdom encountered during the Cold War: the Soviets, revolutionary Iran, Saddam Hussein, and then Middle East terror groups. Many of the latter were bred on Saudi soil and incited by Saudi preachers who were tolerated, if not sponsored, by the government itself—a relationship that helped foster the September 11 attacks and led to U.S. demands for sweeping reforms in the kingdom. It took several years, but many of those reforms finally began in earnest under King Salman. They have gone into hyperdrive under his son, MBS.
I was struck during our trip to the kingdom by the relaxed atmosphere nearly everywhere we went—reminiscent, as my Tablet colleague Tony Badran remarked of the country where he grew up, of Lebanon in better times. The restaurants and coffee shops at a seaside mall in Jeddah were filled with families and couples, an environment markedly different, I was told, from just a few years ago, when the religious authorities still policed public morals. At one private dinner, a tech entrepreneur told me that the two oud players serenading our large party wouldn’t have been there before the era of MBS. “The religious police would have come in and busted up the instruments and ordered all the guests to leave the house,” he said.
My dinner companion, who like all of my Saudi interlocutors requested anonymity, is sending his child to the same college on the West Coast of the United States that he attended. He is part of a Saudi elite that is confident in MBS’s ability to successfully implement his reforms, and which can’t understand why American policymakers don’t see the new Saudi Arabia as a success. “They asked for reform and they have it. It’s a win for them,” he said. “What do they want from us?”
That question is crucial to understanding Saudi foreign policy—and what the region may look like under Obama’s vision of an America with neither allies nor enemies in the region. Our visit began shortly after the announcement of a Chinese-brokered diplomatic normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Riyadh’s regional nemesis since the Islamic Revolution began in 1978. A typical U.S. press report called it “another diplomatic victory for the Chinese as Gulf Arab states perceive the United States slowly withdrawing from the wider region.” Beltway foreign policy experts—both supportive and critical of President Biden—expressed surprise, with White House critics aghast that the administration had let U.S.-Saudi relations sink so low that Riyadh had chosen Beijing as its favored mediator.
The Saudis I spoke with in Riyadh claimed that the agreement is narrowly intended to restore diplomatic ties severed after the Iranians allowed local mobs to sack two Saudi diplomatic outposts in 2016. One prominent Saudi print and broadcast journalist told me that Riyadh’s goal with the deal was simply to buy time. “MBS is focused on his domestic reform agenda,” he said. “If the Chinese can keep the Iranians on a leash until the Americans come to their senses, it’s to his benefit.”
Other Saudis I interviewed have little confidence that Beijing would be in a position to actually guarantee Saudi security interests, or would even want to. “They are traders, dealmakers,” said another Saudi journalist. “The leadership here is well aware they’re not going to stick their necks out for us, or anyone.”
Nonetheless, the China deal appears to have unnerved some Biden officials, who worried that Saudi disengagement from the United States had now gone too far. In April, CIA Director William Burns visited Riyadh to voice concerns that the Saudis were playing a double game. In addition to the agreement brokered by Beijing, Riyadh also moved toward reconciliation with Damascus after a decadelong freeze that began with Bashar Assad’s murderous campaign against Syria’s Sunni population. The chosen mediator for these talks was Moscow—Assad’s longtime patron, which furnished him with troops and arms during the Syrian war.
Burns expressed frustration with the Saudis, according to The Wall Street Journal. “He told Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that the U.S. has felt blindsided by Riyadh’s rapprochement with Iran and Syria.”
Burns’ tough talk seemed like evidence that the Biden administration genuinely believes it’s engaged in a renewed era of “great power competition” with China and Russia. The stakes of this conflict are too high for U.S. allies to be playing footsie with American adversaries, Burns seemed to be saying. And yet in a meeting with Chinese officials in Vienna earlier this month, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan praised Beijing’s mediation between Riyadh and Tehran, noting that, according to The Washington Post, the United States “could not have played a similar role because of its mutual antipathy with Iran.”
It’s worth remembering that the Biden administration officials who delivered contradictory messages regarding China’s role as mediator between Saudi and Iran—Burns and Sullivan—were the two deputies in the Obama administration who met secretly with Iranian officials in 2013 for preliminary discussions about what would become the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Iran nuclear deal was the centerpiece of Obama’s vision of a new Middle East, with Riyadh and Tehran as two co-equal pillars of the new American-brokered order.
But as Saudi journalists close to the royal court told me, Riyadh has never seen itself as even a regional hegemon. The kingdom projects cultural and religious authority as the guardian of the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina. Despite its tremendous wealth, however, Saudi Arabia remains, at its core, a client state—and for most of its modern history, an American client state. Obama and Biden have therefore demonstrated either what Israeli strategist Dan Schueftan has called “a frightening combination of surrealistic misreading of basic regional realities and sweeping strategic incompetence”—or something worse. Alternately, the entire purpose of Obama’s Iran deal, and the realignment strategy that has continued under Biden, is in fact to dismantle America’s regional position, and consequently to rid itself of its traditional commitments and interests in the Middle East, all out of the belief that the game is no longer worth the risk of America being drawn into future a Mideast war.
If that’s the case, as many Saudis seem to believe, then there isn’t really a new Cold War pitting the United States against China and Russia after all. If there was, America wouldn’t be jilting its most consequential strategic alliance in the region that produces the bulk of the world’s oil.
The future of oil, as imagined by U.S. policymakers and the Democratic Party, is likely to provide the answer to this apparent conundrum. With Biden and the Democrats determined to phase out fossil fuels—with legislation earmarking trillions of dollars for renewable energy infrastructure—the Saudis and their natural energy resources are therefore no longer seen as worth fighting for.
On the American side, the plan is apparently to replace Saudi Arabia with China—the manufacturer and supplier of the bulk of the world’s green energy infrastructure, from solar panels to wind turbines to rare earth minerals for electric vehicles. The irony, of course, is that China will only be increasing its own fossil fuel imports from Saudi Arabia, which is historically Beijing’s top oil supplier. Meanwhile, the United States will substitute dependency on Saudi Arabia—a client state—for dependency on China, its purported rival. How any of these policy gyrations will make America safer and more prosperous, or reduce the burning of carbon-based fuels, is hard to imagine.
Taken together, the changes in the U.S.-Saudi-China triad do seem likely to enrich the Chinese and their U.S. partners, particularly those in renewable energy and related technology businesses, who form a large part of the financial base of the Democratic Party. American businesses that depend on fossil fuels, which tend to donate to Republicans, will meanwhile be out of luck. Paradoxically, partnership with the Chinese may therefore be the best way for the Saudis to prolong and secure their relationship with the United States. In aligning with China, Saudi Arabia isn’t breaking with America; rather, it is continuing to follow America’s lead—into a future in which the Saudis are likely to exert less leverage but enjoy greater freedom of action within their relationship with a mercurial great power ally.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).