Americans have a reputation, with others and in their own national literature, for being careless and breaking things. Often this is because they are so admirably creative, dynamic, and unattached to the past. But for the last two decades, the epicenter of American carelessness has been the Middle East, an area of the world that seems to encourage fantasies among all Westerners, yet where real-world margins for error are small. The result has been a series of disasters for the peoples of the region and for American prestige. This week brought what looks like another unforced error in policymaking, fed by hubris, fantasy, airy talk, and a refusal to acknowledge reality.
On Tuesday, White House national security spokesman John Kirby announced that President Joe Biden will be reevaluating America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia after OPEC+ announced the previous week that it would cut oil production. Kirby’s announcement followed a statement by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., claiming that Saudi Arabia is helping to “underwrite Putin’s war” through OPEC+. “As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” Menendez said, “I will not green-light any cooperation with Riyadh until the Kingdom reassesses its position with respect to the war in Ukraine.”
As a Saudi who loves the United States, and believes deeply that our two countries need each other, the only word that comes to mind regarding the contemporary “reevaluation” of our relations is: obscene.
It was the Obama administration that decided to give Vladimir Putin a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean, which it sold to the American people as a way to “deescalate” the civil war in Syria. As the United States romanced Putin, offering him Crimea and warm water ports in Syria in exchange for pulling Iran’s irons out of the fire over the past decade, U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Israel have had no choice but to cope. Last month, while Russian-operated Iranian drones and missiles were pounding Kyiv, Riyadh used its diplomatic leverage to obtain the release of American and British POWs from Putin.
America saddled us with the reality of a neighboring country controlled by Iranian troops and the Russian air force. Worse, as part of its Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Obama administration sent tens of billions of dollars flowing into Iranian coffers—money that was used to demolish Iraq, crush Syria, create chaos in Lebanon, and threaten Saudi territory from Yemen. Iranian rocket and drone strikes on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia are now routine. In response to the barrage of missiles on Saudi infrastructure last year, the Biden administration withdrew U.S. missile defense batteries from Saudi territory.
Having watched Russian forces support or directly commit atrocities against innocent civilians and facilitate the use of chemical weapons for seven years in Syria, the Saudi government was quick to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Unlike many in the West, who expected a short, parade-ground war, the Saudis understood full well what Putin was capable of. So did the Israelis.
Yet even as countries that had survived two decades of American experiments in our backyards came together to achieve extraordinary degrees of political and economic normalization, it was never at America’s expense. We have always sought to honor America’s role in our defense and as a regional peacemaker, and as a place where many of us have lived and gone to school. That’s why it was so painful and alarming for us when the Biden team came into office in January 2021 promising to “recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” and to “sideline the crown prince in order to increase pressure on the royal family to find a steadier replacement,” and to “make [the Saudis] pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” That’s not how friends talk.
The United States now claims it will have to “reevaluate” its relationship with Saudi Arabia again, apparently because OPEC+ declined the president’s requests over the last few months to aid his reelection prospects, which are being impaired by skyrocketing energy prices. As someone who loves Americans and has many dear friends there, I take no pleasure whatsoever in the energy inflation impacting so many of their livelihoods. But the unstable situation in the Middle East, which America continues to exacerbate by licensing and funding Iranian terror, does not allow Saudi Arabia such a wide margin of error that it can make decisions that affect the stability of the global energy market for the sake of one party’s success in America’s midterm elections.
In addition to the rhetorical, diplomatic, and security damage the Obama-Biden era has imposed on Saudi Arabia (and Israel), the Biden administration has also chosen to wage war on carbon-based sources of energy with little realistic thought about how an energy transition should be managed. The “Green New Deal” is not just a silly fantasy promoted by unserious congresspeople who don’t understand how the world or American economies work. It was and is a strategy aimed at handing power over both fossil fuels and clean energy technologies to the Russians and the Chinese.
There is also the matter of the administration’s hypocrisy. It is one thing to advocate for the elimination of fossil fuels and the expulsion of Putin’s Russia from global energy markets; it is quite another thing to do so while continuing to purchase Russian energy yourself. In April of 2022, over a month after the war started and after Western sanctions had already been passed, the United States imported more Russian oil than any month on record. Last week, the Financial Times reported that “EU countries have paid more than 100 billion euros to Russia for fossil fuels since the invasion of Ukraine.” All during this period, the administration has publicly berated Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other U.S. allies in the Gulf for not doing enough against Russia. This performance is not convincing to anyone: not to Saudis, Israelis, Emiratis, Indians, Russians, or Ukrainians. Judging by certain opinion polls, it is not convincing to many Americans, either.
Saudi society and governance has only moved further in the direction that Americans have been advocating for generations.
Over the last 80 years, the Saudis have never known a world without a strong relationship with the United States. In exchange for the defense architecture that America built to protect itself and its allies, and the weapons and defense systems that America sells, Saudi Arabia has held up its end of the bargain by collaborating on global oil markets, providing a large and eager market for the U.S. defense industry, loaning out bases for the U.S. military, and cooperating on regional intelligence matters important to both countries. There were some very difficult times, of course, in the years leading up to and including the global war on terror. But since then, Saudi society and governance has only moved further in the direction that Americans have been advocating for generations. It was out of a sense of self-preservation, but also goodwill, that the Saudi government pleaded with the Americans not to go ahead with the invasion of Iraq, which it knew would be a disaster.
In exchange, the United States has either inadvertently (Bush) or deliberately (Obama) facilitated the regional ambitions of Iran, the existential enemy of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen are now in flames. The Obama administration likewise tried hard to cooperate with enemies of Jerusalem and Riyadh in Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood) and Gaza (Hamas).
Far from helping Putin, America’s regional partners have been watching in horror as the Biden administration has sought to make this whole situation worse by continuing to bless Russia’s lucrative collaboration in Iran’s nuclear program and relying on Russian negotiators for the revived nuclear deal, even as Iran sends drones to Russia that have been used to kill soldiers from NATO countries. It was the Biden administration, moreover, which began the war in Ukraine by advising Volodymyr Zelensky not to fight and to leave the country; while the Ukrainians were demonstrating their heroic courage against Russian expansionism to the world, the White House and State Department were evacuating American diplomats and telling others to do the same. This made a profound impact on U.S. allies around the world.
The majority of both elite and ordinary Saudis share my affection for America and Americans, and wish neither Democrats nor Republicans ill. We need each other now, as we have ever since 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz began the relationship that shaped so many of the years since. But if a party, any party, in power in the United States not only explicitly threatens Saudi Arabia, but makes good on many of its threats, Riyadh does not have much of a choice in how to react. Like any other country on the planet, it must protect its own people and its own national interests.
American allies in the region are witnessing the unraveling of a post-Soviet world order that they helped America build. As the White House doubles down on regional and global policies that are hastening that unraveling, stakeholders the world over are rightly reassessing their own security interests as America’s partners.
Mohammed Khalid Alyahya is a fellow at the Middle East Initiative of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Middle East Peace and Security. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English.