Joe Biden will enter the White House with a lengthy agenda. While much of it will be domestic in focus, the incoming administration cannot afford to ignore foreign policy. There is plenty of work to do, and no area needs reform more than U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia.
Since its establishment in 1945, the relationship between Washington and Riyadh has been simple: In exchange for access to Persian Gulf oil resources, the United States would protect the Saudis against threats to the kingdom. The oil-for-security arrangement mostly worked, for both states. The United States got a partner in an energy-rich region, and Saudi Arabia enjoyed strong ties to a superpower. As time went by, policymakers in both capitals came to believe that what was good for Saudi Arabia was also unquestionably good for the United States.
That belief no longer holds today. The world has changed, and U.S. and Saudi interests have evolved. Those interests were aligned during the Cold War on some big issues, including oil and preventing Soviet hegemony in the Middle East. There is no overarching national security objective today that ties the two countries together. Today, oil prices are determined less by U.S. defense assurances to the kingdom and more by simple supply-and-demand economics. Iran’s activities in the Middle East are a concern to both states, but Iran is a middle-tier power with an antiquated military, incompetent governance, and an economy roughly 25% the size of New York state. What power Iran does possess is less a result of its own strength than of Tehran’s tenacity in exploiting the mistakes of its adversaries.
Saudi Arabia has made plenty such mistakes over the last five years. Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership, the kingdom is as much of a troublemaker in the region as Iran is. The four-year boycott of Qatar has split the Gulf Cooperation Council and increased Doha’s reliance on Tehran. Bin Salman’s campaign against anyone daring to advocate for internal reform is harsh even by the region’s standards. The Saudi-orchestrated assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the purported assassination attempt against a former senior Saudi intelligence officer are reminders of how erratic the monarchy has become under the crown prince’s stewardship. Riyadh’s decision to flood the market with oil last spring, meant in part to drive U.S. shale producers out of business, aroused such anger on Capitol Hill that some U.S. lawmakers filed bills to remove U.S. troops and ballistic missile defenses from the kingdom.
Nowhere has Saudi Arabia’s recklessness been as graphically exposed to the world as it has in neighboring Yemen, where Riyadh’s military campaign against the Houthis continues to wreak havoc on a country that was already the poorest in the Arab world. Homes, hospitals, ports, airports, and residential neighborhoods have all been targeted in Saudi air attacks, some with air-to-ground munitions made by the U.S. Over 100,000 people have been killed in the violence.
Unfortunately, Washington continues to back many of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policies without question—even though none of Riyadh’s foreign misadventures over the last several years have served U.S. security interests. Washington’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war has not only sapped America’s moral authority, but it also plunged the United States into a localized dispute and sent a message to the Saudis that Washington will offer its support even to the most shortsighted policies.
The next U.S. President cannot allow this status-quo to stand. A comprehensive reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship is in order.
The incoming Biden administration should call up the Saudi royal court and inform them of a tough but noncontroversial change in U.S. policy: From now on, the United States will look out first and foremost for U.S. national security interests, not those of Saudi Arabia or any other country. The doors for cooperation on issues of mutual concern, including intelligence sharing, anti-terrorism financing, and stable oil prices, are always open. But on issues where U.S. and Saudi interests clash, Washington will have no reluctance to put distance between itself and the kingdom. The five-year-long civil war in Yemen is but one major area where the best course of action for the United States is to disassociate itself from the fighting.
Saudi officials continue to be under the mistaken impression that the United States needs Saudi Arabia more than Saudi Arabia needs the United States. The sooner Washington relieves the Saudi royal family of that misplaced belief, the sooner the United States will stop getting caught up in the twists, turns, and turmoil that characterize the Middle East’s power struggles.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner. The views expressed are the author's own.