Why the US-Saudi Relationship Is Withering

Recently, the United States was outraged by Saudi Arabia’s decision, along with the rest of the OPEC+ countries, to scale back oil production by two million barrels per day. US President Joe Biden’s administration, which had banked on the goodwill of the kingdom to facilitate a drop in oil prices in order to isolate Russia with an energy price cap, quickly threatened unspecified retaliatory action against the monarchy, which has been speculated to potentially amount to a freezing in arms sales. 

The row arguably puts the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia on their lowest ever trajectory. Despite having completely different ideologies, the United States has long courted the highly conservative monarchy as one of its primary strategic partners of choice in the Middle East, creating a longstanding relationship of mutual gain which involved American access to oil in exchange for security for the Saudi regime, as well as arms and cooperation against its enemies in the region.

This ‘patron-client’ relationship model defined the ties between Western powers, including France and the UK, and the other monarchies of the Gulf, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. London and Paris, the original colonial powers who dominated the region, set up this model by guaranteeing the independence of these nations, following the demise of the Ottoman Empire and establishing them as their ‘clients’, allowing the Western nations to preserve strategic, energy, and military access to the Middle East. As the 20th century progressed, the United States soon became the Middle Eastern countries’ largest patron.

While this partnership has allowed Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States to enrich themselves, 2021-2022 has seen growing signs that, as the world changes, the convenience of such a partnership is starting to wither, with the OPEC row being a breaking point. First of all, the relationship between the US and the Gulf States is, as noted above, a partnership of mutual convenience, and it is just that. The drastically different political and cultural outlooks of the respective countries mean there are zero value-based or ideological connections embedded in their relationship. While the US advocates liberal democracy, Saudi Arabia advocates a hard-line Wahabi interpretation of Islamic law, which is the opposite of the Western value system.

In spite of this, the United States has become increasingly aggressive in its foreign policy, as multiple geopolitical confrontations have been opened up against Russia and China, and it has sought to more readily depend on compliance from ‘friendly countries’ as it seeks to consolidate its global influence, including in this case Saudi Arabia. While countries of the global West may feel obligated to toe the line on the premise of the values the US invokes, states like Saudi Arabia do not see their relationship with Washington in the same way, and probably recognize the US’ ideological crusading as a long-term liability to themselves. What happens to Saudi Arabia, for example, if the US no longer has use of it? Saddam Hussein was one such ‘client’ before he became an enemy.

As the Gulf States are ultimately concerned with preserving their own value systems and independence, they have increasingly diversified their relationships in recent years with tilts towards Russia and China. Beijing, with its enormous demand for energy, has also become a lucrative alternative to the West. Similarly, stable ties with Moscow also allow for cooperation in the common interests of oil-exporting countries, which has also had the effect of reducing Western influence and dominance over those countries.

On recognizing this, why would Saudi Arabia and the states of OPEC voluntarily undermine their own oil revenue merely to suit the geopolitical interests of the United States? The world is in the middle of an energy price crisis exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine. Saudi Arabia sees that the US and some of its allies want to purposefully try to lower the price of oil in a bid to try and hurt Russia. However, that is not how the market works and, by extension, such a move is also an assault on Saudi and OPEC interests. While the kingdom is officially neutral in regards to Russia-Ukraine, it also recognizes that the success of an energy price cap would embolden the West to push harder against Russia, which also serves to undermine the kingdom’s geopolitical independence. 

In other words, if the US succeeded in dividing OPEC by unilaterally demanding a price cap on oil products, it would defeat the very purpose of the organization itself to protect the respective economic interests of those countries. The United States has been a useful partner to Saudi Arabia, but it is not a friend. It is not part of a ‘bloc’ or ideological coalition, as let’s say the UK is, but merely has seen the West as the most useful and lucrative partner to fulfil its own political needs. As those needs change, Saudi Arabia’s preferences are also subject to change. Washington is therefore learning that the kingdom is not a client state to be called on when needed, and thus this very close and often contradictory partnership is starting to strain.

By Timur Fomenko
Source: RT International

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