Biden Should Punish Saudi Arabia for Backing Russia

By Khalid Al-Jabri, Alum of The Fletcher School at Tufts University

Riyadh could make a difference in oil markets but has chosen to side with fellow authoritarians rather than the United States.

As the United States and its allies stand united against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Saudi Arabia is siding with Russia. By failing to publicly condemn the invasion and reiterating its commitment to the OPEC+ agreement, the Saudi government exposed cracks in its long-standing partnership with the United States.

Despite entreaties to raise oil production, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman allegedly declined to speak with U.S. President Joe Biden a week after speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin. By refusing to compensate for Russian oil, the crown prince is facilitating Putin’s aggression by allowing him to weaponize energy in the face of sanctions imposed by the international community and hold energy-dependent European countries hostage to Russian oil and gas.

On Monday, the Saudi government still refused to condemn Russian actions: Instead, the Saudi foreign minister spoke with his Russian counterpart, affirming the countries’ bilateral relations and “ways to strengthen and consolidate them.”

Despite Saudi intransigence, the Biden administration recently sent additional Patriot anti-missile systems to the kingdom as Houthi attacks hit Saudi water and energy facilities. In a declaration of their need for U.S. protection, the Saudis issued a statement denying responsibility for any oil supply shortages caused by these attacks; Washington sent the defenses without any reported guarantees that Riyadh would raise production, a commitment by ARAMCO to increase investment notwithstanding.

Saudi unwillingness to raise oil output in response to Biden’s request represents the latest sign of shifting loyalties. Throughout a seven-decade partnership, Washington has acted as Riyadh’s main security guarantor, and, in return, most Saudi monarchs coordinated closely with the United States on energy issues. However, since Mohammed bin Salman consolidated power, the bilateral relationship has been increasingly strained by reckless Saudi foreign-policy decisions, including a seven-year war on Yemen, as well as a deteriorating human rights record, most glaringly apparent in the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Despite a complicated relationship, many Biden officials have continued to reiterate the U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabia’s security. Such statements were backed by ongoing U.S. support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen, including a recent $650 million arms sale for Saudi defense from Houthi transborder missiles and drone strikes.

Furthermore, the United States has displayed its dedication to the security of other Gulf partners by recently designating Qatar as a major non-NATO ally and mobilizing additional military assets for the United Arab Emirates following Houthi drone attacks on Abu Dhabi in January. Even with such reassurances, the Saudis are trying to extort more U.S. backing for their war in Yemen in exchange for raising oil production.

In reality, Saudi Arabia does not doubt the U.S. security guarantee. What the crown prince wants is to ensure his own rule. The United States has shown that although it will act to support the physical security of Gulf partners, Washington will not attack civilians, as authoritarian Arab leaders do, to defend its preferred regime. Gulf rulers see America’s neutral stance during the Arab Spring as having allowed for the ouster of Washington’s long-term partner Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

The Saudi royals feel that only their direct military intervention in Bahrain in 2011 saved the Al Khalifa royal family, no thanks to the Americans, despite the presence of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Manama’s harbor. Since then, Saudi mistrust of the United States and paranoia about internal dissent has only grown. Under the rule of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has accelerated the cultivation of close ties with Russia and China.

Like Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, the Saudi rulers prefer an autocratic model of capitalism as well as an alternative world order built on authoritarian survival and the exclusion of human rights from state-to-state relations.

The indifference of Saudi Arabia and other major Muslim states to China’s and Russia’s mistreatment of their Muslim minority populations demonstrates the compatibility of these governments’ opposition to human rights. Saudi Arabia and the UAE share China’s and Russia’s paranoid fear of Islamist movements as possibly potent sources of regime instability.

The Saudi king and crown prince have actively sought to marginalize Islamists, in part by displacing the importance of Islam to the Saudi national narrative and centering the role of the royal family. For example, on Feb. 22, Saudi Arabia celebrated Founding Day for the first time. The new holiday traces Saudi national origins to 1727, when Mohammed bin Saud took control, rather than the previously celebrated year of 1744, when Saud partnered with Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism, thereby bolstering Saud’s religious legitimacy and launching his territorial expansion.

While many in the West have welcomed decisions by the Saudi government to disempower actors like the religious police and allow for less stringent gender segregation, these changes have also corresponded to unprecedented levels of internal repression. The imprisoning of human rights activists, targeting of dissidents abroad, and recent mass execution of 81 prisoners reveal the true nature of Mohammed bin Salman’s intentions: the silencing of all dissent, including from formerly state-empowered clerics and conservative elites, behind a veneer of more Western social norms.

The lingering outrage and political estrangement over Khashoggi’s murder may have convinced the crown prince that his efforts to rebrand Saudi Arabia in the eyes of the West have failed. Instead, China and Russia represent partners that would never chastise him for murdering a journalist. In Russia’s case, recent history suggests they might even assist in carrying out the deed.

Yet betting on Chinese and Russian security guarantees represents a gamble. Unlike the United States, Russia and China have no history of protecting Saudi Arabia, nor any meaningful military presence in the Gulf. If Saudi Arabia decided to transition its military away from American-made equipment, the process would take decades and hundreds of billions of dollars.

This piece is republished from Foreign Policy.

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