The Shifting Sands of Saudi-USA Alliance – an analysis of the changing nature of the Partnership

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was recently on an official trip to Saudi Arabia. The trip comes at a time when the political scenario in the region is changing rapidly, leading to a declining influence of the USA in the middle east. One such area where the decline is apparent is in the case of Saudi Arabia, a historical ally of the USA in the region. From Biden’s calling out the state for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the oil production cut implemented by Saudi Arabia in October 2022 to the Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran peace deal, all of these have inflicted a major impact on the alliance, thus bringing into question the future course of this alliance. But the factors that act as a driving force to these events are not only rooted in history but are also emerging with the changing political scenario in the present.

The burden of the past

Political analysts are calling the current period the hardest phase of the US-Saudi alliance, and Anthony Blinken’s visit is an attempt to mend the strained partnership. However, it is not the first time this eight-decade-old alliance has faced a clash of interests; rather, it has come across disputes of much more severe intensity in the past. Nevertheless, despite those events, the leadership of both sides showed a sense of adamancy toward maintaining the ties.

The first significant contention occurred in 1973 in the form of the Oil Embargo in the context of the ongoing Arab-Israel War. King Faisal had already announced, “Saudi Arabia would use its oil as a political weapon if the United States continued to support Israel’s policy of aggression against the Arab world.”. On 17th October 1973, the members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries met and decided to implement a production cut of 5%, with a further increase of 5% every thirty days. Later in response to the USA’s announcement of emergency aid to Israel on 19th October, Saudi Arabia completely cut oil export to the US. On the other hand, the USA had already peaked its oil production in the 1970s, and there was an increasing oil demand that did not match the declining domestic production. Thus, the energy crisis back home, aggravated by the oil cut, made the US realize the importance of having a strategic partner in the region. Saudi’s leadership in the OPEC and existing cooperation further provided a base for Oil based security cooperation.

 The second major rift appeared after the 9/11 terrorist attack. This time it was the Saudi state that was in question, as it was soon out that 15 out of 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Later reports highlighted the role of Saudi-funded charities in running a network of funds between the US, Saudi, and various terror outfits. The allegations were also extended to the royal family, with certain reports highlighting the involvement of the Saudi Ambassador to the USA, Prince Bander bin Sultan, in the attack. This event created much uproar in the domestic political scene,

 with many questioning the necessity of continuing with the alliance. However, despite such a fracture in the partnership, the USA decided to continue with the alliance, and the trust among the partners remained intact.

It was under the Obama presidency during the period of Arab Spring when the alliance began to undergo transformation. The rising democratic revolutions in the region posed a serious threat to Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy based on Islam. What aggravated their fear was the US support for these democratic movements, whether it was in the case of Egypt, where the USA came in direct support of the Muslim Brotherhood, or in the case of Bahrain, where the USA criticized Saudis for sending troops to support the Sunni royal family against the rising Shi’ite uprising. But the dispute did not stop there. Later Obama’s attempt to broker a nuclear deal with Iran was seen as a deal against the Arab interest, as one of the Saudi leaders stated, “If America and Iran reach an understanding, it may be at the cost of the Arab world and the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.” All these events strained the alliance, which was only temporarily mended under Trump’s presidency.

Disputes under the current leadership are less severe in nature, but these have inflicted a much graver strain on alliance than the past contentions. This irony can be attributed to the past disputes and how they slowly culminated in distrust among the parties. By the Obama period, the Saudi leadership had developed a “fear of abandonment” by the USA, which as Glen Snyder mentions is one of the prevalent fears in an alliance. And Biden, another Democrat president, targeting on the kingdom with statements like “We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” only enhanced the fear.

The changing contemporary scenario 

However, other than the historically culminated fear, there are factors related to the changing political scenario, which is also contributing to the changing nature of the alliance. One aspect of these changes was the rise of nationalistic fervor in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. The current leadership of Saudi wants to bring radical changes, and for that, it needs to gather support and ensure legitimacy; inculcating nationalistic sentiments based on development is an important tool towards the same. Saudi nationalism is not focused on winning Islamic wars in various countries. Instead, it realizes the need to focus on its economic development with declining oil resources. The oil production cuts should be seen from the lens of this emerging idea of new Saudi nationalism or ‘Saudi first.’ While the USA put various allegations, Saudis reiterated that this was done keeping the economic interest of Saudis in mind. The growing global recession and, specifically, the slowdown in China post covid meant reduced demand and thus lowered prices. This production cut was one of the major factors contributing to the Saudi economy reaching a growth rate of 8.7% from the previous 3.2 %. 

Another factor contributing to the alliance’s shifting nature is the emerging multipolar reality. With the declining US power, the world could no longer be characterized as unipolar in nature, and various powers are beginning to assert themselves. In this changing reality, Riyadh has adopted the policy of strategic diversification in its foreign policy. While Riyadh and Russia have been cooperating in the oil market under the aegis of the OPEC+ cartel, Saudi cooperation with China is currently taking place on multiple fronts. Both countries are increasing collaboration in the field of energydefense and security, and economy. This diversification is not only helping Saudi in reducing its dependence on one power but also the insecurity within the USA means the Saudis will have a better bargaining ground at the time of cooperation.

The way forward

Despite the strains on the alliance, certain areas remain to provide a framework for future collaboration. As a result, the Saudi-American partnership must be rebuilt, which may be achieved by expanding existing collaboration areas and exploring new ones. Security cooperation still provides the basis for the partnership among the existing ones. Over 73 percent of Saudi Arabia’s arms and munitions imports still come from the USA, making it a huge revenue source. Regarding energy, Saudi’s leadership in OPEC also makes the alliance of continued importance for the USA. However, with the changes in the region, like the brokered peace between Iran and Saudi, it gets crucial for the alliance partners to also look for new areas of cooperation; one such area could be the cooperation over Saudi’s Civil nuclear plant. As communicated during Blinken’s visit, Saudi is looking forward to the USA’s help in processing their unmined uranium ore and then trading them as fuel, and letting down this expectation would mean the Saudi going to other bidders. Beyond all this, China’s strong bonds with Iran lie as a major impediment in China’s emergence as a reliant partner to Saudi and a counter to which can be provided by maintaining a string bind with the USA.

Overall, we can say that the 80-year-old alliance needs to be remodeled according to the changing political scenarios in a way that mutual trust remains intact.

I am Vaishnavi, currently pursuing my Masters in International Relations and Area Studies from School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I am interested in the social and political issues of the Middle East and North African region.