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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

US-Saudi Ties: The Balance of Interests is Shifting

US-Saudi Ties
A member of the US Airforce looks on near a Patriot missile battery at the Prince Sultan air base in Al-Kharj, in central Saudi Arabia on February 20, 2020.
ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / POOL / AFP

Ali Noureddine

Within a few months, Saudi Arabia could deplete its stockpile of anti-air missiles used in its US “Patriot” system, which is supposed to be intended to deal with ballistic missiles and drones targeting the Kingdom, in the context of the war the Saudi government is waging against the Houthis in Yemen.

Simply put, once this stockpile is exhausted – it is currently already at alarmingly low levels – the kingdom will be exposed to such aerial Houthi counterattack, including those targeting the most sensitive Saudi sites, i.e. military airports, oil facilities, and ports, all the way to defensive military bases along the Saudi-Yemeni border. For this precise reason, pertaining to the sensitivity of the role played by the US “Patriot” system in relation to the kingdom and its military operations, the Saudi crown prince was forced to urgently request the support of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries during the last council meeting.

The crisis Saudi Arabia is facing in regards to its stockpile of Patriot missiles is primarily due to the intensity of the Houthi counterattacks on its territory which rose on average to 78 attacks per month during the first nine months of 2021, compared to an average of just 38 attacks per month in the same period of the previous year. These attacks have become a constant source of fatigue for the kingdom, especially since launching a single Patriot missile costs more than $3 million, an expense Saudi Arabia incurs each time it repels a Houthi missile or drone attack that costs its launchers only a few thousand dollars. For this reason, in addition to the high financial cost of the kingdom’s continued repulsion of these attacks, Saudi Arabia has become trapped in its reliance on imports of US interceptor missiles, without which the Saudi military would be exposed to Houthi counterattacks.

However, the actual and more critical crisis Saudi Arabia is facing does not lie in the rapid depletion of the stockpile of these interceptor missiles, which can be reconfigured if the US grows more open to selling arms to the kingdom without any ceiling or restrictions, especially as Saudi Arabia has allocated sufficient financial resources to support its military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. Rather, the main problem lies in the marked deterioration in the kingdom’s relationship with the United States and the increasing restrictions in the US on arms sales that benefit Saudi Arabia. The US president last year announced his administration’s commitment to putting in place a special effort to end the Yemeni war, and he has since committed to ending all forms of US support for “hostile operations” related to this war, including “related arms sales.” These strict restrictions are precisely what drove the crown prince to urge the Gulf states to supply him with “Patriot” missiles instead of working to conclude a deal with the United States directly, despite the limited stockpile of missiles owned by the Gulf states that can be sold to Saudi Arabia in an emergency.

In any case, the Patriot missile crisis is not the most important indicator of the decline in US military support for Saudi Arabia, specifically in the context of its war with the Houthis. Some four months ago, satellite images monitored the withdrawal of Washington’s Patriot systems that it had previously deployed on Saudi territory with the aim of supporting the Saudi army in repelling the drones and ballistic missiles launched by the Houthis toward the kingdom. At the time, the US move was interpreted as an attempt to reduce its direct military presence in the region and reduce its level of involvement in the Yemeni war in preparation of facilitating its negotiations with Tehran on the Iranian nuclear file.

The key indicator of the type of restrictions Saudi Arabia started to face in regards to everything related to its arms imports was the attempt by American lawmakers to block the sale of American air-to-air missiles to the kingdom through a draft resolution in Congress that was justified by the possibility of using these missiles in the context of the Yemeni war.

The Biden administration was later able to persuade Congress to approve the deal, given that the use of air-to-air missiles is limited to aerial combat against aircraft, and they are difficult to use against ground targets of the type Saudi Arabia is attacking in Yemen. However, presenting the draft resolution in such a manner was an indication of the kind of mounting political discontent within the United States toward American support from which Saudi Arabia benefited in its war in Yemen, noting that the Biden administration had already taken decisions earlier to freeze arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, effectively a translation of the US president’s commitments to reducing the volume of military support given to the Gulf states involved in the Yemen war.

In short, these are the factors that should be noted in regards to the rapid shifts in America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially in light of the rapid repositioning of US ties at the international level, as well as the emergence of Qatar and the UAE as financial and political poles with increasing influence at the regional level. It should be noted that what further prompted the aggravation of the US-Saudi relationship, was a combination of the two countries’ conflicting interests in many economic files, such as the rise in international oil prices and the role played by Saudi Arabia in this context, and the differences in the way each approached some international issues such as the Syrian crisis and the Iranian nuclear file. In addition, there are matters of a moral and diplomatic nature that the United States used as a card against the Saudi crown prince such as the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. All of these files, which have been gradually accumulating since 2011, recently reached a boiling point to produce this American shift in the approach to the relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Buildups since 2011

US-Saudi Ties
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates (L) says goodbye to Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubair after meetings with King Abdullah at the king’s Riyadh Palace April 6, 2011 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Chip Somodevilla

Since 2011, America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has turned sour, mainly due to strategic files in which the interests of the two countries conflicted. The Obama administration began sending signals that indicated a shift of focus to the East Asia region as his administration’s primary point of interest rather than squandering US capabilities in protecting its allies in the Middle East and North Africa. The US administration believed at the time that the future of international politics, and the actual conflict of interest, would be centered on the East Asia region, rather than the Gulf, Afghanistan or Iraq, which reflected a rapid change in American foreign policy priorities. This change in the direction of the United States was quickly reflected in the statements of then US President Barack Obama, who began to level criticism at Saudi Arabia that included violations of human rights and women’s rights in the Kingdom, as well as accusing the ruling family of relying on US protection and support to stay in power, without paying the cost of what it takes to protect themselves.

The points of contention between the Saudis and the US administration subsequently multiplied on many thorny issues such as Gulf states resenting Obama’s reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria after the Syrian president violated many of the red lines set by the White House in the process of addressing the popular protests in the country. Saudi Arabia soon after grew suspicious of the Americans’ negotiations with the Iranians over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, because the Saudis’ fears centered on the possibility of the United States selling its interests in the Gulf region as part of a “comprehensive deal” with Iran that covers all files in the region. As a result, Saudi Arabia, along with the rest of the Gulf states, supported the Iranian nuclear agreement on a formal basis, but maintained its concern about the deal the US administration concluded with Iran at the time.

Trump’s time: Problems of the Yemen war and Khashoggi

The Saudis tried to take advantage of Trump’s arrival in the White House to strengthen their relationship with the new US administration, especially in light of the new president’s interest in arms deals with Saudi Arabia, and the huge profits that these deals would mean for American companies. But things quickly turned upside down with the Democrats regaining a majority in the US House of Representatives, followed by an escalation in Congress’ criticism of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. At that point, the Democrats turned the Yemeni war file into one of the points of conflict with the Trump administration by redirecting the Trump administration’s role in supporting Saudi Arabia in its war, and focusing instead on the humanitarian tragedies resulting from the conflict. Consequently, the Saudi-American relationship became a problematic point in American politics, which narrowed Trump’s margin and prevented him from excessively supporting the military ventures of the Saudi crown prince.

With Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, criticism of the Saudi ruling family has increased by many American politicians after it was blamed not only for being one of the parties that encouraged Trump to take this step, but even as the most prominent party that has always had an interest in fueling the Iranian-American conflict in the region. In short, the Trump era and the decisions that followed further distorted the image of the Saudi ruling family in the eyes of the American public, and even increased suspicion of the impact of the Saudis’ relationship with the American administration on the strategic interests of the United States.

But the most prominent turning point was with the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at which time Saudi Arabia lost its most prominent defenders of conservative and Republican hawks in the US House of Representatives, especially after the US intelligence agency confirmed the Saudi crown prince’s involvement in this assassination. Thus, Saudi Arabia found itself in an unenviable position, with most of the Republican representatives turning against the policies of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose policies had previously been the subject of fierce criticism mainly from the Democratic representatives. This development in particular was behind the rare unanimity shown later between Republicans and Democrats in the vote in the US Congress on a resolution that forced the US president to cease American support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, before Trump ultimately vetoed it to overthrow it. As such, Trump became the last bastion of support for Mohammed bin Salman in the United States, in the face of the two parties combined.

As a result, Saudi Arabia became completely besieged in American political life after representatives of both parties unanimously agreed on the futility of its war in Yemen, and after the Saudi crown prince became a problematic and unpopular figure in many American circles. Precisely for this reason, Saudi Arabia was left dependent on the thin circle surrounding Trump to maintain a minimum of American consideration, which it lost with Trump’s departure.

Biden: Conflict of economic interests

Biden arrived with a promise from the start to work to end the war in Yemen, and to stop the US military support granted to Saudi Arabia in this war. He also came bearing the Democratic Party’s resentment against the Saudi regime, which was implicated in the murder of Khashoggi, then rushed to encourage Trump to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement that Obama had worked on previously, and finally sustained the Yemen war by taking advantage of the cover given to him by Trump. In short, all the pieces were in place for the US administration to revise its position in regards to the Saudi regime, while even American public opinion was for withdrawing support for Saudi Arabia in its war against the Houthis in Yemen, with the consensus of both the Democratic and Republican parties.

There is yet another reason that pushed Biden to tone down his relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and that is the oil dispute that erupted between the countries exporting hydrocarbons and the importing nations. Saudi Arabia – along with Russia – was the most prominent party that pressed for limiting the increase in production in the OPEC + oil-exporting alliance, with the goal of maintaining the rise in fuel prices and benefiting from it. The United States, on the other hand, was leading the alliance of oil importing countries which pressed in the exact opposite direction because they had no interest in seeing the negative impact the rising cost of fuel imports would have on their economies. Thus, the conflict of economic interests broadened the distance between the US administration and the Saudi regime, and reduced the amount of US support granted to Saudi Arabia.

In conclusion, the Saudi regime today is in an unenviable position, with the Americans returning to the nuclear negotiations table with Iran, which raises Saudi fears that the Americans might resort to compromising the interests of the Gulf states in exchange for an agreement with the Islamic Republic. The Saudi regime is also weathering the decline in US military support, and the increasing frequency of Houthi attacks. Moreover, this comes at a time when the popularity of the United Arab Emirates with the US administration is rising, with the UAE becoming a major player on the economic and political levels in the Arab Gulf region, as reflected in a number of recent Emirati-American deals in the fields of economic partnership and military cooperation. At the same time, Qatar is regaining the historical centrality of its role in the Gulf region as a political and economic competitor to Saudi Arabia, and even as a country looking to play a leading role in the region from outside the shadow of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In short, bin Salman’s adventures failed to prove his ability to impose the kingdom as a strong regional player.

 

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