The strategic relationship between the House of Saud and the US Administration is worsening by the day, as shown by repeated unexpected changes in president Biden’s approach to the Kingdom and its rulers.
The US military debacle in Afghanistan, the pictures of which have been widely published, has caused severe stress in the minds of Arab leaders. While Washington repeatedly states that the Afghanistan move is not linked to broader US military and economic involvement in the Middle East (and North Africa), the chaos at Kabul airport has shocked the regimes of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and even Qatar.
Washington’s unilateral actions in Afghanistan appear to have severely damaged the fundamentals of US influence in the Persian Gulf. If Afghanistan turns out to be a one-off event, there will be limited negative repercussions for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and even Egypt, but some Washington insiders believe it is the start of something larger.
All eyes are now focused on the US position in Iraq and its active involvement in Syria and Libya. Arab assessments are rather negative, expecting an all-out American military retraction in the coming months. Despite the use of honeyed diplomatic statements by the Biden Administration, the real developments on the ground are worrying. Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are sure to be on edge in the coming weeks. The US’ apparent decision to put its long-term strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia under pressure is a surprising one. It has been confirmed that the US has removed its most advanced missile defense system and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia in recent weeks. The removal of the defense system was done despite repeated requests made by Saudi officials and royals to keep the weapon systems in place to counter continued air attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
The Yemeni rebels, who are officially designated as terrorists and widely known to be supported by Iran, have been stepping up their rocket and drone attacks on Saudi civil and commercial targets (airports and oil and gas targets) again. The US unilateral decision to redeploy the anti-missile systems and Patriots from Prince Sultan Air Base outside of Riyadh is remarkable, especially taking into account that most US-Gulf allies are worried about the fall-out of the Afghanistan disaster.
Analysts in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Bahrain are also very worried about possible new US plans to even remove large parts of the tens of thousands of American forces in the region, now in place as a bulwark against Iran and possible insurgencies. Biden’s focus on his new military power theatre in Asia is the underlying basis for the ongoing troop movements. Most Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are especially worried due to the unsuccessful Iran JCPOA talks, leaving Tehran in a position to increase its nuclear programs.
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For most Gulf Arabs, but also Egypt, the new Biden moves are a clear continuation of the Obama-Trump strategies, which shows a possible end to the US military and security involvement. Since Biden took office, the US-Saudi relationship has soured dramatically. Biden’s pressure (or even perceived attacks) on OPEC to open up the valves as gasoline prices in the US went up, combined with his continuation of the JCPOA discussions have severely cooled Saudi (and Emirati) love for Washington.
Biden’s push to open up the 9/11 files in the coming weeks, the first batch having already been published, has only added to Saudi discontent. Washington’s obsession with MBS as the mastermind behind the Kashoggi murder has pushed the Kingdom’s rulers into a corner. At the same time, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who is on a tour of the Gulf, stated that he has indefinitely postponed his visit to Saudi Arabia. Officials at the Pentagon said that this was due to "scheduling issues", but no Saudi will believe that.
The fact that the US SecDef was able to visit Doha, Kuwait, and even Bahrain, but not Riyadh is a clear affront. Saudi Arabia remains the most powerful US ally in the region, and recent US moves in the region are unlikely to go unanswered. Anger in Riyadh could become costly for Washington in the long run. Last week, Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief and well-connected in Washington, warned the Biden Administration that the Kingdom and the Middle East need to be reassured of American commitment. He openly criticized a possible withdrawal of Patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia at a time when Saudi Arabia is the victim of missile attacks and drone attacks, not just from Yemen, but from Iran.
A lack of trust is emerging that is sure to hold negative results for US and Western interests. Frederick Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, stated in an opinion piece that the situation in Afghanistan threatens U.S. President Joe Biden’s narrative that Washington is “once again a reliable ally and partner, following the uncertainties that grew among them during the Trump administration.” Biden’s move to widespread declassification of documents relating to the September 11, 2001 attacks will also have major repercussions. Even if no anti-Saudi facts emerge, the continuing media and political barrage on the Kingdom is likely to force it to reassess its position.
In the coming months, a major geopolitical and economic shift will emerge in the Gulf region. The already weakened US position is clear, and Biden does not appear to be enhancing American interests. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others will be looking for new power players, and some are already knocking at the door (Russia, China). While a complete loss of influence in the region is unlikely, the impact of statements coming from Washington has certainly diminished.
The Kingdom’s ongoing reorientation to the East is being pushed by Washington, opening the doors for Moscow, Beijing, and Delhi. OPEC+ policies will also be impacted by Biden’s moves, as the Kingdom, Abu Dhabi, and Moscow hold new power in their hands. A stronger OPEC+ or China (Moscow/India)-GCC relationship will be more costly for Washington than Biden’s Administration appears to understand. The Energy-Military-Economic Nexus still exists, but now with other players holding the strings. Ultimately, hydrocarbons still fuel the military and the global economy, and Biden is playing a dangerous game.
By Cyril Widdershoven for Oilprice.com
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For Russia, it has enhanced its military and political influence over the central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan bordering it. For China, Afghanistan will soon come under its thump via aid and soft loans under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Seizing the opportunity presented by the Biden administration’s abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban following the fall of Kabul, China taunted Taiwan that in the event of a confrontation with it, the U.S. would similarly abandon its long-time ally. It warned the Taiwan leadership that once a cross-Straits war breaks out, the island’s defences will collapse in hours and the U.S. military won’t come to help.
In view of the above, the House of Saud should reconsider seriously its historic relations with the United States, a link that has overwhelmingly benefited the United States financially and geopolitically since 1945. Saudi Arabia should therefore rearrange its priorities as follows:
1- Reach a rapprochement with Iran
2- End the war in Yemen
3- Establish strategic relations with the rising powers in the world, namely China and Russia. One has only to look at Iraq, Iran, Venezuela and the Arab Gulf to see that the China-Russia-Iran strategic alliance is gaining momentum and influence by the day at the expense of the floundering US-UAE-Israel-India axis.
The United States would be making a huge mistake if it underestimates Saudi Arabia's ability to retaliate against slights and unfriendly decisions by the Biden administration against it. Anger in Riyadh could become costly for Washington in the long run. Saudi Arabia could retaliate by hitting the United States where it hurts most, namely dropping the petrodollar in favour of the petro-yuan. It can go even further by persuading OPEC members to follow suit exactly as it did with the petrodollar in 1973.
Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
International Oil Economist
Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London