As presidential candidates have been doing since the dawn of time, Joe Biden made his fair share of promises and commitments on the campaign trail.
The United States, he said, would be respected again on the world stage. Russia and its spymaster president, Vladimir Putin, would be held accountable. U.S. foreign policy would be smarter, less volatile, and more considerate of Washington’s allies.
Some promises, however, are more important than others. And if there is one idea the president-elect should make good on, as he prepares for Inauguration Day on January 20, it’s the absolute necessity of reforming Washington’s strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Biden has been a relative skeptic of the kingdom during his long career. When he was a senator and influential member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he frequently pointed out in floor speeches and media interviews that Saudi Arabia was less an iron-clad friend of the United States and more a partner of convenience.
During a 2004 interview with PBS, Biden questioned whether the United States was getting anything out of its bilateral relationship with Riyadh, a statement considered heresy at the time. But however unpopular those words may have been, it was an astute observation: What, exactly, does Washington get for granting the Saudi monarchy special favors?
Biden’s reticence towards the kingdom hasn’t decreased with age — if anything, his feelings have hardened. At one point during the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden openly called Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” a term normally reserved for folks like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.
Biden’s assessment is no doubt driven by the direction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has taken the monarchy, a path that includes state-sanctioned assassinations of journalists, aggressive and bumbling misadventures overseas, and the creation of the worst humanitarian disaster in the world today.
Releasing tough statements, of course, is one thing. Following those statements through with concrete action is another thing entirely. The Biden administration should approach its policy on Saudi Arabia with three key elements in mind.
First, the Biden White House won’t be able to reassess U.S.-Saudi relations if it doesn’t start with an accurate baseline. When it comes down to it, Saudi Arabia needs the United States a lot more than the United States needs Saudi Arabia. This frequently gets overlooked in Washington, which tends to view the kingdom as if the world was still in the 20th century. Yes, Saudi Arabia is the world’s second-largest oil crude oil producer, but U.S. oil imports from the Persian Gulf have declined by nearly 70 percent over the last decade as the U.S. becomes more energy independent.
Unlike the Cold War, when Soviet domination of Middle Eastern oil supplies was very much on the minds of U.S. policymakers, there is no power today — regional or otherwise — remotely close to attaining the status of a market-making oil hegemon. This includes a more assertive China, which despite relying on the Persian Gulf for 47 percent of its oil supplies watched with glee as Washington got bogged down in the Middle East. Beijing’s conclusion: A permanent military presence in the region is a costly endeavor.
Second, the Biden administration should view the U.S.-Saudi relationship for what it really is: A pragmatic arrangement whose genesis occurred at a very different time, in a very different world with very different circumstances.
While Washington and Riyadh have boasted relatively decent relations since President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz al-Saud met on the USS Quincy in the closing days of World War II, it’s important to remember there is no formal alliance between the two nations. The U.S. is not obligated to defend the kingdom in the event of an attack, nor do the Saudis enjoy the privilege of unconditional U.S. diplomatic or military support. To believe otherwise is to give the monarchy veto power over U.S. foreign policy. Any problem in the Middle East, no matter how detached from U.S. security interests, would automatically morph into a problem for the United States.
Third and last, it’s critical for Biden and his foreign policy team to recognize just how divergent U.S. and Saudi interests truly are. For the kingdom, Iran is a regional nemesis that seeks to undercut Saudi influence. Yet to Washington, Iran is a third-rate nuisance whose economic, military, and diplomatic leverage is manageable.
Saudi Arabia hopes to increase its influence to the point where it transforms into the Middle East’s perennial power. The U.S., in contrast, doesn’t have an interest in putting its thumb on the scales or picking winners and losers, which would upend the balance of power and drag the U.S. military further into the region’s internal disputes.
Keeping these three principles in mind will help Biden navigate a U.S.-Saudi relationship in sore need of a reappraisal. Washington doesn’t owe Saudi Arabia anything — certainly not hundreds of millions worth of smart bomb sales, tens of billions of dollars worth of offensive military equipment, or U.S. involvement in a calamity of Riyadh’s own making.
This article was written by Daniel R. DePetris and originally published on Business Insider. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at Newsweek.