On Tuesday, at a White House event promoting vaccination, President Joe Biden was asked by a reporter, “What’s your reaction to the Saudis on oil urging the U.S. not to use the reserves?” Biden paused. The silence lasted long enough for a second reporter to start asking another question. Then Biden smiled and addressed the first reporter, saying, “Get your Covid shot.” Biden’s non sequitur stands as a fitting symbol of his administration’s policy toward Saudi Arabia, which now stands exposed as a ridiculous mixture of cynicism, wild rhetorical shifts, and incompetence.
Biden entered the White House promising to treat the Saudis as a pariah regime because of their human rights abuses—not least of which was the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the US intelligence community has concluded was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Then, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine caused global oil prices to rise, Biden scurried to Saudi Arabia this July in an embarrassing effort to mend fences—a visit memorialized with that mortifying photo of Biden and bin Salman making a fist bump. Biden came out of the trip apparently convinced that he had a commitment from the Saudi government to ramp up oil production in order to offset the shortages caused by Putin’s war. But, in a move the Biden administration interprets as a betrayal, the Saudi government spearheaded an OPEC Plus move to actually cut back oil production.
A lengthy New York Times report surveying the saga concluded, “What happened over the last half-year is a story of handshake agreements, wishful thinking, missed signals and finger-pointing over broken promises.” The newspaper added that Democratic lawmakers who were shown the diplomatic record as part of congressional oversight were “left fuming that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman duped the administration.”
Some Democrats, feeling that the Saudi cutback was designed to help not just Putin but also the Republican Party, have been threatening reprisals. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer fumed, “What Saudi Arabia did to help Putin continue to wage his despicable, vicious war against Ukraine will long be remembered by Americans.” The Biden White House said it is reassessing USA/Saudi relations.
But the Saudi government hardly seems worried. Rather, the extreme cockiness displayed by Saudi officials suggests that they think they have the upper hand, with the United States needing the free flow of Saudi oil so much that the Biden administration will have to swallow any indignity. Bin Salman’s staff has leaked contemptuous comments about Biden. The Wall Street Journal reports that the crown prince “mocks President Biden in private, making fun of the 79-year-old’s gaffes and questioning his mental acuity, according to people inside the Saudi government. He has told advisers he hasn’t been impressed with Mr. Biden since his days as vice president, and much preferred former President Donald Trump, the people said.”
On October 20, a video surfaced of Saudi Prince Saud al-Shaalan responding to American criticism by saying, “Anybody who challenges the existence of this country and this kingdom, all of us are projects of Jihad and martyrdom. That’s my message to anybody that thinks that he can threaten us.” To be sure, Saudi princes are a dime a dozen. Saud al-Shaalan is minor royalty and was likely speaking only for himself. Still, it is significant that he felt confident in voicing this threat and didn’t fear he’d be punished by the Saudi government, not generally known as paladins of free speech.
The swaggering style of Crown Prince bin Salman is the fruition of decades of American tolerance for Saudi human rights abuses and foreign policy adventurism, both of which were congruent with the American project of maintaining regional hegemony. Saudi leaders logically concluded that their usefulness to American empire gave them a kind of impunity.
Not only is the Saudi government beyond punishment, but its ability to turn the oil tap on and off gives it the ability to shape American politics—as Saudi leaders are well aware. Appearing on the Saudi TV program Spotlight in 2004, Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, at the time Saudi ambassador to the USA said, “The kingdom’s oil decisions can influence the election or non-election of the president of the United States, the largest and strongest country in the world. For that to be taken into consideration, regardless of what the kingdom decides to do, is in itself evidence of the strategic weight for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
There’s no presidential election this year, but the midterms are turning out to be an object lesson for the Democrats on what happens when you cross the Saudi regime. Saudi interference in domestic politics should be a scandal, but it’s unclear how much of an impact it’ll have—even on Democrats, the victims in this story. In a previous column, I argued that the Saudi government was so essential a linchpin to American strategy in the Middle East that not even the current spat will change policy.
But it’s worth asking what would happen if I’m wrong. What if there really is a critical mass of Democrats—perhaps even joined by some nationalist or isolationist Republicans—who are sufficiently angry with the Saudi regime to push for an end to the alliance. Such a bipartisan shift in policy would make sense: Surely, some in the GOP realize that if the crown prince can put the shiv into Biden, he can do the same to a future Republican president.
Dumping the Saudis would necessarily entail some radical and salutary changes in political economy: a ramping up of the Green New Deal to achieve energy independence based on sources of fuel other than oil. It would also mean ending the long-standing policy of maintaining US hegemony in the Middle East. On a more practical level, it would mean cutting off military aid to Saudi Arabia and allied countries like the United Arab Emirates. More mundanely, it would mean severely curtailing the gravy train for the arms industry and the military-industrial complex. The many former generals who currently earn big paychecks acting as mouthpieces for the Saudi regime would have to find another line of work.
None of these changes are beyond the realm of possibility—and most would in fact be desirable. I remain skeptical that Joe Biden is the president with either the fortitude or the vision to carry out such a program.
But Biden won’t be president forever. Ideally, this current dispute could be a learning opportunity. Not just Democrats but anyone who values American democracy should be able to see that the reliance on the Saudi alliance makes the United States far too vulnerable to autocratic interference. That’s the basis for a much more far-reaching policy debate that needs to start as soon as possible. People mad at the Saudi government need to ask: Are they prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to end the USA/Saudi alliance?