In July, Joe Biden traveled to Saudi Arabia and shared a fist bump with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. As a presidential candidate, Biden had promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for its human rights abuses and its seven-year war against Yemen. But a devastating global pandemic and Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine forced him to set these concerns aside in favor of realpolitik. Biden needed the Saudis to increase oil production in order to lower gasoline prices for American consumers, so he swallowed his pride and treated the crown prince as the world leader he aspires to be.
Unfortunately for Biden, that cringe-inducing fist bump photo op has backfired in spectacular fashion.
Earlier this month, the Saudi-led Opec+ energy cartel agreed to cut oil production by 2m barrels a day, which will mean higher fuel prices this fall and winter. In the days leading up to the vote, the Biden administration invested significant political capital in its efforts to dissuade Saudi Arabia and its allies from cutting production. In the end, Biden’s wooing of Prince Mohammed yielded nothing but a 2% reduction of the world’s oil supply.
In fact, the prince has inflicted political damage on the Biden administration a month before the US midterm elections. After soaring to $5 a gallon in June, US gasoline prices fell for more than three months. Now they are rising once again, increasing by an average of 12 cents a gallon over the past week, to $3.92.
Rising prices threaten the Democrats’ hopes of maintaining control over both houses of Congress after the November elections. The prince and his Gulf allies clearly preferred dealing with Donald Trump, whose freewheeling Republican administration gave Prince Mohammed a blank check in exchange for stable oil prices and multibillion-dollar arms sales.
The Saudis also sided with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who needs higher oil prices to help fund his war against Ukraine. As part of their economic sanctions against Moscow, the US and EU are trying to impose a cap on the price paid to Russia for its oil exports. But that effort could now collapse as global oil prices rise and Europe heads into a winter season when heating costs are expected to soar thanks to the Ukraine war.
While Prince Mohammed may believe he outmaneuvered Biden and demonstrated his influence over the global oil market, his power play has upset the foreign policy establishment in Washington. Even so-called foreign policy “realists”, who for years ignored progressive criticisms of the US-Saudi partnership, must confront an uncomfortable question: if Washington can’t count on a steady supply of oil, what does it get in return for its decades of unwavering support for the House of Saud?
Technically, the US and Saudi Arabia are not allies – they’ve never signed a mutual defense agreement or a formal treaty. For decades, the US-Saudi relationship has been largely transactional: the kingdom used its leverage within Opec (and later the larger Opec+ cartel) to keep oil production and prices at levels that satisfy Washington. The US used to import significant amounts of oil from Saudi Arabia, but now that Washington is the world’s largest oil producer, it no longer relies as heavily on Saudi imports. In return for guaranteeing a steady global supply of oil, successive US administrations supported the House of Saud politically, sold it billions of dollars in advanced US weapons, and provided military assistance whenever aggressive neighbors threatened the kingdom.
In 1990, after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait, Washington sent half a million troops to Saudi Arabia, which feared it would be Hussein’s next target. The US still deploys hundreds of troops and advisers to train the Saudi military and help it operate American weapons, including advanced warplanes, helicopters, and Patriot antimissile systems, which the kingdom has used to intercept drone and missile attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
This oil-for-security arrangement has lasted through Democratic and Republican administrations, including multiple crises like the Arab-led oil embargo and Opec price increases in the 1970s and the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals recruited by Al-Qaida.
Yet Prince Mohammed has now upended the decades-old understanding. Worse, he’s timed that decision so as to maximize Biden’s humiliation: a month before pivotal congressional elections, and as Washington and its allies are trying to maintain a united front against Russian aggression.
If Biden doesn’t respond forcefully, he may embolden the crown prince to take more risks. So far, Biden has promised unspecified “consequences” in response to the Saudi maneuvering. But a growing number of Democrats in Congress, including centrists who hesitated to abandon the partnership despite the kingdom’s atrocious human rights record, are now demanding action.
On 10 October, Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat who chairs the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, called for an immediate freeze on “all aspects of our cooperation with Saudi Arabia”, and promised to block future US weapons sales. Senator Dick Durbin, another centrist and the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, was even harsher, writing on Twitter that the House of Saud “has never been a trustworthy ally of our nation. It’s time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without their alliance”.
Even before the ill-fated fist bump, Biden signaled to Prince Mohammed that he would carry out a business-as-usual relationship with the kingdom. In February 2021, weeks after taking office, Biden did follow through on a campaign promise to release a summary report of the US intelligence community’s findings on the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The report concluded that Prince Mohammed had approved the assassination at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. But Biden, worried about harming the US-Saudi partnership, decided not to impose sanctions on the crown prince.
By abandoning his promise to hold Khashoggi’s killers accountable, Biden convinced Prince Mohammed that he was too powerful to punish. At the time, Biden aides argued that banning the prince from visiting the US or targeting his personal wealth would accomplish little. But the lack of even symbolic US sanctions or response likely emboldened the prince to overturn the basic premise of the US-Saudi relationship.
Since Prince Mohammed rose to power with his father’s ascension to the Saudi throne in 2015, he has presided over a series of destructive policies, including the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen and the kingdom’s campaign to blockade its smaller neighbor, Qatar. But the crown prince keeps failing upward, consolidating more control over Saudi Arabia. And he continues to be wooed by foreign leaders and business titans, thanks to the world’s sustained dependence on oil and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Prince Mohammed had clearly concluded that he can get away with keeping oil prices high and undermining the US and EU campaign to isolate Russia – and still secure US protection and military assistance because Biden can’t get past the decades-old policy of American support for the House of Saud.
This is no longer a case of Biden choosing realpolitik over the stated, but rarely enforced, US ideals of supporting human rights and democracy over autocracy. It’s time for Biden to acknowledge that his supposed realist approach toward Saudi Arabia has failed – and tear up the oil-for-security deal.
Mohamad Bazzi is director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies and a journalism professor at New York University. He is also a non-resident fellow at Democracy for the Arab World Now.