‘Not even politically smart’: US-Saudi ties a one-sided affair in 2022
The year 2022 marked a significant year for US-Saudi relations, with the two countries clashing on several fronts over the past 12 months, including, most significantly, over a decision by Opec+ to significantly cut oil production.
Experts say the relationship – which for the past seven decades has been based on the exchange of oil for security – has been particularly unique this year, with it being largely one-sided, as Saudi Arabia received major concessions from the US while Washington was repeatedly snubbed.
Since US President Joe Biden has come into office, there have been several low points in the relationship, as well as growing signs of Saudi Arabia asserting its own interests outside of the partnership.
‘Even interest-wise and in terms of realpolitik, it’s not working for the US.
Biden’s arrival as US president was a marked turning point in the relationship with Riyadh, which had four years of warm ties with the administration of Donald Trump.
But Biden had promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”, condemned Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and even released an intelligence report revealing the US believed he had been responsible for the murder of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Although Biden had made a number of moves to anger Riyadh in early 2021, this past year the US administration made numerous moves to appease the kingdom, while Saudi Arabia in turn rejected American requests to increase oil production.
“It’s not even about democracy or human rights. Even interest-wise and in terms of realpolitik, it’s not working for the US,” Abdullah Alaoudh, the Gulf research director for Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), told Middle East Eye.
“Now what MBS has been feeling so far is that he has legal immunity; he has political impunity; he has the military protection of the US. And all in return for nothing, just using oil as leverage against the Americans,” Alaoudh said.
Saudi feigns neutrality in Ukraine war
In February, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, with the western world staunchly in support of Ukraine.
Saudi Arabia, like many other countries in the Middle East and other parts of the world, did not join in the condemnation of Moscow, but instead maintained a more neutral line.
Riyadh also refused a US request to boost oil production, sticking to a commitment arranged with Opec+, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and Russia.
“The US and Saudi Arabia’s relationship was very strained throughout 2022. Riyadh’s relatively neutral position toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine upset Washington, which would have liked to have seen the kingdom align with the West against Moscow,” said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
Instead, Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler, had a phone call with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Up until that point, he had reportedly snubbed calls from Biden.
Ellen Laipson, director of the international security programme at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said in February that US ties with the Gulf were in a “current moment of considerable acute friction”.
“It derives largely from the kind of intense demands that the western countries are making around the world that everybody participate in the isolation of Russia – because of Ukraine. And in some Gulf countries, that has not gone over well.”