What a Real Recalibration of U.S.-Saudi Ties Looks Like

Why America needs a more forward-looking approach to Saudi Arabia

Over the past decade, the United States and other advanced industrial democracies – especially those in Europe – have made clear their intention to wean themselves off fossil fuels. But recent events show just how difficult it may be to achieve these goals: natural gas prices in Europe, for instance, have risen by 250 percent since the beginning of 2021. On a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, moreover, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan unsuccessfully pressed Saudi officials to help keep oil prices under control. For its own part, OPEC predicts the Middle East will become more – not less – important to global oil markets in the years and decades ahead.

The continued centrality of fossil fuels and energy issues to global geopolitics ought to leave no doubt as to the strategic importance of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. It also shows the need to rethink the rethink of U.S. policy toward Riyadh that’s gathered momentum in Washington policy debates in recent years – to the point where then-candidate Joe Biden pledged to treat Riyadh as a “pariah.” To be perfectly clear, Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman have only themselves to blame for the increasing animosity toward their country in American policy and politics circles: its domestic human rights record remains poor, while the conduct of the ongoing Saudi military intervention in Yemen and the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman still incense many. 

As National Security Adviser Sullivan’s recent stop in Saudi Arabia illustrates, however, the relationship with Riyadh remains strategically vital for the United States. America can’t simply shun or ignore Saudi Arabia, no matter how much the country’s current leadership may deserve it. Like it or not, the United States cannot advance its wider national interests and values in the Middle East or around the world without a pragmatic and practical working relationship with Saudi Arabia. 

That starts with recognizing the four main priorities that ought to guide U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia:

First, energy and climate. National Security Adviser Sullivan was right to press the Saudi government on oil production and prices given the continued importance of fossil fuels to the global and U.S. domestic economies. It doesn’t take an economics degree to understand that higher energy prices will make our own post-COVID economic recovery more difficult. Moreover, oil and fossil fuels will continue to remain an important factor in the international economy even as the United States and many of its allies begin to transition away from these energy sources. As a result, Saudi Arabia will remain a central player in the global economy for the foreseeable future.

There’s also the flip side of the energy equation: climate change. Ironically enough, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil exporters will be hit hard by rising temperatures – already this summer temperatures in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates all rose above 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Though its plans have had mixed success at best so far, Riyadh has stated a desire to move its economy off of its dependence on energy revenues. The Biden administration has already begun to engage Saudi Arabia on climate issues, with Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry producing a joint statement on the subject following his June visit to Riyadh.

Second, counterterrorism. American perceptions of Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism role remain stuck two decades in the past, seeing Riyadh either indifferent toward or an active enabler of Salafi-jihadi terrorism. For well over a decade now, however Saudi Arabia has been one of America’s most important – if still in many ways imperfect – counterterrorism partners. Public misperceptions are due in part to the nature of this cooperation, which largely occurs between American and Saudi intelligence agencies. But Saudi Arabia’s importance as a counterterrorism partner will only increase after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, and that reality should be acknowledged by American political leaders and policy makers. 

Third, human rights. Saudi Arabia’s domestic human rights record remains appalling despite recent moves to rein in the country’s notorious religious morality police and lift the ban on women driving. Freedom of expression and women’s rights remain severely circumscribed, with political activists and human rights advocates routinely jailed and tortured. What’s more, over the last several years Riyadh has embarked on a campaign to intimidate and silence dissidents living outside Saudi Arabia that goes well beyond the Khashoggi murder. With the help of spyware produced by an Israeli company, Saudi officials have harassed and threatened Saudis overseas who call on Riyadh to respect their basic rights and freedoms. American diplomats face the difficult task of curtailing Saudi attempts to export repression beyond their own borders while persistently pushing Riyadh to better respect the basic rights and freedoms of its people.

Finally, regional conflict. Preventing an escalation of wider regional tensions and insecurity into further outright conflict also remains a key U.S. priority here. De-escalating the war in Yemen represents just one step forward on this front, albeit an immensely difficult one. Regional security integration with other Gulf Arab states on issues like missile defense and maritime security represents another potential avenue for progress. 

There are four concrete steps the United States can take in the near term to advance these priorities:

  1. Put diplomacy first with Riyadh. The Biden administration has rightly kept interaction with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman limited to channels appropriate to his formal roles in the Saudi government, such as minister of defense and deputy prime minister. But the United States does need to seriously engage with the Saudi government more broadly, which in practical terms includes appointing an ambassador to Riyadh who can credibly represent the president and his views. That’s no panacea, especially given the troubles U.S. administrations now routinely have getting appointees confirmed. However, it’s still vital to have the personnel in place to sustain an ongoing diplomatic dialogue – one that doesn’t depend on visits by high-ranking U.S. officials to Saudi Arabia.

  2. Work toward a broader vision of bilateral relations. Historically, U.S.-Saudi ties have been defined by traditional security issues like regional stability and, more recently, counterterrorism as well as energy policy. That agenda is showing its age and limitations, and it needs to be updated and broadened to include human rights, climate change, and efforts to develop economic relations beyond oil and arms sales. The need for this sort of recalibration has been apparent for quite some time now, but unforced errors by Riyadh during the Trump years delayed and made it more difficult. To its credit, the Biden administration has taken some steps in this direction on climate issues – including Saudi participation in the Net-Zero Producers Forum established during Biden’s April climate summit.

    However, eight months in it’s hard to see much else in the way of tangible results from the Biden administration’s current approach. Traditional geopolitical and security considerations remain important, all the more so with the rise of Chinese power and influence in the region and the seemingly widespread desire among American regional partners to de-escalate tensions with Iran. To do that, however, America needs to lay clearly out wider agenda with Saudi Arabia and then pursue it systematically.

  3. Take a more realistic approach to Yemen. If “relentless diplomacy” is to be successful in at least de-escalating Yemen’s conflicts, it’s important for the United States to recognize that the Houthis do in fact seek military victory and that Saudi air strikes play an important role in fending off Houthi advances the strategically important town of Marib. The Biden administration’s first moves were to appoint veteran diplomat Tim Lenderking as special envoy for Yemen and halt the sale of “offensive weapons” to Saudi Arabia. While Lenderking’s appointment has given renewed focus and energy to U.S. diplomacy, the attempt to pressure the Saudis has not moved Yemen’s internal conflicts any closer to de-escalation or resolution. It may in fact have backfired by encouraging the Houthis to press on with their effort to impose a military solution.

    Now, however, the Biden administration appears to be inching in a different direction: a recent State Department statement on an October 3 Houthi missile attack against a civilian neighborhood in Marib laid the blame for continued conflict squarely on the Iranian-backed faction. It echoes previous remarks from Special Envoy Lenderking that it would take a military stalemate to convince the Houthis to return to the negotiating table. Until the Houthis believe they cannot achieve their objectives through military force, however, U.S. diplomacy will likely prove unable to bring about a durable cease-fire in Yemen.

  4. Persistence on human rights and values. Saudi Arabia’s awful human rights record – murdering and kidnapping critics overseas, jailing and viciously torturing activists at home – speaks to a fundamental insecurity within the rising Saudi political leadership class. As much as the United States would like to see this terrible record improve, American political leaders and lawmakers have yet to find an effective and sustainable way to encourage positive change. It’s unlikely that threats to cut off arms sales, for instance, will achieve much over the long haul.

    Instead, the United States should take a patient and persistent approach to human rights and values in Saudi Arabia that seeks to accumulate progress over time rather than simply respond to the latest Saudi outrage. A focus on political prisoners – in particular women’s rights activists and freedom of expression advocates – could be the first step toward this more general approach. The United States will need to take a different tack when it comes to Saudi efforts to export repression abroad, however. Here, American diplomats must make clear that harassment and attempted abduction of Saudi nationals living in the United States or its formal treaty allies is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. A harder line against Iranian attempts to abduct American citizens, moreover, can only reinforce the seriousness of this message moving forward.

In general, the United States needs to move beyond the understandable impulse to punish and upbraid the Saudi government for its myriad abuses and misdeeds at home and abroad. America still has considerable national interests that require an effective working relationship with Saudi Arabia, and it’s far from clear that American values will be advanced by keeping our distance from Riyadh. One way or another, America has to work with this still-valuable strategic partner.