Is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia a Vital Ally?
“You’re supposed to be our damn friend!” Senator Ted Cruz’s plaintive cry, issued during a radio interview earlier this month, was an unprecedented eruption from one of Saudi Arabia’s most consistent defenders on Capitol Hill. States, of course, ultimately act in their own interest; the COVID-19 crisis is providing frequent reminders of the limits of sentiment and even relationships in international affairs. But the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an American partner, and client state for the better part of a century, is being intensely criticized for escalating an oil price war with Russia in the midst of a pandemic. American shale producers and their workers were the collateral damage.
U.S. lawmakers are furious, and President Trump is mulling a ban on Saudi oil imports. Reuters reported last week that Trump even threatened the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Kingdom. But the recent oil fight is only the tip of the iceberg. The U.S. – Saudi relationship, long the linchpin of American strategy in the Middle East, is in sore need of reappraisal.
After an early honeymoon of sword dances and glowing orbs, Trump has shown that his support of Saudi Arabia only goes so far. In September 2019, Iran gave the Saudis and the world a wakeup call: a cruise missile and drone attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil processing facilities that cut Saudi oil production in half at a stroke. America and Saudi Arabia rattled sabers, but neither country retaliated. Though American troops remain on Saudi soil today, the idea of war on behalf of the Kingdom is a political non-starter. Barely a fifth of Americans consider Saudi Arabia an ally and only 13 percent supported strikes on Iran as retaliation for the Abqaiq and Khurais attack.
Saudi Arabia’s problem with America, unpopularity aside, is twofold. Saudi Arabia’s oil is less important than it used to be, while the Kingdom’s military weakness makes it a clear security liability.
Saudi Arabia’s massive, easily extracted oil reserves have become far less important to the United States than they were. Hydraulic fracturing techniques have revolutionized the U.S. oil industry, turning America into the world’s largest oil producer. Yes, the double shock of coronavirus and the Saudi-Russian price war has been a body blow to the U.S. oil industry, which is now clamoring for a bailout. America has not yet regained energy independence. However, the pace of innovation in shale has made the United States far less reliant on Saudi oil.
Over 70 percent of Saudi oil now goes to the growing economies of Asia. Saudi oil exports to the United States fell by nearly two-thirds from 2018 to 2019. Both American allies like Japan and potential adversaries like China depend on Saudi oil. Oil, as one is constantly reminded, is fungible. Nonetheless, the case for the U.S. Navy as the guarantor of Persian Gulf security is now far harder to make. Japanese and Chinese warships can and should guard the shipping lanes for their Saudi oil, as President Trump pointed out last summer. America’s strategic interest is in retaining the ability to shut off that flow, a task best accomplished from outside the narrow and dangerous confines of the Persian Gulf.
Second, the war in Yemen has made Saudi military impotence plain for all to see. The Saudi military had long been regarded as a paper tiger by those who study Gulf security. But the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the Saudis had some ability to throw their weight around in the region. Saudi Arabia boasts the third largest defense budget in the world and is the largest buyer of U.S. weapons. American military advisors have been training the Saudis in the use of all that expensive gear for nearly seventy years. Surely that had to count for something on the battlefield.
Apparently not. After nearly five years of fighting, the Houthi militia is winning in Yemen, capturing key terrain while regularly lobbing missiles into Saudi Arabia itself. The Saudi-led coalition has fought multiple, disconnected campaigns, with Saudi and Emirati proxy forces even fighting each other on occasion. Saudi casualties remain opaque, but the war’s total death toll is over 100,000. Saudi Arabia is spending an estimated $4 billion a month in Yemen, money that is a drain on even the Kingdom's considerable coffers. Saudi profligacy, both at home and at war, may limit the subsidies that had helped ensure regional stability, especially in Egypt and Jordan.
The damage to Saudi Arabia’s image in the eyes of the world is even more severe. Iran has been the big victor, arming the Houthis and bleeding the Saudis for a pittance. America, meanwhile, bears some of the shame of Yemen thanks to its support of the coalition.
The Saudis have imposed a unilateral ceasefire in Yemen, one that they extended for another month on Friday. Saudi leaders are looking for an exit, but the Houthis won’t make it easy: they are calling for reparations modeled on those Saddam Hussein paid to Kuwait. Saudi Arabia may choose to accept humiliating terms in order to extricate itself from this disastrous intervention.
Saudi oil is less important to the U.S. economy than it once was, while Saudi military incompetence means the Kingdom is a U.S. security liability, despite all of its expensive U.S. jets and tanks. With Saudi Arabia on pace to be, incredibly, both a debtor and an oil importer within a decade, neither of these strategic realities is likely to reverse itself. And this is to say nothing of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and the inveterate recklessness of its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The United States is overdue to decouple from Saudi Arabia as a key component of a broader revision of the U.S. role in the Middle East. If Russia or China wants to pick up the Saudi millstone, they should be welcome to it.
Gil Barndollar is a Senior Fellow at Defense Priorities and at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship. He served as a U.S. Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016.