Mohammad bin Salman and the Changing Landscape of U.S.-Saudi Arabia Relations

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have had a symbiotic relationship based on mutual economic and security interests since 1945, when former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and former King of Saudi Arabia Abdulaziz Al Saud launched their long-lasting partnership during a meeting on the Suez Canal. The U.S. needed access to Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves to ensure their national security after the second world war, and, in return, the U.S. would provide Saudi Arabia security from regional competitors like Iran, as well as the world’s other great powers at the time, namely the U.S.S.R.

For decades, this mutual dependence has created a stable and enduring relationship between these two nations through the rest of the 20th century. The first challenge to this “special relationship” were the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda — the terrorist organization that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks — was a member of one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest families; 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. The U.S. then made the calculated move to distance Saudi Arabia from any 9/11 connections in public rhetoric to continue their economic relationship, which further strained relations. 

Immediately after the attacks, former U.S. President George Bush and his administration downplayed the connection between Saudi Arabia and the attacks, not wanting to put American access to Saudi oil in danger. Even when it emerged that members of the Saudi government possibly funded several of the 9/11 hijackers while they were in the U.S., President Bush continued touting his “never again” agenda while he welcomed then-Crown Prince Abdullah to his Texas family ranch in 2002. 

The U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance is largely based on quid pro quo: as long as Saudi Arabia delivers on oil production, the U.S. maintains its security umbrella over Saudi Arabia and supplies the Saudi government with weapons through billion-dollar military contracts. What should have led to the demise of this relationship decades ago is the stark lack of values these countries share. Saudi Arabia is the Middle East’s largest absolute monarchy, whereas the U.S. has carefully built its reputation to portray itself as a flourishing democracy. 

Although mutual dependence is key to the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship, what has ensured eighty years of continued cooperation is the degree to which Saudi Arabia has accomodated American interests in its foreign affairs. The original meeting between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz in 1945 was actually arranged to discuss the king’s desire that a Palestinian state be formally established. Saudi Arabia continued to support the creation of a Palestinain state based on the borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, but over the last decade Saudi Arabia has acquiesced to the wishes of the U.S. and strengthened its relations with Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Prior to the nationalization of Saudi oil in 1980, the Arabian American Oil Company  acted as a proxy for the U.S. government in Saudi Arabia. Involvement in the international relations of the Middle East is key to American global hegemony, and, for most of the history of U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations, Saudi Arabia has never directly countered American foreign policy agendas in the Middle East. 

However, this changed in 2017, when Saudi Arabian King Salman altered the Saudi royal line of succession. He named his seventh son Mohammad bin Salman as crown prince, replacing bin Salman’s cousin Mohammed bin Nayef, who is almost three decades older than bin Salman. This modification of almost a century of royal custom completely altered the power dynamic of Saudi Arabia’s government. In September of 2022, Mohammad bin Salman was named prime minister, a role usually held by the king.

However, bin Salman was already exercising an enormous amount of power prior to his appointment as crown prince, from the moment his father ascended to the throne in January 2015, when bin Salman was appointed Minister of Defense. Bin Salman’s first foray into exerting Saudi power internationally was the launch of Operation Decisive Storm just two months later in March of 2015, when he led Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war, supporting the former Yemeni government against the Houthi rebel movement. The U.S. initially supported bin Salman’s rise to power, providing the Saudi military with weapons and technological assistance for use in Yemen.

Bin Salman is in his mid-thirties, bringing a younger generation of political thinkers to the forefront of Saudi politics. When his father passes away, he will be the youngest leader Saudi Arabia has ever had and will likely rule for decades. He is already considered Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, and has made his desire to reform and modernize Saudi Arabia clear, through initiatives such as Saudi Vision 2030 and a 2017 decree allowing women in Saudi Arabia to drive. 

Bin Salman’s drive for modernization and secularism initially pleased Washington, who hailed him as a reformer. U.S. administrations had struggled for much of their relationship with domestic condemnation of Saudi policies considered in the U.S. to be oppressive to groups such as women’s rights activists and secularists. However, what bin Salman’s focus on transforming Saudi society disguised was his tightening authoritarian control that was no different from previous Saudi regimes. 

In November 2017, what became termed the “Saudi Arabian Purge” began when four Saudi government ministers and eleven Saudi princes, among others, were detained at a hotel and later arrested under what is presented as an anti-corruption operation. However, all those arrested were bin Salman’s detractors and rivals, and, as head of the anti-corruption committee, bin Salman continued these mass arrests until January of 2019. 

Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has continued to frustrate the U.S., which in recent decades has come to view itself as a harbinger of freedom and democracy. What appeared to be the breaking point of what the U.S. would reasonably tolerate was the discovery of bin Salman’s direct order for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. citizen Jamal Khashoggi, who was critical of the Saudi regime. 

Khashoggi, 60-year-old Saudi journalist who was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of 2018, was a former advisor to the Saudi government who relocated to the U.S. in 2017 and began publishing works that were critical of the Saudi regime. International intelligence agencies, including the CIA, connected the murder to a directive made by bin Salman, with the lead perpetrator of the crime believed to be Saud Al-Qahtani, bin Salman’s greatest advisor and confidante. It seemed that the torture and murder of a man who was an American citizen, lived in Virginia, and worked for the Washington Post would mark a point of no return in the deterioration of U.S.-Saudi relations. 

In order to salvage their relationship with the U.S. in the face of these allegations, the Saudi government initially claimed that they had no knowledge of what had happened to Khashoggi. Later, they admitted that the murder had occured and promised to prosecute the perpetrators, who were decribed as having acted in a rogue capacity separate from the Saudi government. 

However, despite widespread agreement of bin Salman’s culpability, former U.S. President Donald Trump believed that Saudi Arabia was too essential to the American economy to endanger their relationship with a public rebuke, and urged a separation between the values of a regime and economic benefit. This gave bin Salman a blank check to continue his authoritarian directives without the obstruction of American power. A few months after the murder, in January 2019, the U.S. government approved $195 million dollars in upgrades for Riyadh’s missile defense system. With the security of Saudi Arabia’s capital city ensured, this special relationship was once again secure, with Trump referring to bin Salman a few months later as “a friend.”

U.S. President Biden, who succeeded Trump in January of 2021, had no such qualms initially about endangering relations. The U.S. was less dependent than ever on Saudi oil, and Biden ran a campaign on promises to no longer ignore Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses to distinguish himself from Trump’s more lenient policies. Biden imposed sanctions on Saudi intelligence officials believed to be involved in the murder and refused visas to dozens of Saudis responsible for the targetting of dissdents abroad. 

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022 and the resulting U.S. sanctions on Russian oil have once again increased U.S. dependence on Saudi Arabian oil production. It quickly became clear that repairing relations with Saudi Arabia was imperative to Biden’s political goals. The hope was that an increase in oil production and the resulting decrease in energy prices would earn him American goodwill, which would translate to a favorable election of Democratic representatives during the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. 

In July of 2022, President Biden went on a tour of the Middle East, during which he visited Saudi Arabia. Biden met with bin Salman in a closed meeting in which the Crown Prince had everything to gain. Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia backtracked on his previous claims of Saudi Arabia as a “pariah state,” with Biden fist-bumping bin Salman for the photographers at their first meeting. 

As has always been foundational to the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship, the goal of this meeting was to secure Saudi oil and gain bin Salman’s support for increased oil production as the overseer of the Saudi state oil monopoly and a leading and influential member of OPEC+. OPEC+ is an entity made up of the 13 member states of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and ten additional nations that are non-OPEC but are also major oil-exporting countries. The alliance was originally established to advantage oil-exporting nations and regulate a supermajority of international oil exports to control global oil market prices. 

Though Biden’s meeting was largely unsuccessful for the U.S., devolving into denials and counteraccusations, it did serve to provide Bin Salman with recognition as a powerful actor on the world stage, so much so that the U.S. president traveled halfway across the world and recanted on previous public statements in order to mend relations. 

Among other outcomes of the meeting, Biden pledged to continue the U.S. commitment to Saudi national security, and in return the Saudi government increased their planned production of oil for July and August by 50%, reaffirming the nearly century-long exchange of oil for security. 

However, relations became strained once again in October of 2022 when OPEC+, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, announced they would decrease oil production by two million barrels per day, which threatened to increase energy costs in the U.S. and Europe. Not only was this action taken just four weeks before the U.S. midterm elections, but a week later, Saudi Arabia also released a separate statement claiming that the decision was made based on economic forecasts, not political motivation, and revealed that the Biden administration requested that Saudi Arabia delay its cut on oil production until after the midterm elections. 

As a result, U.S. politicians called for consequences and a re-evaluation of this special relationship, and the Biden administration claimed that they had been mislead by the Saudi government during their secret negotiations on future oil production. It is likely that the decision was in fact politically-motivated, meaning that bin Salman deliberately took action to undermine a U.S. president and is utilizing his power over global oil markets to influence domestic U.S. politics, a move which is unprecedented in the history of U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations. 

If there was any doubt as to whether the cut in oil production was intended as a deliberate slight to the Biden administration, in response, the White House is reportedly considering stopping all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which could have severe consequences for the balance of power in the Middle East by creating a stronger alliance between Saudi Arabia and Russia. In addition, Saudi officials are warning that a retaliationwould include selling U.S. Treasury bonds to create greater uncertainty in U.S. markets, with both Biden and bin Salman attempting to subvert the other. U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations are at possibly the most tense that they have ever been. 

Saudi Arabia’s long history of financially supporting extremist organizations and rebel groups throughout various conflicts in the Middle East, and the murder and dismemberment of a U.S. citizen ordered by the second-highest ranking member of the Saudi government, couldn’t destroy U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations, so why now? 

For the first time in over eight decades, Saudi Arabia has restricted American access to oil, and this is what has truly led to a downward spiral in relations. The exchange of oil for security is so historically fundamental to the relationship between these two nations that it took bin Salman’s deliberate decision to influence OPEC+ production — thereby restricting American access to oil — for the U.S. to retaliate in any significant way. 

Bin Salman is only just coming into his power, and when he becomes king, he will have complete authority over a nation that is key to American geopolitical and economic interests. Bin Salman has already shown that he has no qualms about challenging U.S. hegemony and rewriting the terms of U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations. For nearly a century, the key to the durability of the relationship between these two nations has been the foundational exchange of oil for security, but this interdependence based on economic and security interests has begun to crumble. The message is clear: the U.S. will either have to change its expectations for its relationship with Saudi Arabia, or risk economic pain and pushback from a dominant nation in Middle Eastern politics led by a man seeking a path away from Saudi dependence on the U.S. 

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Layla MoheyEldin

Layla MoheyEldin is a sophomore majoring in International Relations and minoring in Middle East Studies. Her areas of interest include international relations, security studies, and foreign affairs as they relate to the Middle East. In addition, she is particularly interested in the way Western intervention since the 19th century has shaped the politics and interactions of the nations in the region, and how this dynamic has contributed proxy conflicts between competing powers in the Middle East. Layla also volunteers for the Democratic Volunteer Center and Swing Left, and previously interned for Humanitarian Aid International.