Wall Street Journal on “U.S.-Saudi Relations Buckle” Focuses on Personalities Over End of Unipolar Era

The Wall Street Journal has a new story, U.S.-Saudi Relations Buckle, Driven by Animosity Between Biden and Mohammed bin Salman, which is as good as you can expect from the US media, which means extremely good in many respects, yet with important omissions and blind spots. Even though this account is appearing in the Journal, as opposed to say the New York Times or Washington Post, it comes off as a concerned but still orthodox account of why a key relationship is going off the rails.

However, the headline demonstrates its core flaw, that the authors, no doubt mirroring conventional wisdom, depict the big reason for the breakdown as personalities, that Biden and Mohammed bin Salman can’t abide each other. The article contends that because the Saudi kingdom is a small place, administratively speaking, the US-Riyadh relationship has always been conducted on a personal basis, to a significant degree between the President and the King or Crown Prince, as appropriate.

Now it is true that both sides have made the deteriorating relationship pretty personal. Reading between the lines, just the same way the Biden Administration deliberately goaded China in its Alaska summit, so to Team Biden appeared to try to set out to put the Saudis in their place:

When Mr. Biden was elected, Prince Mohammed huddled with advisers at a seaside palace to complete a plan to woo the new president, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Saudis delivered a few concessions on a topic Mr. Biden had campaigned on—human rights—including the eventual release of Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent women’s-rights campaigner who says she was tortured in detention, and two Saudi-American prisoners. And they quickly patched up a feud with neighboring Qatar after leading an economic boycott against it which Mr. Trump had initially supported.

Mr. Biden’s response shocked Prince Mohammed, the people said. In his first weeks in office, the president froze Saudi arms sales, reversed a last-minute Trump administration decision to label Yemen’s Houthi rebels a foreign terrorist organization, and published the intelligence report on Mr. Khashoggi’s killing which Mr. Trump had previously dismissed.

For the Biden administration, these steps were a necessary correction. To the Saudis, Mr. Biden’s early moves were a slap in the face.

Admittedly, the fact the Saudis have also made responses that look petty has made it easy to focus on the poor dynamics. As we recounted, the US was incandescent when OPEC+ cut production by 2 million barrels. The Saudis would have none of the US chiding accusing them of being Rooskie stooges and they released details intended to put the Biden administration in a bad light, that they had effectively conceded the necessity of the output cut but has pressed the Saudis to put it off for a month, clearly to help Biden at the midterms.

Nowhere does the article acknowledge that the US and EU are trying to break OPEC+ with their oil price cap scheme. Nor does it acknowledge that other Middle Eastern OPEC members cleared their throats to say they supported the cuts (as in denied the US charge that the went along because the Saudis insisted).

The Saudis have continued goading the US by not inviting it to the new, so-called Davos in the Desert. Moon of Alabama describes how the US press is covering for this diss in Some Media Won’t Tell You When The Saudis Snub Biden.

If you read the article carefully so to not be distracted by the (intriguing) backstory of how the US historically dealt with the Saudi royals for decades, which has the effect of turning the tale into a bit of a celebrity drama, it does contain what is the underlying driver of the breakdown: the Saudis want to redefine the relationship in light of different power dynamics and needs and the US wants none of it.

First, the US is no longer a dominant customer for Saudi oil. From the article:

Since the 1940s, Washington’s relationship with this insular dynastic monarchy grew around an implicit understanding that the U.S. would ensure Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity and the Muslim kingdom would keep oil flowing to a global economy dominated by America.

Those calculations have changed over time. The Saudis once sold the U.S. over 2 million barrels of oil every day, but that’s fallen to less than 500,000 barrels a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The U.S. grew to become the world’s biggest oil producer, and China is now the biggest buyer of Saudi oil, followed by India.

Second, and critically, the Saudis despite being huge US weapons buyers, do not value US security guarantees as much as they once did. Maybe not being able to prevail in Yemen despite US help has something to do with that? Again from the Journal:

“Oil-for-security is dead,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa at political-risk advisory firm Eurasia Group. “The two sides seem to be having a problem accepting that that old deal is over, with Riyadh focused on security and Washington focused on oil.”

I’ve featured this clip repeatedly, but it makes a key point that official outlets can’t afford to see, let alone relate: America has performed badly in the Middle East and has largely withdrawn from that theater, so any security guarantees are debased compared to their historical value.

For those who have time, the somewhat coded discussion of Iran’s part of this story, starting with Iran effectively breaking the JCPOA process starting at 1:22:30, or you can go straight to Biden and MbS part at 1:27:30 (you can watch at 1.25x):

The article effectively admits that even though the Administration is mad as hell, it can’t do much about an increasingly intransigent independent Saudi Arabia. First, no one is going to admit that too many college tuitions depend on weapons sales to the Saudis. Second, with as Ritter pointed out, Israel looking weak, the US needs the Saudis even more for the perception that they are players in the Middle East.

No one is yet discussing the unthinkable: that the Saudis would start buying weapons. If the oil production cut made steam come out of Biden Administration ears, they’d go nuclear if they could. Aggressive regime change operations would swing into action pronto. And the Saudis would face major switching costs in terms of having to train on and bel able to repair different weapons system.

So the US and Saudis are like the rich unhappy couple that find a divorce too expensive and messy to pursue. But the US is then faced with its limited ability to stop the Saudis from engaging in what it regards as cheating on the relationship. The article points out:

The next big test comes in early December, when three events with major significance for global energy markets are set to collide: another OPEC+ meeting and plans by the European Union for an embargo of Russian oil and by the Group of Seven wealthy nations to cap the price of Russian crude.

I don’t expect the Saudis to do much, certainly not as much as the US wants, if (now more like when) the Russian oil restrictions kick in and Russia delivers on its threat not to sell crude at a non-market price. If the Journal think things are ugly now, odds favor than they ain’t seen ‘nuthin yet.

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  1. russell1200

    Maybe. But best evidence seems to put MBS in the fool category. No comment on Biden.

    The Saudi military can buy all the weapons in the world, more planes than they have good pilots to fly, and they will still stink up the place. Their operations in Yemen are not that of an even halfway competent military.

    Now you can argue that neither the Russians, nor the United States, have exactly shown across the board competence either. But both are big and both can project power beyond their borders. Both have areas where they do things very well. They don’t stink across the board.

    So who his going to guarantee Saudi independence? – A big empty country with a lot of oil. The Russians are still almost-allied with Iran. The Iranians who at times show flashes of competence and are deadly Saudi enemies. The Western Europeans? They started running out of bombs 6 days into their attacks on Libya and had to beg Obama to bail them out. Turkey? They have their own oil asperations in Libya, Northern Cypress, and Azerbaijan. China? They wisely seem to avoid confrontations in peripheral areas to them. They like Saudi Oil, but they have other alternatives, and have never shown any ability to project power (as in boots on the ground) overseas. India? Same as China, but more so.

    The US has made itself look like a fool. But there is still the US Navy around. Saudi – US pact was one of the very few Middle East cornerstones that was relatively straightforward and commonsensical. Even a grifter like Trump could see that. It takes to arrogant idiots to mess it up.

    1. RalphR

      Not sure I buy your assumption that the Saudis and Iran must always and ever be at each other’s throats. Alexander Mercouris pointed out that the Greeks and Turks had managed to get along adequately, as in co-exist without open hostilities, from 1930 to 1955.

      Putin manages to have pretty good relations with both Iran and the Saudis. He went to a summit with Turkey an Iran in July, then right after had a very friendly call with MbS.

      Some de-escalation would very much change the dynamics in the region, as well as be generally salutary.

    2. Stephen

      The question to ask is whether the US’s role is really providing genuine protection from true threats or whether it is more in the nature of a protection racket. The latter perspective being to ask whether the US has an interest in stoking up conflicts and pitting the different Middle East regimes against each other. Divide and Rule is a classic empire strategy. The British did it in India, the Hapsburgs did it in Central Europe. Just asking.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        Exactly – if the Saudis need Uncle Sugar’s war toys to guarantee their “independence”, then they really aren’t very independent, are they?

      2. russell1200

        That is like saying that all the major players, very much contrary to what they say, have no agency. That all their various desires comes down to US meddling in their affairs.

        It also ignores that a very weak state is one of the few in the area not to get involved in a ground war with someone. Something also true of Kuwait until our idiot ambassador gave the green light.

        It needs to be understood that it is much easier to come to an aid of an ally, than it is to actively invade a hostile country. With no need to put occupying boots on the ground, US military power is all a force multiplier. And a big one.

      3. Chaka

        That explains why US would want to sign a peace agreement with Iran. That removes the need for Saudi protection.

    3. nippersdad

      Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have their own spheres of influence, and the single largest problem they have is that SA wanted to expand its’ own. That has largely been achieved by the US and its’ partners exporting Wahabism, but it has not turned out well and everyone is just a little sick of it at this point. I imagine the Sauds are pretty sick of their PR right about now as well.

      There are few other reasons why there should be any frictions between Iran and SA. They have a large community of interests which should encourage working together for common ends, and big brothers in Russia and China to facilitate such a detente. They could start in Yemen by ending that conflict as a measure of good faith. It should not go unnoticed that SA and Iran were in secret talks right about the time that Trump assassinated Soleimani, and without such intrusions into their business they prolly would have patched things up by now.

      1. John k

        Iran and saudi have applied to join BRICS. The new associations such as BRICS and sco seem to be muting former rivalries, hopefully similar pressure will encourage the two big Persian gulf players to make nice, ending the Yemen war would be a nice start. And the situation presents a face-saving opportunity for mbs.
        Even better if saudi/turkey moves east pressures israel to make some concessions to Palestinians, which us in theory supports.

  2. Carolinian

    Isn’t part of the problem that for Biden everything is personal? Guess I’ve been watching too much George R R Martin but we have a bad king. A little humility would go a long way even if they are faking it. When Putin tries to be reasonable they see it as weakness.

    1. nippersdad

      I routinely see this formula in the press wherein TPTB keep saying something like “Russia has yet to react to this provocation, so maybe we can push just a little harder here or there without escalating further.” So they then escalate and wait for Russia to react.

      They think that they can continue to be bullies forever, but the knock-out punch is on the way and it is clear that they just don’t know what to do with that. The PNAC crowd just do not know how to do humility, and so it will have to be imposed upon them.

  3. Stephen

    Thanks. I remember that Garland Nixon interview from the time: Ray McGovern’s knowing smile as Scott Ritter talks is awesome and almost justifies a rewatch on its own.

    As you have pointed out before, there is a tendency in the west generally to personalize all of these issues around individual relationships, and the personal vilification of specific people who do not toe the line. But ultimately it is a bit childish and is never anything like the real story.

    I am sure he is not the only person who has ever said it but serial British Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston stated in the nineteenth century that Britain had no permanent allies, but did have eternal interests and that these were all that mattered. Ultimately, these fundamentals seem to be winning out in the US-Saudi relationship with respect to whether there really is a shared interest.

    Your comment about arms sales and college fees is very appropriate though. You are no doubt aware of this but the broader revenue and fee earning related to Saudi Arabia goes far beyond this. From my own observation, the country has been the number one growth area for professional services over the past decade or so. A topic that corporate media rarely highlights. The current oil price boom has led to a further splurge this year too amidst a broader market that is “slowing”, to use the classic euphemism.

    The number of well heeled expatriate careers and US anchored firms with significant dependency on fees earned there is very high. The word “gravy train” comes to mind. All the firms were pretty much fine to exit Russia because proportionately very little revenue was being generated there. Saudi Arabia would be very different though from an elite lobbying perspective. No doubt this complicates heavily the interplay of “interest”.

    Of course, if the Saudis really start to question the value of western arms then no doubt at some point they might wonder how effective broader western business advice is too. That would certainly be interesting.

  4. The Rev Kev

    Considering the importance of the US-Saudi relationship, you would think that the US would have a whole cohort of experts to draw on for their expertise in Arabic culture to help steer them through any rough patches. But maybe they don’t. I have read how after the USSR fell, nearly the entire Russian Studies departments were wound down almost entirely. And that the recent hires that supposedly know about Russia must agree that Putin is bad, m’kay? And then there is the article ‘The West Is Going To Declare China-Hands “Terrorists”’ in today’s Links that say that the Chinese Studies departments are really just I-hate-China departments so would give more than useless advice. So maybe something similar is happening in Arabic Studies. There is form here. When the Republicans were recruiting a bunch of kids to join the Coalition Provisional Authority for the occupation of Iraq, the interviewers might ask them how they felt about Roe-Wade. But if any knew about Arabic culture, particularly for Iraq, they were never considered. And if a candidate admitted to being able to speak Arabic, they were chased out of the building. So when I read about that article on China I noted, I see that the guys says ‘None of the Professors of “China Studies” speak fluent Chinese.’ The long and the short of it then is that perhaps the White House has only oil executives and ideologues to advise them on Saudi relations resulting in the present dog’s breakfast.

    1. LY

      if oil executives are one of the primary influences on Saudi policy, I can imagine them to have soured on it after the Saudi’s attempts to crush the shale oil industry.

      1. The Rev Kev

        I think that somebody in a comment the other day pointed out how the war on the US shale industry had the effect of clearing out the smaller players while the big oil companies were able to go in and snap up those assets. So maybe they are not that unhappy with the Saudis.

      2. russell1200

        That is an interesting point. But the Saudi-Russian cutbacks actually help our shale people.

        It isn’t even really that clear that in the long run we should want to keep the price of oil somewhat high.

        Per Rev Kev (which I just saw) , very possible.

    2. nippersdad

      I truly believe that the only advice they receive comes from various industry supported think tanks. That no one ever thinks beyond the next quarter is a large part, if not the largest part, of our problems these days. The corporate culture uber alles mindset becomes problematic when faced with people like China or Russia, for whom what the stock holders think not the real issue.

    3. Kouros

      The Norman conquest of England in 1066 has deep and profound reverberations. Pushed once to learn a different language (this is why Anglo-Saxons eat beef and pork rather than cow and pig), they are averse of any such endeavors and instead want everyone else to learn English.

    4. russell1200

      Thinking aloud. Not saying this is correct. But I have seen it noted that the US animosity toward Russia started when they cracked down on the LGBT (Pussy Riot and co.) community. I am not a Russian supporter, but that would be a pretty stupid reason to get hostile toward the other major world nuclear power. I seem to recall back when Putin-Bush W (ugh) were talking, there was a lot of interest in mutually quelling the impeding Islamic Revolution. I never did see why that faded away.

  5. fairleft

    The Saudis are routinely described as ‘insular’ in US mainstream publications but the US is much more so internationally, unable to communicate clearly and with cultural sensitivity with other states unless they have nearly identical globalist values.The royals and other wealthy Saudis in contrast are busy these days working realistically, respectfully, and for mutual benefit with a variety of very different mindsets and cultures. So, ‘insular’ for the Western conventional analyst must mean ‘very different from us’.

  6. Fazal Majid

    Why would the Saudi inability to crush Yemen despite massive purchases of US weapons lead them to dismiss US security guarantees? If anything, it proves that weapons matter less than the hand that wields them, and that the effete Saudi armed forces are abysmal, unlike the UAE’s much smaller but vastly more competent army (although most of the Saudi ground intervention was by mercenaries like Sudanese who have zero interest in shedding their own blood for MBS and would only go through the motions). More importantly, Iran’s demonstration of strength in using drones (ostensibly by the Houthis) to bomb an Aramco mega-refinery near Riyadh last year must have made the Saudis acutely aware of how unable their Potemkin Air Force is to stop an actual attack.

    Now clearly the Saudis must be reconsidering their arm purchases and their dependency on US (and US poodle the UK) weaponry, and that will have an impact on future US exports, to the benefit of France, Germany, Korea and the like, and probably even Israel. Whether they would provoke the US as far as getting Chinese weaponry is an open question. That would probably trigger a full-on coup response and there are sufficient numbers of discontents in the House of Saud that even someone as reckless as MBS would think twice about poking Uncle Sam in the eye like that.

  7. Willis

    In this situation I doubt the Saudi’s would choose to halt any arms sales. These deals create vast oceans of money that can be diverted into slush funds. They might choose, however, to chasten the U.S. by awarding some weapons contracts to other countries. But the royal families finances would be hurt the most by halting arms sales.

    One of the Saudi’s most infamous arms contracts was called ‘Al Yamamah’. According to Wikipedia:

    “Al Yamamah is the name of a series of record arms sales by the United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia, paid for by the delivery of up to 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day to the British government. The prime contractor has been BAE Systems and its predecessor British Aerospace….Mike Turner, then CEO of BAE Systems, said in August 2005 that BAE and its predecessor had earned £43 billion in twenty years from the contracts and that it could earn £40 billion more. It is Britain’s largest ever export agreement, and employs at least 5,000 people in Saudi Arabia.”


    “There have been numerous allegations that the Al Yamamah contracts were a result of bribes to members of the Saudi royal family and government officials. Some allegations suggested that the former prime minister’s son Mark Thatcher may have been involved; however, he has strongly denied receiving payments or exploiting his mother’s connections in his business dealings….In October 2004, the BBC’s Money Programme broadcast an in-depth story, including allegations in interviews with Edward Cunningham and another former insider, about the way BAE Systems alleged to have paid bribes to Prince Turki bin Nasser and ran a secret £60 million slush fund in relation to the Al Yamamah deal. Most of the money was alleged to have been spent through a front company called Robert Lee International Limited. In June 2007 the BBC’s investigative programme Panorama alleged that BAE Systems “paid hundreds of millions of pounds to the ex-Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan”.”

  8. Novus

    I knew that the geopolitical tectonic plates had already shifted in April after watching the below 1minute video.
    This tells you clearly how the Saudis in general view the US since 2021.

    The West Asian plate is subducting below the East Asian plate (SCO, BRICS, etc…) and there is nothing Bidensky can do at this time – Zu spät.

    Saudi television lampoons Biden for his gaffes amid rising tensions

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