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The Personal Dimension in Saudi-U.S. Relations
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In recent weeks, the tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia has risen to new heights after many decades of mutual dependence and a Gordian connection between the two countries. Over the years, these relations have had ups and downs. The main characteristic of these changes is the personal dimension, that is, the figure of the leader and the nature of the relationship between the leaders of the countries.

Throughout history, Americans have seen the Saudis as a significant partner, a barrier to communism, an oil supplier influencing the global economy, and a necessary regional power. On January 5, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower presented his plan for stopping communist influence in the Middle East, as he believed the doctrine should be. According to Professor Avraham Ben Zvi, the basis of the Eisenhower Doctrine was the government's commitment to send military forces to ensure the territorial integrity and political independence of countries that asked the United States for assistance and protection against a threat from countries under the control of international communism.

Over the years, the Americans have maintained an intensive system of relations that include transactions for the purchase of military equipment. At their peak, President Trump guaranteed 350 billion dollars during his first trip to the Middle East in May 2017.[1] Trump chose the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the first presidential destination outside the US, which was no small thing. Moreover, Trump's relationship with the Saudis has historical roots that can be traced back to his private businesses and his established appreciation for them in his earlier career. The personal relations as state leaders were manifested in the warm hospitality of the Saudis and great affection between the leaders, such as a welcome ceremony, the shared sword dance, and joint statements that conveyed significant empathy.[2] This visit can even be seen as the first milestone on the path that led to the Abraham Accords. If this visit by Trump marked the honeymoon with the Saudis and even in the regional context with Israel, the election of Biden marked the end of the relationship tightened under the previous administration. Even before President Biden entered the White House, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was marked as an enemy of liberalism and a target for "re-education" in the atmosphere of a party that has become increasingly attentive to the rights of minorities, women, and human rights. Although Bin Salman initiated extensive reforms to equalize women's rights and other reliefs, the assassination of the American-Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi became the turning point for the Democratic Party. When President Biden entered the White House, he determined the change of attitude toward the Saudi leadership in his interview with Univision TV network, where he claimed that he spoke with King Salman and "Made it clear to him that the rules are changing and we’re going to be announcing significant changes. . . . We are going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses.”[3] In doing so, Biden defined the relationship between the countries as the face of the relationship between the leaders.

The decision to change the nature of the relations with the Saudis under the Biden administration and make the dispute public was responded to by the Saudis in extremes of contempt and hatred. For example, just before Biden's entrance into the White House, a Saudi newspaper presented a photo of Biden with his dog under the Arabic caption, "The dogs are returning to the White House," an insulting and teasing expression, especially in Arab culture.[4] A skit aired on Saudi state television on the president and his deputy even mocked his cognitive abilities, thus intensifying the cold relationship between the leaders and the countries.

In June 2022, when fuel prices reached a decades-old high due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Washington decided to tone down its criticism toward the Saudi leadership and shift to reconciliation mode. And so, after he visited Israel, President Biden flew to Saudi Arabia directly to produce a kind of "return to business," followed by signing eighteen economic agreements that would unfreeze business relations with American companies.[5] Seen at the time as a renewal of the leader-to-leader honeymoon, the Saudis increased oil production by up to eleven million barrels per day in an effort to reduce world oil prices.[6] The Saudis played their part in rebuilding the relations, though cautiously. With the slowed-down moderation in oil prices, the support for the Democratic Party in the US increased until mid-September.[7] Exactly one month before the mid-term elections, OPEC+ announced the reduction of production quotas, which may bring prices back above one hundred dollars per barrel.[8] Saudi Arabia is a senior member of OPEC+ and has a lot of weight in decision-making, certainly on fundamental issues like these. Therefore, many Americans saw this step as part of a revenge campaign by the Saudis designed to harm the efforts of the Democratic Party ahead of Election Day on November 8, at the exact moment when the American voters will determine representatives in the Senate and the House of Representatives for the remainder of the President's term. The timing of this decision is so dramatic because it happened at a point where it is almost impossible to go back and correct what has been done.

The Democratic Party's attitude towards the Saudi Kingdom was not shy in reacting, and it encompassed all avenues of the party. The beginning was a legislative proposal by some Democratic members of Congress immediately after the OPEC+ announcement of the gas cut for the withdrawal of the US military from Saudi Arabia.[9] On October 10, the veteran senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, announced, "Enough is enough; I will no longer approve arms deals with the Saudis in my committee."[10] But the most severe development at this time came from the administration itself when a few days later, President Biden announced in an interview with the CNN network about the move by the Saudis: "There will be consequences."[11]

The Saudis, for their part, in an official statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hinted that the American administration asked to postpone the cut for a month. In this statement, the Saudis are the ones airing the laundry outside, if indeed the government officials asked the Saudis not to harm their mid-term election chances.[12] The announcement's importance stems not only from the desire to embarrass the American government but also, above all, to incite the Republicans. Some conservative websites are already reporting as a quid-pro-quo deal of give and take, for which President Trump was allegedly impeached in the context of the United States' relationship with Ukraine.[13] In conclusion, it can be seen that in the relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States, there are two policy levels. The first level is a long-term policy, such as Saudi Arabia's decision since the Obama administration to loosen its deep dependence on the US. This process continues to this day. Another example of a long-term policy is the American decision to focus on diplomatic involvement in the Middle East and reduce its military activity.

The second level is a short-term policy mainly influenced by the relations between the leaders in power in the two countries. This policy can have a direct and sometimes unsettling effect on the internal governance of the states. When the Biden administration boycotted Mohammed bin Salman, his position weakened in the domestic and regional arenas. In these years, other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, have taken the reins forward at the expense of Saudi Arabia. However, still today, Saudi Arabia is the one that influences the internal political system in the US.

The West does not always understand the value of the personal dimension for the leaders of Arab countries. Still, it appears that this dimension has dictated, more than once, the making of political decisions of great weight. At the same time, it is important to remember that most decisions of this type disappear or change with the change of leader(s), so they must be treated appropriately.

About the authors:

Dr. Moran Zaga is Research Fellow at the Chaikin Chair of Geostrategy. Zega is a political geographer studying the Gulf States, emphasizing the United Arab Emirates. She is a lecturer at the University of Haifa and the Hebrew University.

Kobby Barda is a fellow of the Chaikin Chair of Geostrategy. Barda is a doctoral student in the department of general history at the University of Haifa, specializing in American political history. His doctoral thesis characterizes how the evangelical lobby for Israel-United States relations after completing a research thesis that marked the establishment of the AIPAC lobby.

 


[1] Doron Peskin, Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia: $350 billion arms purchase from the United States, Calcalist, May 20, 2017. Hebrew Source

[2]  Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker, Saudis Welcome Trump’s Rebuff of Obama’s Mideast Views, The New York Times, May 20, 2017.

[3] Biden says he told Saudi king he will hold them accountable for rights abuses - Univision interview, reuters.com, FEBRUARY 27, 2021.

[4] Marc Owen Jones, Twitter, November 9, 2020.

[5] Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia: 18 agreements were signed between the countries, Davar, July 16, 2022.Hebrew Source

[6] Grant Smith, Saudi August Oil Output Hit 11 Million Barrels a Day, bloomberg.com, September 13, 2022.

[7]  Siladitya Ray, Major Bump In Biden’s Approval Ratings But Majority Still Disapprove, Poll Finds, Forbes.com, Sep 15, 2022.

[8] Sam Meredith, Oil prices could soon return to $100 as OPEC+ considers ‘historic’ cut, analysts say, CNBC.COM, OCT 3 2022.

[9] DEIRDRE WALSH, Some Democrats push to punish Saudi Arabia after OPEC+ move to cut oil production, NPR.com, October 6, 2022.

[10]  Chairman Menendez Statement on Future of United States-Saudi Relationship , foreign.senate.gov.

[11] Steve Holland, Biden vows consequences for Saudi Arabia after OPEC+ decision, reuters.com, October 13, 2022.

[12] JON GAMBRELL, Saudis say US sought 1 month delay of OPEC+ production cuts,ABCNEWS.COM, October 13, 2022.

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