- April 7, 2023

Ties between US, Saudi Arabia improving despite recent China-backed deal with Iran

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receives US President Joe Biden

The relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia has undoubtedly gone through one of its roughest phases since the two established formal ties more than 70 years ago.

But despite the recent China-backed deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore ties, officials and recent statements from the Biden administration signal that the tide may be slowly turning in favor of a more stable environment between Washington and Riyadh.

“Looking ahead, we are focused on ensuring that our engagement with Saudi Arabia continues to serve the interests of the American people, and we have seen and continue to see great strategic value in this relationship,” a State Department spokesperson told Al Arabiya English.

Other bumpy periods have occurred, including the oil embargo in the 70s, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Obama administration’s policy on Iran and the ensuing 2015 nuclear deal.

During the Trump administration, ties were boosted, and the former US president made his first foreign visit to Saudi Arabia. That newly built trust was tested after Donald Trump held off on a military response to Iran’s attacks on Saudi oil refineries in 2019.

And on the campaign trail, then-candidate Joe Biden pledged to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah.” Several foreign policy decisions targeted Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries shortly after Biden took office, which included freezing arms sales to Riyadh.

But the events of the last six months have been particularly worrying and threatened the continuity of US-Saudi relations.

A decision by the Saudi-led OPEC+ to cut oil output before the US midterm elections was interpreted by the Biden administration as a political stunt to undermine the chances of Democrats against Republicans. Saudi Arabia has vehemently rejected these accusations and pointed to the price of oil stabilizing shortly after the decision to decrease oil production.

Washington also accused Saudi Arabia of siding with Russia through its move at a time when the US and Europe were trying to squeeze Vladimir Putin’s coffers in the midst of his war on Ukraine.

The White House and other US officials threatened to recalculate the relationship with Saudi Arabia, going as far as threatening economic and financial sanctions.

But shortly after, there was a change in tone from US officials toward Saudi Arabia.

At the UN, Saudi Arabia led several Arab and Gulf states in voting to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, calling on the Kremlin to withdraw Russian forces from the neighboring country. This was followed up with a $400 million pledge from Saudi Arabia to Kyiv. The Biden administration quickly toned down its criticism and lauded the Gulf nation for its positive contributions.

A week before that, senior US officials traveled to Riyadh to participate in security meetings to discuss Iran and other common threats, pushing back against claims that Washington was looking to distance itself from the region.

And when the surprise announcement of rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran was announced, the White House and State Department officials commended the China-backed deal.

Over the last ten days, US officials have released statements on the Yemen war seen as positive toward Saudi Arabia while calling out the Iran-backed Houthis.

The US response to the latest Saudi and OPEC+ decision to further slash oil production next month was also met with a much more muted response, with Biden saying: “It’s not going to be as bad as you think.”

US and Saudi officials are now seeing a more positive path forward while still acknowledging the difficult time their bilateral ties are going through.

CIA Director Bill Burns traveled to Saudi Arabia this week to reinforce US commitment to intelligence cooperation, especially in areas such as counterterrorism, a US official previously told Al Arabiya English.

Karen Young, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, said there had been efforts to engage constructively, led by the Saudis and initiated by the US government.

The US and Saudi Arabia concluded their first joint counter-drone exercise last month at a new military testing center in Riyadh. Additionally, Saudi Arabia recently signed what the US called “landmark deals” with Boeing for over 120 aircraft worth $37 billion. The White House said the agreement could support over one million American jobs across 44 states.

Sources familiar with the deal have said that its signing was called off in October following the Biden administration’s accusations of Saudi Arabia siding with Russia.

“The Boeing deal is a testament to the fact that ties are beginning to improve,” one official said. “This is still very much a work in progress, but there is progress.”

A National Security Council official told Al Arabiya English that joint efforts on Ukraine and Yemen and the Boeing deal were areas of interest to the United States, “with generally broad bipartisan support in Congress, and where we hope and expect to make further progress over the coming period.”

The NSC spokesperson also said that the US and Saudi Arabia were working together on “more trusted and secure” 5G and 6G networks through “O-Ran technologies.”

An upcoming test could be the result of ongoing negotiations in which Saudi Arabia has requested US technology to enrich the uranium Riyadh possesses to produce and then sell fuel. Otherwise, Saudi officials have said they could look to China, Russia or France for help.

The State Department spokesperson said the Biden administration was committed to supporting Saudi Arabia’s clean energy transition, including its efforts to develop a peaceful nuclear energy program, but stopped short of signaling US approval for Saudi’s uranium enrichment plans.

“The United States has long sought to limit the spread of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies globally, given their potential technical applicability to fissile material production. President Biden has been clear that the administration remains committed to this longstanding US nonproliferation objective,” the official said.

Nevertheless, the official praised Saudi Arabia for being a strategic partner of the US for eight decades and said it was “very clear that we have important work ahead” with Riyadh, including on Ukraine, Yemen, threats from Iran, climate change, and 5G and 6G networks.

“There is plenty of goodwill left, but the US will have to come to terms with a Saudi Arabia that is distinctly different from the past, and that has been one of the obstacles to understanding,” Young told Al Arabiya English.

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