President Donald Trump's current enthusiasm for Saudi Arabia notwithstanding, the relationship between the United States and perhaps its most important ally in the Middle East is undergoing a significant transformation. U.S. political pressure on Saudi Arabia is rising, led by a growing congressional discomfort over the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and the circumstances surrounding the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Beneath the surface of the politics of the day, a pair of more significant geopolitical shifts is helping pull the longtime allies apart: the evolution of the global system away from U.S. dominance toward an intensifying, near-peer competition with China, as well as the fundamental reshaping of the global oil and gas markets upon which Saudi Arabia has built its wealth and power. As both countries adjust to these changing dynamics, their shared strategic relationship will evolve away from the foundation of oil, counterterrorism and the mutual desire to contain Iran. It's likely that, as those changes play out, the countries' future priorities will not align as they have in past decades.
The fundamental relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is changing dramatically and will continue to undergo significant shifts over the next two decades. Their alliance has always been beset by complications — becoming downright antagonistic at times — but the distance will only grow as their mutual strategic importance declines in the coming years.
A Relationship Built on Pragmatism
Despite their obvious differences, Saudi Arabia and the United States have maintained a nearly eight-decade friendship. From the beginning, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has rested on mutual needs, not necessarily shared values. A meeting in the waning weeks of World War II aboard the USS Quincy between U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz (better known in the West as Ibn Saud) set the stage for their countries' close ties. The stark contrast between the lands that they governed could not have been more apparent. Roosevelt, arguably the leader of the world's most powerful and industrially advanced country, had just attended the Yalta Conference, where he helped decide the postwar future of the globe. King Abdulaziz, on the other hand, came from one of the least developed countries in the Middle East, its oil industry still in its infancy.
Almost three-quarters of a century later, the countries' differences remain just as stark. The United States, which touts one of the world's most liberal economies, is a democracy that prides itself on religious and cultural tolerance. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, a state that derives legitimacy from a religious foundation, is one of the world's last remaining absolute monarchies with little space for political opposition. Although Saudi Arabia has worked to shed its image of intolerance, there's only so much it can do. Unlike U.S. relationships with allies that possess a shared set of values, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, Saudi-U.S. ties are based on pragmatism at their core. Although they share interests in certain areas, significant disagreements on others will remain.
History has borne this out.
At the time of the USS Quincy meeting, Saudi Arabia had been looking to establish a close alliance with an outside patron capable of pushing back against colonial interests in the Middle East. The United Kingdom, which controlled most of the surrounding Middle Eastern territory, certainly eyed the monarchy's newfound oil reserves. The United States, meanwhile, also wanted access to Saudi Arabia's oil but had little desire to forge a colonial empire. This drove the two together, as did mutual opposition to the rise of communism, which threatened the legitimacy of the monarchy. But their relationship over the next three decades was not without its complications. As far as Saudi Arabia was concerned, the United States would not drop its support for Israel and would not budge far enough on the Palestine issue, eventually leading to two oil embargoes.
The fall of the shah of Iran in 1979 pushed their relationship in a different direction. This time, the United States and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia found themselves on the same side of the issue — with the Shiite-led Islamic Republic of Iran on the other. The Americans and the Saudis still were fighting communists, as their cooperation against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan evidenced, although once the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the battle against communism as a unifying priority. Just a few years after the Cold War ended, however, another common foe emerged: Iraq's Saddam Hussein. The Gulf War and subsequent U.S. dual containment policy targeting both Iraq and Iran in the 1990s brought the United States and Saudi Arabia closer together. But other events over the years have also pushed them apart. The Iran-Contra affair complicated the relationship in the 1980s, while the rise of the global jihadist movement emanating from the Wahhabism sect, which is closely identified with Saudi Arabia, added another wrinkle, particularly after 9/11.
For most of their history as allies, Saudi Arabia has needed the United States more than vice versa. From the beginning, King Abdulaziz needed the United States to provide a counterweight to the United Kingdom. Later, the United States provided a powerful buttress girding the monarchy against populist movements, including communism. Today, Saudi Arabia counts on Washington to support its struggle against Iran and help it battle transnational militant groups. At every step, Saudi Arabia has had to appeal to the United States by proving its utility to Washington.
A World that is Shaken, not Stirred
Two significant geopolitical shifts are altering the fundamental way that Saudi Arabia and the United States interact: the dramatic transformation in global energy markets and the rise of China, which is reducing the dominance of the U.S.-led Western order that emerged after the Cold War.
The shale revolution in the United States is driving U.S. crude oil production to record levels — more than 12 million barrels per day (bpd) — far eclipsing the 5 million bpd it produced just a decade ago. Rystad Energy projects that by 2025, the United States will become a net exporter of crude, with production of about 16 million bpd. And 2018 marked the first time in three decades that the United States imported less than 1 million bpd from Saudi Arabia.
Unsurprisingly, the astronomical rise in U.S. oil production has caused major ripples in global oil markets, contributing to the glut that caused oil prices to plummet below $100 a barrel in 2014. Riyadh's desire to balance the increasing U.S. supplies has prompted it to lead the effort by OPEC and other major producers to trim production — something that has driven Saudi Arabia closer to Russia. The close cooperation that both countries must achieve in order to micromanage oil markets is driving their political cooperation on other levels as well.
As the United States' thirst for its oil decreases, Saudi Arabia has pivoted more forcefully to Asia to find alternative markets. Increasing Chinese consumption and falling production make it an attractive substitute. Thus, China, along with the rest of Asia, represents Saudi Arabia's oil market of the future. And as with Russia, the growing economic interdependence is driving political cooperation at the highest level between Riyadh and Beijing.
To be clear, even though U.S. dependence on oil from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East has fallen, that does not mean that it is losing significant interest in maintaining stable energy production in the region. Any crisis in the Middle East that would reverberate through the global economy would bring the United States – which is deeply tied to the global financial system – down with it. Beyond 2030, however, even this could shift as alternative energy sources, electric vehicles and battery technology continue to alter the structure of energy geopolitics.
Toward a Multipolar World
After the Cold War ended, the United States was left standing as the global system's dominant power. But with China's emergence, that is evolving into a more multipolar structure, and the United States has, naturally, refocused its attention on countering its rising rival. This includes not only economic competition – as the trade war represents – but also shifting its security posture away from places like the Middle East to free resources to manage the burgeoning great power competition.
In fact, it is this shift in focus, especially the U.S. overtures to Iran under President Barack Obama, that concerns the Saudis the most. For Obama, striking the nuclear deal with Iran meant reducing the risk that yet another Middle Eastern conflict would draw in the United States. But for Saudi Arabia, the deal meant losing its close U.S. support in its campaign against its regional nemesis. With a new administration in the White House came a shift in U.S. attitude back toward more hostile relations with the Islamic republic. Over the next two decades, however, the prospect of at least a partial normalization with Iran will present a tantalizing option for U.S. presidents as national priorities continue to change.
The new normal of relations with the United States will present a difficult adjustment for most regional powers like Saudi Arabia. Absent an emerging need, Riyadh may find itself filling a lesser role in the grand U.S. strategy than it has for nearly a century. Saudi Arabia's increasing economic interconnectivity with China and Russia may also mean that soon, for the first time since that initial meeting between FDR and King Abdulaziz, the kingdom may find itself dropping down the list of U.S. strategic partners.
Unlike U.S. relationships with allies that possess a similar set of values, Saudi-U.S. ties at their core are based on pragmatism.
A Relationship that Bends but not Breaks
Even if Saudi importance in the eyes of the United States declines, their relationship would not necessarily reach a breaking point, but it would certainly become more volatile. Status as a less important partner would mean that the amount of political capital a U.S. president would be willing to invest in Saudi Arabia will decline, both domestically and internationally.
But perhaps the biggest consequence for Saudi Arabia over the next two decades will be the likely inevitability that Tehran and Washington will one day reach some form of understanding. A strategic reversal on Iran would make sense for the United States on several levels as the global picture changes. For one, Iran would be more inclined to cooperate with the United States and India in South and Central Asia, particularly as Pakistan and China's cooperation on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor deepens. In the short term, progress on the U.S.-Iran relationship is likely to be minimal, but significant generational shifts in both countries will bring to power additional political leaders whose views are not as colored by the immediate events surrounding the Islamic Revolution and subsequent U.S.-Iran hostage crisis. U.S. detente with Iran would allow Tehran to consolidate the regional gains it has made in places like Iraq, meaning that the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony would likely increase.
The potential decline of the U.S. role as a security guarantor will continue to force Riyadh to diversify its relationship with the other power poles in the global system. This is already happening in the area of weapons sales. Saudi Arabia is trying to build an indigenous defense industry, and while the United States is reluctant to include the technology transfer rights that would accelerate that process in its arms deals with the kingdom, China and Russia are more than willing to do so. That said, there are significant limitations to how far and how quickly Saudi Arabia can diversify away from U.S. weapons suppliers. Nevertheless, a Saudi turn toward U.S. rivals will certainly alienate Washington, as happened with a drone factory that China built in Saudi Arabia to serve the local market.
Another key area to monitor will be how Saudi Arabia moves forward with its nuclear energy ambitions. It has been negotiating with the United States, China, Russia and others over the construction of nuclear power plants in the country. But the kingdom has demanded that much of the fuel enrichment and reprocessing cycle remain under its control, an idea that has not sat well with Washington over concerns that it could allow Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons. But if the United States is unwilling to budge on its position, Saudi leaders will certainly consider a deal with China or Russia, which may not adhere to the same standards.
The kingdom's human rights record is also likely to increase the distance between Saudi Arabia and the West. The outcry against the Saudi war in Yemen and Khashoggi has been growing in the U.S. Congress. But no real change in Saudi behavior can be expected as long as oil prices remain low and the kingdom continues to struggle to implement long-term economic reform under Saudi Vision 2030. That means that as the U.S. need for a close relationship with Saudi Arabia declines, Washington's responses to such issues are likely to become increasingly harsh.
While the Saudi-U.S. relationship is not destined to crash, it will grow increasingly rocky over the next two decades as the imperatives that brought them together continue to change. The countries will continue to cooperate on key issues, especially if resurgent transnational terrorist groups like Islamic State or al Qaeda target the West, again derailing the U.S. pivot to Asia. But in the end, the Saudi-U.S. relationship will always be defined by mutual interests, not mutual values. That means that as the global system evolves to a place in which neither needs as much from the other, their friendship is unlikely to be as steadfast.