wo points stand out when assessing the future of US-Saudi relations, at least in the near term. The first is that Saudi and US officials are operating on completely different time horizons, as the Saudi leadership focuses on 2030 and looks ahead to mid-century challenges, which will do much to shape the context in which Mohammed bin Salman will grow older as king. These include issues related to energy transitions around the world and to positioning Saudi Arabia as a not-disinterested player at the table when key global decisions are being made.
vents since February 2022 have accelerated Mohammed bin Salman’s reemergence on the international stage as, ironically, the western isolation of Russian President Vladimir Putin has hastened the political rehabilitation of the crown prince.
when a candidate vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2019, vowed would “pay the price” for killing Khashoggi. Joe Biden has spent most of his subsequent term in office walking back that statement, although he did initially attempt to hold the line at engaging only with Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz as his counterpart as head of state.
Members of the Biden administration briefed analysts about Biden’s visit, saying that it was about securing Saudi support for an increase in oil production that could help reduce gasoline prices and ease cost of living pressures in the United States. However, OPEC+ cut output slightly in September 2022, a decision that was quickly followed by a far greater cut in production one month later.
Both in October 2022 and again in April 2023, when members of OPEC+ announced an additional surprise cut in production in an effort to shore up weakening oil prices, the optics of the Saudi leadership appearing to side with Putin’s Russia and disregarding longstanding points of interest with the United States were visible.
But the reality is that the opposite has happened and he now finds himself reliant on higher oil prices to generate the revenues to finance his expensive giga-projects, such as Neom and the Red Sea development.
In this next phase it is imperative for the crown prince that the giga-projects move into construction and delivery phases to ensure tangible outcomes and visible results by the end of the decade. This is why the other development in Saudi policy over the past year, its détente with Iran, has unfolded, again with lessons for the way Saudi decision-making is assessed and interpreted in Washington. If the giga-projects are to attract the 20 million additional residents and the visitors that Mohammed bin Salman has planned to have by 2030, Saudi Arabia cannot afford to have missiles and rockets slamming into its cities and towns.
The timing of the Saudi-Iran deal (and the fact that it was announced in Beijing) spoke volumes about the divergence of rhetoric and reality in much of the US-centric debate about Saudi Arabia in 2023.
Saudi-Israeli normalization would provide a significant foreign policy boost to the Biden White House, whose other regional priorities when it took office in 2021—reengaging Iran in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and ending the war in Yemen—have seen little progress.
Somewhat counterintuitively given Saudi Arabia’s continuing reliance on revenues from the sale and export of oil, the fact that the broader global transition will happen during Mohammed bin Salman’s lifetime means he has a direct personal stake in navigating a sustainable path forward for Saudi Arabia.
The second pertinent point is that Saudi-US ties appear to be more purely based on a transactional approach shorn of shared mutual geopolitical or other interests such as the “oil for security” basis that was often, but not altogether accurately, said to underpin the bilateral relationship. Ironically, the transactional approach was seen to be a feature of the Trump administration’s unconventional approach to policymaking, and one that initially appeared to resonate with Saudi (and Emirati) officials.
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