President Biden is reportedly due to meet with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman next month. This will be his first meeting with MBS, as well as his first trip to the Middle East, as president. And it comes as the United States needs help with oil production and in handling the Ukraine crisis.
Although Saudi Arabia struck a cooperative tone in anticipation of the visit — boosting oil production and extending its truce with the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen — the success of Mr. Biden’s meeting should also be viewed from the perspective of his approach to the Gulf monarchies since the start of his presidency.
Mr. Biden has taken several actions that have undermined U.S. diplomatic relations with key Gulf nations to levels not seen since the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s.
His administration released a report shaming the Saudi government’s humanitarian record, delayed an arms deal to the UAE, and, in early 2022, designated Qatar — a rival to Saudi Arabia and the UAE — as a “major non-NATO ally.” Recently, the Biden administration insulted Saudi Arabia by nominating a civil servant as ambassador instead of the customary prestige of a political appointment.
It was therefore not surprising when, just three months ago, the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE snubbed Mr. Biden’s plea for his first request to help offset mounting energy supply constraints as part of a broader effort by Western leaders to hold Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine.
It was a critical ask. After all, Saudi Arabia is the world’s second-largest producer of crude oil, and the UAE ranks among the top 10 producers of oil and natural gas. In a world in which hydrocarbons comprise 84% of the global energy mix, relations between leading suppliers cannot be overlooked, particularly when foreign policy leverage is needed to counter the world’s third-largest producer — Russia.
Saudi Arabia, much like other regional players, is undergoing a substantial transformation, with admittedly still much further to go on the path toward a free and open society. It has also grown into a major economic player in the region, as recent reforms have paved the way toward diversifying its economy.
Although Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s war in Yemen is not without its problems, the threat they face from the Houthis is real and the Biden Administration appears to have downplayed it in its effort to woo the Houthis’ patron, Iran. Indeed, the former head of Saudi intelligence, Turki al-Faisal, publicly criticized Mr. Biden for not coming to Saudi Arabia’s defense when Iran-backed Houthis recently attacked. It is no insignificant point that both our Gulf allies and Israel are aligned (independent of U.S. encouragement) in their view of the Iranian threat.
We must also recognize the critical role of our Gulf allies in global energy security. The United States, for instance, despite having attained energy independence in 2019, is itself not fully insulated from the impacts of global supply disruption — a fact that has been repeatedly demonstrated. One need only look to the aftermath of Iran’s drone strike on Saudi crude oil production facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, which took more than 5% of global supply offline.
The role of Gulf allies as leading energy producers is also essential for the future energy security of European nations, particularly as they seek to sever their dependence on Russian energy supplies. Despite the “green” rhetoric, demand for oil and petroleum products will continue well into the foreseeable future. Our Gulf allies recognize this, and it’s time we do too.
Anticipating America’s withdrawal, our partners in the Middle East have long been hedging between America and its adversaries, and today are actively looking elsewhere for partners. Last summer, Saudi Arabia signed a military agreement with Russia. China has also seized on America’s neglect, and is establishing its own defense and economic relations with Saudi Arabia, including helping build Saudi ballistic missile capabilities, and deepening its energy trade for the foreseeable future. Similarly, the UAE and Egypt have embraced Chinese investment in their defense industry.
Our allies in the Middle East have demonstrated time and again that they don’t need us to advance their security and interests in the region, but the same does not hold for America. Over the course of the last administration, they have demonstrated a willingness to respond.
Advancing American interests requires consistent engagement with all our allies — both when the going is good and when the going gets tough — and the Biden administration would be wise to wake up to this fact.
• Sam Buchan served as the director of international economic policy at the National Economic Council. He is currently the director of the Center for Energy Independence at the America First Policy Institute. Jacob Olidort served in the Office of Vice President Mike Pence and, previously, as foreign policy advisor to two U.S. senators. He is currently the director of the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute.