US-Saudi Relations Between Regional Interests and the Ukrainian War Ramifications


Sat, 02-04-2022 09:08 PM, Aden

Nancy Zidan (South24) 

The American-Saudi relationships have been always described as “close" and "rooted" due to the entanglement of interests regionally and internationally. The most consolidating axis for this relationship is the historical 1974- Agreement which provides Saudi oil in return of Washington's security guarantees. However, what has emerged at both regional and international arenas suggests the end of  the close relationship stage and the beginning of a tense one.. This is largely attributed to the growing American deviation from securing the Saudi interests as the White House suspended an arms deal with  Riyadh, removed the Houthis from the terrorist list and suspended the US support of the Arab Coalition operations in Yemen.(1) This is related to an unannounced American intention to shift the US interests away from the Middle East towards Asia and South China Sea where there is Chinese domination.

These have led to a Saudi decision not to increase oil production since October 2021 despite the rise in the global demand, especially in Europe and the US. The KSA is the world’s top oil producer and the equivalent member of Russia in “OPEC Plus”. Despite many updates related to oil production at the international level, the kingdom insisted on its decision.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine and its growing repercussions have changed all international cooperation equations and the forms of alliances between countries in the international arena. The American Saudi relationships are the most important equation which suffers from much disorder currently and in the near future. This paper explores the most significant prospects of the events and formulates an analysis that enables us to understand the back stages of the Saudi-American relationships, the Iranian nuclear deal, the form of forces and the effective influence in the region in the short and the long terms. 

Features of the Saudi recognition of the American abandonment

The Saudi policies in the era of Prince “Mohammed Bin Salman” can be described as being “agile” and “quick positioning” in a way that aligns with the facts in reality and enhances the Saudi sovereignty. The kingdom realized the fluctuation of the American interests, under the Biden Administration, towards the Arab part of the Middle East. Riyadh devoted its efforts to reunite the Arab Gulf states with serious steps. Since 2014, the kingdom has followed a plan to strengthen its strategic influence along with its regional range through supporting its influence in Sudan and Eritrea. 

Moreover, in 2015, Riyadh, along with Abu Dhabi, established military points in Djibouti and Eritrea in addition to the military bases in the Horn of Africa region. Later ,the Saudi-led Arab Coalition forces deployed in Perim Island at the entrance of the Red Sea. Thus, the Gulf States, led by the KSA, have been able to formulate more remarkably independent and strict foreign policies than before.  They developed strategies which have integrated commercial and security features in the region, designed to guarantee a leading role. (2) They also decided to regulate their military forces under the so-called “Unified Military Command" which takes Riyadh as its main headquarters. 

The US intelligence revealed that the KSA developed Al-Watah Missile Base which includes facilities for the production and testing of ballistic missile engines with the help of China. Beijing also helped Riyadh in 2020 to build Its own uranium enrichment plant near Al-Ula with the tacit approval of the Trump Administration. (3)

The Saudi influence outside the American umbrella

Over the past few weeks, the KSA took consecutive steps in light of the exacerbation of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. The most influential of those moves on the global geopolitical scene is the KSA-China talks to accept Yuan in oil sales. This deal could end the prominent powerful position of the US dollar which is derived from the "Petrodollar" principle, as 80% of global oil sales use the dollar. (5)

The US seeks an alternative to huge amounts of Russian oil as it imported more than 20.4 million barrels per month in 2021.(6) The US decided not to import Russian oil and the Biden Administration issued directions for increasing local oil production(7). The US has huge deposits of shale oil but the massive financial and environmental costs obstruct the possibility of relying upon it. This pushed the US to seek for other alternatives to cover the American oil demands including Iran, Venezuela, and the KSA, the richest oil source which the US lost as an important strategic ally. (8)

The US-coordinated visit made by British PM, Boris Johnson to Riyadh failed to create space of positive understandings with the Saudi Arabian and its Emirati ally about the increase of oil production.(9) Even The Saudi Foreign Ministry was quick to deny news about arrangements by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to visit the kingdom in the near future. (10) This denotes the Saudi unwillingness to receive any official American visits.

This should not make us ignore the US silence towards the Saudi death sentences against several people accused by terrorist crimes which targeted the KSA security. There have been American reservations in making official comments about that. This was clear in a daily press briefing by Ned Press, spokesperson for the US State Department. (11) The death sentences undoubtedly would have been listed under the Biden Administration human rights category in different timing and facts on the ground as the US and the European arenas witness a need for securing abundant oil sources.

It is important to highlight the statements made by Mohammed Bin Salman in his interview with the American newspaper, “the Atlantic '', about his lack of interest towards Biden’s views in the kingdom's policies. He was keen to show that the KSA has a free vision in both internal and external policies in a way that serves the Saudi interests. Moreover, the Saudi Crown Prince crystallized the concept that the KSA currently acts as an field of opportunities which could be enjoyed by the East if the Americans fail to exploit them, in a reference to China which has growing trade military, and of course political ties with Saudi Arabia. (12) The kingdom invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Riyadh in an attempt to boost relationships with Beijing. The specialty of such a visit increases by being the first external visit made by Xi since the beginning of Civic-19 Pandemic. It is scheduled to be after the month of Ramadan which begins in April. Likewise, a Saudi official said that “the Crown Prince and Xi are close friends and both of them understand that there are massive possibilities for stronger ties. It is not limited at buying oil from us and buying weapons from them”. (13)

Reviewing the economic side shows the development and the depth of cooperation relationships between China and Saudi Arabia which is the biggest trade partner for Beijing in West Asia and the Middle East. Since 2011, China also replaced the US as the biggest trade partner for the KSA. The mutual trade volume between them reached 69.1 billion$ in 2014, while it was 10.3 billion dollars in 2004. The KSA is still the China’s biggest crude oil provider, as it imported 49.67 million tons of crude oil to China in 2014. (14)

On the other hand, in light of the nature of the international relationships based on mutual interests, the KSA signed an agreement with American company "Lockheed Martin" in early March to manufacture parts of THAAD air defense missile system inside the kingdom to enhance its military capabilities as part of a project for “Localizing the manufacture of interceptor missile launchers, as well as manufacturing missile containers locally” whose budget reached 8 billion Saudi riyals(2.1 billion $) in cooperation with the “Saudi Limited Lockheed Limited” which is the local branch of the American mother company. This is one of the projects to localize THAAD.

Moreover, the KSA announced signing 22 agreements with local and international companies specialized in the military and defense industries, seeking to increase allocations for military equipment and services from 11.7% by the end of 2021 to over 50% in 2030. (15)

The Gulf diplomatic visions between the Yemen crisis and the Iranian nuclear file

A comprehensive vision regarding different growing events shows a remarkable Saudi-led Gulf move along with an Omani mediation. The GCC considered inviting the Iran-backed Houthis and other Yemeni parties to hold negotiations in Riyadh in March as part of an initiative to support peace efforts, led by the UN in conjunction with the beginning of wide-scale unconditional consultations in Amman by the UN Envoy, Hans Grundberg. He met with representatives for Yemeni parties and the STC. (16) This move is considered a new start for the KSA and Gulf states approach towards the Yemeni crisis. It seems this is motivated by the realization that it is inevitable for Gulf states to address their problems inside the Gulf-Gulf circle without American or Western supervision. 

This understanding is consistent with the KSA’s moving away from the US umbrella. Meanwhile, the visit by Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad to the UAE is connected with this, since Abu Dhabi serves as the KSA and the Gulf diplomatic wing. The visit comes at the same time of the Gulf arrangements for the regional papers. The UAE, in particular, is more suitable to receive Bashar as the visits and contacts between the two sides, even in secret, have not stopped in addition to the strong personal relationships between the leaders of the two countries. (17) This matter confirms the new Gulf strategy, led by the KSA, with the intention to manage the regional files, the formation of influence and interests equations away from the US. We can’t ignore the statements made by the US Department of State about “deep feelings of disappointment and upset towards Bashar Al-Assad’s visit to the UAE”. (18) There is a notable statement by Kissinger in which he said: ““The Arabs can't make war without Egypt; and they can't make peace without Syria”.

This scene draws for us a new start of the Gulf influence regionally. The triple meeting between Egyptian President Abdulfattah El-Sisi, UAE Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed and Israeli PM, Naftali Bennett, in Sharm El-Sheikh came at the midst of the accelerated events. An Egyptian Presidency’s statement pointed out that the leaders discussed the stability of the energy market, food security and other international issues without any mention of cooperation with Iran in light of the last moment’s negotiations about its nuclear deal. However, the summit timing aims at presenting a unified front against the Western moves to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, and expressing dissatisfaction towards the US decision to remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) from the terrorist list. Additionally, Israel may seek for playing a mediation role to convince the UAE and Saudi Arabia to pump more oil. (19)

It is worth mentioning that “Ned Price '' welcomed the meeting between the three leaders, adding that the US will continue to support the “Abraham Accords “, and considered the meeting a way for more normalization between Arab-Islamic worlds and Israel. The meeting could be one for the US for slowing down giving guarantees to Iran to complete the nuclear deal. (20) The US delivered huge concessions to Tehran to reach a deal. This inludes written American guarantees to both Russia and Iran that any US sanctions don’t affect the relationships between the two states and their mutual dealings. (21) Russia is about to invest 10 Billion $ to establish some stages of nuclear reactors in the Iranian city of Bushahr. (22) The latest of those guarantees is negotiating about Tehran request to remove the IRG from the terrorist list.(23) In return, Tehran will be obliged to reduce escalation in the region. However, talking about this strongly upset Israel. The US attempted to calm the situation by statements that the IRG will remain in a detached terrorist list and will be subjected to several other sanctions.(24) It seems that the US will succumb to the Iranian demand and made the sanctions against IRG leaders and not against the whole entity similar to what it did with the Houthis. 

The declaration reveals the secret behind the continuous bombings by Houthis (Iran’s arm) of Saudi cities using ballistic missiles and drones (25) and also behind the IRG’s attack against Erbil in Iraq using 12 ballistic missiles. (26) Those attacks aimed to increase pressure against the US to accept the Iranian demand and remove the IRG from the terrorist list. On the other hand, observers believe that the Iran-backed Houthi attacks against Saudi oil facilities were incited by the US In response to Saudi Arabia’s decision not to increase oil production, especially since the Houthis target Saudi sites on successive days and not one day as usual. This denotes qualitative support by using drones and weapons and suggests there was an American intervention higher than the degree of Iranian finance. 

In this regard, there are remarkable statements by senior American officials that the Biden Administration sent a big number of “Patriot” interceptor anti-missiles in February 2022. Furthermore, officials said that the US is looking forward to more Saudi oil to reduce the crude oil prices. However, Patriot interceptor missiles have not solved all the relationship tensions.

Finally, the degree of the entanglement between the regional and international parties is clear. We are in the beginning of a different stage of the geopolitical history in the region. The revival and the support of relationships with Syria are as important for the KSA and the Gulf as the revival of the Iranian nuclear deal for the Biden Administration. The nuclear deal developments are watched closely by Saudi Arabia to ensure how serious the Iranian intentions are towards the Gulf states. Therefore, the Saudi-Iranian negotiation tours were suspended several times.

Syria and its President, who is backed by Russia and Iran, is the winning card in the diplomatic mediation between Iran and the Gulf, in addition to the Saudi and Iranian arrangements with Russia and China. Meanwhile, the KSA will maintain its suspicion and doubts towards Iran as long as the latter keeps supporting its regional arms in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Additionally, the current indicators suggest that Russia and China could be more stable and guaranteed for the KSA than the USA as they are the allies who supervise the Iranian activities. 

Researcher in political science and media analysis
Photo: The Then US Vice President Joe Biden offers his condolences to the then Saudi Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz after the death of his brother, the then Saudi Crown Prince, Sultan bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh, The KSA, October 27th 2011 (Source, AP, Hassan Ammar). 

[1] How Biden Lost Saudi Arabia, March 18, 2022
[2] Nancy Talal Zeidan, The Gulf of Aden and Bab al-Mandab: The War of Influence and the Reshaping of Regional Security Paths, October 16th, 2021, “South24
[3] Nancy Talal Zeidan,Iranian Nuclear File: International Minimization and Regional Confrontational Strategy, January 6th, 2022, “South24
[4] Matt Phillips, Saudi Arabia mulls oil sales in Chinese yuan, Mar 18, 2022
[5] Ibid, How Biden Lost Saudi Arabia
[6] Trevor Hunnicutt and Steve Holland, Biden bans Russia oil imports to U.S., warns U.S. Gasoline prices will rise further, Reuters , March 8, 2022
[8] Brittany Cronin, The U.S., a major oil producer, woos other countries to produce more oil, March 18, 2022
[9] UK Prime Minister visits UAE, Saudi Arabia to secure oil flows, Mar 17, 2022
[10] Saudi Arabia denies reports of Blinken visit to kingdom in near future
[13] Monique Beals - Saudi Arabia invites China's Xi to visit Riyadh: report, 03/14/22
[15] Saudi Arabia will locally manufacture parts of the US THAAD air defense missile system
[16] the GCC Plans Talks between the Coalition and the Houthis (Details), 15th March-2022, “South24
[17] Al-Ghad channel, March 19th, 2022
[18] The US comments on Bashar Al-Assad's visit to the UAE, March 19, 2022, (CNN)
[19] Israel's Bennett, UAE Crown Prince and Egypt's Sissi Hold Summit to Boost Ties, Mar. 22 2022
[20] Iran Deal, Ukraine on the Agenda as Israel's Bennett Meets With UAE Crown Prince, Sissi in Egypt, Mar. 23, 2022
[21] Russia says it has written guarantees on Iran nuclear deal, 16 march2022
[22] Charlotte Lawson,Concessions to Iran, Russia Pile Up in Nuclear Talks
[23] Jacob Magid and TOI staff, US ready to make 'tough decisions' to revive Iran nuclear deal, official says, 19 March 2022
[24] TOI staff, US said to mull nixing Trump's listing of Iran Revolutionary Guards(IRG) as terror group, 16 March 2022
[25] Houthi Militia Continues Targeting Energy Supplies with Iran’s Missiles, Mar 20th, 2022, Al-Arabiya
[26] Iraqi Kurdistan: Iran targeted Erbil with smart war missiles, March 17th, 2022, Al-Hadath TV website

Saudi ArabiaUSUkraineYemeni TruceMilitaryOilDollarsNuclear File