I recently took part in a forum that discussed the strained Saudi-US relations.
In the event, organized in AlUla by a think tank, American and Saudi figures discussed in a rather frank atmosphere several diplomatic, military, economic, technological, and cultural aspects of bilateral ties.
I am not at liberty to disclose details of this closed convention, but I will allow myself to share this one simple but significant declaration: “Saudi Arabia today is not the Saudi Arabia of five years ago; nor is the US today the same US it was yesterday. And yet, the Saudi leadership and the Democratic Party are staying with us.”
When facts are clear, emotional debates on historical relations and interests give way to realistic and fruitful discussions.
Not all the factors that drove the two governments to review the ties that bind them were negative. Some stemmed from the necessity of bilateral relations in the service of higher interests. Losing the special relation with Washington is not conducive to the Kingdom’s demise – that much is clear. This fallacy is disproved by nearly a century of stable Saudi leadership. The relations with China are not emotional ones, either. They’re based on interest, on buying and selling oil, cars, phones, and others.
Even if the bilateral relations hit a slump, Saudis will still enjoy American Netflix movies regardless of politics. China will seek to protect its trade routes and petroleum zones through its diplomats or perhaps its warships in the future, as did the Portuguese, British, and Americans in the past in their bids to protect their trade routes in our region.
I believe our dispute is past the stage of danger. The divorce with Washington is past us; now, our focus is on transparent, honest talks to restructure our relations.
On our part, our mistake was setting high expectations on the history of our bilateral relations and our ability to build on them. Surely, ours was a vital and successful relationship that served both countries for decades.
There was oil partnership, confronting communists around the world, repelling Baathists, liberating Kuwait, development projects, the scores of university graduates, and massive trade. But things were not always smooth. There were at times political differences, expulsions of diplomats, military disappointments, and media altercations.
Our history goes way back, but today we open a new page, and I believe the coming chapters will be better than the last seven decades.
But can there be a “strategic” relationship with the US without oil? After all, this was Washington’s target when it infiltrated the region. Does the relationship exist if Riyadh no longer plays its Cold War-era role in the face of Washington's rivals?
The coming days will show that there is opportunity for developing strong ties without oil and without Cold War alliances. Saudi Arabia is repositioning itself as a global economy with regional and international influence. Riyadh’s growing sway will restore its importance as a political and economic partner.
The relation between Riyadh and Washington has gone from unrest to relative stability during the terms of the last three US Presidents. Under Obama, Saudi Arabia was treated with negligence and underestimated, as was the entire region, no longer serving a strategic purpose for the US in Obama’s eyes. When Trump arrived in the White House, he had the courage to establish strong dealings with Riyadh, but those were not under the umbrella of a state strategy. Biden has largely followed in Trump’s footsteps and is currently establishing a long-term framework for the bilateral ties.
For Washington, Saudi Arabia was synonymous with oil. Today, the Kingdom is cementing its role as an economic global power, while continuing to capitalize on its other gains: its unmatched role in the Islamic world, its vital geopolitical status, its stability in a turbulent region, and the crucial role that oil plays in global politics and economy and will still play for another quarter of a century at the very least.
Both sides have clear visibility of the challenges ahead. The US cannot buy the 2 million barrels of oil per day that China does. Nor can Riyadh ignore the superpower that dominates the world with its military prowess, currency, and technology. The Americans are well aware of Saudi Arabia’s development plans and what the Kingdom will look like in a decade.
Are we witnessing a revitalization of bilateral relations in the midst of the global race looming before us? It surely seems like it.