Bin-Salman’s ‘defiance’ of the US
Is the Saudi crown prince playing the oil card to force Biden to ‘de-pariah’ him?
By journalistic standards, The Atlantic magazine’s much-publicised interview with Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Muhammad Bin-Salman was disappointing. It was dull and deficient and contained little new information. It was also a one-way street — in the prince’s direction — with the interviewer acting more like an admiring audience. He missed a golden opportunity to seek answers readers were awaiting on many issues: from the Yemen war and details of the Khashoggi murder to relations with Iran and Israel (and the secret talks with the latter), not to mention the Ukraine crisis and Saudi Arabia’s strained relations with the US.
The most important part of the interview was when Bin-Salman issued a veiled threat to President Joe Biden, a rare and bold act of defiance which has not been seen in the Saudi-US relationship for decades: specifically since Saudi Arabia led the Arab oil embargo against the US and the West after the October 1973 war.
Bin-Salman effectively told his interviewer that he does not care that Biden ignores and refuses to speak to him. He hinted Saudi Arabia might reduce its $800 bn worth of investments in the US and implied that the US that needs Saudi Arabia more than the other way round — ‘advising’ the US president to look after his own country’s interests, and that these lie with the fast-growing Saudi economy.
It is worth recalling the time when Saudi-American relations hit their all-time-low in October 1973. Arab oil producers decided at an emergency meeting in Kuwait to halt all oil exports to the US and Europe in support of the offensive launched by Egypt and Syria to regain their territories that Israel had occupied six years previously. The move was in retaliation for their support for Israel and the US mounting an airlift to supply it with more weapons and granting it an extra $2.3 bn to stave off bankruptcy and defeat.
It was a historic moment of Arab unity. UAE President Sheikh Zayed declared at the time that “Arab oil is not dearer than Arab blood,” and Algeria’s Houari Boumediene flew to Moscow and committed to pay for any extra weaponry Syria or Egypt might need.
When US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger hurried to Riyadh to get the urge King Faisal to lift the embargo, he was deliberately received in a tent in the desert. The Saudi monarch famously greeted him by saying his people were prepared to go back to living in tents on dates and camel’s milk if they had to. He told his guest it was his dearest wish to pray in a liberated al-Aqsa mosque before he died, and that there would be no peace or stability until Israel quit the occupied territories and the US stopped supporting it. Faisal’s defiance of the US ended up costing him his life.
That is not to draw parallels between Faisal and Muhammad Bin-Salman. There is absolutely no room for comparison there at all. But it is worth recalling those times amid the fast-moving changes taking place in and around the kingdom at present, and the choices they present to its current ruler.
There is a simmering crisis in Saudi-US relations, ostensibly about oil. Bin-Salman turned down a request made by Biden to his father, King Salman, to disengage from Russia and produce additional quantities of oil in order to drive down prices, turn up pressure on the Russian economy, and ease the impact of the Ukraine crisis on the economies of the US and Europe. The prince not only refused, but even called President Putin to offer his services as a possible mediator.
This is the first time in decades Saudi Arabia has turned down such a request from the US. Its only reaction so far seems to have been to cancel an appearance by the Saudi oil minister at an energy conference Houston. The US administration has been too busy dealing with Ukraine to respond more purposefully, and there’s little or no sign of any contact between Washington and Riyadh these days.
So the questions remain unanswered: Can the US forgive its historical strategic ally’s defiance as oil prices continue to skyrocket? Is an unprecedented period of tension looming in US-Saudi relations? Did the interview with The Atlantic mark a turning-point?
Or is it more personal than that? Will that defiance melt away once Biden — who is now reported to be considering a visit to Riyadh — makes amends with Bin-Salman, stops treating him as a ‘pariah’, and goes along his plans to assume the throne?