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Saudi Arabia:  A Triangle of Nonalignment


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Guardian of global oil markets, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains a key US security ally, even if Washington has recently questioned Riyadh’s reliability and commitment to the rules-based global order. Last October’s Saudi refusal to raise oil production to mitigate the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine irked Washington, creating friction that is unlikely to dissipate soon. Still, Saudi Arabia and the United States are, and will remain, closely linked, even if the relationship is becoming more complex. The Saudi elite’s reading of the emerging order differs from Washington’s. Riyadh’s priority now is to balance its ties with its main security partner, the United States, with those of its main trading partner, China, and its key OPEC+ energy partner, Russia.

Slick Policies

Saudi Arabia holds the second-largest share, or 17%, of the world’s proven crude oil reserves. It is the planet’s biggest hydrocarbon producer, generating 12.4 million barrels per day, on average, in 2020. Saudi economic dependence on oil, which accounts for 87% of the country’s total exports, is evident, and Riyadh’s dominant position in OPEC+ gives it a key role as a gatekeeper of stable global oil supplies and prices.

More than two-thirds of Saudi hydrocarbon exports go to Asia. In 2021, more than a quarter went solely to China, a major investor in state oil company Saudi Aramco. Other Saudi customers include the EU and the United States. They, respectively, import 7% and 5% of their crude oil needs from the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has skillfully leveraged its power over energy markets and raised its geopolitical profile since the outbreak of conflict in Ukraine. The kingdom has maintained Russia as a major source of refined fuels while rebuffing repeated US requests last fall to step up crude production to help keep oil prices and inflation in check. Saudi Arabia, in fact, did the opposite and cut production, triggering US anger and accusations of siding with Russia. Riyadh, citing economic reasons, dismissed the American response and downplayed the geopolitical significance of the move.

Up In Arms

Saudi Arabia relies heavily on the United States for its security, which positions Washington as Riyadh’s indispensable ally. In comparison, Europe’s role in Saudi security is little more than that of a sidekick, although strong bilateral relationships, especially with the United Kingdom and France, provide Saudi Arabia with the international backing and legitimacy it seeks. The wide-ranging defense relationship with the United States includes a mutual defense clause, technical cooperation, and the US air base at Dhahran. Saudi Arabia also acquires 80% of its arms from the United States, making the kingdom Washington’s largest foreign purchaser of military hardware. The United Kingdom and Pakistan are other sources of weaponry. In 2021, Saudi defense expenditures were the world’s sixth-largest and its arms purchases the world’s second-largest. Fully 20.5% of government spending, or 9.2% of GDP, was dedicated that year to the military.

In the wake of the Ukraine war, the US focus in the Middle East has increasingly shifted toward outcompeting Russia and China while countering Iran. Riyadh, for its part, has rekindled its role as the region’s first port of call for global issues. The US discord with Saudi Arabia over Ukraine reflects disappointment that Riyadh is not more closely aligned with Washington’s foreign policy priorities, even though Riyadh has made clear that it tilts toward a more open relationship. In fact, bilateral ties were rocky before the Russian invasion, and not only because Washington and Riyadh interpret alliances differently. Saudi human rights abuses have long been a thorn in the side of the United States. The gruesome 2018 killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and subsequent release of a US intelligence report accusing close associates of Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of the killing significantly damaged ties. The affair, however, ultimately had no lasting consequences, in part because US courts granted him immunity. The crown prince emerged strong and empowered, while the United States again came up short despite its harsh rhetoric on this issue and on the Saudi oil production cut just before the 2022 US midterm elections, which established a new nadir in relations.

Riyadh has also had its reasons for being disgruntled. The lack of a meaningful US response to the 2019 attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities by Yemen’s Houthi rebels were traumatic and revealing, as it tangibly confirmed long-standing anxiety across the Gulf about Washington’s perceived fading concern about and engagement in the Middle East. Shocked that their security patron would let them down after a strike on the heart of their (oil) power, Saudi elites came away from the incident even more convinced that they must reduce their heavy reliance on the United States.

On Ukraine, Saudi Arabia did vote in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion but has since sought to project “active neutrality”. It has had some success doing so. Riyadh has continued cooperating with Moscow, in part through a $500 million investment by Kingdom Holding Co., a Saudi conglomerate, in Gazprom, Rosneft, and Lukoil shortly after the war began. Several months later, the Saudis pledged $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. And, in September 2022, the kingdom demonstrated the advantages of its continued ties with Russia by brokering a deal between the warring parties for the release of prisoners of war, including US and UK citizens. On balance, however, Riyadh’s posture has effectively supported Russia by offsetting the firepower of Western sanctions.

Saudia Arabia Stats

Playing All Sides

Saudi Arabia’s stance reflects a narrative widespread across the Global South that rejects the predominant Western reading of the Ukraine war as battleground zero for the future of the global order. Riyadh sees the conflict as merely European and is unwilling to risk its close relations with Russia over it. Hedging against decreasing US attention on the Middle East and in anticipation of a more nuanced, asymmetrically multipolar world order, Riyadh opts for diversification on all fronts, whether economic, strategic, or military. The kingdom has been pursuing such diversification for a decade, as formally embodied in its Vision 2030 strategy, but the current global landscape now offers more options for flexible, transactional forms of partnership and cooperation. Saudi Arabia is certainly not the only country working to broaden international ties, but the leverage it extracts from its energy resources, especially given the fallout from the Ukraine war, puts the country in the spotlight. At the same time, some interpret Riyadh’s multi-track strategy as a tactic to pressure Washington into a deeper commitment to Saudi security. Riyadh’s recent bombshell agreement, brokered by China, to restore diplomatic ties with Iran is widely interpreted as evidence of Saudi Arabia’s broader geopolitical balancing act and leadership aspirations.

A Saudi economic pivot to Asia is already a reality, but Riyadh contends that it is fully compatible with its security alliance with the United States. The Saudi leadership is aware that Beijing is unlikely to replace Washington as regional security guarantor in the foreseeable future despite China’s expanding trade, technology, and security ties to the Middle East. Beijing is investing heavily in a regional naval presence while its technology firms are winning the race to build 5G networks in the Gulf. Riyadh reportedly signed in 2022 cooperation agreements with Chinese and US technology companies, but the latter required significant US leveraging of its defense cooperation. At the same time, Riyadh has been signaling to the United States, through deliberate snubs, its unwillingness to be coerced into any geopolitical alignment. The lavish reception accorded Chinese President Xi Jinping when he visited in December, which contrasted sharply with Biden’s sober reception the previous July, is evidence of that.

Still, Saudi Arabia’s balancing act and the United States’ inability to follow through on its rhetoric are evidence that, in the current environment, neither country feels it can afford to antagonize the other to a breaking point.

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