Muhammed bin Salman, the blood-boltered Crown Prince and effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, is visiting London this week. We can expect the usual fawning by the British establishment—including its feeble Labour wing.
The Tony Blair Institute confirmed last month that it still takes money from MBS, as he’s known. That’s despite accusations by the United States that MBS was responsible for the abduction and murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi.
But the relationship between the Saudi absolute monarchy and the US isn’t what it used to be. This isn’t because Joe Biden threatened to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” when he campaigned for the presidency.
It’s much more about economics and geopolitics. The Saudis and their fellow tyrants in the United Arab Emirates are resentful that the US didn’t defend them sufficiently against the 2011 Arab revolutions, or against their chief regional rival, the Islamic Republican regime in Iran.
Saudi Arabia also began to draw closer to Russia under Vladimir Putin. By intervening in the Syrian civil war, Russia re-established itself, as it had been during the Cold War, as a power-broker in the Middle East.
More fundamentally, however, the link is about energy. Saudi Arabia and Russia are two of the three top oil and gas producers. Their main rival is the US thanks to the explosive growth of firms extracting oil from shale.
Saudi Arabia and Russia are partners in the OPEC+ cartel, and the biggest importer of Saudi-produced energy is now China. So when Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February last year, the Saudis didn’t rush to join the US’s efforts to brigade its allies against Russia. Instead, we’ve seen what amounts to a diplomatic revolution.
First China brokered the restoration of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Then last month both states, along with other important Southern powers—Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the UAE—joined the Brics—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
This doesn’t mean the Saudis have broken with the US. They continue to depend heavily on the Pentagon’s military might for their security and US-supplied weapons systems. And the Brics countries are very unlikely to congeal into a coherent alliance.
But MBS is clearly determined to manoeuvre between the US, China and Russia. A Saudi commentator told the Financial Times newspaper, “There’s no going back. Saudi Arabia will not give up the bridges it has built with the Global South, with Russia or China, because those are integral to the functioning of the Saudi economy and to the kingdom’s long term market needs.”
The immediate conflict with the US is likely to come over the oil price. Saudi Arabia and Russia have announced production cuts designed to push it up to $100 (£80) a barrel. This is very bad news for Biden, who is running for re-election next year.
The cost of living crisis is likely to loom large. Petrol prices at the pump are always a big deal electorally in the US, and they have already risen by a quarter this year. Donald Trump, who despite everything is still the main Republican challenger, said recently, “We’re going to drill, baby, drill… We’re going to get the energy prices way, way down.”
But MBS needs a higher oil price to fund his Vision 2030 modernisation programme. According to Raad Alkadiri of the Eurasia Group, “The reality is that the Saudi budget and MBS’s long-term ambitions is going to require oil around $85 or higher. Projects like [the new city] Neom don’t get built on $70-a-barrel oil.”
He adds, “The Saudis don’t have a lot of friends in Washington right now. There’s absolutely the risk that they start to become ‘Exhibit A’ if Washington wants to blame someone for high pump prices or a slowing economy again.”
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, backs “regular engagement with the Saudis”. But warns the “ultimate metric” for judging Biden’s success would be “the price of a gallon of gas for the American consumer”. MBS’s relationship with the US will stay stormy.