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The Embassy

Saudi Arabia Is No Ally of America

Saudi Arabia
Vladimir Putin met with Crown Prince and Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud.

The Saudi royals were wailing about the prospect of an attack from Iran and America responded. The Biden administration rushed to coddle and comfort members of the absolute royal dictatorship, the world’s most ostentatious throwback to Medieval times.

Reported the Wall Street Journal: “the U.S. Central Command launched warplanes based in the Persian Gulf region toward Iran as part of an overall elevated alert status of U.S. and Saudi forces.” Even if Riyadh did not fabricate the supposed Iranian threat, as seems likely, what about the Saudi air force, furnished at such a great cost by America’s famous merchants of death?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s flyers must have been busy, perhaps taking their friends on joyrides. Riyadh treats expensive warplanes as just another royal pleasure—acquired to allow princely dilettantes to pose as glorious warriors—and a disguised payment to Washington for the presence of US military personnel, who act as bodyguards for the King and courtiers. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, as the heir apparent is known, is but the latest Saudi ruler to see Americans as nothing but the émigré “help,” brought in to deal with dirty jobs beneath the royals’ dignity.

The Crown Prince—who gained the sobriquet “Slice ‘n Dice” after having journalist Jamal Khashoggi murdered and dismembered in 2018—treated President Joe Biden accordingly. The latter abandoned his commitment to human rights and traveled to the Persian Gulf to kiss MbS’ feet. After a very public fist bump between the two, the president begged his host to supply some extra oil to speed the drop in gasoline prices, ostensibly to reduce revenue for Russia, but conveniently before the midterm elections. The Saudis took Biden’s measure and treated him with contempt, denying his claim to have mentioned human rights and then cutting oil supplies. Jimmy Carter was the last US president to be so ostentatiously and publicly humiliated.

Biden huffed and puffed, threatening “some consequences,” only to rush to the royals’ defense. Such was his response. If Biden’s inclination is to do Riyadh’s bidding after being savagely gelded by it, what would he have done had he been treated with respect? Offered the Saudis control of Central Command? Or the Pentagon itself? Unsurprisingly, Biden’s position toward Saudi Arabia has not struck fear in the hearts of authoritarians around the globe.

The US relationship with Saudi Arabia, inaccurately called “one of the most important on the planet,” has consistently put Riyadh’s interests above that of America. The reasons for doing so are difficult to discern.

No doubt, the Kingdom presents trade and investment opportunities and US business executives eagerly attended a Saudi economic conference, nicknamed Davos in the Desert, last month. However, such links do not depend on Washington’s celebrated commitment to the royals’ defense. Good capitalists can do commerce without an alliance.

The Kingdom sells oil, an important good, but not as critical as in years past. Moreover, Riyadh does so for its own benefit, not America’s. Without the resulting revenue MbS couldn’t build his palaces and purchase his yachtschateaus, and other necessities of royal life. A refusal to sell to the US wouldn’t matter since the oil market is global. And total supply would be much greater if the Biden administration had not restricted domestic production, continued sanctions against Iran and Venezuela, and imposed penalties on Russian supplies.

Washington might respond that the last three regimes are odious threats to the peace, but so is Riyadh. According to the group Freedom House, the KSA is more repressive than all three, none of which is known for chopping up regime critics. Although supposedly a US friend, the Kingdom imprisons nearly 100 American citizens, mostly for political offenses. Some of the longest sentences have been imposed in recent months, yet another conspicuous affront to the Biden administration.

The KSA is also aggressive and disruptive. Its war against Yemen has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Saudis funded jihadist insurgents in Syria and Libya, fomenting bloody conflict. Riyadh invited Lebanon’s prime minister to visit, and then detained him; sent troops to back up Bahrain’s dictatorial Sunni monarchy, which rules over a Shia majority; and launched a diplomatic and economic war against Qatar, backed by a threat of military invasion. MbS also is dallying with both Russia, despite its invasion of Ukraine, and China, despite US security concerns. An ally, friend, or partner of America the Kingdom is not.

Although Biden has been nothing but obsequious when dealing with Riyadh, Crown Prince “Slice ‘n Dice” misses the Trump administration, whose officials acted like mob consiglieri, doing their utmost to protect MbS from accountability for his crimes. Hence the Kingdom not only rejected Biden’s request for increased oil supplies but publicized the administration’s request for a delay to push any cuts past the midterm election. The crown prince recognized that though he could neither detain nor dismember the president, he could damage Biden’s political prospects.

The contention of the well-funded Saudi lobby, some of whose members paradoxically claim to defend democracy, is that if successive administrations don’t continue to submissively take Riyadh’s side, treating the Kingdom like the ally it is not, the royals will look for other suitors, most obviously Beijing. Which would turn control of the Middle East over to China, leading to America’s decline, the collapse of the West, and a new Dark Ages descending upon the earth, or a close approximation. It’s a profoundly silly argument, but MbS’s minions augment their case by generously spreading money throughout Washington and far beyond.

The reality is that as the People’s Republic of China grows economically, it will expand its contacts with nations around the world. Most Asian nations, including US treaty allies South Korea and Japan, trade more with the PRC than the US. Continuing to sell out American interests won’t prevent increasing Saudi-China economic relations, soon to be highlighted by a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Riyadh.

As for Beijing taking over defense of the KSA, Washington should beg China to do so. Unfortunately, Xi is committed to his nation’s interests and unlikely to be as solicitous of royal wishes as have successive US administrations. Indeed, the Saudis are unlikely to receive much unconditional love from Beijing, which always seeks something for its exertions on other nations’ behalf, especially one as wealthy as the Kingdom.

Instead of reflexively genuflecting in MbS’s presence, treating Saudi Arabia rather than the US as the superpower, American officials should cancel or suspend plans for expanded military cooperation, such as opening a military testing facility in the Kingdom. They also should suspend new arms sales. To further demonstrate its unhappiness, Washington could halt servicing of existing weapons, threatening to effectively disarm the Saudis.

Another step would be to impose personal sanctions on MbS under the Magnitsky Act and cite Riyadh (and its partner, the UAE) as being state sponsors of terrorism. The royals are much more responsible for murder and mayhem in Yemen than the insurgents, who were labeled terrorists as a final gift by then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to MbS. (Embarrassingly, Washington is a co-conspirator in the commission of such atrocities.) Just announcing the possibility of sanctions would get the attention of Saudi officials.

Ultimately, the two governments should renegotiate their relationship. For instance, Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, argued: “With Mohammed bin Salman at the helm, Saudi Arabia is very determined to assert its autonomy from the US. The leadership in Riyadh has been sending many signals to Washington that the Kingdom will pursue its own national interests as perceived by Saudi officials, which includes deepening cooperation with Beijing and Moscow.”

That is a decision the KSA is entitled to make, but the flip side is that Uncle Sam should stop acting like the Saudis’ indentured servant. To start, Washington should indicate that the US sells weapons to the KSA so that the royals ultimately can defend themselves, not remain dependent on Washington. The Biden administration’s first “ask” should be for Saudi Arabia to release American citizens jailed for activities outside of the Kingdom. Washington cannot dictate internal Saudi policy, but it can insist on fair treatment of its own people.

Next, the US should insist that the KSA halt its attacks on Yemen. MbS launched the invasion not because the Kingdom was under attack, but because he wanted to restore a pliant regime to power. The bungled war—Riyadh has proved to be more incompetent even than Moscow in attacking its neighbor—provided Iran with an Allah-sent opportunity to back the insurgents and bleed the royal forces.

The Saudis created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, launching thousands of airstrikes on weddings, funerals, markets, school buses, and other civilian targets. The blockade has done even greater damage, spreading malnutrition and disease. Perhaps 400,000 people have died, most attributable to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and their “coalition.” Despite expansive US backing—providing aircraft, munitions, servicing, intelligence, and for a time aerial refueling—the Saudis and Emiratis lost ground, split over strategy, and essentially abandoned the nominal government on whose behalf they went to war. These regimes should stop the killing now. No less than Russia, they deserve to be punished for their crimes.

MbS could, of course, refuse Washington. In which case the US should stop fueling Saudi barbarity by allowing Riyadh’s accumulated stock of US-supplied weapons to eventually be idled. Let the Kingdom prosecute the Yemen war on its own without a working air force. Observed the Cato Institute’s Jordan Cohen and Jonathan Ellis Allen, “the evidence suggests that the United States is empowering Saudi Arabia’s inhumane policies in Yemen. It is inconceivable that Saudi Arabia could commit human rights violations to the same level in Yemen without U.S. military support.”

The Biden administration also should endorse Saudi and Iranian efforts to lower the temperature of what looks uncomfortably like a Shia-Sunni religious conflict. America should stay out of the way while the parties seek a solution. Finally, while Washington should encourage Riyadh to improve relations with Israel, the Biden administration should end the bizarre Trump practice of paying Arab governments to cooperate in their own interest.

After two decades of disastrous misadventures attempting to micro-manage the Middle East, it is time for the US to disengage. The place to start is Saudi Arabia, the region’s most malign actor. Instead of cravenly accepting Riyadh’s dismissive treatment, the Biden administration should act on the president’s stated intention to “reevaluate” ties between the US and the Kingdom. Washington should end the monarchy’s exploitative expectations and reset the relationship on America’s terms.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. Bandow is also a Contributing Editor to 19FortyFive. 

Written By

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.



  1. 403Forbidden

    November 10, 2022 at 7:29 pm

    We live in a strange strange world.

    Numerous nations lick & slurp up America’s behind everyday, from Monday to Sunday, arousing America’s growing amorous feelings for every region, place, location, pie and endeavour.

    BUT, American leaders like Biden won’t hesitate even a moment, to slurp up Saudi buttocks and turk ones, too.

    We all indeed live in a very strange world. A strange twisted twilight world of odd realities and corrupted human consciousness.

  2. Gary Jacobs

    November 10, 2022 at 7:41 pm

    I am certainly not here to make major excuses for the Saudis. That said, it is possible to criticize our erstwhile ‘allies’, and understand what we could be doing better from our side to bridge the gaps so they are more likely to side with us on such important matters as oil production cuts.

    As well, The US could be doing more at home to have better energy policy, and a better approach to foreign policy would make it easier to influence ‘allies’ if we dont fumble their main issues.

    A partial list:

    -Saudis and UAE should handle Yemen better to be sure, but Iran and Houthis are largely to blame for the war in Yemen. Biden simply cut off support for Saudi and UAE and went public with blaming them for the humanitarian situation. Near zero quiet diplomancy. Strike 1.

    -Biden largely ignored regional input from our allies on Iran as he tried to restart JCPOA even though Mossad stole Iranian archives proving Iran lied about the military side of their nuke program since day one. Highly recommend The Institute of Science and International Security’s new book ‘Iran’s Perilous Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons’ which chronicles Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons.

    The idea of giving Iran hundreds of billion$ as they spread their malign influence around the region was absurd, is absurd, and will continue to be absurd as long as the Ayatollahs are in charge. Thankfully it fell through, but for a while it really looked like Biden was ready to sing on to another bad deal. Strike 2.

    -Biden shouldn’t hinge policy on Khashoggi
    An objective person does not have to agree with how he was killed to know he was no saint. Khashoggi posted insane anti-Jew conspiracy theories on his own Twitter feed. Frequently. If he had said things like this about any of the ‘protected’ minority groups, he would have been cancelled.

    And that’s before we get to his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, and his past ties to Bin Laden. He may not have been that level of extremist anymore…but once again, he was no saint…and our foreign policy should not be so tied to him. Strike 3.

    -We should have a much better energy policy here at home.
    On the Federal level, Biden should consider telling the Fracking industry that there would be a price floor of $60 per barrel of oil for something like 3-4 years, and something similar on NatGas, that would provide a measure of certainty for an industry that has seen too many boom bust cycles to want to invest big right now. A lot of them are taking profits while they can to pay back investors. A price floor would allow medium term investment in new drilling here at home to bring down the price of oil without relying on OPEC. And he can add in a whole bunch of aid to EVs, Solar, Wind and other clean energy so he can sell it to the left flank of his party. As a pragmatic centrist who hates the oil industry, I’m %100 in favor of that all of the above approach also. Biden also made a HUGE mistake cancelling Keystone XL.

    In my home state of California gas is still over $6/gallon. Our governor could suspend the gas tax and the requirement to blend gas in our state for 2 years, and the price of a gallon would drop by $2 per gallon instantly. That would have a ripple effect bringing down the cost of shipping all other goods. There is no reason other than stupid policy that California has close to double the price of gas as other places. I drove home from Vegas for CES and Edge2022 [formerly known as CES Government] January 8th, 5 weeks before the war…and just across the border of CA to NV the cost of gas was $1.50/gal less. Those stations were less than 5 miles apart. California is %10 of the entire US population, and the 6th largest economy in the world on its own. Stupid policy here has a ripple effect in the entire country. For a state that is supposed to be so progressive the gas tax is the most regressive tax on the books.

    Something else you failed to mention in your article is the Saudis opening the taps in the 80s to bring down oil prices and help undermine the USSR economy. The Saudis helped to end the cold war.

    If we did a better job of managing relations with them, and our own energy policy…they can still be useful going forward while having less leverage on us.

    Furthermore Saudi AND Yemen are right alongside the south end of the Suez Canal, a major shipping lane. You can forget oil all you want. Making sure that area is stable is important to the global economy.

    There is also a growing regional alliance / warm peace brewing as a result of the Abraham Accords. The Saudis may not be signed on yet official, but none of this would be happening without their quiet approval. Peace in the mideast has been the white whale of US foreign policy for years. And there are major global economic implications for it. Just the growing ties between India, UAE, and Israel has Trillion dollar potential. In general it is the outside in approach to peace with the Palestinians and Israelis as well. I could go off on this part of it for days.

    Bottom line: we need to STOP always blaming others for problems we can address here at home….AND have a better understanding of the issues important to our allies so that when we need them to not cut 2Million barrels of production in a coordinated move with Russia…they are more likely to side with us.

  3. TheDon

    November 10, 2022 at 8:10 pm

    Charge the Prince with murder of US citizen.
    Extradite. If they complain, withdraw missile defense and fighter jets.
    Their military sucks.
    Might get some attention.

  4. ljg

    November 10, 2022 at 8:35 pm

    You forget, huge amounts of money flow to those who Kowtow to Riyadh. Any politician who wants to get rich quick will rush to the aid of the Saudi’s any time the Prince whistles for them. This is not just talk, as I have seen Saudi money in action in the past.

  5. Michael Nunez

    November 11, 2022 at 10:41 am

    The Saudies have Played Infidel Biden for what he is , a fool from the word Go ! The Saudies see straight through Biden just like China , North Korea , and every Country in the Middle East . Look at America’s Southern Border to see death and despair , on top of the destruction of ” Trust ” across the US . The Saudies are not the Problem, that belongs to the Infidel called Biden .

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