U.S.-Saudi relations of late are in a downturn. While Washington and Riyadh are not going to become adversaries anytime soon, each is focusing more on its own short-term interests. These factors, coupled with the stress placed on both governments in managing the impact of COVID-19, has led to a low-point that will likely last well into next year. Two issues have contributed to the decrease in amity. The first is in the area of regional security policy – specifically Washington’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran, and related weapons sales. The second is the collapse in oil prices as a result of the Saudi increase in crude oil supply during April when COVID-19 crushed global oil demand. Today, we focus on the security issue.
Washington has been counting on Saudi Arabia to help it keep up its maximum pressure campaign against Iran. One of Riyadh’s major contributions to this campaign has been its fight against Iranian proxies in Yemen. With Saudi Arabia seeking peace in Yemen, Washington could lose a state proxy through which it can pressure or bleed Tehran.
More directly, from a domestic political perspective, the Trump administration has touted arms sales to Saudi Arabia as an American jobs program. Sales of large platforms – ships and planes – take many years to negotiate and conclude. However, sales of munitions – bombs and missiles – that were used at a rapid rate at the height of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen, represented an ongoing flow of money into the American defense industry. Without a war, and with the budgetary contraction brought on by COVID-19 and the oil price collapse, Saudi Arabia cannot be counted on to support weapons purchases and American jobs.
On the flip side, weapons sales to Saudi Arabia have come under more scrutiny with the firing of the Inspector General at the State Department amid word that he had been investigating arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The story is that the investigation was questioning the legality of an “emergency declaration” that the administration issued last year to get around Congressional restrictions on sales to Saudi Arabia. This revelation is likely to increase friction between Congress and the administration over any future sales.
Recent news reports also indicate that the U.S. is pulling Patriot air and missile defense batteries out of the kingdom. Those extra forces were sent to Saudi Arabia after the Iranian missile and drone attack on Saudi oil facilities. This withdrawal likely has several compounding explanations. First, intelligence could show that Iran – also struggling with COVID-19 – is not considering further escalation against Saudi Arabia at this point. Second, U.S. Patriot batteries are a high-demand, low-density asset, and keeping them deployed in the harsh desert conditions of the kingdom would reduce their availability and readiness for other contingencies. The U.S. Defense Department is highly focused on what it terms “great power competition” against China and Russia, and it is seeking to reduce its deployment and profile in the Middle East to free up resources and assets for this long-term competition. Finally, Saudi Arabia possesses its own air and missile-defense capabilities – including its own Patriot batteries. In the time between the Iranian strike and now, it is very likely that Saudi military leaders, in consultation with the United States, have analyzed the Iranian attack and readjusted and improved Saudi Arabia’s own defenses.
None of this indicates that there is a deep and irreparable rift between the United States and Saudi Arabia. It does, however, show that the leadership in each state is deeply concerned about its domestic situation and that the bilateral relationship may not be as valuable to either side, as it has been in the past