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Rebalancing US-Saudi relations

James M. Dorsey

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A draft bill in the US House of Representatives that would strip PGA Tour, the organizer of golf’s flagship events, of its tax-exempt status because of its merger with a Saudi-backed rival spotlights the pitfalls of American and Saudi efforts to put relations on an even keel.

So did comments by Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan at the tail end of last week’s visit to the kingdom by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, laying down parameters for the Gulf state’s future engagement with the United States.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Bandar Al-Jaloud / Saudi Royal Palace via AFP - Getty Images

To drive the point home, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomed Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to the kingdom a day before Mr. Blinken’s arrival and phoned Russian leader Vladimir Putin hours after meeting the secretary.

Former US Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller argues that the PGA Tour’s controversial merger with LIV Golf, its US$405 million, 14-tournament league Saudi rival, fits the pattern.

“The message to Washington is unmistakably clear: we’ve got influence even in your own backyard, and you’re not the only game in town,” Mr. Miller said.

“What makes the PGA-LIV deal so intriguing – and potentially threatening – is that (Mr. Bin Salman’s) latest play with golf has taken him directly into America’s backyard, its domestic politics where the Saudi image is still tied in the minds of many Americans to 9/11 and the brutal Khashoggi murder – and where Republicans tend to be more supportive of a strong US-Saudi tie and Democrats suspicious if not hostile,” the former official added, referring to the 2018 killing of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In the ultimate analysis, the US and Saudi jockeying aims to find a new centre of gravity in relations that would replace a decades-old bargain of preferred US access to Saudi oil in exchange for US defence of Saudi Arabia against foreign challenges and Saudi support for US policies.

That bargain needs updating. Oil prices still matter, but the United States, the world's largest producer, no longer depends on Saudi oil imports. In addition, efforts to counter China cast US interests in the Middle East in a different light.

For its part, Saudi Arabia, rejuvenated by Mr. Bin Salman's social and economic reforms and armed with a massive financial war chest, sees an opportunity to chart a more independent course and position itself in an increasingly multi-polar world in which middle powers have greater agency and leverage.

Even so, Saudi Arabia still needs the US military to ensure oil flows from the Gulf, with neither China nor Russia willing or able to take over that role.

As a result, US-Saudi jockeying is an effort to redefine the balance of power in the relationship. In some ways, the jockeying resembles a game of bluff poker designed to test each other’s limits.

"In the Cold War, the US could pretty much count on the Saudis to back its big strategic initiatives. When the Cold War ended, the Saudis didn't have much choice. Now they have choices, The period of American unipolarity is basically over, and the Saudis understand that, and they are seeing other options," said Gulf scholar Gregory Gause.

In one instance of bluff poker, a leaked US intelligence document suggested that Mr. Bin Salman, responding to US anger at his slashing last year of oil production amid high energy prices, threatened that “he will not deal with the US administration anymore.” The document quoted the crown prince as saying there would be “major economic consequences for Washington.”

Outreach since then by senior US officials and Mr. Blinken’s visit have made clear that both sides were eager to pull back from the brink.

Describing the Saudi-US relationship as strategic rather than transactional, Mr. Blinken said, "what we're seeing is an increasing convergence in our partnership to advance in issues of mutual interest to Saudi Arabia, to the United States, and, for that matter, to countries in the region and beyond.”

The secretary insisted that the Biden administration had “been very clear we're not asking anyone to choose between the United States and China. We're simply trying to demonstrate the benefits of our partnership and the affirmative agenda that we bring."

In redefining Saudi Arabia's relationship with the US and its place on the global totem pole, Mr. Bin Salman has cards to play with. He has a clear vision of where he wants his kingdom to be, In contrast, the United States struggles to come to terms with a multi-polar world where it is a less dominant player.

Economics compounded by Saudi Arabia’s oil-based financial muscle work in Mr. Bin Salman’s favour with China replacing the European Union and the United States as the kingdom’s foremost trading partner.

Even so, economic relations with the United States remain significant, with US$55 billion in trade and investment, Saudi defense and aviation orders worth at least $265 billion, a potential acquisition of at least 150 Boeing 737 Max jetliners by the kingdom’s newest state-owned airline, Riyadh Air, and continued Saudi investment in US aerospace and technology companies that include 5G and 6G cellular networks.

Boeing 737 MAX Photo: JASON REDMOND//Getty Images

In comments during Mr. Blinken’s visit, Mr. Bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, stressed that the kingdom had options. Yet, one reading of his remarks suggests that he also acknowledged limits.

Like Mr. Blinken, Mr. Bin Farhan rejected the notion that Saudi relations with the US and China amounted to a "zero-sum game." He insisted that “we are all capable of having multiple partnerships and multiple engagements, and the US does the same in many instances."

Even so, one indication of Saudi Arabia’s ability to balance relationships will be the kingdom’s handling of its peaceful nuclear program plans.

The United States has made support for the program conditional on the kingdom surrendering its rights to enrich uranium at a low level. US opposition is reinforced by fears that the Middle East may head for a nuclear arms race as Iran becomes a nuclear threshold state.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has indicated the importance it attributes to US support for the program by making it one of several conditions for establishing relations with Israel.

"It's no secret that we are developing our domestic civilian nuclear program, and we would very much prefer to be able to have the US as one of the bidders. Obviously, we would like to build our program with the best technology in the world,” Mr. Bin Farhan said.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly suggested that the kingdom and US companies establish a joint entity to manage the kingdom’s nuclear program to alleviate US concerns. The entity would give US companies a direct role in the development and oversight of the program, including the enrichment of uranium in the kingdom.

The Saudi gesture may go a long way toward assuaging US concerns. However, more may be needed to secure Congressional approval to transfer sensitive atomic equipment and materials.

The draft bill to strip golf’s PGA Tour of its tax-exempt status is the latest indication of Saudi Arabia’s reputational deficit in the US Congress.

Saudi Arabia “cannot be allowed to sports wash its government’s horrific human rights abuses,” said California Democrat John Garamendi, the bill's author.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., says knowing yourself is key to running for Congress. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

In effect, Mr. Garamendi put the ball in the Saudi court.

In Saudi Arabia, Mr. Blinken is believed to have pushed for the lifting of a travel ban on a dual US-Saudi national, 72-year-old Saad Ibrahim Almadi, as part of a broader, albeit half-hearted, attempt to persuade the kingdom to improve its badly tarnished human rights record.

Sentenced to 19 years in prison for posting criticism of the government on Twitter when he was in Florida, Mr. Almadi was released in March but forbidden to leave the kingdom.

While rejecting US pressure for greater human rights adherence, Foreign Minister Bin Farhan did not close the door.

"We are always open to having a dialogue with our friends, but we don’t respond to pressure. When we do anything, we do it in our own interests," Mr. Bin Farhan said.

The draft golf bill and comments by other Democratic Congress members suggest that improving human rights is a Saudi interest, given that the kingdom has bigger fish to fry.

In an indication of the gap with Congress that Saudi Arabia needs to bridge, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy recently asserted that “any strategy in the Middle East built upon assuming Saudi Arabia is going to be a constant, reliable partner is destined to fail. The Saudis will work with us sometimes and against us sometimes, and the sooner we realize that, the better."

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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