President Donald Trump sent a new signal of support to Saudi Arabia on April 16. He vetoed a joint resolution from Congress directing him “to remove U.S. forces from hostilities in or affecting Yemen” within 30 days without Congressional approval for a later withdrawal, a declaration of war, or authorization for a U.S. deployment. However, Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia may not remain as strong as it is today indefinitely. Indeed, substantial differences exist in five areas important to both the White House and the Saudi leadership.
The first is oil. Saudi Arabia’s policy of cutting oil supplies to maintain high oil prices is incompatible with Trump’s priority of keeping prices low. The Saudi policy was prompted by the U.S. decision last year to grant waivers to a number of Iran’s oil buyers and by exceptionally high Saudi budget spending. On April 22, the Trump administration’s decision to end all waivers received Saudi support, which could reverse the kingdom’s policy of cutting the supply of oil.
However, to put an end to any bilateral tensions over oil prices, Saudi Arabia may need to do “more than make up” for Iran’s reduced oil supplies in order to keep prices from increasing. That would depend on Saudi relations with the Trump administration, what the kingdom requires to meet its budget spending, as well as its current arrangement that made OPEC and other leading oil producers, especially Russia, cut their supplies and risk their market share. And as the U.S. has become an oil exporter, this may soon weaken Saudi Arabia’s power over oil prices.
The delay in Aramco’s international public offering was also a bad surprise for American financial and oil institutions. They had expected a more transparent company and had planned multibillion dollar investments in Aramco and the Saudi economy. Other measures have added to tensions. Congress has shared Trump’s dislike of OPEC by reintroducing a NOPEC bill that would make “illegal” Saudi individual or collective actions to control oil production, prices, or trade, making it possible to prosecute Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts. The potential consequences have triggered press reports that the kingdom would stop using dollars in its oil transactions, though the Saudi energy ministry issued a statement refuting this.
Linked to these strains over oil is a second area of U.S.-Saudi divergence. Saudi Arabia has engaged in growing oil interdependence with China, the Trump administration’s principal trade rival. The kingdom has considerably increased its oil exports and investments in China, even as it has reduced its oil production globally. It continues to compete to be the primary supplier of the second largest oil consumer in the world. Indeed, 87 percent of Saudi Arabia’s budget still depends on oil and China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest client.
Reciprocal Saudi-Chinese investments in the energy sector are also incompatible with the Trump administration’s vision for the region’s energy markets. While the U.S. seeks to limit state control over energy sectors in favor of private companies and a free market, Saudi-Chinese cooperation is based on state control. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is becoming a partner in the Chinese Belt and Road initiative because of its centrality to China’s energy resources and trade routes. By being part of a Chinese energy and trade network, Saudi Arabia will be less committed to Washington’s aim of creating an energy network among its Middle Eastern allies.
Other issues have also arisen between Washington and Riyadh when it comes to China. Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with Huawei technologies is at odds with the administration’s campaign directed against the company’s 5G technology. At the same time, Washington’s concern over existing nuclear cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia may become more acute if Congress blocks nuclear cooperation between the United States and the kingdom.
A third source of tension is the Saudi attitude toward Trump’s forthcoming “deal of the century” between Palestinians and Israelis. Purported Saudi support for the plan is unlikely. The Palestinian cause has been the first item in King Salman’s speeches before domestic and regional forums, especially since he dubbed the 2018 Arab summit the Quds, or Jerusalem, summit, in reaction to U.S. recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the unified city. The king has consistently asserted Saudi Arabia’s commitment to a Palestinian state in the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and has “absolutely rejected” the recent U.S. decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
King Salman has also stepped up Saudi contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which cares for Palestinian refugees, to compensate for the United States’ decision to cut funding to the agency. The king hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the eve of the Warsaw ministerial meeting on the future of peace and security in the Middle East last February, and has visibly challenged the Trump administration’s actions against the Palestinians. The negative reactions of Saudis on Twitter to news of normalization with Israel are an indicator of the potential domestic backlash that could greet Saudi support for the administration’s policy on this issue.
Saudi Arabia’s military relations with Russia are a fourth area where Donald Trump’s and King Salman’s policies differ. The Trump administration hasn’t reacted, yet, to the delivery of a Russian flamethrower system to Saudi Arabia. The system is part of the same 2017 deal that included Saudi Arabia’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system. The increasing crisis of confidence over the U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabia’s defense may push the kingdom toward more strategic military and nuclear cooperation with Russia. Limiting the Saudi purchasing of Russian arms is a Trump priority. It converges with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. So far, Saudi-Russian engagement over Middle East conflicts hasn’t violated U.S. red lines.
A final source of pressure on bilateral relations comes from Congress, which is pursuing bipartisan efforts against Saudi Arabia in both the House and Senate. This is evidenced by hostile legislation and other texts introduced since 2017. The outcome is uncertain. However, the language, the areas covered by the legislation, and their legal consequences hint at the high cost that Saudi Arabia might pay. Robert Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has already put a hold on arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the war in Yemen. The kingdom remains omnipresent in debates inside Congress, between Congress and the administration, and in the campaigns of presidential candidates.
Such actions will have long-term consequences. Some lawmakers are seeking legislative changes that would increase Congress’ role in foreign policy, even after the departure of the Trump administration. The personal relationship between the White House and the Saudi leadership is far from being called into question. However, one should not underestimate the impact of their policy differences when assessing the future of the U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership.