President Joe Biden is visiting Saudi Arabia this month to rebuild relations, ostensibly to stabilize oil markets and improve regional security.
The immediate price for this engagement is ending the diplomatic freeze that began when the Saudi government assassinated Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist and US resident. The long-term price is re-entangling with a reckless client, one that continues to destroy nearby nations and de-stabilize the Middle East.
The Biden administration has also continued its economic warfare with Iran and Venezuela, also pressuring US allies into compliance against two of the largest oil producers. This isolation and uncertainty limits oil production in both nations and forces them to seek engagement from rivals such as Russia and China.
If the Biden administration wants to bring down oil prices and stabilize regional conflicts, rekindling relationships with the key instigator is the wrong way forward. Instead, it should diversify its relationships and remove sanctions on isolated countries, including Iran and Venezuela. Doing so would not only ease gas prices but reduce the ability of existing customers to exploit Washington’s support.
Oil prices are obviously a big deal. They’ve hit $ 111 a barrel as of last month, creating both short-term pain and long-term loss. Because transportation costs factor into everything, high gas prices raise the price of everything else, making Americans poorer in real terms because their wages buy fewer goods.
But the proposed re-engagement is just code for providing the Saudis with more security commitments and additional American resources. It would reiterate that the Saudi government can do whatever it wants and expect continued US support, hardly a recipe for encouraging them to factor in American interests.
It would also further erode international norms and increase reckless driving. Surrendering leverage means temporary production boosts can be reversed later. And that small “comfort” would come at the cost of looking past public extra-judicial assassination. International norms grow weaker when prominent countries offer tacit endorsement of their violation. Rogue states are a bit like entrepreneurs: they know an opportunity when they see one.
Expanding US commitments to Saudi Arabia would also deepen America’s involvement with a historically destabilizing force. This is a country that was recently at war with its impoverished neighbor Yemen, using missiles Washington provided to bomb from funerals to weddings.
The leadership and institutions of Saudi Arabia are still the same. States make cost-benefit calculations like everyone else. When the United States offers engagement – money and arms despite de-stabilizing behavior – it shifts Saudi expectations of what they can and cannot do. Knowing American support is guaranteed will only encourage more bad behavior.
Instead of deepening ties with bad-faith actors, the Biden administration should diversify Washington’s ties so no single actor takes advantage of US support. Coincidentally, Iran and Venezuela are also founding OPEC members and major oil producers. If they were to produce oil at full capacity, oil prices could fall significantly. Biden should offer them relief to encourage more oil production.
After lifting sanctions on oil, Biden can offer to purchase a certain degree of oil upfront to stabilize business and improve long-term production. This would show a renewed commitment to restoring economic relations with both nations.
Finally, the Biden administration should schedule bilateral talks at a regular cadence to improve communications and build a productive relationship. The goal of these talks would be to gradually remove the other sanctions, such as in banking, international trade, and shipping. Even unrelated sanctions have a pernicious effect on trade: if businesses know a country is a potential target for any sanctions, why would they invest in such an unstable environment?
These reforms will not only curb inflation but help steer the two nations away from Russia’s orbit and improve Washington’s bargaining ability with existing clients. Countries like Saudi Arabia would have a harder time monopolizing the Biden administration’s attention.
International relations, like economics, is about trade-offs. By lifting sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, Biden can take steps to restore the nation’s standard of living. Building a world where America has more relationships and pursues them in a businesslike manner is one where the US can see and pursue its interests more clearly.
Yameen Huq is a cybersecurity professional and Strategic Leaders Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society. Previously, he was a consultant specializing in analytics, cybersecurity, and strategy for public and private-sector clients. He holds a master’s in Cybersecurity with a focus on technology policy. His previous writing has appeared in The National Interest, American Affairs, and Exponents. The opinions expressed in this post are his own and do not reflect on those of his employer. Follow him on Twitter here.