US defense of Saudi Arabia is an asset, not a liability

What do you do with a supposed ally who jumps into the enemy’s bed?

Last week, OPEC+ opted to cut oil production a month before the US midterm elections, with Brent crude not far off $100 a barrel and Europe struggling under the impact of the economic war with its largest energy supplier, Russia. The decision, which came shortly after President Joe Biden flew to Riyadh in search of higher oil production, has many in Washington questioning the wisdom of the eight-decade alliance with the country. Saudi Arabia.

“The Saudi royal family has never been a trustworthy ally of our nation,” Dick Durbin, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, wrote in a tweet on Thursday. “It’s time for our foreign policy to imagine a world without their alliance.”

Three Democratic Representatives have pledged a bill to remove US troops and missile systems from the region, calling the OPEC+ production cut a “turning point in our relationship” with Gulf partners. “It is time for the United States to return to acting as the superpower in our relations with our client states,” the trio wrote. “They made a choice and have to live with the consequences.”

Here’s the thing, though: stationing troops in ungrateful Arab nations is precisely what a superpower should do in this situation. Washington has quietly acknowledged this reality since 1943, when Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States”.

If global oil exporters seem resistant in their dealings with Washington, it is precisely because they recognize how the status quo is an asset for the United States, not a liability. Events since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in no way undermine this narrative – on the contrary, they make it even more compelling.

Indeed, the battle since March has been fought not only in Ukrainian fields, but also in ports and pipelines connecting Russian oil and gas to world markets. The recent destruction of the Nord Stream gas lines carrying Russian fuel to Europe and the Kerch Bridge carrying diesel from Russia to the southern front of the Ukrainian war both demonstrate the same point. The most powerful weapon of modern warfare is energy and the control of the supply lines that carry it from its sources to its consumers.

Now translate the situation in Europe to the Gulf. In the unlikely event that the United States withdraws its military presence in the region, another nation will step in to protect the slice of the $1 trillion crude oil trade passing through the pirate-infested waters of the western ocean. Indian. Arab countries’ own navies are incapable of doing much more than basic coastal defense, so the most viable candidates would be China and, in a pinch, India.

In a sense, leaving Beijing in charge of protecting its own energy supplies is reasonable. The Western Hemisphere is largely self-sufficient in crude. Some 82% of Gulf oil exports go east, of which only 3.7% goes to the United States. The fact that America pays the security retail for its oil supplies frees China to direct its military spending to other endeavors, such as building up forces to threaten Taiwan.

The disproportion is the point, however. By guaranteeing China’s oil supply, Washington quietly wields enormous leverage. In the event of an invasion of Taiwan, American sea power in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean gives it the option of a Russian-style strategy, using embargoes around the Straits of Hormuz and Singapore to cut off about three quarters of the oil supplying Beijing. war machine. While China’s domestic oil production would be able to increase in such a crisis, the pain such a scenario would inflict on the economy and the risk of popular unrest would greatly increase the cost of war.

Similarly, Chinese control of these maritime lines of communication would be a huge strategic asset for Beijing. Devoid of the national reserves that make China the world’s sixth-largest oil producer and protected under Pax Americana on the high seas, Washington’s allies in Asia are even more dependent on imported crude.

The United States does not want China to deploy the energy weapon to gain hegemony in East Asia via a Pax Sinica. Nor does he want to see his oft-fractured Asian allies take steps to protect their own energy supplies in the absence of American sea power. The naval arms race between Germany and Britain before World War I, in many ways one of the causes of that conflict, demonstrates the dangers of such a strategy. In these circumstances, stationing a few thousand troops in the Gulf to deal with these scenarios is a small price for Washington to pay.

Having a hand on the tap of global energy flows is a fundamental part of US global power, and Washington and Riyadh know it. Saudi Arabia may be more of an enemy than an ally these days, but the geopolitics of energy operates on principles similar to those Michael Corleone used to run his criminal empire: keep your friends close, but your nearest enemies.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Cut in oil production could be 10% real, 90% illusory: Julian Lee

• Nord Stream shows that Deep Sea is a battlefield: James Stavridis

• Biden should hit Saudi Arabia where it really hurts: Bobby Ghosh

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

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