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Analysis | America’s defense of Saudi Arabia is an asset, not a liability

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

OPEC+ last week chose to cut oil production a month after the US midterm elections, with Brent crude not far from $100 a barrel and Europe collapsing under the impact of economic warfare with its largest energy supplier, Russia. The decision, which came not long after President Joe Biden flew to Riyadh in search of increased oil production, cast doubt on many in Washington about the wisdom of the eight-decade alliance with Saudi Arabia.

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

Three Democratic representatives promised a bill to remove US troops and missile systems from the region, calling OPEC+ production a “turning point in our relationship” with Gulf partners. “It’s time for the US to act as the superpower again in our relationship with our customer states,” the trio wrote. “They have made a choice and have to live with the consequences.”

But here’s the bottom line: stationing troops in ungrateful Arab countries is exactly what a superpower should be doing in this situation. Washington has quietly acknowledged that reality since 1943, when Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that “the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States.”

If the world’s oil exporters seem insensitive in their relations with Washington, it is precisely because they recognize the extent to which the status quo is an asset to the US, not an obligation. Events since the Russian invasion of Ukraine do not in the least undermine that narrative — they make it even more compelling.

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

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

In a sense, it is reasonable to put Beijing in charge of protecting its own energy supply. The Western Hemisphere is largely self-sufficient in crude oil. About 82% of the Gulf’s oil exports go east, while only 3.7% go to the US. Making America pay for the security details for its oil supplies frees up China to spend its military spending on other ventures, such as building troops to threaten Taiwan.

However, the disproportion is the point. By guaranteeing China’s oil supplies, Washington quietly has enormous influence. In the event of an invasion of Taiwan, US naval forces in the Gulf and Indian Ocean give it the option of a Russian-style strategy, using embargoes around the Strait of Hormuz and Singapore to cut off about three-quarters of the oil supply to Beijing. Close. war machine. While China’s domestic oil production could increase in such a crisis, the pain such a scenario would inflict on the economy and the risk of popular upheaval would greatly increase the cost of warfare.

Similarly, Chinese control of those sea links would be a huge strategic asset to Beijing. Lacking the domestic reserves that make China the sixth largest oil producer in the world and protected under the umbrella of the Pax Americana on the high seas, Washington’s allies in Asia are even more dependent on imported crude oil.

The US does not want China to use the energy weapon to gain hegemony in East Asia through a Pax Sinica. Nor does it want its often troublesome Asian allies to take action to protect their own energy supplies in the absence of US naval power. The naval arms race between Germany and Britain before the First World War, in many ways one of the causes of that conflict, shows the dangers of such a strategy. Under the circumstances, stationing a few thousand troops in the Gulf to face those scenarios is a small price for Washington to pay.

Having a hand resting on the tap of the world’s energy flows is a fundamental building block of US global power, and both Washington and Riyadh know this. Saudi Arabia may be more of an enemy than an ally today, but energy geopolitics operates on the same principles Michael Corleone used to rule his criminal empire: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Reduction in oil production can be 10% real, 90% illusion: 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 views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on energy and commodities. He previously worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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