The Biden administration has warned Saudi Arabia it will face ‘consequences’ following the OPEC+ to cut oil production significantly last week. The cut will lead to higher oil prices, a move that will benefit Russia significantly as the war in Ukraine continues on. Since Saudi Arabia is the de facto leader of OPEC+ it has become a target for US frustration over the oil cartel’s latest move. President Biden issued the warning yesterday on the heels of a comment by the White House press secretary earlier in the day that the United States will move to reevaluate its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Policies will be reviewed in the coming weeks as Democratic politicians call for immediate actions to be taken against the Kingdom.
The heavy-handed rhetoric is intended to send a message. The administration has not had anywhere near the close relationship with Riyadh that President Trump enjoyed. Whether by happenstance or design, Biden has treated the Saudis with indifference and sometimes almost outright hostility since January, 2020. Yemen, the suspicious death of Jamal Khashoggi and early attempts to restart the nuclear deal with Iran have all caused suspicion and in some cases even damage to the US-Saudi alliance and relationship.
The impression I get is that the US is attaching a greater value to Ukraine rather than its strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. In the short term this is understandable, given the rather precarious conditions of Ukrainian sovereignty until late in the summer of 2022. Yet the Biden administration needs to remember that Saudi Arabia is a long-term partner and ally of the US. Riyadh and Washington share a number of common interests. Some economic, and others of a more strategic, geopolitical nature. As I spoke of in an earlier post, Ukraine’s strategic value to the United States does not go beyond serving as an instrument to whittle down the Russian military and Moscow’s international influence and prestige.
The Biden administration does not have to select either or. If American diplomacy was more polished than it currently is, the needs and desires of both nations could be balanced and accommodations created. Unfortunately, the Biden administration and its foreign policy team has proven time and time again it is not up to the challenge of creating and pushing forward unilaterally to strengthen relationships and alliances vital to the United States.
With oil prices continuing to surge, the Biden administration has been trying to gain the support of oil-rich nations to roll back oil prices and apply more pressure on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. The US is meeting significant resistance on both fronts from some of its allies in the Middle East. There’s mistrust in places like Riyadh and Abu Dhabi right now regarding the Biden administration’s priorities and intent. To put it in simple terms, there are many people of influence in the Saudi and UAE governments who consider the Biden Administration a fair-weather friend. It goes back to the war in Yemen, which was supported by the Obama and Trump administrations. But as the war became a humanitarian cataclysm, US opinion turned and one of the first acts of the Biden administration was a vow to end the war in Yemen and stop supplying Saudi Arabia with weapons.
Now in March, 2022, the United States wants something from its Middle Eastern allies and some are not very enthusiastic to help out. When President Biden attempted to arrange telephone calls with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, he was reportedly rebuffed. Naturally, US officials deny this and have tried to put a different spin on the matter. But the fact remains that Washington’s relationship with some of America’s Gulf allies is in need of repair at a critical time. Iran’s missile attack against a US embassy and airbase in Iraq over the weekend certainly showcases the Islamic Republic’s intent to be play the role of agitator in the region. Especially in light of the pause that JCPOA talks have taken due to the war in Ukraine.
China has reinstituted lockdowns in parts of the country amid a widespread surge in COVID-19 cases. Shenzen, China’s own silicon valley, is one city now under lockdown. Businesses have been ordered to suspend production operations and have non-essential employees work from home for a week. Shanghai and Hong Kong are two other major cities in China now dealing with major outbreaks. Case numbers are rising, but remain small compared to outbreaks in other nations back in late 2021 and early 2022 when the Omicron variant swept across the globe. A growing number of the cases in China appear to be of this variant.
The big concern now is additional instability for the global economy on top of what’s transpired from Ukraine. China’s COVID situation now adds more fuel to a fire which threatens to become dangerously bigger in coming weeks. The global economy will not stabilize by summer as some people had hoped.
With international attention focused on Ukraine and Russia, North Korea has taken advantage of the lack of scrutiny to conduct a series of ballistic missile tests so far this year. On 27 February and 5 March, a pair of intercontinental ballistic missile tests were conducted, raising concerns these tests represent a crash effort by the North to resume its nuclear program. Adding to the concern are recent satellite images that show a resumption of activity at North Korea’s nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri. A North Korean nuclear test could be in the cards sometime soon.
In response to the increased missile tests and activity, the US is conducting naval and air exercises in the area. The USS Abraham Lincoln and her battlegroup are in the Yellow Sea running very visible air exercises with land-based USAF aircraft from South Korea. Patriot missile batteries in South Korea are also running increased exercises and preparations in light of the activity up North.
Several nations are ordering their non-essential embassy staff members and dependents out of Ethiopia as the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) move closer to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. The United States has joined Israel, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark in removing non-essential personnel from Ethiopia. The order was given on Friday and the US State Department is also urging all US nationals to leave the country too. A number of other rebel groups have joined the TPLF, forming an anti-government alliance that looks to unseat Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from power one year after he launched the offensive in Tigray that has ultimately led to this point. In November 2020 there were very few people who could even entertain the notion that Addis Ababa would be under TPLF threat twelve months later.
The government has declared a state of emergency that will allow conscription of any military-aged civilian with weapons. Veterans are also being asked to reenlist in the military. In Addis Ababa, police are searching houses to uncover potential Tigrayans who are connected, or sympathetic to the TPLF. How much good these measures will do with the enemy fast approaching the city remains to be seen.
Beyond Ethiopia’s borders there have been a number of diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing the conflict to an end. The Biden administration’s press for negotiations to end the fighting fell upon deaf ears, and so have the selective sanctions placed on some Ethiopian officials by the US government. The reluctance of both sides to turn to diplomacy has derailed efforts by the African Union to mediate an end to the fighting and bring about a cease-fire. Predictably, United Nation Security Council calls for on all parties to refrain “from inflammatory hate speech and incitement to violence and divisiveness” are being ignored. The Security Council is also concerned with how this conflict will affect the stability of the region. The Horn of Africa has long been a hotbed of volatility. The prospect of the fighting leading to a division of Ethiopia similar to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s is beginning to make diplomats around the world uneasy.
After Sunday’s drone and missile attacks against oil facilities and other targets in Saudi Arabia, the United States expressed alarm at the ‘genuine security threats’ the Saudis are facing from Yemeni-based and Iranian supported Houthi rebels. Not to sound facetious, but I honestly do not understand why the Biden administration is just now waking up to the realization that the Houthi rebels pose a danger to Saudi Arabian territory and economic interests. This past weekend saw Saudi Arabia’s largest oil export terminal at the port of Ras Tanura targeted. No damage was caused to the terminal, but fragments from an exploding ballistic missile did fall on the nearby ARAMCO facility.
Sunday was not the first time that the Houthis launched drone and missile attacks against economic targets inside of the Kingdom. The attack against the Abqaiq facility in 2019 caused considerable damage and affected Saudi Arabia’s oil production. The most recent attacks are not expected to have an effect on either production, or oil prices beyond today. Yet the attacks have helped to demonstrate how complicated ending the civil war in Yemen will be. The Houthis are clearly not prepared to talk peace right now, as this weekend revealed.
The White House has apparently noticed this, and the Biden administration sounds downright miffed. “We continue to be alarmed by the frequency of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. Escalating attacks like these are not the actions of a group that is serious about peace,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a press conference.
Well, to be fair, its probably not entirely the Houthis decision whether or not they come to the peace table. Tehran has reestablished its influence with the Yemeni-based group and is calling the shots once again. The US has not helped the prospects of ending the war in Yemen much lately either. Last month the Biden administration removed US support for Saudi military operations inside of Yemen. Though a bit naïve, the move was an act of good faith. Unfortunately, it has had almost the exact opposite effect and is enticing the Houthis to resume attacks on the economic infrastructure of Saudi Arabia.
The Biden administration will eventually learn how to navigate the Yemen quagmire, but it is coming at a cost.
On Thursday President Joe Biden announced an end to US support for Saudi Arabian-led military operations in Yemen. He pointed to the large-scale humanitarian crisis going on in that country as being a key motivation behind this decision and lays blame for the present situation in that country at the feet of Saudi Arabia. Iran and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have apparently played no role in Yemen’s suffering according to the curious rationale behind the Biden administration’s decision. The reversal of policy is also nothing short of a slap in the face to Saudi Arabia, a strategic partner of the United States.
All of the combatants and the nations supporting them are responsible for what has transpired in Yemen. Yet the Biden administration has chosen to make an example out of Saudi Arabia. To be fair, the Saudis and their allies have been fighting the Houthi rebels inside Yemen for five years now without resolution. The Saudi intervention has largely checked Iranian ambitions on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, though this has caused a tremendous amount of collateral damage in Yemen, as well as a limited amount in Saudi Arabia itself. By ending US support for future operations in Yemen, the Biden administration runs the risk of emboldening Tehran and providing them with an opening to repair frayed relations with the Houthis and reestablish its foothold in Yemen.
Biden also announced an end to ‘relevant’ arms sales, though he provided no details on just what this means. It probably indicates a pause to some of the arms deals the Trump administration worked out with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a major ally of the Saudis in the Yemen conflict. Biden did assure the Saudis that the US will continue to play a key role in the Kingdom’s defense, but that promise gives the appearance of a pat on the head to Riyadh, as well as a warning that the future political and military decisions by the Kingdom will bring about consequences if they fail to fall in line with the foreign policy designs of the Biden administration in the Persian Gulf region.