Last fall, President Biden vowed to impose “consequences” on Saudi Arabia for its decision to slash oil production amid high energy prices and fast-approaching elections in the United States.
In public, the Saudi government defended its actions politely via diplomatic statements. But in private, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman threatened to fundamentally alter the decades-old U.S.-Saudi relationship and impose significant economic costs on the United States if it retaliated against the oil cuts, according to a classified document obtained by The Washington Post.
The crown prince claimed “he will not deal with the U.S. administration anymore,” the document says, promising “major economic consequences for Washington.”
Eight months later, Biden has yet to impose consequences on the Arab country and Mohammed has continued to engage with top U.S. officials, as he did with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the seaside Saudi city of Jiddah this week.
It is unclear whether the crown prince’s threat was conveyed directly to U.S. officials or intercepted through electronic eavesdropping, but his dramatic outburst reveals the tension at the heart of a relationship long premised on oil-for-security but rapidly evolving as China takes a growing interest in the Middle East and the United States assesses its own interests as the world’s largest oil producer.
The U.S. intelligence document was circulated on the Discord messaging platform as part of an extensive leak of highly sensitive national security materials.
A spokesperson with the National Security Council said “we are not aware of such threats by Saudi Arabia.”
“In general, such documents often represent only one snapshot of a moment in time and cannot possibly offer the full picture,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an intelligence matter.
“The United States continues to collaborate with Saudi Arabia, an important partner in the region, to advance our mutual interests and a common vision for a more secure, stable, and prosperous region, interconnected with the world,” the official added.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Mohammed, 37, is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, after his father King Salman appointed him to be prime minister in 2022.
Biden, who pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” as a presidential candidate, scarcely communicates with the crown prince, but the president’s top aides have gradually rebuilt ties with him, hoping the two nations can work together on pressing issues, including a long-sought peace deal in Yemen, a sustained cease-fire in Sudan, counterterrorism challenges and continued disagreements over the supply of oil.
The improved rapport has disappointed human rights advocates who hoped for a sharper break with the kingdom in light of Mohammed’s role overseeing the war in Yemen and the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that he ordered the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Mohammed denies ordering the killing but has acknowledged that it happened “under my watch.”
U.S. officials say the U.S.-Saudi relationship is too important to let languish given Riyadh’s economic and political clout and Beijing’s courtship of traditional U.S. partners in the Middle East.
“Together, we can drive real progress for all our people, not only to address the challenges or crises of the moment, but to chart an affirmative vision for our shared future,” Blinken said at a joint news conference in Riyadh on Thursday alongside Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan.
Blinken met with the crown prince, also known as MBS, for an hour and 40 minutes on Tuesday during this three-day visit to the kingdom, U.S. officials said. The men had a “candid, open” conversation that included U.S. efforts to broker normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the conflict in Yemen, human rights and the fighting in Sudan.
Following Blinken’s meetings, differences appeared to remain over Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to generate nuclear power, seen by Washington and others as a potential proliferation risk, and the notion that the United States has a right to admonish the kingdom over its human rights record.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister noted that while Riyadh would welcome U.S. support in building its civilian nuclear program, “there are others that are bidding,” a not-so-subtle reminder that the kingdom could deepen its cooperation with China on the initiative.
On human rights, he struck a defiant note, saying Saudi leaders “don’t respond to pressure.”
“When we do anything, we do it in our own interests. And I don’t think that anybody believes that pressure is useful or helpful, and therefore that’s not something that we are going to even consider,” he said.
Blinken’s visit caps a steady stream of high-level U.S. meetings in the kingdom in recent months, including trips by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, CIA Director William J. Burns, Biden’s top Middle East adviser Brett McGurk, and his senior energy security official Amos Hochstein.
The surge of meetings appeared to serve as a counterweight to the frosty personal relations between Biden and Mohammed, said David Ottaway, a Gulf scholar at the Wilson Center, noting that the two leaders have not spoken since their meeting in Riyadh last July.
“The Biden administration decided it had to figure out how to work with MBS even if Biden and he still do not talk to each other,” Ottaway said.
The oil-rich country has sought to present itself as a global player unmoored to Washington. In recent months, Riyadh has been on a diplomatic tear, winding down hostilities in Yemen, restoring relations with arch-nemesis Iran, inviting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the Arab League after a decade-plus ban, and ending its regional tiff with Qatar.
“Riyadh is returning to a more traditional foreign policy that avoids conflict and favors accommodation with rivals,” said Bruce Riedel, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.
The dramatic changes in Saudi foreign policy come as Washington seeks Saudi help on some regional matters. Days before Blinken’s arrival, Saudi Arabia announced it would deepen oil production cuts in July on top of a broader OPEC Plus agreement to limit oil supply in an effort to raise prices - a move opposed by the Biden administration.
“The administration has a big agenda for Blinken to work with the Saudis: Keeping the cease-fire in Yemen, getting one in Sudan, fighting ISIS, and above all keeping oil prices from rising out of control,” Riedel said.
Most difficult of all appears to be normalizing ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, particularly as Israeli-Palestinian tensions worsen under the far-right coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Biden has put a big priority on securing Saudi public recognition of Israel. That is unlikely absent serious progress on the Palestinian front,” Riedel said. “The Palestinian issue still has deep resonance in the kingdom, especially with King Salman.”
Some moves by the Saudi government have pleased U.S. officials, including its assistance to Ukraine announced during a foreign minister visit to Kyiv in February and its plans to purchase a large order of Boeing jetliners.
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with China, which the United States considers its top economic and security competitor, was also raised during Blinken’s news conference in Riyadh. The top U.S. diplomat denied any suggestion that the United States was forcing Saudi Arabia to choose between Washington and Beijing.
A second leaked U.S. intelligence document from December warned that Saudi Arabia plans to expand its “transactional relationship” with China by procuring drones, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and mass surveillance systems from Beijing. But U.S. officials say those warnings were exaggerated and did not come to fruition.
Saudi’s foreign minister, when asked during Thursday’s news conference about his country’s relationship with China, insisted it was not a threat to Saudi Arabia’s long-standing security partnership with the United States.
“China is the world’s second-largest economy. China is our largest trading partner. So naturally, there is a lot of interaction . . . and that cooperation is likely to grow,” he said. “But we still have a robust security partnership with the U.S. That security partnership is refreshed on an almost daily basis.”