The two allies have recently been at odds on oil prices, which has inflicted heavy damage on the American oil industry.
In an April phone call, US President Donald Trump threatened Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of the oil-rich kingdom, with pulling out US troops if he did not comply with Washington’s demand to cut oil production.
The magnitude of Trump’s threats forced MBS to order his aides to leave the room to keep the conversation private between him and the US president at the time, according to Reuters.
Turns out the threat was no bluff as the Pentagon announced on Thursday that the US military will withdraw two Patriot batteries, which have been deployed to protect Saudi oil facilities, along with two jet fighter squadrons.
Trump delivered an ambiguous explanation for the move, saying: “We’re making a lot of moves in the Middle East and elsewhere. We do a lot of things all over the world, militarily we’ve been taken advantage of all over the world."
But experts believe that the US is punishing the kingdom after the volatility in oil markets hit American oil companies hard, forcing some of them into bankruptcy.
“This is a showdown between the US and Saudi Arabia, where Washington says to Riyadh that if you do not follow our oil advice, we will leave you to Iran,” says Mehmet Bulovali, an Iraqi-Kurdish expert who served as an advisor to Iraq's former vice president Tariq al Hashimi.
Iran is the kingdom’s main adversary in the Middle East, with both engaged in proxy battles from Yemen to Lebanon in a bid for hegemony over the region. Many also think that last year’s bold attack on the Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities was orchestrated by Tehran while the Houthis, Iran’s Shia allies in Yemen, claimed responsibility. The attack led to a cut in Riyadh’s oil production for several weeks.
After the attacks, Trump sent Patriot batteries to the kingdom, Washington’s crucial Arab ally, to show his support to Riyadh against Tehran.
Fluctuations in the oil market have created friction between the historically staunch allies as the coronavirus pandemic has killed tens of thousands of Americans, and dragged the country’s economy down with 33.3 million Americans filing for unemployment. The impending global economic crisis is being compared to that of the Great Depression.
The pandemic’s economic impact has seen a drop in demand for oil to levels unseen for decades as worldwide lockdown measures keep people at home.
While the Saudis have reached a deal with the Russians following a brief oil war, which decreased the price of oil to record lows and saw investors paying buyers to release themselves from the burden of oil, which they have no place to store, the US oil industry has been hit doubly hard.
Even after the Saudi-Russia deal, oil prices continue to fluctuate at the expense of American producers as the kingdom’s oil tankers reach the US, selling their commodity at lower prices to American buyers, inviting the wrath of Washington’s oil industry.
Prior to the oil deal in the US Senate, Trump’s Republican allies whose states have been hurt by the price crash, sought a mitigation measure — the Strained Partnership Act. It was designed to punish the Saudis by way of pulling troops and reducing other military commitments unless Riyadh reduces its oil output.
"We cannot allow Saudi Arabia to flood the market, especially given our storage capacity dwindling. Right now, the highest number of Saudi oil tankers in years is on its way to our shores," said Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, whose economy is heavily dependent on shale production, in late April.
On April 3, a day after Trump's phone conversation with MBS, Cramer also told the US president that it’s worthless to spend billions of dollars to defend the Saudis “if our friends are going to treat us this way”.
In the end, the American oil crash in the wake of the pandemic has seemingly taken its toll on US-Saudi relations, forcing Trump to reduce American military commitments to the kingdom.
“This development shows a decreasing trust between Saudi Arabia and the US as they continue to arm-wrestle on oil and defence issues,” Bulovali told TRT World.
Is Iran the ultimate benefactor?
Bulovali thinks that US-Saudi friction could “revive” Iran’s prospects in the Middle East after the country lost its most valuable general, Qassem Soleimani, in January as a result of an American assassination.
“It could mobilise Iran in the Middle East [against its enemies],” Bulovali viewed.
Other experts also think Iran was on the move long before the US military reduction from the kingdom, seeing Covid-19 as an opening to challenge US presence in Iraq and other places in the Middle East.
“Iran, of course, has seized the opportunity presented by Covid-19, which is what’s preoccupying Americans at the moment,” said Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund.
“In part, it’s trying to distract from its own botched response to the pandemic and partly, it sees the United States at its weakest in a while and so it’s using this to raise the cost of the maximum pressure campaign to force the US to end it,” Tabatabai observed.
In a recent article, Tabatabai and her colleague, Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, argued that the deadly pandemic has forced the US to reduce its military presence in the Middle East, leaving countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, a Shia majority country, to deal with Iran directly in the absence of American support.
“This has presented Iran with a unique opportunity to expand and consolidate its control in Iraq and push the US entirely out. And the country’s leaders aren’t going to squander their chance,” the two authors write.
But according to Bulovali, the showdown has not begun yet.
“Iran still does not do much because there is an internal power struggle between moderate forces in the foreign ministry and radicals in the country’s Revolutionary Guards,” he says.
“While the Guards defend an aggressive approach by immediately escalating tensions in the Middle East, the foreign ministry advocates a wait-and-see policy until the US elections to see whether Trump will stay or leave,” the analyst said.