Rami G. Khouri is director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut, a nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative, and an internationally syndicated columnist. He tweets @ramikhouri.
What should we make of the spat between the United States and Saudi Arabia, following last week's announcement of a sharp cut in oil production by the Russian- and Saudi-headed cartel OPEC+? Shocked analysts and officials in the United States and Europe called the Saudi move a betrayal and a hostile act against the Western allies mired in the Ukraine war. Many see this as a personal humiliation for President Joe Biden, with Riyadh siding with Russia in its war on Ukraine—even after Biden fist-bumped with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a meeting in Jeddah, in a complete reversal of his campaign promise to make the Saudis "the pariah that they are." American officials are now considering a series of retaliatory measures, including stopping arms sales and even withdrawing all 3,000 U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia (and the 2,000 U.S. soldiers in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, another OPEC+ member; Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the UAE, had a friendly meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week).
As reports emerge of Saudi officials apparently ignoring U.S. warnings not to go ahead with the oil production cut, I can't help but think of the lessons of history. A much longer time frame and wider context may be necessary to fully analyze this situation and accurately capture what it is all about. I've chronicled the modern Middle East and its links with the United States for the past 54 years, including two decades during which I also wrote books on archaeology and the Roman Empire in the region. With that much history in mind, the immediate issues here are no doubt important, evolving according to many factors beyond oil prices: Ukraine, the upcoming U.S. elections in November, Arab worries about Iran, and the roles of Russia and China in the Middle East. But they may not be the best frame in which to appreciate these furies.
A deeper tale here has lived in our region for millennia and is rearing its head now in the most dramatic fashion: imperial overreach. Going back to the Roman East, imperial powers have had expectations of their local clients that proved to be mistaken. Throughout the long history of the Middle East, the volatility of such relationships has been enough to tip the scales between total imperial conquest or retreat.
A deeper tale here has lived in our region for millennia and is rearing its head now in the most dramatic fashion: imperial overreach.
- Rami G. Khouri
There are echoes of this distant past in Biden's rift with Mohammed bin Salman. It is worth recalling a long-ago episode between a foreign imperial power and the dominant state in the Arabian Peninsula, as documented by the Greek geographer Strabo writing in the first century B.C.
In 25 B.C., a Roman military expedition set out from Egypt to control all of Arabia, especially the lucrative spice-trading states of Arabia Felix, in what is now Yemen. An expeditionary force of some 10,000 Roman and Egyptian troops set off from the Suez area to cross the Red Sea, accompanied by 1,500 Nabataean and Jewish troops. The Nabataeans, from their capital at Petra in modern-day Jordan, agreed to assist the Romans and sent a local administrator named Syllaeus to help guide them south through the Arabian desert.
But things did not go as planned, and after six months of mostly fruitless wandering through the harsh terrain, losing many men and supplies, the Romans retreated and never again tried to achieve their goals of conquering Arabia. They had been led in circles by a wily Nabataean whom they had thought was a trusted ally, ultimately thwarting Rome's imperial aims.
Why did the Romans fail in Arabia? They were ignorant of Arabian realities, misjudging local personalities and assuming that Rome's imperial wishes would be implemented obediently, even if they were not in the best interest of local rulers and kingdoms, like the Nabataeans, who did not want to lose their control of the spice trade (Rome was dependent on Nabataea for valuable spices like frankincense). As important as the failure of this one foray is in the ancient history of the Middle East, historians also see it as an early sign of the Roman Empire's gradual retreat, in the following centuries, from distant lands and territorial ambitions.
Intense American anger at the OPEC+ decision, and the Saudis' equally firm insistence on pursuing policies they feel best serve their national interests, are signs of a dysfunctional relationship that has been exposed as such by both Riyadh and Washington.
- Rami G. Khouri
The parallels with the United States in the Middle East today are intriguing. Intense American anger at the OPEC+ decision, and the Saudis' equally firm insistence on pursuing policies they feel best serve their national interests, are signs of a dysfunctional relationship that has been exposed as such by both Riyadh and Washington. Since U.S.-Saudi relations were cemented in the 1940s, their various material and ideological drivers—oil, trade and investment, anti-Communism, militarism, maintaining autocracy in the insatiable but elusive quest for so-called "stability"—now no longer coexist easily.
To be fair to the Saudi leadership—which in my view has generally been a negative force in the region for decades—they have signaled since King Abdullah's reign, from 2005 to 2015, that Riyadh and its increasingly assertive neighbor and ally, the UAE, would start taking initiatives on their own to protect their vital interests, without always asking foreign powers (that is, the United States) to agree or help. This trend accelerated rapidly after the Arab uprisings, when Gulf rulers feared popular revolts at home, and even included attempts to derail American foreign policy in the region, in their fierce opposition to the nuclear deal that President Barack Obama sealed with Iran and other world powers. But it has since reached reckless, even criminal, dimensions under the direction of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who recently made himself Saudi Arabia's prime minister.
While serving notice that, in tandem with the UAE, it would not become a vassal state of the United States or anyone else, Saudi Arabia has taken aggressive steps that either mostly failed or generated international backlash: the blockade of Qatar, the war in Yemen, embracing surveillance authoritarianism, courting right-wing Western leaders like Donald Trump, detaining hundreds of prominent Saudis who were accused of corruption, killing Jamal Khashoggi, and detaining former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to mention only the most severe. Washington and other foreign powers with close ties and influence usually tacitly accepted, or occasionally actively assisted, such transgressions.
This policy shift seems to reflect several driving forces for Saudi leaders. They could not rely on the United States to protect them when they were really threatened, such as during the 2019 drone attacks on key ARAMCO oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia, widely attributed to Iran. They could pursue their core energy, trade, technology and other interests with powers like Russia and China, while maintaining their close U.S. ties. And, they faced dangers if they relied too heavily on U.S. policies in the region that were both strategically incoherent and served American (and often Israeli) priorities above all else.
The furor over the OPEC+ cuts captures all these irreconcilable forces. Riyadh seems finally to have reacted to Washington's attempts to dictate Saudi oil output. The kingdom—and, most of all, Mohammad bin Salman—also seems unfazed that its decision will hurt American and European economies, the war effort in Ukraine against Russia, and the Democrats' election fortunes next month, while also helping Russia and perhaps even Iran.
Biden has pledged that "there will be consequences," but how will the United States actually respond? Will there be any signs of American officials acknowledging the traps of history in the Arabian Peninsula and the apparently eternal lessons of failed imperial overreach?