US crude imports from the Middle East are shrinking due to the shale boom. This, in addition to American budgetary constraints and President Donald Trump’s famous “America First” slogan, has prompted some to argue that the US will reduce its military presence in the region or disengage from it entirely.
But it is highly unlikely that the US will completely disengage, at least in the short- and medium-term. Its engagement is not simply about oil; even before the shale boom, the Gulf provided only about 10 percent of total US oil supply.
The US still has core strategic interests in the region, such as securing the free flow of energy and commerce, nuclear non-proliferation, counterterrorism, confronting external aggression against US allies, economic opportunities and arm deals worth tens of billions of dollars. This in addition to military bases in the Arab Gulf states that are strategically positioned, cheap to maintain and difficult to replace.
The US would still need to worry about the Middle East because oil prices are set globally. According to the US Department of Energy, total US consumption of petroleum and other liquids — including fossil fuels, biofuels and lease condensate — will stay in the range of 19-21 million barrels per day between 2016 and 2050. The bottom line is US oil and goods prices still depend on what happens abroad.
The executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Fatih Birol, is skeptical about US energy independence. “US oil production will increase, but it is still an oil importer and will be for some time,” he told the Financial Times recently. “Some have the view the rise of tight (shale) oil will sideline the Middle East. This view, I would never subscribe to.”
Saudi-US relations have already entered a new phase that will have major repercussion for the Middle East.
Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi
Above all, the US and Saudi Arabia are still bound together by common interests such as the free flow of energy supplies from the Gulf, counterterrorism cooperation, opposing what they perceive as Iranian hegemony, and US logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Given this strategic background, and in the context of Trump’s visit to the Kingdom, it is reasonable to expect that Saudi foreign policy will have four fundamental elements in the foreseeable future. The most important is strengthening the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) military capabilities collectively and individually, including the formation of a united military command of GCC forces, as previously suggested by Saudi Arabia.
Second, the Kingdom will continue its current policy toward Yemen, and is highly unlikely to make any concessions to Iran. Saudi Arabia is seeking to improve cooperation with the US by acquiring more advanced and smart missiles and munitions that were stopped by former US President Barack Obama under the pretext of high civilian casualties. Importantly, Riyadh seeks to improve intelligence-sharing with Washington regarding Yemen.
Third, Saudi Arabia will continue using all its economic and political tools to support countries such as Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco, and its allies in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, to better coordinate Arab efforts to shape regional policies in their favor.
Fourth, maintaining good relations with the US remains a key foreign policy objective for the Kingdom, but Riyadh will likely continue to diversify its foreign policies and strengthen ties with emerging powers such as China and Russia. Taken together, this suggests that Saudi-US relations have already entered a new phase that will have major repercussion for the Middle East.
• Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East researcher, political analyst and commentator with interests in energy politics and Gulf-Asia relations. Al-Tamimi is author of the book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” He can be reached on Twitter @nasertamimi and e-mail: [email protected]