Donald Trump said in October 2018 that the Saudi royal family ‘wouldn’t last two weeks’ without American military support. Last week, on the back of the collapse of the US fracking industry, he finally acted on his long-standing anti–Saudi instincts. He ordered the immediate withdrawal of two patriot air defence batteries, sent to defend the kingdom’s oil infrastructure in September after a missile attack blamed on the Iranians. He also recalled hundreds of US troops and said the US Navy presence in the Persian Gulf would be scaled back. Leaving with the ships were dozens of US fighter jets, which would have been crucial for defending against any full-scale Iranian assault.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader who is used to throwing his considerable weight around with impunity, is now facing potentially devastating consequences for a decision that was reckless even by his own unenviable standards. In the middle of a pandemic, he had torpedoed the viability of US fracking by flooding the world with cheap oil. In retaliation, Trump is now edging away from the 75-year-old US-Saudi oil-for-security alliance. Some shocked analysts even saw the withdrawal as an inadvertent invitation to the Iranians to launch another attack.
Initially, the Pentagon did not discourage such conclusions. Its officials were quoted in the US media saying that Iran no longer posed a threat to American strategic interests in the region. And that could mean only one thing: that, having achieved energy self-sufficiency, the US is no longer dependent on Saudi oil. We were witnessing, then, an extraordinary reversal of decades of geo-political groupthink in Washington. In the past, any such Iranian attack would have threatened global economic growth (and American prosperity) by hiking oil prices.