Like It or Not, Biden Can’t Ignore Saudi Arabia Any Longer

Like It or Not, Biden Can’t Ignore Saudi Arabia Any Longer
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reviews a military honor guard during a welcome ceremony, in Ankara, Turkey, June 22, 2022 (AP photo by Burhan Ozbilici).
U.S. President Joe Biden’s recently announced trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has sparked a great deal of comment and no small amount of controversy. At issue is whether a U.S. president who loudly condemned Riyadh’s human rights record during his 2020 election campaign should be instrumental in helping Saudi Arabia cast off the pariah status it has labored under since its state-sponsored murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Upon taking office, Biden talked about reorienting U.S.-Saudi relations to put greater emphasis on human rights, and he has refused to meet with the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, who U.S. intelligence services have determined personally ordered Khashoggi’s killing. However, a nuanced U.S. approach would recognize that Saudi Arabia is already well on its way to regaining its active role in regional affairs. Moreover, as the world’s second-largest oil producer, the Persian Gulf’s dominant strategic power, an influential player in the Middle East and a touchstone for the world’s Muslims as the custodian of the mosques at Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia remains of vital importance to U.S. foreign policy. The Biden administration should therefore leverage Washington’s reengagement with the kingdom to maximize the benefits to U.S. national interests. What is needed is not a piecemeal rehabilitation of Saudi Arabia, but rather a grand bargain that addresses an array of combustible issues in the region. The West’s outrage over the kingdom’s dismal human rights record as well as the personal role MBS played in the murder of Khashoggi is wholly appropriate. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has been an increasingly central actor in numerous key developments and trouble spots in the region. The Saudis have been an active, if silent, partner in the signing of the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, and direct contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia on economic ties and intelligence-sharing have increased steadily in recent months. Meanwhile, last year, the Saudi intelligence chief, Gen. Khalid al-Humaidan, met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, representing the highest-level contacts between the two governments since 2012. Combined with the recently held talks between MBS and the Russian envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, it is clear that Saudi Arabia is groping its way toward full reengagement with the Syrian regime, after nearly a decade in which Riyadh supported armed rebels seeking to oust Assad. And last week, MBS visited Ankara, where he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to further advance the normalization of relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which have been on opposite sides of the region’s multiple fault lines since the Arab Uprisings in 2011. On the domestic front, since assuming direction of the kingdom’s policy agenda in 2017, MBS has overseen an opening to the world, spearheaded by multiple trade initiatives—including discussions toward free trade agreements with Pakistan in 2018 and India in 2019—as well as the beginnings of a tourism industry. In other words, a Biden administration rapprochement with Saudi Arabia would not signal the kingdom’s return to the regional and world stage. That process is already well underway.

The Biden administration would be wise to appraise Saudi Arabia’s position more realistically, while still leveraging its reengagement with Riyadh to benefit U.S. national interests and advance regional stability.

The administration would therefore be wise to appraise the kingdom’s position more realistically, while still leveraging its reengagement with the Saudis in a manner that maximizes the benefits to U.S. national interests and advances the stability of the region. Clearly, and among the administration’s avowed objectives, Washington must push for a substantive increase in Saudi and OPEC oil production as a sine qua non for further U.S. security support. The relief on global oil prices offered by such an increase would not be felt in the short term, nor perhaps even in the medium term. But over time its impact would likely help weaken Russia’s leverage over Washington’s Western European allies as well as deprive Moscow of the revenues it uses to support malignant actors in the region, including Syria. Second, U.S. reengagement with Saudi Arabia should be the catalyst for some resolution to the brutal conflict in Yemen. Indeed, substantive steps in this direction are already underway. In February, the administration removed Yemen’s Houthi rebels from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, paving the way for increased contact and dialogue with the Houthis as well as the delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has held talks with Rashad al-Alimi, head of the newly installed Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council, reaffirming U.S. support for the ongoing truce talks. And in mid-June, the United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, announced an extension of the previously agreed cease-fire on the ground, allowing for further progress in ongoing discussions toward a final settlement of the conflict. Biden should underline that future increases in security assistance to Saudi Arabia and its UAE allies would be conditioned upon Saudi restraint in its military actions in Yemen and its support for the U.N.-sponsored truce and political dialogue. Finally, reengagement with the Saudis—as well as increased security and intelligence assistance from both the U.S. and, covertly, Israel—would afford Saudi Arabia the security breathing space it needs to support, or at least not actively oppose, efforts to revive the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. A more militarily secure Saudi Arabia, combined with a Russia chastened by its ill-advised invasion of Ukraine, would offer the best chance at peacefully restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. No amount of Saudi money or public relations can obscure the kingdom’s dismal human rights record or its role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But Saudi Arabia is an inherently influential power in the Middle East, one that is steadily reemerging as an active participant in the politics of that perennially unstable region. The U.S. cannot marginalize the kingdom indefinitely, and Washington keeps Riyadh at arm’s length at its own peril. The Biden administration’s recent overtures to the Saudis, and the president’s announced trip to the kingdom, presage a needed reengagement. The administration can and must leverage that reengagement to hasten the resolution of several simmering conflicts, thereby returning a modicum of stability to the region, while further advancing U.S. interests in the process.

Frank J. Mirkow is a Washington-based corporate attorney with extensive experience living and working in the Middle East.

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