A Tough Nut to Crack: Rebalancing the US-Saudi Relationship

Out on the campaign trail in 2019, presidential candidate Joe Biden made it clear that when it came to a principled US foreign policy, he intended to be the anti-Trump in word and in deed. No more “coddling of dictators at the expense of American national security and interests,” the campaign declared; that’s “one of the most dangerous ways [Trump is] diminishing us on the world stage and subverting our values as a nation.” By “taking the word of autocrats while showing disdain for democrats,” Biden wrote, former President Donald Trump often seemed “to be on the other team.”

Eyes soon turned toward America’s wayward allies in the Middle East. Biden tweeted that Egypt and Trump’s “favorite dictator,” President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, could expect “No more blank checks” with him in the White House. But it was Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who came in for particular scorn, largely because of the destructive Saudi-led war in Yemen and MbS’s role in the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A campaign spokesman said in December 2019 that if he were elected, Biden would “reevaluate our relationship with Saudi Arabia to ensure it is fully aligned with American values and priorities.” The candidate himself insisted that “I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to [the kingdom] … We were going to … make them in fact the pariah that they are.” Biden added that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

That was then. In March, Biden’s campaign promises came face to face with foreign policy reality, and reality won. Faced with the decision of whether to sanction MbS after the release of a US intelligence report blaming the crown prince for authorizing the Khashoggi murder, Biden demurred. Instead, the State Department imposed visa restrictions against some 76 individuals involved in the plot and established a new “Khashoggi Ban,” under which the State Department would deny visas to individuals involved in serious harassment of dissidents and journalists abroad on behalf of any foreign government.

Fairly or not, Biden was blasted for failing to hold the Saudis fully accountable by letting the crown prince off the hook. Human rights organizations began to wonder out loud whether Biden was really an ally after all.

Fairly or not, Biden was blasted for failing to hold the Saudis fully accountable by letting the crown prince off the hook. Human rights organizations began to wonder out loud whether Biden was really an ally after all. And the Saudis themselves were none too pleased with the release of the aforementioned intelligence report, which they rejected out of hand. One notable figure who thought the administration handled the decision correctly was former President Trump, who told Fox News that Biden was “viewing it maybe in a similar fashion [to me], very interesting, actually.”

While it may appear that US-Saudi relations have reached an inflection point because of Biden’s indecision and MbS’s aggressive actions, this is only partly true: the fact is that the bilateral relationship has been under strain for a long time. This latest fiasco simply highlights the challenges inherent in managing a highly transactional relationship with few shared values and principles to serve as a solid foundation; the plotting and MbS Bond-villain persona is only the latest complication. With bad blood all around, can the administration rebuild its credibility on Saudi policy? And how can the bilateral relationship move forward from here?

Today’s US-Saudi Relationship: It’s Complicated

The Biden Administration has made no secret of its intention to “rebalance” US diplomatic and military engagement, deemphasizing the Middle East and focusing more on the Indo-Pacific region. But this is nothing new: the Obama Administration famously initiated a “pivot to Asia,” which was notable for doing little to fundamentally reorient US foreign policy, while inducing maximum trepidation among American partners in the Gulf region. Biden’s apparent determination to pursue a similar policy was taken by Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia, as one more proof of Washington’s long-term intention to diminish its security commitment to the region, potentially leaving the Gulf states exposed to Iranian aggression.

But Barack Obama and Joe Biden are not the only ones to blame for the uneasiness in the Gulf. President George W. Bush had close personal and political ties with Saudi Arabia’s rulers, though his dedication to his “freedom agenda” unnerved the Saudis, who thought it a threat to their way of life and the royal family’s rule. Former President Trump did his share to contribute to the impression of American fickleness by means of his spur-of-the-moment policy decisions, particularly with regards to pulling troops from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and his wild swings on Iran policy—from urging Tehran to “make the big deal” before the 2020 presidential election to considering a strike on Iran before he left office, in between rounds of “maximum pressure” on the regime in Tehran. Biden’s push to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, which Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states had opposed, was yet another alarming development that added to the sense that the United States no longer had their back.

Former President Trump did his share to contribute to the impression of American fickleness by means of his spur-of-the-moment policy decisions.

It is understandable, then, that Saudi Arabia has begun to shore up its political flanks by ending old feuds, exploring rapprochement with confirmed enemies, and hedging its bets by expanding ties with US rivals China and Russia, just in case relations with Washington take a turn for the worse. In just the past few months, the Saudis have gone on something of a diplomatic offensive, expanding contacts with a number of regional states, reaching out to Turkey, ending a nearly four-year standoff with Qatar, and, most startling of all, holding direct talks with Iranian officials in Baghdad in a bid to improve relations.

If the Biden Administration were taken aback by this flurry of Saudi diplomatic activity, it did not show. In fact, the administration has been hoping for such actions to turn down the heat on simmering regional conflicts and pave the way for a reduced US military presence in the region, freeing up resources that can better be focused elsewhere. Indeed, the conceptual cornerstone of Biden’s Middle East policy is a regional dialogue to “reduce tensions, create pathways to de-escalation, and manage mistrust,” as current National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim wrote last year when they were Biden campaign staffers. Ironically, Biden’s policy predilections, so alarming to the Saudis, are encouraging the very kind of diplomatic rapprochement his administration depends on to implement them. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Financial Times in May, “if they’re talking, I think that’s generally a good thing …. trying to take down tensions, trying to see if there’s a modus vivendi … that’s good, that’s positive …. [And] if countries are talking directly together without us in the middle, that’s maybe even better.”

Washington Already Headed in a (Somewhat) New Direction

For all the blowback the administration experienced for its perceived leniency toward MbS, it has already taken a number of steps to effect the “recalibration” of relations the Biden team promised.

For one thing, the administration has stopped personalizing the relationship the way Trump did with his advisor (and son-in-law) Jared Kushner’s one-on-one dealings with MbS. Biden is shifting bilateral contacts into traditional channels; he does not deal directly with the crown prince, instead choosing to speak with his father, King Salman, when the occasion demands.

In addition, the administration is insisting on accountability for Khashoggi in other ways: it has publicly demanded the disbandment of the so-called Rapid Intervention Force (RIF), the security team that reports directly to the crown prince and that is thought to be responsible for killing Khashoggi and intimidating other dissidents abroad. The RIF has also been sanctioned by the Treasury Department under the Global Magnitsky Act, as has Ahmad Hassan Mohammed al-Asiri, Saudi Arabia’s former Deputy Head of General Intelligence Presidency—a rare use of Magnitsky authority against officials or entities of a closely allied government.

Biden made good on his pledge to end US backing for the Saudi war in Yemen, announcing in February that his administration would no longer provide support for offensive operations in a conflict that had turned out to be a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.”

Most important, Biden made good on his pledge to end US backing for the Saudi war in Yemen, announcing in February that his administration would no longer provide support for offensive operations in a conflict that had turned out to be a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” The administration also clapped a temporary hold on sales of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia and its chief ally in the war on Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, while it reviewed the deals to ensure they are “something that advances our strategic objectives, and advances our foreign policy.” (Lest anyone take this for a complete policy reversal, the administration hastened to add that other forms of support for the Saudi military would continue, such as sales of weapons deemed vital to Saudi Arabia’s defense against Houthi missile attacks from Yemen, as well as many types of munitions, small arms, and electronic equipment. The United States will continue to support operations in Yemen that target al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.)

Taking Next Steps

While the Biden Administration has taken some important steps to address deficiencies in US Saudi policy, it needs to go further if it is serious about fundamental change.

First, the administration must complete a thorough review of the US-Saudi relationship, including the purpose and scope of arms sales, to ensure the relationship continues to serve US interests and is consistent with American values. The risk is that the administration will relapse once public attention has wandered and the convenience of doing business as usual becomes more tempting. This would be wrong: not only does the pattern of unrestricted support for Saudi Arabia help perpetuate human rights abuses and corruption, it encourages foreign adventurism of the type seen in Yemen, which is manifestly not in US interests. The continuation of an unchecked military relationship, particularly overreliance on arms sales, poses a threat to the very stability this policy is ostensibly intended to prevent.

The administration must complete a thorough review of the US-Saudi relationship, including the purpose and scope of arms sales, to ensure the relationship continues to serve US interests and is consistent with American values.

In this connection, the Biden team needs to decide how it will work with Congress, where there is considerable bipartisan momentum for holding Saudi Arabia accountable. The Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act of 2021, which would temporarily suspend arms sales to the kingdom and mandate a review of Saudi offices in the United States to ensure they were not harassing dissidents, passed the House in April by a strong majority of 350-71. The bill now awaits Senate action. If it reaches Biden’s desk, he will face a second major test of his leadership in Saudi policy. In the meantime, he needs to make an ally of Congress to increase his leverage over the kingdom.

Second, continued American waffling over Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record risks undermining the administration’s policy toward the kingdom as well as its approach to human rights more generally. While dismantling the deeply entrenched Saudi autocracy is not a realistic goal for the foreseeable future, the administration may be able to make some progress on certain salient human rights issues, such as the fate of political prisoners. Biden and other US officials welcomed the release in February of Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi women’s rights activist, which may be interpreted as a Saudi gesture to Biden. The administration should insist the kingdom reverse its campaign of arrests and imprisonments of human rights defenders, journalists, and other activists, which appears to have accelerated since 2019. Washington needs to extract meaningful concessions in this area in exchange for political and security support going forward.

Third, the administration must decide how to handle its relations with MbS. There is little likelihood he will be rehabilitated in the eyes of US policymakers and Congress, but for now (at least until he becomes king) there are acceptable workarounds. Given the crown prince’s mercurial personality and tendency toward rash action, the Biden Administration should be prepared for him to respond in unhelpful ways to the release of the CIA report on Khashoggi, and the relationship could turn even more fraught once MbS succeeds his father. (The reluctance to burn all bridges to the crown prince was the main reason Biden decided not to sanction MbS personally in the Khashoggi affair.) The administration should maintain correct, if distant, relations with MbS, while making clear that the quality of the relationship will be determined in large part by how the crown prince responds to US concerns. In doing so, Biden should bear in mind he is dealing from strength; the United States remains the kingdom’s irreplaceable protector, and with long-term economic prospects looking grim, Riyadh will need various forms of US support even more in the future.

For their part, the Saudis continue to insist that Riyadh and Washington remain on the same page; MbS himself told a Saudi television interviewer that “We are more than 90% in agreement with the Biden administration when it comes to Saudi and U.S. interests.” Administration spokespersons have been similarly upbeat. If this is true—or if it is to continue to be true—both countries have some hard choices to make about the nature of US-Saudi ties in the future.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here