Saudi Arabia is not like the West, not an easy ally. But for 70 years, the United States and the Saudis have managed oil and security. Not for much longer, it seems, if President Joe Biden has his way. Although the Saudis have taken what are, for them, huge steps toward opening society and removing the influence of the Wahabi religious establishment, the administration is prioritizing Saudi lapses in human rights.
Having come into office calling Saudi Arabia a pariah state, Biden removed the terror designation from Iran-supported Houthi rebels who were waging a missile war against Saudi cities and oil facilities from Yemen, and embargoed Patriot Missiles from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He pressured South Korea to release nearly a billion dollars of embargoed money to Iran. The CIA released a short, unsourced report on the death of Jamal Khashoggi, blaming Crown Prince Mohammad ben Sultan (MbS) with no direct evidence. The President restored the Palestinians and Iranians – two entities the Saudis detest – to America’s diplomatic center stage.
Israel has been on the receiving end of American sniggering and infantilization as well, with the US ambassador in Jerusalem saying he doesn’t want anyone “to do stupid things,” and announcing that he talks to Israel’s elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “as I talk to my kids.” President Biden and the State Department have, more than once, inserted themselves into domestic Israeli politics. The President spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu early in the week and conveyed US “concern” over judicial reforms underway.
The back-of-the-hand to Israel made the Saudis even more nervous; they had assumed the US and Israel would secure the region. Together. But, having pushed off the concerns of America’s chief regional partners, the administration then announced that the US plans to deploy ageing A-10 attack planes to the Middle East as a replacement for more advanced combat aircraft that will be shifted to the Pacific and Europe.
Under the circumstances, nothing that is happening is surprising.
- MbS, looking for a superpower to underwrite Saudi security, hosted China’s Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping. The result was a reopening of embassies between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a “promise” by Iran to stop arming the Houthis.
- Iran has, as well, become an ally of Putin’s Russia with weapons supplied to the invader of Ukraine and Iranian “ghost ships” transporting embargoed Russian oil for sale. Russia is likely to reciprocate with upgraded air defenses for Iran, making any plans Israel has for attacks on Iran less likely.
- The US issued new waivers for Russian nuclear-related work at Iran’s Fordow site – a vestige of the 2015 JCPOA that was to have allowed Russia to take Iranian nuclear fuel out of the country. That was before Russia changed sides.
- Xi then signed an agreement with Russian president Vladimir Putin cementing their “no limits” partnership, just days after an international arrest warrant was issued for Putin.
- Saudi Arabia is now planning to reestablish relations with Syria, one of Iran’s puppet regimes. Iranian militias were the driving force for 500,000+ Syrian dead and millions of refugees.
A productive approach for the US would be to find inducements for the Saudis to work with Washington and continue to open its society to change. And, if not in the administration, perhaps in the US Senate – the world’s greatest deliberative body, as it calls itself. But at least two Senators have taken the other side.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced a privileged resolution to require the State Department to examine and report on Saudi domestic human rights practices and its involvement in the war in Yemen. This sets up a fast-tracked debate and vote in the Senate on Riyadh’s human rights record.
Both Senators are determined to cut off US arms sales to the Saudis – another gift to Iran, but one that will backfire.
Russia and China are there. They are determined to raise their profiles in the region. They both have arms to sell. China has money to invest. Neither cares about human rights or democratic norms. That is not an endorsement of either nasty, authoritarian regime. But it is an honest assessment of Saudi choices. If they have no reason to go with us, they will go where they see their security interests.
Robert Greenway of the Hudson Institute and the Abraham Accords Peace Institute suggests a different path, bringing the Saudis back toward the US and back toward the Abraham Accords states. He proposes the establishment of an Abraham Accords free trade area that would, among other things, “enable the countries of the Abraham Accords and eventually, the wider MENA region to accelerate their aspirations for sustained economic growth and diversification … and constraining China’s predatory economic practices.”
For the Saudis to watch the region profit while they stay outside would give MbS something to think about. If US sensitivities preclude the Saudis right now, it would be fair to condition their future participation. It would be a stronger, more lasting, democracy-promoting position than the one the US is currently, and cavalierly, tossing around a vital region.