It is time to reset US-Saudi Arabia relations. US President Joe Biden has made his intentions very clear: The Trump administration's so-called "free pass" to the unpredictable and uniquely powerful leadership of Saudi Arabia must end. For too long the relationship has been torn from the public eye where its norms have been undermined. As Biden said in 2019 when asked how he would deal with the relationship, “I would make it very clear that we would no longer sell them guns. We actually wanted to get them to pay the price and actually make them the pariah that they are. “This week, the Biden administration appears to be keeping that promise by pausing and evaluating upcoming arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In other words, there is finally some daylight and control over bilateral relations.
Ironically, Saudi Arabia has also called for normalization. Saudi Arabia is looking for a place on the world stage; As the host of the G-20 in 2020, its central foreign policy endeavor was to seek legitimacy, normalcy and respect as a destination for foreign investment and international tourism. And Biden should give Saudi Arabia exactly what it wants – to be treated like any other state with responsibility and external control for its actions and policies at home and abroad. This will be difficult in the short term, especially as the window for re-entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran is narrowing. A successful Iran policy requires a functioning and cooperative bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The challenge will be to recognize the role of the United States in housing and apologizing for human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, both domestically and abroad, and then creating a new framework for engagement with a country that, even if the place is different The fossil fuel trade has shifted elsewhere, still shifting matters for the United States. The conviction of Congressmen and US citizens that a healthy bilateral relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia is in the interests of the United States will be a necessary linchpin for the Biden administration to pursue even its limited political agenda Reach Middle East.
The United States has treated Saudi Arabia as a special case for decades, apologizing for its draconian domestic policies as it seeks to maintain an oil and security-centric partnership. Most recently, the United States has helped to build one of the best-equipped and poorly performing military in the world in the Kingdom, as the incompetent air strikes in Yemen have clearly shown. As of 2015, under the Obama administration, the United States supported a Saudi military operation in Yemen that has become the world's worst humanitarian crisis. American bombs continue to fall on civilians in Yemen.
Under the Trump administration, the relationship became more personal. Saudi leverage in choosing US interlocutors, in particular bypassing the State Department in favor of a direct link with President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner or Trump himself, and reducing US diplomatic engagement resulted in US principles being abandoned entirely about the murder of journalists, the shakedown of businesspeople and the kidnapping of a prime minister. The old way of keeping America's eyes closed on Saudi Arabia must come to an end. Trump made it worse, but the patterns were there for years.
Helpfully, Saudi Arabia has seen major changes at the same time that US-Saudi Arabia relations have improved. Since 2015, it has started restricting the power of the religious establishment to open up economic opportunities for women, open its borders to foreign visitors and investors, and regulate its markets according to international business standards. The state and its new generation of executives under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman want to be a regional heavyweight in foreign policy and the economic powerhouse of the Middle East. This may be due to its size, reserves and investments, military equipment, and ability to intervene in the political economies of other regional actors such as Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan and Ethiopia. The country must be taken seriously.
And of course there is still the oil; Saudi Arabia has some of the cleanest, cheapest oil production in the world. It will be a major producer by the time the world stops using oil – a long way off. Saudi Arabia and the other oil and gas producers in the Persian Gulf have cemented their economic partnership with China. If the confrontation with China is a US national security priority, the United States must begin in the Middle East and with Saudi Arabia.
The Biden government has set some finite goals for the Middle East, with possibly misguided hopes of diminishing the region's prominence in its first term. But the Middle East has a way of making itself business. Particularly as the global economy recovers from the pandemic, the Middle East will be particularly vulnerable to the challenges ahead: rising national debt, structural barriers to job creation in the private sector, and overburdened social safety nets that are often difficult to manage Public sector payrolls offer much less health care, small business incentives, professional training and poverty reduction. This is a recipe for civil unrest and new struggles over political order, many of which have been simmering since the Arab Spring.
Second, Biden's new administration has proposed a realignment of US diplomatic and senior engagement in the Middle East, surely as a correction for the Dilettante Kushner years. But perhaps Biden's plans are also an over-correction in the sense that the Trump administration has achieved some success there, including normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE.
Third, and most importantly, the Biden administration has pledged to rejoin the JCPOA, which Trump left in 2018. The resumption of the JCPOA will not be a look back at 2015 but a complicated series of negotiations that now must take into account Iran's increasing regional presence in Yemen and Syria and the growth of its ballistic missile program. Indeed, even as a "limited target" resuming an agreement with Iran will be incredibly complex, requiring at least regional buy-in and collaboration with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
If Saudi Arabia is treated as a normal country, a regional power with influence and interests, Riyadh also needs to improve its diplomatic game. It will require more transparency in its own reporting of its military performance in Yemen, as well as accountability and access to its domestic judicial proceedings. If Saudi Arabia is to stand out from Iran and present itself as a partner in combating Iran's malicious activities in the region, it must enable a review of allegations of terrorism against its own citizens.
The United States can accept that Saudi Arabia is in transition and that Mohammed bin Salman will stand up and stay in power for some time. The Biden government can guardrail this relationship while giving Saudi Arabia what it desires. The United States must start treating Saudi Arabia like the regional power it wants to be.