This is a commonspace.eu commentary
US President Joe Biden will visit Saudi Arabia on July 15 and 16 upon the invitation of King Salman. The US president will meet with the king and his Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “to discuss areas of bilateral cooperation as well as joint efforts to address regional and global challenges.”
A statement from the White House said that Biden will also attend a Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan while in the Kingdom. “The President appreciates King Salman’s leadership and his invitation. He looks forward to this important visit to Saudi Arabia, which has been a strategic partner of the United States for nearly eight decades,” the statement read.
In this commentary the state of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia is discussed in the light of tensions between the two sides over the last years. “Now, it appears that the two sides are ready to make up. Biden will travel to Riyadh next month, and US officials have been in and out of the Saudi capital in recent weeks, softening the ground and preparing for the visit. Biden is right in working towards a reset. US-Saudi relations remain the bedrock for Gulf security.” It adds that “when Joe Biden visits Riyadh next month he has his work cut out for him. It will be a hugely important visit to a country where personalities still count. Both sides appear ready to put the difficult last few years in their relationship behind them. This is good for both, as well as for the rest of the world.”
There is nothing worse than an argument between friends. They know each other very well and they know where to throw a heavy punch that hurts. Even though in their hearts they know they want to make up they persist in keeping the argument going for much longer than necessary. US-Saudi relations felt very much like that in recent years. Developed over decades, first as an economic partnership with US companies leading the development of Saudi oil resources, and for the last fifty years as a security relationship indispensable for both, US-Saudi relations have been the bedrock on which Gulf security and prosperity are built.
There have been in this relationship moments of deep crisis: following the creation of the State of Israel and subsequent Middle East Wars; during the oil crisis of the 1970s, and of course after the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States by Saudi supporters of Osama bin Laden, to mention a few. The crisis of the last decade, triggered by a more assertive Saudi leadership led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) however developed around three points of contention, each of which on its own could have been contained, but merged together appeared to throw US-Saudi relations on the rocks. They can for simplicity’s sake be summed up in three words, namely Yemen, Iran and Khashoggi.
When Mohammed bin Salman became Crown Prince and de facto leader of Saudi Arabia in 2017 he was a man in a hurry, and for good reason too. Lethargy, corruption, incompetence and religious bigotry was eating Saudi Arabia from inside. On the outside Saudi Arabia had negligible international influence, was loosing its role as a regional leader, and saw itself being encircled by a belligerent Iran. MBS embarked on a process of deep changes inside the country, which made him hugely popular with young Saudis, but hated by other parts of the ruling elite, including the other princes of the House of Saud – there are more than 10,000 of them – who form the Royal family, as well as the powerful religious establishment, who up to then had been, together with the royal family, the second pillar of power in Saudi Arabia. MBS hit hard and cut corners in an effort to contain opponents at home and abroad. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul was one of the outcomes. It is unlikely MBS personally ordered the murder, or was even involved in the personal targeting of Khashoggi. He was however responsible for the policy that eventually led to his death, but that is another matter.
Externally MBS took over when the Kingdom’s international clout was already suffering from events resulting from the Arab Spring, and the overall ineffectiveness of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic footprint. On Yemen, Saudi Arabia could hardly watch and do nothing as the Iranian supported Houthis overran the Yemeni capital Sanaa in 2014, creating chaos. Saudi Arabia had meddled in Yemeni affairs for as long as anyone can remember, but this time it launched a full-scale invasion in response. It failed to curb the Houthi movement and the conflict is now in a stalemate. Iran has been a nemesis for the Kingdom ever since day one of the Islamic Revolution. It is seen in Riyadh as a direct threat, and has to be if possible challenged, or as a minimum, be tightly contained. The prospect of a nuclear armed Iran leaves decision makers in Riyadh with sleepless nights, and they are right to be concerned.
In dealing with the ongoing challenges the Saudis expected the full support of their US allies, but got only very tepid response at best. Recent US administrations lacked the necessary patience and nuance to deal with Saudi Arabia. They became increasingly patronizing, and sometimes outright vicious in their criticism, in the case of Trump who saw the Saudis in terms of lucrative arms deals and business transactions, increasingly greedy. The Saudis had been used to being overcharged for multi billion dollar arms procurement most of which they did not need; for being expected to keep the oil market stable, even when it did not suit them well to do that; and for falling in line with US policies generally even though they contradicted their own. This generation of Saudi leaders, and population at large, is more discerning.
On their part the Americans felt that they were the force that was propping up the Saudi leadership, and that without them it will be swept away, either by popular discontent, or external pressure. Subsequent US administrations became tired of being attacked for supporting up a government that often appeared backward, intolerant and increasingly challenged by its own people.
Both sides felt cheated and let down and all the ingredients existed for a full scale row. Joe Biden started one even before he became president, identifying Saudi Arabia not as a valued ally but as some kind of pariah state. Over the last year he has had to back track. Now, it appears that the two sides are ready to make up. Biden will travel to Riyadh next month, and US officials have been in and out of the Saudi capital in recent weeks, softening the ground and preparing for the visit. Biden is right in working towards a reset. US-Saudi relations remain the bedrock for Gulf security.
Time to look ahead
Going forward four steps are necessary in US-Saudi relations to ensure sustainability in a changing world:
(1) The US must learn how to become a partner in the process of Saudi Arabia’s modernisation and reform – if possible, working with other partners, such as the EU, who appear to understand much better how to do this. Human rights in Saudi Arabia will not improve thanks to shouting from Washington, but through close engagement and a step-by-step approach. On their part the Saudis should show that they are genuinely interested in this dialogue. There are many tangible steps that they can take to show their good faith, and this will be in line with their other ongoing and laudable policies, such as the containment of religious bigotry and the improvement of the role of women in society. It is time the Saudi start caring about their image too. It matters.
(2) The US and Saudi Arabia need to develop a new blueprint for Gulf security that must factor in the real threat from Iran. The Saudis need to understand that their concerns on Iran become less understandable when they are seen smooching with Moscow and Beijing, Iran’s two closest allies.
(3) Yemen is a serious unfinished business. The US and Saudi Arabia should approximate their position on Yemen and launch a new joint initiative to bring peace and stability to the country, as well as take Yemen out of the dire poverty that is feeding the country’s instability.
(4) US-Saudi relations cannot remain the prerogative of the lobbyists for the arms industry and the oil companies in DC, nor of a small US educated elite in Riyadh. Both sides need to bring the relationship to a “normal” that has been missing throughout. It is time for solid people to people relations that breaks out from past constraints.
When Joe Biden visits Riyadh next month he has his work cut out for him. It will be a hugely important visit to a country where personalities still count. Both sides appear ready to put the difficult last few years in their relationship behind them. This is good for both, as well as for the rest of the world.
source: This is commonspace.eu. It was first published on our fortnightly newsletter Arabia Concise on 14 June 2022.