Why is the US clinging to Saudi Arabia, albeit sub rosa?
US President Joe Biden is seeking to re-evaluate the United States’s policy toward Saudi Arabia for the third time, and the fact that nothing was done in the first two times speaks volumes.
The Kingdom made an announcement in early October that, together with OPEC+, it would cut down on oil production, while effectively raising gas prices and siding with Russia's best interests, as per US claims. Following two years of navigating the complicated relationship with the oil-rich autocracy, Biden said, "There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done, with Russia."
Biden “wants to be able to reevaluate in a methodical, strategic, effective way,” clarified national security advisor Jake Sullivan, “rooted in his fundamental interest in making sure that the relationship the United States has with Saudi Arabia serves the American people effectively.”
Sullivan suggested that things were not going well.
This marks the third time Biden has re-evaluated Saudi policy, but this time, Biden promised a harder line.
Earlier, Biden bashed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for his role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Once in the White House, Biden clashed with Trump by disclosing a portion of the intelligence report, sanctioning some of the Saudis responsible for the murder, and making an ad hoc commitment not to meet with MBS.
The second reassessment, however, came as the war in Ukraine altered geopolitical considerations and high gas prices exacerbated inflationary problems. According to Vox, the White House announced a surprising turnaround: Biden would travel to Saudi Arabia and, at last, meet with MBS face-to-face. “It’s a relationship that is now on steady footing,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in June.
Can we expect anything after Biden's third evaluation? After all, the US relies on the Kingdom as a major oil producer and economic power with important shipping routes, a close partner in allegedly "countering Iran and terrorist organizations," and a significant trading partner and number-one purchaser of US weapons. The perception of common interests, Saudi Arabia's limited clout, and Biden's inner circle's preferences all favor maintaining the status quo.
The request for a re-evaluation made by the Biden administration may serve more as a stopgap than a thorough policy analysis, according to Vox.
“Everyone is sort of taking a deep breath,” a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to speak with the press, told me, said the author of this article on Vox, Jonathan Guyer. “The fact that nothing happened immediately is a sign that there’s some second thoughts.”
What are common US-Saudi interests?
The Kingdom, which is the second-largest oil producer in the world, has provided economic and regional stability to the US since FDR. Meanwhile, the Kingdom benefits from the backing of the world’s largest military.
The fundamental perception in the Biden administration that Saudi Arabia is a partner that can't be let go hasn't altered, even if MBS has led Saudi Arabia in areas that frequently strain that partnership, the most recent of which is the OPEC+ decision.
Despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties, "Israel's" interests and those of Saudi Arabia have gotten closer in recent years. Enmity and rivalry with Iran continue to bring "Israel" and Saudi Arabia together, respectively.
Due to how Saudi Arabia influenced US domestic politics during the Trump administration and how it has since invested in the business ventures of former Trump officials Jared Kushner and Steven Mnuchin, many of the shared interests between the two nations are now obscured.
The Saudis miscalculated how polarized America has become under Trump. “They glommed on to Trump, and Trump glommed on to them,” F. Gregory Gause III, an international affairs professor at Texas A&M University, said.
What are the points of leverage?
US policymakers are undoubtedly contemplating how to make it clear that MBS' actions will have an impact on the US as well. The Biden administration was forced to think about how to change the relationship because of the oil production problem, not because of concerns about human rights, of course.
As Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it last month, “We will keep all of those interests in mind and consult closely with all of the relevant stakeholders as we decide on any steps going forward.”
For the past ten years, Saudi Arabia has been the US' top weapon customer. A $3.07 billion in weaponry sales to Saudi Arabia have been reported to Congress by the Pentagon, which may influence the President to take a different course of action. According to Saudi human rights campaigner Hala Aldosari, "the most crucial component of Saudi dependence on the US is security, of course, and technology that comes with it."
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) says that in response to the OPEC+ decision, the US should stop approving arms sales to the Kingdom and instead take its Patriot missiles, which are in high demand, and send them to Ukraine.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) contend that a similar pause would demonstrate US influence over Saudi Arabia without jeopardizing US security interests. “You may even decide on the back end of that and not resume them,” Rhodes said. It may lead to a more limited security relationship with conditions attached. “There needs to be a whole new kind of regime around whatever the security relationship is,” he added.
James Jones, a retired general, stated that Biden has occasionally criticized Saudi Arabia. Rhetoric, according to Jones, "inspires our friends and allies to seriously consider other options that we would not want them to consider."
Reducing the arms transfers could push Saudi Arabia to look elsewhere, defenses of the alliance fear. However, a number of Congressional staffers told Guyer that the claim that the US would force the kingdom toward China is no longer credible.
The Saudis are “welcome to, but they’re not going to do it,” a senior Democratic Congressional aide said. “China’s not going to come defend them, Russia is not going to come defend them. And they would never be able to switch weapons systems anyways.”
Until Congress takes action
Nevertheless, unless Congress takes action, halting arms sales appears to be a remote possibility at the moment. In Saudi Arabia, the US military is advancing a counter-drone program that Congress could delay to make a point.
Congress may also consider including language in the annual defense budget bill that ties US arms sales to Saudi Arabia to internal reforms like the release of political prisoners or other measures. There is also the NOPEC bill, which has been approved by the committee and would enable the US attorney general to pursue antitrust action against OPEC+.
The administration's options are limited if it is unwilling to reduce the military relationship. The US may also think about methods to make doing business with Saudi Arabia more challenging.
An even more extreme form of this would include the Biden administration imposing sanctions on MBS personally. The Crown Prince's potential immunity from a civil case involving the murder of Jamal Khashoggi as a head of state is another area of negotiation.
Read more: Amnesty: US immunity to MBS 'deep betrayal'
Could human rights make for better policy?
According to the report, the US-Saudi relationship is nothing but a security relationship. Human rights experts say that an emphasis on values might actually make for a more pragmatic policy.
Even if the world was riveted by Khashoggi's mutilation and disappearance from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the catastrophic state of human rights in Saudi Arabia continues to be disregarded. It explains how someone like Noura Al-Qahtani may receive a 45-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia for nothing more than tweeting in favor of the liberation of political detainees, or Salma Al-Shehab, a student at Leeds University and a mother of two, receiving a sentence of 34 years in prison for following and retweeting dissidents and activists on her personal Twitter account, or Mahdia Al-Marzouki, 51-year-old Tunisian doctor residing in the Kingdom, receiving 15-year imprisonment on charges of interacting with a tweet.
Many former officials say it’s time for the US to move on. General Jones highlights that MBS has overseen liberalizing reforms in the country. “I recognize that the Khashoggi murder was a terrible thing, but the United States did not break relations with Saudi Arabia over that. As a matter of fact, we continue to work with them,” he said.
Should Biden’s reevaluation extend to his own advisors?
Earlier this year, the top human rights official at the White House’s National Security Council departed her job. Now, there is no coordinator-level person there. No senior human rights official attended the meetings in Saudi Arabia in July as part of Biden’s entourage, according to the White House’s manifest.
“The NSC Democracy Directorate reliably asserts that democracy and human rights are not just values, but vital national security interests. It remains difficult to get other national security officials on board with this approach,” McEnery told Vox. “It would require people willing to break with the status quo to implement democracy and human rights as the center of our foreign policy.”
Many progressive sources have been particularly enraged by Brett McGurk's prominent and significant role as the White House's Middle East coordinator.
It is simple to criticize him for personifying the structural flaws in this relationship given that he held a senior position in four subsequent presidencies. But according to Vox, activists and members of Congress are expected to further humanize Biden's Saudi policy. According to reports, it might cause McGurk to leave after the midterm elections.
Along with McGurk, Tim Lenderking, a representative of the State Department, has flown to Saudi Arabia frequently to negotiate a ceasefire between the country and the Yemeni Armed Forces.
According to Vox, one must look to the forceful words Biden officials were willing to say before they entered government to get a sense of what a more comprehensive vision of US policy toward Saudi Arabia might look like.
Sullivan's policy of hypocrisy
When Jake Sullivan was working in the private sector prior to 2020, he was among the strongest voices on bringing human rights into the US-Saudi relationship. Together with Rhodes, he co-founded an advocacy group called National Security Action where dozens of policymakers who would go into the Biden administration met and crafted policy memos.
“In the Middle East, Trump and his family have advanced Saudi interests instead of our national interest,” the organization wrote on its website. “Enabling or excusing oppression abroad today only fuels the injustices and instability that endanger us all tomorrow.”
It is noteworthy that Sullivan adopts a progressive stance while outside of government but switches to what is seen as realism when presiding over meetings. It's more of an illustrative case study than it is a declaration of personal hypocrisy.
As stated by Vox, Biden's failure to follow through on his promise to keep Saudi Arabia a pariah, in Nancy Okail's opinion, undermines human rights policy in its entirety. Okail is an Egyptian activist and the president of the Center for International Policy. “It’d be seriously damaging if these words aren’t translated into concrete and corrective foreign policy measures,” she said.
To sum up, it can be said that American credibility is undermined every time the Biden administration decides to re-evaluate a policy by using a strong rhetoric that does not match the new policies, according to Vox.