Elephants in the Room
Note to Mohammed bin Salman: Stop Digging Yourself Deeper
The Saudis need to get on Biden’s good side. Obvious places to start include releasing women’s rights activists.
Late on Nov. 22, flight-tracking websites monitored a business jet, frequently used by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, making a five-hour round trip from Tel Aviv to Neom, the futuristic city that Saudi Arabia is building on its Red Sea coast. Within hours, the Middle East was abuzz with reports that Netanyahu and Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, had held secret talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Though the Saudi foreign minister quickly tweeted a denial that the meeting occurred, several other Saudi and Israeli sources confirmed that the historic session had indeed been held, and that Israeli-Saudi normalization and countering Iran had topped the agenda. It’s a critically important development for all kinds of reasons, not least being the powerful signal it seemed intended to send to an incoming Biden administration about Saudi Arabia’s crucial role in any efforts to advance stability in a volatile region that remains critical to U.S. interests.
The Saudis have plenty of reason to try and get on U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s good side. Outside of outgoing President Donald Trump’s inner circle, the kingdom’s friends in Washington are few and far between these days. Over the past four years, the bipartisan bill of indictment against Mohammed bin Salman has grown too long to list in full. But the highlights include the ineffective prosecution of a brutal war in Yemen, the kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister, the unjust arrest and mistreatment of women’s rights activists, planting spies in U.S. technology giants, and, of course, the horrific murder and dismemberment of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit team. Trump’s refusal to hold the crown prince to account—“I saved his ass,” Trump famously bragged to Bob Woodward after shielding the prince from congressional sanction—was widely seen as enabling Saudi Arabia’s repeat offenses against U.S. interests and values.
Biden appears to share that dim view. His growing antipathy toward the Saudis featured prominently in his campaign. He promised to order a “reassessment” of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. He attacked Trump for issuing “a dangerous blank check” that Mohammed bin Salman had abused to pursue reckless policies abroad and repression at home. The insults flew fast and furious. Biden called the kingdom a “pariah,” said there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” and accused the Saudis of “murdering children” in Yemen. He pledged to make Riyadh “pay the price” for its misdeeds, including cutting off support for the kingdom’s war effort.
Add to the mix Biden’s commitment to reversing Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, Saudi Arabia’s most dangerous foe, and it’s clear that the Saudis have got a real problem on their hands. So what’s a crown prince to do when the superpower that remains the irreplaceable bedrock of his kingdom’s security and stability starts doubting the value of the partnership?
If he’s smart, he needs to do two things. First, to put it bluntly, stop doing stupid shit that’s guaranteed to make the situation worse. Last week’s transfer of the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights activist, to a special terrorism court is a case in point. Talk about poking a stick in Biden’s eye, not to mention the 10 powerful senators—nine Democrats and one Republican—who only two days earlier wrote a joint letter urging Riyadh to release Loujain and several other female prisoners. Mohammed bin Salman pays lobbyists in Washington, D.C., millions of dollars a year for advice on how to improve his country’s standing in the U.S. capital. He should try listening to them for once.
But second, the Saudis need to launch some affirmative initiatives that will generate goodwill, show that they take U.S. concerns seriously, and underscore Mohammed bin Salman’s commitment to safeguarding the strategic partnership no matter who occupies the White House.
Rapidly resolving the highest-profile human rights cases seems like the obvious place to start. It’s only a handful of people—the group of women activists, the blogger Raif Badawi, and three U.S.-Saudi dual nationals. Most have been detained for years. Many have suffered abuses. None poses a serious threat to the Saudi state or Mohammed bin Salman’s grip on power. On the contrary, it’s their continued imprisonment that systematically erodes Saudi Arabia’s standing with its most important Western partners. Granting clemency at this point would be seen as an act of strength and wisdom, not weakness on the part of Mohammed bin Salman and his father, King Salman. The gesture would no doubt garner Biden’s appreciation—he’s made clear his plan to elevate human rights as a foreign-policy priority—and be interpreted as a good-faith effort by Riyadh to turn a new page with the incoming administration.
Addressing U.S. concerns about the war in Yemen will be harder, but it’s not impossible. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels seem determined to keep fighting, including regularly targeting Saudi Arabia itself with missiles, drones, and rockets. But it’s become clear in 2020 that Mohammed bin Salman is looking for a way out of the long and costly quagmire. The Saudis have undertaken unilateral cease-fires, opened negotiations with the Houthis, and most recently accepted a United Nations proposal for a cease-fire and an easing of the Saudi economic blockade of Yemen in exchange for a security buffer along the Saudi-Yemeni border. For reasons of its own national interests, the kingdom is looking to be a part of the solution rather than the problem when it comes to efforts to de-escalate the war. This is a critical shift in narrative that Riyadh should seek to drive home to the incoming Biden administration through continued word and deed.
Of course, the issue with the greatest potential for positively transforming Saudi Arabia’s fortunes in Washington is the one that was on display in Neom earlier this month: normalization with Israel and the expansion of the Jewish state’s peaceful relations across the Arab and Muslim worlds. The latter has been a top U.S. priority for decades, and Saudi Arabia—as Islam’s birthplace, the custodian of its two holiest mosques, and arguably the world’s most influential Muslim state—holds the key to unlocking a veritable tidal wave of normalization, from Morocco to Pakistan, that would fundamentally shift the Middle East’s balance of power in ways overwhelmingly favorable to U.S. interests. Needless to say, the prospect of delivering that kind of historic achievement for U.S. foreign policy and global peace and security would give the Biden administration a considerably greater stake in good relations with the Saudis than it appears to have now.
The challenges facing Saudi Arabia in Washington with the end of the Trump era are real. But they’re far from insurmountable. For all the heated rhetoric during the campaign, Biden is a realist. Based on long experience, he still recognizes “the value of [Saudi] cooperation on counterterrorism and deterring Iran.” But in light of Mohammed bin Salman’s most troubling actions of recent years, he “would want to hear how Saudi Arabia intends to change its approach to work with a more responsible U.S. administration.” Read correctly, that sounds less like a threat and more like an invitation for the Saudis to take some meaningful steps to right the relationship going forward. They would be wise to accept. Hopefully, this month’s extraordinary get-together on the shores of the Red Sea is a signal of their intention to do precisely that.
John Hannah is a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.