Saudi Arabia Wants to Be a Normal Country
And Biden should treat it as exactly that.
It is time for a reset of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. U.S. President Joe Biden has made his intentions very clear: The Trump administration’s so-called “free pass” to the erratic and uniquely powerful leadership of Saudi Arabia must end. For too long, the relationship has been run out of the public eye where its norms have been allowed to erode. As Biden said back in 2019 when asked how he would handle the relationship: “I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” This week, the Biden administration seems to be making good on that promise by pausing and evaluating pending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. At long last, in other words, there is some daylight and scrutiny coming to the bilateral relationship.
Somewhat ironically, normalization is also what Saudi Arabia has demanded. Saudi Arabia seeks a place on the world stage; as the 2020 host of the G-20, its core foreign-policy aspirations have been 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 responsibilities and external scrutiny for its actions and policies at home and abroad. This will be difficult in the short term, especially as the window narrows for a reentry to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. A successful Iran policy will require a functional and cooperative bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The challenge will be to acknowledge the United States’ own role in accommodating and excusing Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses at home and abroad and then establishing a new framework for engagement with a country that, even as the locus of fossil fuel trade shifts elsewhere, still matters to the United States. Convincing members of Congress and U.S. citizens that a healthy U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship is in the United States’ interest will be a necessary pivot for the Biden administration if it is to achieve even its limited policy agenda in the Middle East.
The United States has treated Saudi Arabia as a special case for decades, making excuses for its draconian domestic politics while trying to sustain a partnership centered on oil and security. Most recently, the United States has helped build one of the best-equipped and worst-performing militaries in the world in the kingdom as the incompetent airstrikes across Yemen have clearly demonstrated. Starting in 2015 under the Obama administration, the United States aided a Saudi military operation in Yemen that has turned into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. American bombs continue to fall on civilians in Yemen.
Under the Trump administration, the personalistic nature of the relationship became entrenched. Saudi leverage over the choice of U.S. interlocutors, specifically bypassing the State Department in favor of a direct line to President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, or Trump himself, and diminishing U.S. diplomatic engagement resulted in the wholesale abandonment of U.S. principles over the killing of journalists, the shakedown of businesspeople, and the kidnapping of a prime minister. The old way of keeping the United States’ eyes shut toward Saudi Arabia must end. Trump made it worse, but the patterns were there for years.
Helpfully, at the same time the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been careening, Saudi Arabia has been undergoing major changes. Since 2015, it has started curtailing the power of the religious establishment, opening economic opportunities for women, opening its borders to foreign visitors and investors, and regulating its markets to international business standards. The state and its new generation of leadership under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman want to be a regional heavyweight in foreign policy and to be the Middle East’s economic powerhouse. And it can be thanks to its size, reserve assets and investments, military equipment, and its ability to intervene in the political economies of other regional players like Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. The country needs to be taken seriously.
And of course, there is still the oil; Saudi Arabia has some of the cleanest and cheapest oil production sources on the planet. It will be a major producer until the world no longer uses oil—a long way off. Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf oil and gas producers have cemented their economic partnership with China, which means that if confronting China is a U.S. national security priority, the United States will need to start in the Middle East and with Saudi Arabia.
The Biden administration has delineated some finite goals for the Middle East with perhaps misguided hopes of diminishing the region’s importance in its first term agenda. But the Middle East has a way of making itself matter. Particularly in the global economic recovery from the pandemic, the Middle East will be especially vulnerable to the challenges that lie ahead: rising levels of sovereign debt, structural impediments to job creation in the private sector, and overburdened social safety nets that can often barely meet public sector payrolls much less provide health care, stimulus to small businesses, jobs training, and poverty assistance. These are a recipe for civil unrest and new contestations of political order, many still simmering since the Arab Spring.
Second, the incoming Biden administration has suggested a rebalance of U.S. diplomatic and senior-level engagement in the Middle East, surely as a correction to the dilettante Kushner years. But perhaps Biden’s plans also represent an overcorrection in the sense that the Trump administration did have some wins there, including the normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE.
Third, and most importantly, the Biden administration has pledged to reenter the JCPOA, which Trump exited in 2018. Reentering the JCPOA will not be a snapback to 2015 but rather a complicated set of negotiations which now must take into account Iran’s increasing regional presence in Yemen and Syria and the growth of its ballistic missile program. Even as a “limited goal,” reentering a deal with Iran will actually be incredibly complex and require regional buy-in and cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE at the minimum.
Treating Saudi Arabia as a normal country, a regional power with influence and interests, will mean Riyadh will also have 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 judicial processes domestically. If Saudi Arabia wants to distinguish itself from Iran and present itself as a partner in countering Iran’s malign activities in the region, it must allow scrutiny of the accusations of terrorism it makes against its own citizens.
The United States can accept that Saudi Arabia is in the throes of a transformation and that Mohammed bin Salman will rise and stay in power for some time to come. The Biden administration can put some guardrails on this relationship, and at the same time, give Saudi Arabia what it covets. The United States needs to start treating Saudi Arabia like the regional power it wants to be.
Karen E. Young is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where she studies the political economy of the Middle East with a special focus on Gulf Cooperation Council states.