Can Biden Really Shrug Off the Saudis?
David Rundell, a seasoned Saudi hand, talks to Foreign Policy about what’s really at stake with the Biden administration’s reassessment of a decades-old relationship.
On Feb. 26, the Biden administration released, at long last, an intelligence report detailing the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s central role in killing Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. U.S. President Joe Biden, having previously dismissed the longtime U.S. ally as a “pariah” and pledging to reassess U.S. relations with Riyadh, has set the stage for a potential showdown with one of the world’s biggest oil producers and a key to stability in the Middle East as the Biden administration looks to escape the region and pivot to Asia.
Foreign Policy spoke to David Rundell about what underpins the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, what Biden and former President Donald Trump got right and wrong, and what bilateral ties will look like going forward. Rundell, a 30-year U.S. diplomatic veteran of the Middle East, spent 15 years in Saudi Arabia. He is the author of Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Foreign Policy: What impact will the release of the Khashoggi report have on U.S.-Saudi relations?
David Rundell: Oh, I think it has a negative impact on the relationship. The Saudis have issued statements that they found the report to be inaccurate and unacceptable, so it clearly doesn’t help the relationship. Congress asked for the report to be released, so it wasn’t really a choice, but there’s no doubt that publishing a report like that is damaging to the relationship. And the relationship is important, so the publishing of the report is damaging to American interests.
FP: How would you characterize U.S.-Saudi relations under Trump?
DR: The American-Saudi relationship has existed for 75 years. It is defined by a set of common interests. These interests provide guard rails, if you will, on the sides of the relationship. We both have an interest in stable oil markets, reasonable oil prices. They would like to see an end to the Arab-Israeli dispute. They have never really participated in the Arab-Israeli wars. They have led the Arab world in trying to resolve it, with both King Fahd and King Abdullah putting forward peace plans, which King Salman has reiterated.
There has been, over the last 20 years, extensive counterterrorism cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States. In more recent years, the Saudis have begun to promote a much more moderate view of Islam, and that’s important since they control, if you will, the bully pulpit in Mecca. So the message that comes from that pulpit, which more than a billion people listen to every day, makes a difference.
So our interests are, in many cases, quite aligned, and the reason for that really is that both of us are status quo powers. Saudi Arabia and the United States both basically have a lot to lose. We like peace and stability. So those are the interests that are aligned, and they provide certain guard rails on the relationship.
But on the other hand, our foreign policy is always determined by a balancing of our interests and our values. And when it comes to values, the Saudis share very little of our values. Almost none. They are a religious, conservative monarchy and we are a liberal, secular republic. So our values are not closely aligned, and that creates a constant tension in the relationship, which is like a little ball, if you will, that’s always bouncing along between these two guard rails that I talked about.
So different administrations place different emphasis on values. Some are very interest-oriented, and others are very value-oriented. To me, the middle of the road is the way to go. I don’t think that an American foreign policy that is uniquely or entirely oriented toward interests or one that’s entirely oriented toward values is going to be successful in the long run. You need to find a pathway that is somewhere in the middle.
I think people would argue that the Trump administration was on the extreme of the interest-oriented, and it appears that the Biden administration may be excessively oriented toward the value side. And as I said in the beginning, I don’t think that’s helpful to American interests.
FP: But does America still need Saudi Arabia like it did in the past? How might that change going forward?
DR: The first thing I would say is what’s not going to change is the importance of Saudi Arabia and global oil markets. The reason for that is the United States and Europe could become totally carbon neutral tomorrow and import no Saudi oil, but the rest of the world still does, and the idea that the United States is not going to need any oil is just naive. I mean, the United States is going to require oil to run its economy for a very long time; even if everyone got an electric car, there are still many things that we need oil for. And oil is traded on a global market, so the price of oil in the global market will affect what we pay for energy here in the United States.
More to the point, high oil prices hurt the poor and they hurt poor countries. When oil prices go up, growth in less developed countries is hit much harder than it is in a very diversified and developed economy like the United States. So this is bad news if something would happen to Saudi oil production, and it would certainly affect our strategic allies in Asia like South Korea, for example, or Japan, who have to import oil from Saudi Arabia and from the Middle East. So I think that in terms of energy, we’re going to need Saudi stability for a long time.
What you’re looking for is stability in Saudi Arabia, because the Saudi regime manages its oil production in a responsible fashion. They are unique in the world in that they maintain an excess capacity, which they can turn on and off when it’s needed, and they do that to compensate for natural disasters or a war. So they provide a cushion. And if you lose stability in Saudi Arabia, you could very easily lose that cushion. If the Saudi production of 10 million barrels a day was taken off the market, nobody could make that up, and you would see a huge price spike.
Secondly, you also need investment. And again, the Saudis have done a good job of investing and keeping their production growing to meet growing demand. Iran has not done that. Venezuela cannot produce as much oil as it did 20 years ago because it has failed to modernize and invest. The Saudis have done that.
The final thing I would say is that some people, I think very naively, say, “well, if the Saudi regime collapsed, that wouldn’t make any difference because whoever took over would still have to sell their oil.” Well, as I pointed out a moment ago, number one, we don’t know that the next regime would be politically stable and able to physically produce it. And number two, we don’t know whether they would provide the investment to maintain it over a long period of time. But most importantly, the successor regime to the monarchy is not going to be a liberal, secular democracy. It will be some sort of an Islamic regime. If it took over by violence, it would be something like al Qaeda or ISIS; if it took over through elections, it would be something like the Muslim Brotherhood. And those groups don’t share either our interests or our values, and so the idea that ISIS or al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood could be in charge of Saudi Aramco and getting all of the money from Saudi Aramco is not a situation that I think anyone in Washington would really like to contemplate. I mean, you can barely imagine what those people would do with the kind of money they would get from running the Saudi oil industry. It wouldn’t be helpful to us, let’s put it that way, and it would not be supporting moderate regimes like Jordan or Egypt or Bahrain or, quite frankly, Tunisia or even Morocco that the Saudis contribute to with their oil reserves.
So I think, number one, interest in oil is going to remain. As I said, the Saudis have a definite interest in advancing the Arab-Israeli dispute; they have made many gestures toward Israel, and I know that quietly, behind the scenes, they have been supporting other countries making peace with Israel, and that when there is a consensus in the Arab world, they will go as well. They can’t really get out in front because of their role as protectors of Islam, but they are certainly quietly encouraging others to do so. And Bahrain and the UAE would not have done the Abraham Accords if the Saudis had violently objected to that.
FP: So where does this relationship go from here? The United States is reassessing and Saudi Arabia has its own reform plan and a lot of questions about its own future.
DR: Saudi Arabia has been more stable than many people predicted for many years. Today, it is less stable than many people assume because it is going through very traumatic changes—changes that are in a direction that we have long encouraged them. The social reforms in Saudi Arabia are quite profound. The empowerment of women has really become a major development in Saudi Arabia. Not only can women now drive, they can go to sports. They have abolished most of the guardianship rules, which meant that women had to have permission from their father or their husband to go to college, travel abroad, get a passport, open a bank account, start a business, get a caesarean delivery, you name it. You had to have written permission. That’s all gone away. The religious police used to be on the street. Now, they’ve been taken off the street. These are real changes that are happening in Saudi Arabia.
So these changes are very real. There were people who opposed them. You needed someone with a certain degree of ruthlessness to bring those things through. Other kings had not been willing to take on the religious police. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were willing to do that. They’ve also taken on corruption. Then they’re attempting to reform the economy by diversifying it away from oil, which is not easy to do, but they’re making more sustained and successful efforts than in the past. They’re not trying to democratize Saudi Arabia. If anything, they’ve gone the opposite direction on the political front, but their economic and social changes are real and we should support those.
Saudi Arabia has been stable for really four reasons. One, they had the historic legitimacy of the royal family, which started the kingdom. Two, they’ve had a successful mechanism for managing succession. Three, they kept cohesion amongst the elite. And four, they provided a reasonably competent government for the people, which really meant security, prosperity, and social change at a pace that most of the people would accept.
But all of those things are now being challenged by these changes that they’re introducing, and so the place is less stable than it was. So our effort to really demonize the crown prince—who is very popular in Saudi Arabia with most people—is not helping Saudi stability. If you destabilize the Saudi monarchy, you are not going to end up with this, you know, Canadian Parliament. You’re going to end up with something worse. So I think that we need to be careful, and I think that what we’ve done thus far has damaged the relationship. And I think that’s unfortunate.
I want to be clear what I’m saying: The United States cannot ignore, let me be clear about this, the United States cannot ignore the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It cannot ignore the imprisonment of Saudi dissidents. We cannot ignore the humanitarian cost of the war in Yemen. This is part of who we are, and we need to support our own values.
But we need to find a way to remain engaged with Saudi Arabia in order to promote both our interests and our values. If we cut off our relationship—and Biden said he was going to treat the Saudis as a “pariah”—that doesn’t help either our interests or our values. One criticism of the Trump administration was that it neglected traditional alliances. The Saudi alliance has been a good alliance for a long time. We don’t need to destroy that. We need to rebuild our alliances with some people in Europe and, at the same time, not wreck the ones we have in the Middle East.