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Biden Was Always Going to Need Saudi Arabia

Trying to make Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah” was bound to fail.

Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Steven A. Cook
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mohammad bin Salman is shown with a slight smirk on his face.
Mohammad bin Salman is shown with a slight smirk on his face.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Oct. 23, 2018.

Not long after U.S. President Joe Biden was sworn into office last year, he seemed to make good on his campaign promise not to give “blank checks” to dictators when he took a number of steps to alter U.S.-Saudi relations.

The new president froze weapons sales to the kingdom pending a review of how they would be used, he authorized the release of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 murder, and the White House made clear that when Biden had business to do with Saudi Arabia, he would deal only with Saudi King Salman, not his son. This was followed by what the Biden administration called the “Khashoggi Ban,” which prevented Saudis and others who had threatened, intimidated, or harassed journalists and activists from entering the United States.

Although Saudi Arabia was not quite the “pariah” that candidate Biden had pledged to make it, the administration could claim that the president was changing the parameters of the relationship. The new approach also lent credibility to Biden’s vow to pursue a human rights-centered foreign policy that emphasized America’s democratic values. Human rights activists were disappointed that the administration did not sanction Mohammed bin Salman, but the problem with the policy was not that it did not go far enough but that it was bound to fail.

Not long after U.S. President Joe Biden was sworn into office last year, he seemed to make good on his campaign promise not to give “blank checks” to dictators when he took a number of steps to alter U.S.-Saudi relations.

The new president froze weapons sales to the kingdom pending a review of how they would be used, he authorized the release of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 murder, and the White House made clear that when Biden had business to do with Saudi Arabia, he would deal only with Saudi King Salman, not his son. This was followed by what the Biden administration called the “Khashoggi Ban,” which prevented Saudis and others who had threatened, intimidated, or harassed journalists and activists from entering the United States.

Although Saudi Arabia was not quite the “pariah” that candidate Biden had pledged to make it, the administration could claim that the president was changing the parameters of the relationship. The new approach also lent credibility to Biden’s vow to pursue a human rights-centered foreign policy that emphasized America’s democratic values. Human rights activists were disappointed that the administration did not sanction Mohammed bin Salman, but the problem with the policy was not that it did not go far enough but that it was bound to fail.

The day after Biden’s team made clear that Mohammed bin Salman was essentially persona non grata at the White House, I spoke on the phone with a Saudi official who seemed surprisingly laid back about the whole thing. “Steven, it’s fine,” he told me. “No one here is surprised by this decision, but there will come a day when President Biden needs Saudi Arabia, and he will have to call His Royal Highness,” he added, referring to the crown prince.

It was a cynical, arrogant, and—as Biden himself is now discovering, to his consternation—completely accurate assessment of the situation.

In early 2021, it was good politics to exact a pound of the crown prince’s flesh. Even Saudi Arabia’s paid spokespeople winced at the mention of Mohammed bin Salman, Khashoggi, or Saudi Arabia’s disastrous intervention in Yemen. Rebuking the Saudis allowed the Biden administration to get off to a good start with members of Congress (especially progressives), and it was a sharp departure from the Trump administration, which did everything it could to shield Riyadh from international opprobrium. It was a seemingly cost-free political win.

But Biden and his team overlooked one critical fact: Saudi Arabia was—and remains—a critical regional and global actor.

When Biden entered the Oval Office, the one major Arab country that continued to be influential was Saudi Arabia. Egypt had mostly turned inward since the 2011 uprising against then-President Hosni Mubarak and the coup that overthrew his successor, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013. The United Arab Emirates was an important regional player, but its small size was a limitation. Jordan was an important U.S. security partner, but its modest size and weak economy limited its ability to be a regional leader. Iraq remained incapacitated by the U.S. invasion two decades prior, Syria was and remains a failed state, and Tunisia was too far afield and too much of an outlier in the region to have much influence. That left Riyadh as the primary Arab interlocutor for Washington in the region.

Still, there remained a rather broad constituency in Washington for downgrading Saudi Arabia. in part because analysts and officials assumed that the United States would reenter the Iran nuclear deal, resolving a source of regional tension and facilitating the U.S. retrenchment. Yet what seems reasonable in journal articles, op-eds, and think tank reports is actually harder in a messy world where politics often gets in the way of solutions to big problems.

Now the negotiations with Tehran are on life support, and, thanks to the Trump administration’s ill-fated “maximum pressure” policy, the Iranians reportedly have enough fissile material for a nuclear device. All of this means the United States will once again have to rally a regional coalition—with Saudi Arabia as a central member—to contain and deter Iran.

There is also a tendency for people to extrapolate the future from current conditions and match it with their preferred outcome. By the time Biden became president, the idea that Saudi Arabia was no longer important—or not as important as it once was—had taken hold in Washington for two reasons.

First, the United States had become “energy independent.” That term can be interpreted in a number of ways, but it was the basis of an assumption that because the United States had become the world’s largest producer of oil, it would be insulated from the global market and geopolitical shocks. Second, alternative energy sources were going to diminish the need for Middle Eastern oil, thus diminishing Saudi Arabia’s outsized role in U.S. foreign policy.

Russia’s war in Ukraine exposed the flaws in both of those arguments. It turns out that some geopolitical shocks—like, say, the need to take one of the main European energy producers off the market because it just brutally invaded its neighbor—are impossible to avoid no matter how much oil your country produces. And while it’s plausible that alternative energy sources will eventually diminish the need for Saudi oil, that will be in the coming decades, not within a presidential term or two—and certainly not soon enough to save Biden from weak poll numbers as Americans grapple with high (for them) gas prices.

The president is clearly hoping that if he shakes hands with the crown prince and the Saudis agree to pump more oil, Americans will not be paying between $5 and $7 for a gallon of gas for very much longer. There is likely more to this quid pro quo than a handshake for petroleum, but Biden is clearly concerned about his flagging popularity and limiting the damage to Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. Beyond parochial political concerns, high energy prices are buffeting countries that can least afford it, adding another ingredient along with food insecurity and inflation to a toxic brew of social combustibility.

So Saudi Arabia’s crown prince may be odious, but that does not mean that folks can wish away the country’s importance to the geopolitics of the Middle East, the fact that a president’s political interests are intertwined with decisions made in Riyadh, or that there is no other country with the spare capacity to quickly make a difference in energy prices.

Biden may have been sincere in his desire to incorporate values in his foreign policy, but the bottom line is that there is little he can do to compel authoritarians bent on political control to respect human rights, and even less so when said authoritarians are sitting on top of a lot of oil.

Of course, the United States can make itself less complicit in the abuses leaders mete out to their own citizens, but that would require, for example, having a rational energy policy. That, in turn, would require overcoming both the widely held belief among Americans that they have a sacred right to drive around in gas-guzzling vehicles and the nasty politics that revolve around that self-destructive idea. The easier path is to seek help from the Saudis.

Biden now finds himself in the worst of all possible situations with Saudi Arabia. He allowed the Washington Post editorial board to dictate his policy, which both annoyed the Saudis and was never enough to satisfy anyone serious about protecting human rights. Now he looks like he is going hat in hand to people he once publicly called murderers with “very little social redeeming value.”

There was likely a better way of dealing with Saudi Arabia that got the point across about human rights and Yemen while preserving the president’s room to maneuver. The Khashoggi ban was smart, as was the release of the intelligence community’s report on the Khashoggi murder, which speaks for itself.

It was shortsighted, however, to make a big deal about freezing out the crown prince and removing Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia at a time when the Houthis were firing missiles at Saudi cities. These policies only sowed mistrust. And if the United States was serious about getting the Saudis out of Yemen, the administration could have offered Riyadh more significant border security and air defense assistance.

A more measured approach might have made the Saudis less obstreperous when Biden dispatched officials to plead with them to pump more oil. There is no guarantee that they would have been more cooperative, given the benefits of high oil prices for Saudi Arabia, but seeking to isolate Mohammed bin Salman has not helped the president.

The Saudis want to make it seem as if the world needs them because of a new dynamism enveloping the country. There are important changes in Saudi Arabia that critics often too easily and breezily dismiss, but that is not the reason Biden plans to go there next month. He is going because of Saudi Arabia’s oil, which was always the basis of the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship. And the price Mohammed bin Salman is commanding for his help is a cordial visit from the man who once vowed to make him a pariah.

In other words, it has played out exactly the way that Saudi official always knew it would.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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