Why America can’t seem to quit Saudi Arabia
President Joe Biden wants a re-evaluation of the United States’s policy toward Saudi Arabia.
In early October, the kingdom announced that, together with the OPEC+, it would cut oil production, effectively raising gas prices and siding with Russia’s best interests. After almost two years of navigating the difficult relationship with the oil-rich autocracy, it was the event that pushed Biden to say, “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 adviser 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 in essence suggested that things so far had not been going well.
It marks the third time since taking office that Biden has re-evaluated Saudi policy. On the campaign, Biden promised a harder line. He lambasted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, or MBS, for his role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Once in the White House, Biden broke with Trump by releasing part of the intelligence report, sanctioning some Saudis involved in the killing, and informally pledging not to meet MBS, as part of a re-evaluation.
But as the war on Ukraine changed geopolitical considerations, with high gas prices exacerbating inflationary woes, came the second re-assessment. In spring 2022, the White House announced a surprising turnaround: Biden would travel to Saudi Arabia and, at last, meet MBS face-to-face. “It’s a relationship that is now on steady footing,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in June.
Now that the Biden administration re-evaluates its approach a third time, will it come to a new conclusion? It will be tough to change much. The US, after all, relies on the kingdom as a major oil producer and economic power with important shipping lanes, a close partner in countering Iran and terrorist organizations, and a significant trading partner and number-one purchaser of US weapons. Those perceived shared interests, limited leverage over Saudi Arabia, and the proclivities of Biden’s inner circle weigh in favor of the status quo.
The Biden administration’s call for a re-evaluation may be more of a pause button than a substantive policy review. “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. “The fact that nothing happened immediately is a sign that there’s some second thoughts.” (The White House declined to provide an official to interview or detail the status of the review.)
I asked a dozen former senior officials, several congressional offices, and Saudi and Arab activists what’s possible. The consensus is that major policy change is unlikely. But the Biden administration could establish guardrails to prohibit future escalatory violence from the crown prince and to save political face after the president’s embarrassing trip to Saudi Arabia. And if the US doesn’t do that, activists worry that MBS will emerge with more authoritarian tendencies at home and further license to take brazen actions abroad, all in contradiction of US interests and values.
1) What are the interests the US shares with Saudi Arabia?
The first question policymakers ought to ask: Has the world changed enough that the US and Saudi Arabia’s interests have diverged?
Since FDR, the US has found economic and regional stability from the kingdom — which is the world’s second-biggest oil producer, home of Islam’s two largest mosques, maritime neighbor to much of the world’s trade, and perceived partner on counterterrorism. The kingdom, meanwhile, benefits from the backing of the world’s largest military.
Now that MBS has taken Saudi Arabia in directions that often strain that partnership — the most recent one being the OPEC+ decision — the underlying sense in the Biden administration that the kingdom is a partner that can’t be let go hasn’t changed.
In recent years, the interests of Israel, America’s closest Middle East partner, and Saudi Arabia have grown closer, though the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations. Israel and Saudi Arabia’s alignment over anti-Iranian sentiment continues to bring them closer. The Trump administration helped Israel make diplomatic deals with its autocratic neighbors the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Bahrain, which has contributed to a hope among certain US policymakers that Saudi Arabia and Israel could forge an accord.
The Biden administration still sees Saudi Arabia as a partner as US global strategy is refracted through the lens of competition with Russia and with China. MBS has recently met with the leaders of each country, deepening relationships that benefit Saudi Arabia’s export market for energy.
A key question is whether it’s possible to work with MBS to fulfill shared goals. Many in the media, including the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, painted MBS as a reformer in 2017 as the young prince jetted through Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and New York in what in hindsight looks like an influence operation. But now many analysts call MBS a rogue leader willing to break convention to achieve whatever he wants, even by violent and extralegal means. Others who have met him see the 37-year-old crown prince as a McKinsey administrator, focused on data-driven solutions and project management. Some former officials I spoke with said it doesn’t matter who MBS is since the US has no choice over who is Saudi’s leader.
Many of the interests the two countries hold in common are now obscured by the way that Saudi Arabia played US domestic politics in the Trump years — and how Saudi Arabia has since invested in the financial endeavors of former Trump officials Jared Kushner and Steven Mnuchin. The Saudis have misplayed 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, told me.
Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser, explained that the shared interests are nonexistent at this point and that MBS is actively working against the US by partnering with Russia and China. “The reality is that MBS has not moved into the autocratic camps because of something the US did. It’s because that’s where he’s comfortable, and that’s what the reassessment has to take into account,” he told me. “I don’t think there’s anything the US can do to change how MBS is, and Washington has been slow to recognize who he is.”
2) What are the points of leverage?
If under Mohammed bin Salman, this is going to be a transactional relationship, then what things does the Biden administration want and what is it prepared to do to achieve them?
“There are so many things that we can do together,” Robert Jordan, who served as the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2002 to 2003, told me. “At the same time, we can also make it clear that there are guardrails, and there are norms, and that that kind of cooperation will be injured by reckless behavior on the part of the Saudis.”
US policymakers then are probably debating how to send a strong message that there will be repercussions for MBS’s moves that affect the US. It was the issue of oil production, not human rights, that pushed the Biden administration to consider how to readjust the relationship. 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.”
Congress has the power to hold or suspend arms sales. Saudi Arabia has been the US’s biggest weapons buyer for a decade. The Pentagon has notified Congress of $3.07 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2022, something that could push the president in a different direction. “The most important aspect of Saudi dependence on the US is security, of course, technology that comes with it,” says Hala Aldosari, a Saudi human rights activist.
In response to the OPEC+ decision, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) says that the US should stop approving arms sales to the kingdom and take its Patriot missiles, which are in high demand, from there and send them to Ukraine. Similarly, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) argue that such a pause would show American leverage over Saudi Arabia without detracting from US security interests.
“You may even decide on the back end of that and not resume them,” Rhodes told me. 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.
In contrast, James Jones, the retired general who served as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, argues that the shared interests are too big to set aside. “My recommendation, if I were still a national security adviser, would be to say, ‘Be more consistent and be more declarative in who our friends and who our allies are, and what we’re willing to do to help them,’” he told me.
Biden has at times been critical of Saudi Arabia. Jones says that rhetoric “encourages our friends and allies to consider other options that we would not want them to seriously consider.”
Jones, who recently came under scrutiny for his private firm’s extensive for-profit advisory work for the Saudi Ministry of Defense, said America should maintain those types of relationships with the kingdom. He told me his work, which the Trump administration had approved, “is in our national interest.”
“To suggest that retired military people, who are patriots, can’t engage with the approval of our country to help transform and develop better relations with friends and allies, seems to me a little bit off,” he added.
Cutting back on the arms transfers might encourage Saudi Arabia to turn elsewhere, defenders of the relationship worry. But several Congressional staffers told me that it’s no longer credible to say that such punitive measures from the US would push the kingdom toward China. The Saudis are “welcome to, but they’re not going to do it,” a senior Democratic Congressional aide told me. “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.”
Regardless, suspending arms sales seems to be a far-off possibility right now, unless Congress takes initiative. (In 2019, Congress blocked $8 billion of sales to the kingdom, a move that Trump then vetoed.) The US military is moving ahead with a counter-drone program in Saudi Arabia, the kind of thing that Congress could delay to make a point.
Congress may also weigh writing language into the annual bill authorizing the defense budget that makes US arms sales to Saudi Arabia dependent on the country releasing political prisoners, for example, or other internal reforms. There is also the NOPEC bill, which has passed committee and would give the US attorney general the ability to target OPEC+ with antitrust legislation.
If the administration isn’t willing to curtail the military relationship, its other options are limited. The US could also consider ways to make it more difficult to do business with Saudi Arabia. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has urged US corporations and investors to consider “reputational concerns that can arise from public policy choices made by host countries” and incentives could be established there — though investors nonetheless have rushed back.
A more extreme version of this would involve implementing sanctions on MBS personally, something the Biden administration has yet to do. Another point of leverage is whether the crown prince will be granted immunity, as a head of state, for a civil case against him related to the murder of Khashoggi.
3) Could human rights make for better policy?
This is not a values-driven relationship, but a security relationship. Human rights experts say that an emphasis on values might actually make for more pragmatic policy.
Though Khashoggi’s dismemberment and disappearance from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul gripped the world, the direness of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is ongoing but overlooked. It’s how someone like Noura al-Qahtani can be sentenced to 45 years in prison in Saudi Arabia only for supporting the release of political prisoners in a tweet.
MBS’s track record exposes how few values are shared by the two countries. Saudi Arabia is un-democratic: there is no free speech and it is risky to criticize MBS; the country has grown more authoritarian with highly centralized decision-making under MBS. The country’s military adventurism in Yemen, a Saudi war enabled by US bombs where thousands of civilians have been killed, shows how risky it is to put in with MBS.
Biden initially resisted meeting MBS, according to Politico, because he reportedly exclaimed that his presidency “should stand for something.” At a 2019 Democratic debate, he said, “We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.”
Many former officials say that 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 told me. “To me, helping friends and allies transform, whether it’s on a societal basis, or on a military basis, or on an education basis, whatever it is, is in our long-term interests.”
For Ambassador Jordan, who knew Khashoggi and condemned his murder, human rights conversations with Saudi Arabia are more productive when conducted privately. “Only by having the relationship in place, can we have enough influence on issues like human rights, women’s rights, and freedoms,” he told me.
Several former officials told me that too much focus on human rights will throw off the parts of the relationship that benefit American citizens, namely energy prices. “We all have these views on human rights. [Biden’s] entitled to his, I have mine,” said Victoria Coates, who served as Trump’s deputy national security adviser. “But in this case, they can’t be the driver of my energy policy.”
That may be true, but the energy policy doesn’t seem particularly effective at this point either.
One convincing argument at this table, however, is that democratic values ultimately make for a better foreign policy.
“Countries that are democratic and respect human rights, at the end of the day, are more stable, more peaceful, more prosperous, and better allies,” said Tess McEnery, the executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, who worked on democracy issues for the past 15 years throughout the federal government, including on Biden’s National Security Council.
Whether there’s anyone dedicated to advancing that viewpoint in administration policy debates is another matter.
4) Should Biden’s reevaluation extend to his own advisers?
Ultimately, Biden’s policies are only as good as his closest advisers.
In my conversations with administration insiders I got the sense that there are not enough human rights voices at the policy-making decision table. Biden’s nominee for the crucial assistant secretary of state role for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Sarah Margon, has been on hold for more than a year due to Republican stonewalling. That vacancy means the absence of a senior appointee focused on this set of issues.
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 me. “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 are particularly incensed by the prominent and influential role played by White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk. Since he has served as a senior official in four subsequent presidencies, it’s easy to criticize him for embodying the structural deficiencies in this relationship (and of Middle East policy more broadly). Yet for every critic of him I spoke with, there was someone impressed by his bureaucratic deft.
But expect members of Congress and activists to further personify Biden’s Saudi policy on him. It may lead to McGurk’s exit after the midterms.
Yet there have been effective diplomats in Biden’s orbit. State Department envoy Tim Lenderking, who has been a frequent flier to Saudi Arabia along with McGurk, has worked to negotiate a ceasefire between the kingdom and Yemen’s Houthis.
To get a sense of what a broader vision of what US policy toward Saudi Arabia might look like, one has to look to the strident words Biden officials were willing to say before they went into government.
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.”
Or as Sullivan told Congress during a February 2019 hearing on US policy toward Saudi Arabia, “I think we have too frequently been willing to say we have to make human rights concerns a fifth, sixth, or seventh tier priority rather than something on the plane with other more fundamental interests that we have, and I think that should change.”
It is significant that someone like Sullivan would take a progressive position when out of government, and then reverses toward what’s perceived as realism when he is chairing meetings. It’s less a statement of individual hypocrisy and more an exemplary case study. (Obama’s advancement of extralegal drone wars and support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, among other non-progressive foreign policies, come to mind.) Little wonder that many in Washington are cynical about whether the US-Saudi relationship could ever change.
Maybe rather than firing his advisers, Biden could encourage them to revisit the big policy rethinks they proposed in the off-season and find ways to make them work today.
For Nancy Okail, an Egyptian activist and president of the Center for International Policy, the fact that Biden has not stood by his pledge to make Saudi Arabia a pariah undermines policy writ large on human rights. “It’d be seriously damaging if these words aren’t translated into concrete and corrective foreign policy measures,” she said.
Every time the Biden administration says it’s re-evaluating a policy and uses strong rhetoric that isn’t matched with new policies, it undermines American credibility in the world.