With Biden, a Saudi reboot

With Biden, a Saudi reboot
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Under a Biden administration, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will have to reboot its bilateral relationship with the United States. For the past four years, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerBiden celebrates start of Hanukkah Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report Watchdog finds no money has flowed out of agency tasked by Trump admin to fight pandemic MORE have built a transactional relationship devoid of longer-term strategic value. This hug between Washington and Riyadh favored MBS. The Trump administration, for example, largely ignored the Jamal Khashoggi killing, the Yemen war and its ensuing humanitarian catastrophe, and the systematic abuse of womens’ rights activists in order — primarily — to increase arms’ sales and only secondarily to build a buffer against Iran.

The Biden administration is expected to review the fundamentals of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship through the lens of human rights, good governance, open markets, and shared concern for Middle East stability. While Riyadh must balance Russian and Chinese interests, the kingdom’s economic and political future remains with Washington if the Saudi royal family hopes to meet the aspirations of its young, sophisticated, and growing population.

Here are three opportunities to realign American-Saudi relations.


First, Saudi Arabia should normalize relations with Israel by following the lead of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan. The Saudi business community in particular is keen to establish commercial relations in the agriculture, health care, water and technology sectors. Saudi-Israeli normalization would give an enormous economic and political lift to both nations and effectively turn the chapter of 20th Century Israeli-Arab relations. Such a diplomatic breakthrough could scramble Palestinian political dynamics in a way that opens the path toward an equitable settlement of the conflict among all parties. Clearly, Saudi-Israeli normalization early in the Biden administration would go a long way to easing bipartisan skepticism in Congress and among Democratic-leaning national security policy makers.

Second, the incoming Biden administration gives Saudi Arabia an opportunity to exit the Yemen war, a conflict that is counterproductive, expensive, and unending. The Kingdom, of course, has legitimate security concerns in Yemen, including stability along its southern flank and unimpeded shipping through the Bab al-Mandab Strait. Yet after years of war, Riyadh has not achieved its strategic objectives. Instead, the insurgent Houthi militia controls 80 percent of the population — including the capital Sanaʽa — and retains the military capability to launch strikes deep within Saudi territory. Make no mistake, the Houthis are bad actors. They have driven the economy to collapse, failed to govern, and are substantially responsible for much of the horrific suffering of the Yemeni people. But, at its core, Yemen is an internal civil war that will be resolved by the Yemenis themselves. With a Biden nudge, Saudi Arabia could recalibrate its Yemen policy to mitigate Houthi threats by pulling back from the conflict and opening deeper economic channels with its southern neighbor.

Unfortunately, in the waning days of the Trump presidency, the Saudis are pushing the administration to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization. As the Crisis Group observes, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in particular, reportedly sees designation as another lever to pull as part of the U.S. "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran. Pompeo’s designation is a mistake, it does not weaken the Houthis but rather precludes diplomatic contact necessary for negotiation, and risks life-saving aid to the most vulnerable.

If the Saudis want out of Yemen, Riyadh will need all of the help it can get from the international community. Last minute plays to the departing Trump administration are unhelpful when the incoming Biden administration is set to decide on further arms sales to the Kingdom, both relative to the Yemen war and more broadly. The results of the November election give Saudi Arabia a strong rationale to exit from a war which it has already lost.

Finally, while the Trump administration ignored Saudi Arabia’s track record on human rights, President-elect BidenJoe BidenBiden to provide update Monday on US response to omicron variant Restless progressives eye 2024 Emhoff lights first candle in National Menorah-lighting ceremony MORE will demand a higher standard. Clearly Saudi Arabia has scope to accelerate its domestic reforms, even though critics should acknowledge the dizzying speed of the kingdom’s recent liberalization policies. Life in Riyadh and Jeddah — from restaurants, cinemas, and shops — has been transformed in just a few years. The change is startling; and yet, there is more to do.

The Saudis could begin by releasing political prisoners held solely for their peaceful practice of free expression and association. The kingdom can also take further steps to build an independent judiciary free from political interference. Strengthening the rule of law would signal a new dawn to the Gulf state's citizens, the region, and investors.

A Biden administration is likely to adopt a more values-based foreign policy. Saudi Arabia is an important ally — and has been for generations — but diplomatic relations have defaulted to Kushner-MBS WhatsApp messaging under President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE. This strategic relationship needs to change.

A Biden administration should stretch the Kingdom to strike a deal with Israel, end its involvement in the Yemen war, and accelerate its domestic reforms for the benefit of the Saudis, Americans, and the world.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.