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Biden should rethink America’s fraught relationship with the Saudis

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“America is back,” President-elect Biden is telling world leaders. It is one of the surest bets that the first 100 days of a Biden foreign policy will involve rejoining international agreements, shoring up traditional alliances, and reinvesting in multilateral organizations.

Commitments to partners, organizations, and treaties that share common core values and promote a collective approach to addressing global challenges is the easy part.

The hard part will be disentangling the U.S. from entrenched alliances that do neither.

If a new administration is sincere about reflecting on the nature and value of alliances that work, then why not also reevaluate those that don’t?

No relationship is in more dire need of re-evaluation than that with Saudi Arabia, a country whose enshrined status as a necessary and stalwart ally has been accepted prima facie by every U.S. administration of the last 50 years, despite its ongoing promotion of repressive and autocratic norms in the country and abroad.

The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia best encapsulates the flawed U.S. approach to the Middle East: the support of repressive regimes in service to a superficial security umbrella at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of their populations. It is a policy outlook based on the false choice between the stability of strong men and the rights of the powerless. The coronavirus pandemic will only make state-society relations in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East generally more fraught and is already providing the excuse for the region’s autocrats to curb personal freedoms, crack-down on journalists, and institute further emergency powers.

As citizens across the region demand to better their lives and seek out new social contracts from their inept rulers, the division between government and governed will grow starker. Will the U.S. choose to stand alongside the region’s dictators or its peoples?

Despite its jailing of domestic dissidents and activists and promoting autocracy and disinformation campaigns to undermine democracy across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has enjoyed the long-standing U.S. commitment to the idea that the kingdom is fundamental to regional security and protecting American interests.

Despite having U.S.-supplied arms and technology used to bomb weddings, funerals, hospitals, and other civilian targets in Yemen, witnessing purchases of U.S. arms end-up in the hands of the Al-Qaeda, and reading the American Bar Association assessment that U.S. sales may violate the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), the State Department continues —  inexplicably and perversely — to justify these sales under the logic that Saudi Arabia “is an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.”

Indeed, despite all this, Saudi Arabia this weekend played virtual host to the 2020 G20 summit under the banner “Realizing the Opportunities for the 21st Century for All,” an eerily disquieting slogan when one recalls how those critical of the kingdom may be the targets of kidnapping and attempted harm, have their phones hacked, or bodies dismembered, no matter where they live, including in the United States.

It is little surprise that human rights advocates urged G20 countries to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for these ongoing abuses — and government officials in Europe and the U.S. pressured their representatives to boycott the meeting, rather than simply allow the country to bolster its international prestige by playing host.

There is reason to believe that a Biden administration will forge a new path in U.S.-Saudi relations.

President-elect Biden has intimated that a review of the relationship as well as the kingdom’s regional activity is in order. Many Obama-era policy staff responsible for enabling U.S. complicity in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in Yemen, who are likely to re-emerge in a Biden administration, have offered mea culpas and recognized the faults of their earlier policy thinking.

The U.S. Congress, once a dependable rubber stamp for sending arms and equipment the Saudis’ way, attempted to block billions of dollars in recent arms sales to the country and to extricate the U.S. from involvement in the Yemen war, only to witness both efforts stymied by a veto from President Trump.

Any serious review of the parameters of the U.S.-Saudi relationship will reveal the unfounded nature of its basic assumptions.

The extent to which the Biden administration and Congress make good on this agenda will signal whether the U.S. is ready to move forward in the region and to enact a new vision that values lives and livelihoods over autocracy and repression, government accountability over government malfeasance. A return to foreign policy normalcy in the Biden administration need not apply to all policy norms. It may be time for the U.S. to forget Saudi Arabia.

Kevin L. Schwartz is a Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. He was previously a research fellow at the Library of Congress and Distinguished Visiting Professor (Middle East Chair) at the US Naval Academy. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.

Tags biden administration Biden foreign policy Donald Trump Foreign relations of Saudi Arabia Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict Joe Biden Middle East Policy Mohammed bin Salman Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia–United States relations Yemeni Crisis

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