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Balancing act: Biden must redefine the US-Saudi relationship

Balancing act: Biden must redefine the US-Saudi relationship
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The expected release of a declassified intelligence report that will probably conclude with “moderate confidence” that Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman — known as MbS — ordered the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi is sure to heighten anger with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. How the Biden administration responds will have huge ramifications for its broader Middle East policy.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is a classic case in which Washington has had to reconcile concerns, needs and interests. For more than 70 years, there was a basic bargain: We provide the Saudis security, they provide a stable oil market and support against common adversaries, from Arab radicals to the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan. We paid little attention to the often medieval governance of the kingdom or the intolerant, hateful interpretation of Islam — what critics call Wahhabism — that its clerical establishment enforced domestically and exported internationally.

But with the waning of our dependence on Middle East oil and our growing fatigue with regional conflicts, this relationship has come under much greater scrutiny.

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True, serious questions began to emerge after 9/11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, but the impulse to challenge the relationship is more recent. It coincides with the appointment of MbS as Crown Prince, his control of all the key instrumentalities of power and his use of that power in ways that often seem impulsive and reckless. These include: launching an anti-corruption campaign that appeared mostly to target opponents or shake down critics; arresting free speech and women’s rights advocates on dubious charges; starting feuds with Canada and Germany over relatively mild criticism of Saudi human rights policies; detaining the former Lebanese prime minister; and, of course, going to war in Yemen to restore the legitimate government but conducting what often degenerated into an indiscriminate aerial bombing campaign with terrible human consequences.

If all that weren’t enough, Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul crossed every line and led many in Washington to seek not only to ostracize MbS but even seek his removal — as if the U.S. could do that. 

The fact that Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDC goes to the dogs — Major and Champ, that is Biden on refugee cap: 'We couldn't do two things at once' Taylor Greene defends 'America First' effort, pushes back on critics MORE shielded Riyadh from any punishment for the sake of arms sales only added to the increasingly bipartisan fury in Congress that MbS and Saudi Arabia should pay a price.

So far, President BidenJoe BidenSuspect in FedEx shooting used two assault rifles he bought legally: police US, China say they are 'committed' to cooperating on climate change DC goes to the dogs — Major and Champ, that is MORE has tried to strike a balance in his approach to the kingdom, having promised as a candidate that America will not check its values at the door for the sake of oil or selling arms. He has ordered an end to material support for the Saudi military operations in Yemen but re-committed the U.S. to defending Saudi territorial integrity. While the administration has paused the sale of offensive weapons, it will provide defensive weapons to help the Saudis deal with cruise missiles and drone attacks that the Houthis in Yemen and Iranian proxies launch at Saudi cities, including at Riyadh itself.

President Biden is right to emphasize balance in the relationship.

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Our disgust at certain Saudi actions notwithstanding, we retain real stakes in Saudi Arabia, as there is no significant issue in the Middle East where a successful strategy is possible without active Saudi support. From containing Iran to combatting terror, to building on Arab normalization with Israel (and using that to break the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians) or trying to end or reduce conflicts in Yemen and Syria, we need Saudi cooperation. Moreover, to manage the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, we need a stable and predictable price of oil that makes wind, solar and hydrogen alternatives competitive in terms of cost — while also preventing the sudden collapse of our oil and gas industry. Here again, the Saudis remain important.

Perhaps most of all, we have a stake in the fundamental change of Saudi social and economic norms being led by the same leader responsible for those impulsive, reckless actions: the crown prince. For all his faults, MbS understands that his kingdom — and his family — won’t survive the eventual demise of a fossil fuel economy without dramatic adjustment. His answer has been to implement a “revolution from above” — the National Transformation Plan — in which modernization and nationalism replace traditionalism and Wahhabism as sources of identity and legitimacy.

In practice, this has meant expanding civil rights and economic opportunities for women, since the Saudi economy would forever languish without the contribution of half its population. It has meant reforming the legal code and school textbooks in ways that may seem modest to a foreign observer but are dramatic in the Saudi context. And it has meant empowering clerics that advocate a more tolerant, inclusive Islam, while imposing tight controls on those who refuse to discard the old ways.

The U.S. has an interest in the success of this effort. Skeptics may doubt the NTP’s ambitious targets — and they may be right — but what matters most is the direction of change and the regime’s continuing commitment to it. Our responsibility is to engage with Saudis at all levels to encourage progress, provide technical assistance and make clear that the scale of foreign investment the kingdom needs to succeed will never come in an atmosphere of fear or without the consistent application of the rule of law.

So leveling with the Saudi leadership, a natural Biden instinct, is necessary. The president should send someone close to him to have a discreet discussion with MbS to re-define the boundaries of our relationship, making clear what we will support and what we will criticize.

We should insist on a two-way policy of “no surprises.” We should demand a formula for what Biden has called “accountability” for the Khashoggi murder, including specific commitments that ensure such an outrage can never recur. And that early discussion should lay the basis for a strategic dialogue on a broad range of key regional issues.

The Biden administration’s instinct to end the blank check with the Saudis is right. But engaging a flawed partner is not the same as confronting a determined adversary. The administration’s instinct to find a balance in the relationship is right, too.

Dennis RossDennis Alan RossBiden needs to tear down bureaucratic walls and refocus Middle East programs Balancing act: Biden must redefine the US-Saudi relationship Iran begins restricting watchdogs' access to nuclear sites: report MORE and Robert Satloff are, respectively, counselor to and executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Ross served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.

Satloff, an expert on Arab and Islamic politics as well as U.S. Middle East policy, has written and spoken widely on the Arab-Israeli peace process, the challenge of political Islam, and the need to revamp U.S. public diplomacy in the Middle East. A frequent media commentator, he has testified to numerous Congressional committees on U.S. Middle East policy. Follow him on Twitter @robsatloff.