Biden promised a harder line on Saudi Arabia. Why can't he deliver?

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Biden promised a harder line on Saudi Arabia. Why can’t he deliver?
© Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images A portrait of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the capital Riyadh one day ahead of the the Future Investment Initiative, October 22, 2018.

On the campaign trail, Joe Biden vowed that the United States would finally teach dictators a lesson by punishing Saudi Arabia. “We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” Biden said at a 2019 Democratic debate. He seemed to grasp the danger posed by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, known by his initials as MBS.

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After an all-out charm offensive in 2017 to 2018, MBS had initially convinced American thought leaders that he would modernize the stiflingly conservative kingdom. But the crown prince had quickly become one of the world’s most brutal leaders. The assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 was the prime example that MBS represented rupture, not reform. Even before that, MBS’s transgressions piled high: the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, the detention and blackmail of members of the Saudi elite, and a growing crackdown on human rights defenders. Arrests of critics have accelerated since then, especially women’s rights activists. MBS is also responsible for potential war crimes in the ongoing military campaign in Yemen.

At this rate, this 37-year-old prince could rule the oil-rich kingdom as a kind of unhinged Saddam Hussein for more than a half-century.

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Since taking office, Biden has said that “human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.” The rhetoric marked a contrast to President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, chief Middle East adviser Jared Kushner, who emboldened MBS by maintaining a close relationship with him (including regularly WhatsApping). Trump explicitly said that the White House would prioritize arms sales to Saudi Arabia and, unlike previous administrations, scarcely uttered the words “human rights.”

A year on, Biden has avoided Trump’s outright encouragement of MBS but has done little to stop his brutality. “The relationship goes on as before,” said Nabeel Khoury, a former American diplomat and Middle East expert. “Biden came in with a promise to review the relationship with Saudi Arabia over the question of Yemen and human rights abuses, starting with the Khashoggi murder, but then that didn’t go anywhere.”

The middle-of-the-road approach

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Since the FDR presidency, Saudi Arabia has been an important United States partner. It is a major energy producer and home to the two most significant sites in Islam, and for decades, America had provided security guarantees to the kingdom. In return, the US has depended on Saudi Arabia as a counterweight to Iran in the Middle East, an intelligence partner against terrorist groups, and a dominant investor with an enormous sovereign wealth fund. But MBS’s ruthless intransigence had put the relationship to the test.

Biden’s government-in-waiting recognized that MBS demanded a different approach. Daniel Benaim, who advised the campaign and is now a senior Middle East diplomat, searched for a way to elevate human rights. In summer 2020, he proposed a “progressive course correction” that spelled out consequences for future malign behavior.

Benaim suggested a six-month review of policy, but it’s not clear whether Biden’s State Department has conducted such a reassessment. (The State Department declined to comment on the record, as did the White House.)

Publicly, the Biden team has articulated the importance of Saudi Arabia to US interests. The administration is focused, White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk said, on “getting back to sound, predictable policies and sound statecraft.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken sees the partnership with Saudi Arabia as “an important one, a vital one, and in terms of dealing with some of the most significant challenges we face, one that we are very appreciative of.” A spokesperson said the State Department is advocating for human rights while bolstering security cooperation with the kingdom.

Overall, the Biden administration has responded to MBS with an approach that keeps human rights concerns behind closed doors because, advisers say, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is so integral to US policy. By balancing the concerns of human rights activists and the Washington national-security establishment, Biden’s team has found that it is disappointing both, as well as supporters of the crown prince.

A month into office, Biden broke with Trump by releasing the intelligence agencies’ report on Khashoggi. It showed unequivocally that MBS was responsible for the killing of the Virginia resident in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Blinken announced the new “Khashoggi Ban” that would prohibit government agents who target dissenters from entering the US.

It was a good step, but Biden didn’t follow through. The formal ban was implemented against 76 Saudis but not the prince himself. Critics say true accountability would have meant putting MBS on the banned list. MBS hasn’t visited the US since Trump, but that relates to an implicit policy of distancing him, not a formal declaration that he’s banned. (MBS’s brother, who was reportedly involved in the Khashoggi operation, quietly visited the White House in July.)

Biden promised a harder line on Saudi Arabia. Why can’t he deliver?
© US Department of State/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud meet in Washington on October 15, 2021.

Human rights advocates would also like to see the Biden administration take bolder action, like levying targeted sanctions against MBS and his inner circle and ending meetings with US officials. Activists have also suggested working with the international community to freeze assets and institute broad travel bans, and have urged US businesses to stop working with MBS’s Public Investment Fund.

On the campaign, Biden said he would stop supporting the war in Yemen. More than 375,000 Yemenis had died by the end of last year, and the devastating death toll led Obama alumni to take responsibility for supporting the 2014 Saudi invasion. The State Department says it is working with Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen.

Last February, Biden ended “offensive” support for the war. Yet last month the Senate, with White House encouragement, approved a $650 million arms sale to the kingdom for “defensive” weapons to Saudi Arabia, a distinction that many experts reject.

Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi researcher at the organization that Khashoggi established, Democracy for the Arab World Now, sees this as an example of Biden falling short of his pledges. MBS is running Saudi Arabia as a “rogue state,” Alaoudh said, and the Biden administration is “so weak, so ambivalent, so reluctant, thinking anything they are going to do is going to push Saudi Arabia to China. All MBS understands is the power of toughness and ultimatums.” Ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia altogether unless it withdraws from Yemen would be one such ultimatum the administration could make, Alaoudh suggests.

Biden has made one big move: He won’t talk to MBS directly. The president, thus far, has only held phone calls with his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. This has reportedly angered MBS. But it’s an insufficient form of retribution. “The big punishment for murder and dismemberment of a journalist is you don’t get to meet the president yourself? You can meet with anyone else and get all the weapons you need,” said Andrea Prasow of the Freedom Initiative. “The consideration of human rights is not integrated into US policy. It’s an add-on.”

Why is there so much hedging in US policy toward Saudi Arabia, even when the Biden administration has set out to shake things up?

Biden’s Middle East priorities

The Biden team now seems resigned to a close relationship with Saudi Arabia in order to achieve its own policy objectives, like cheap gas prices and an accord with Iran.

The US is largely energy independent and has steadily decreased the amount of oil it imports from the Persian Gulf. Even so, Saudi Arabia and its partners within OPEC have tremendous power over global oil prices, which in turn affect what Americans pay at the pump.

In late September, as gas prices were rising, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan traveled to Saudi Arabia in what was the first visit of a senior Biden official to meet with MBS. The trip was discreet: no photos with the crown prince, no critical statements.

“The bottom line is that US policy toward Saudi Arabia hasn’t changed at all and still is driven by energy prices,” said Anne Patterson, who served as the top Middle East diplomat in the Obama State Department. “The administration, like others before them, had to go hat in hand to the Saudis to ask them to raise production to lower US gasoline prices.”

In the Middle East more broadly, the Biden administration has focused on getting Iran back to a nuclear accord, which Trump ended despite bipartisan objection. That return requires the buy-in of regional partners like Saudi Arabia and Israel. The diplomatic acrobatics between Middle East powers may lead to similar compromises that Obama pursued when his team essentially let MBS invade Yemen in 2014 as a way to get Saudi Arabia on board with the deal.

Biden’s team is also concerned with countering China’s influence. China, dependent on Gulf oil, is now Saudi Arabia’s primary trading partner and is also helping Saudi Arabia build a ballistic missile factory.

Khoury, the former diplomat, says the Biden team wants “to transform US foreign policy from the Cold War mentality of an overreliance on the global war on terror, use of military, and so on, into putting diplomacy first.” But he likens it to a trapeze artist jumping from one bar without knowing which bar to catch.

“You end up with a face on the ground,” Khoury said.

Back to basics?

Biden advisers returned to Washington with an appreciation that the Trump years were so disruptive, and MBS so dangerous, that Biden couldn’t return to the two countries’ close cooperation during the war on terrorism. A “dramatic rethinking” was needed, wrote Benaim, but now a return to the time before Trump might be the best they could do.

While the administration has raised human rights in private conversations with Saudi counterparts, the louder message is coming from the Pentagon, with its approval of massive weapons sales. The Obama administration sold $118 billion of arms to the country and the Trump administration $25 billion, and Biden is poised to help Saudi Arabia continue to be the world’s largest buyer of weapons.

The Defense Department said the latest $650 million sale “will support US foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a friendly country that continues to be an important force for political and economic progress in the Middle East.”

Human rights activists in Saudi Arabia, however, don’t see MBS’s leadership as a force for “progress.” Some aspects of life in Saudi Arabia have liberalized under MBS — with shifts like men and women attending concerts together. But these are limited reforms at the hands of a leader who regularly imprisons or kills his political enemies and has targeted feminist activists. “Even as the country opens up socially, culturally, and politically, it’s become more restrictive and much more suffocating,” a Saudi person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of those concerns, told me.

MBS may have been a pariah immediately after Khashoggi’s assassination, but now much has been restored. Three years ago, titans of business shunned the kingdom’s “Davos in the Desert’’ investment conference. Last year, many returned; the administration sent Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves to speak, not exactly a high-level presence but another example of the middling policy that confers some legitimacy on MBS.

McGurk, the top Middle East adviser in the White House, summed up Biden’s approach as “back to basics,” with an emphasis on “lessons learned” and “not pursuing maximalist, unachievable objectives.” At best, that means treading water in the Middle East. At worst, it suggests to MBS and other tyrants that they will face no consequences.

One might say that Biden’s campaign rhetoric was just politics and that, historically, campaign promises don’t translate into actual foreign policy. But Biden was no regular candidate — he had chaired the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and traveled the world as vice president — so his comments from 2019 might have had gravity.

From those remarks, it’s clear that Biden and his inner circle understand MBS. And it’s equally clear that they haven’t figured out how to turn their criticisms into policy.

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