How Biden and Progressives Got Saudi Arabia Wrong

How Biden and Progressives Got Saudi Arabia Wrong

What we are seeing with Biden’s mismanagement of U.S.-Saudi relations is what we will get if a progressive-influenced foreign policy continues to ascend in the corridors of power in Washington.

U.S.-Saudi relations have been on a steady decline since Joe Biden entered the White House. Relations reached a new low on October 5 when the Saudi-led OPEC+ announced that it would be cutting oil production. A decrease in oil production will drive up gas prices as the United States staves off a recession and will provide Russia with much-needed revenue to wage its war in Ukraine. Both outcomes are unbecoming for a strategic partner of seventy-seven years.

Although the announcement comes at an inopportune time for the Biden administration’s domestic and foreign policies, Saudi Arabia’s action is not surprising. President Biden has mismanaged U.S.- Saudi relations. The drama that surrounded Biden’s July visit to the kingdom and now the cut in oil production are manifestations of the dangers and the shortcomings of pursuing a progressive-influenced U.S. foreign policy.

The seven-decade U.S.-Saudi relationship—forged in the fire of World War II, strengthened over the course of the Cold War, and maintained during the post-9/11 era—is anathema to progressives. The Saudi way of life stands in stark contrast to American culture. Saudi Arabia is religious, reactionary, patriarchal, and monarchical. The United States is secular, liberal, egalitarian, and democratic. For progressives, the United States and Saudi Arabia can no longer remain strange bedfellows. Either Saudi reforms its ways, or the kingdom must be sidelined.

Although sharp differences between Saudi Arabia and the United States have existed for decades, the differences have not stood in the way of a cooperative relationship. The defining feature of U.S.-Saudi ties has been the mutually beneficial economic-security dynamic. Saudi Arabia provides the United States with cheap access to its oil to the benefit of both economies. In turn, the United States provides Saudi Arabia with security and the means to defend itself.  

So what has changed?

For a growing number of progressives, international relations extend beyond economic and security matters. Countries’ cultural values and domestic structures also matter. Progressives are equally concerned with how states interact with other states and how governments interact with their respective populations.

Progressives seek an international environment where countries work through international institutions, seek justice, and strive for equality. They are proponents of diplomatic resolutions, critical of military build-ups, and seek to alleviate power differentials. Progressives are also champions of human rights and democracy. They believe the characteristics and internal dynamics of states have the ability to reverberate across borders. Hence, domestic politics and culture are of legitimate interest to American foreign policy.  

A progressive’s respect for state sovereignty is contingent on the employment of certain practices and values. Western-liberal standards, such as egalitarianism and democracy, are the points of reference for evaluating a country’s governing practices, societal structures, and values. As a result, a progressive-influenced foreign policy is ideologically and culturally charged, particularly towards non-Western countries.

Biden’s edict to “reset” U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations reflects the progressive influence. It intertwines the economic-security dynamic of the relationship with an emphasis on Saudi Arabia’s politics and culture. The administration believes that the continued existence of the seventy-seven-year-old partnership is contingent upon the kingdom’s ability to reform and reorient basic principles by which its society operates.

One justification for the “reset” is how the Kingdom deals with dissidents. The Biden administration seeks accountability for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and leniency for jailed malcontents.

The other justification is the Kingdom’s intervention in Yemen. Saudi is blamed for exacerbating a humanitarian crisis and indiscriminate airstrikes on Yemeni civilians. The Biden administration seeks an end to the Saudi military campaign and an end to the war.

During his campaign and the initial months of his presidency, Biden verbalized and acted on his displeasure with Saudi Arabia. He stated that he would “make them [Saudi Arabia] pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.” He put the crown prince “on notice,” after declassifying a report from the director of national intelligence that implicated the crown prince in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The bizarre decision guaranteed a decrease in American influence in Riyadh. Weapons sales to the kingdom were temporarily postponed. He terminated U.S. support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen. He took the Iranian-funded and inspired Yemeni militia guilty of attacking the kingom—the Houthis—off the State Department’s list of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The United States also removed missile defense systems amid Houthi missile and drone strikes.

Biden’s words proved ineffective.

His actions did not achieve the desired results.

The monarchy did not levy further punishment on those complicit in the Khashoggi murder. Long jail terms continue to be handed down for political dissent. The Houthis escalated their missile and drone attacks on the kingdom. The Yemeni conflict remains unresolved.

Biden arrived in Saudi Arabia on July 16 with egg on his face after Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman refused Biden’s phone calls and ignored pleas to expand oil production. The visit to the kingdom produced no “deliverables” and the contents of meeting discussions are disputed by the unhappy allies. To add insult to injury, three months later, the Saudi-led OPEC+ announced that it would cut oil production.

The sorry state of U.S.-Saudi relations and the vulnerability of American policy in the Middle East is the result of Biden’s decision to adopt a progressive-influenced foreign policy at the outset of his term. The policy is antagonistic in its approach to non-Western/European countries, unrealistic and unreasonable in its expectations, and myopic in its outlook.

The Biden “reset” is antagonistic to the existence of the kingdom. U.S. criticism of the kingdom’s unwillingness to tolerate dissent challenges the viability of the monarchy. A monarchy is not a democracy. Dissent may be tolerated, but only within parameters established by the government.

Demanding accountability for Khashoggi’s murder makes sense to most Americans. But the reality is that seeking justice for Khashoggi is a push for deep intervention in Saudi royal family politics. Besides being a source of dissent, Khashoggi worked for a member of the Saudi royal family. His dissent and connection to the family posed a potential threat to a monarchy in transition—the transfer of power within the Saudi dynasty from sons to grandsons. It is natural for monarchs like the crown prince to consolidate power to ensure their ability to rule.  

Beyond voicing disgust over the appalling act, what grounds does the United States have for intervening in a largely domestic Saudi affair? Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen. He was neither a U.S. citizen nor a permanent resident. Khashoggi was murdered in Turkey, not the United States. 

The Biden “reset” is antagonistic to the security of the kingdom. The U.S. reproach of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is an affront to the security of Saudi Arabia. It ignores Saudi Arabia’s greatest security concern: Iran. The criticism also raises questions about whether the United States has the kingdom’s best interests in mind.

The kingdom considers the Yemeni civil conflict to be an existential threat because Iran funds and inspires the Houthi movement. The Houthis are attempting to assert their control over Yemeni territory, thus placing an Iranian proxy on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. The Houthis also periodically launch missiles and drones at the kingdom. The unwillingness of the United States to support Saudi action to eliminate the threat demonstrates to Saudi leadership that this threat is not taken seriously in Washington.   

The president’s policy is unrealistic in its expectations. What did Biden hope to achieve by referring to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah?” Cause a revolution in Riyadh? Scare or humiliate the Saudi monarchy into tolerating dissent? Begin a process of turning the kingdom into a democracy? Generating these outcomes would create considerable turmoil in one of the world’s most important energy producers. Does the president prefer instability?

Furthermore, what does putting the crown prince “on notice” exactly entail? If the crown prince makes another mistake, will Biden ask him to resign? The crown prince is popular, particularly among Saudi youth. Does the president believe the Saudi public will welcome the resignation of the crown prince, instigated by a state of which many Saudis are becoming deeply suspicious?

U.S. expectations of Saudi Arabia regarding Yemen are unreasonable. The Biden administration asks of the kingdom what the United States itself is not willing to do—tolerate a threat on its southern border. Imagine the United States tolerating the presence of an Al Qaeda affiliate or ISIS launching strikes from Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez. The threat would be eliminated in a day.

The most troubling aspect of a progressive-influenced foreign policy is its myopia. The emphasis on ideological and cultural policies threatens to undermine economic and security interests.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is multifaceted. Saudi assistance and cooperation in the fulfillment of U.S. policies are considerable and critical. Saudi Arabia plays a role in countering terrorism; thwarting Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and supporting hydro-carbon production.

Biden’s short-sightedness threatens to undermine one of the administration’s key, laudable, foreign policy objectives: preventing the proliferation of nuclear capabilities in the Middle East by resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal. The Biden administration confuses its priorities or chooses to ignore the connection between its treatment of Saudi Arabia and the maintenance of the non-proliferation of nuclear capabilities in the Persian Gulf.