Dear Mr. President,
I am pleased to write this letter to you as a senior Saudi citizen who cherishes the historic partnership between our two great nations, which has survived the test of times for over three-quarters of a century. What has prompted me to pen down these thoughts is the recent glitch in our ties. However, it is reassuring that the attempted “rupture” on the basis of a tragic incident, which had largely fizzled out of public limelight, has quickly faded to become a sad footnote of history. Instead, with wisdom prevailing, your administration has chosen to “re-calibrate” Saudi-U.S. relations.
During your long stint in politics, from being elected as the youngest member of the U.S. Senate in 1972 to the recent assumption of the most powerful office of the world, you must have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the complexity of challenges in our troublesome region. As Vice President in the Obama administration, you helped defuse the sectarian strife in Iraq. And, in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring,” your cautious voice helped dissuade the proponents of a liberal democracy agenda in a region where the roots of the political crisis are primarily socio-economic in nature.
Unfortunately, since then, policy inconsistencies or the lack of resolve by the Obama and Trump administrations had considerably eroded U.S. credibility as a reliable Arab partner. Our strategic partnership had made a significant difference in previous decades in liberating the world from the dangers of communism and terrorism. Such partnership is needed ever more today, as multiple crises of the region have greatly confounded. America, under your wise leadership, should strive to adopt a different approach to restore its lost credibility in the region. It is, therefore, important to lay down the facts as they are in the Arab world and underline the perceived grievances that we have in Saudi Arabia.
To start with, Saudi in particular remain bitter about the Barack Obama years, for having been rebuked as “the so-called ally” and asked to “share the region with Iran,” a state that still sponsors terrorism in the eyes of the United Nations. The wider perception in the Gulf is that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, which the Obama administration had sponsored in 2015 without consulting the Arab allies, was a flawed nuclear deal: For, under its cover, Iran’s revolutionary regime was able to spread its destabilizing influence across the region through its militant proxies or client states, particularly in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Since then, armed with Iranian drones and precision-guided missiles, the Houthis in Yemen have directly threatened Saudi security scores of times.
Moreover, the reason we are still grappling with the tragic implications of the Arab Spring is because it was wrong to initially court the forces of extremism such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and leave the victims of subsequent conflict such as in Syria alone to face the wrath of a tyrannical regime. Look where Syria, Iraq, and Libya stand today. Lebanon is on the edge of a precipice, and several other Arab nations, including Egypt and Algeria, are still finding it difficult to recover from the implications of the 2011 uprisings.
Secondly, there is no doubt that the Trump presidency witnessed a warming of Saudi-U.S. defence and diplomatic relations. However, it is also a fact that President Donald Trump turned our strategic relationship into a transactional one—even publicly ridiculing our King for not surviving “two weeks” without American protection. He also did note after the 2019 “pearl harbor” like drone and missile attack on Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq, whose Iranian link was confirmed by the UN, except providing token U.S. military help for which he said Saudi Arabia had to pay “100 percent of the cost.”
Therefore, the so-called notion of Saudi coziness with Mr. Trump is not entirely true. Yes, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and our Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, were able to develop a close personal rapport, which, as some reports suggest, has paved the way for the conclusion of the Abraham Accords. The normalization of relations between Israel and four Arab nations—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—in exchange for a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank renews the possibility of a two-state solution to the lingering problem of Palestine. These Accords also significantly address the pending Israeli security concerns in an inhospitable region. If MBS has at all played some part in the process, even in partnership with Mr. Kushner, then he may have accomplished in half a decade what a generation of Arab leaders could not in the previous several decades.
MBS is also fundamentally transforming Saudi Arabia, by steering a revolutionary socio-economic reforms process under his Vision 2030 strategic plan to wean the country’s economy away from overreliance on oil and to reshape its society along the liberal values of gender equity, religious tolerance, and global openness. Internally, the avenues of free expression, modern education, and public entertainment—regardless of the distinctions in race, class or gender—have considerably widened. Women empowerment is echoed across the Kingdom, and there is zero-tolerance for corruption. Judicial reforms have expanded the avenues of justice and curtailed the powers of the clerical order. The economic reforms agenda focuses on empowering the youth, which constitutes the bulk of our population, particularly providing its urbanized and educated segment the due opportunities for upward social mobility and consequent responsible roles in national development.
Moreover, MBS has redefined the global engagement of Saudi Arabia, which now aspires to become an international hub of tourism, trade, and investment and an economic powerhouse on the world stage. Besides creating a conducive climate for the growth of the private sector, including investments from abroad, it is on the road to developing the first-of-its-kind mega infrastructure projects like the much-talked-about futuristic Red Sea resort city of NEOM. Finally, MBS has championed a state narrative that replaces ideological considerations with developmental priorities in regards to the Kingdom’s international conduct and outreach. Since the time of King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz almost half a century ago, Saudi Arabia has hardly seen a leader with such a progressive vision or sense of purpose.
Hence, MBS’s popularity, especially among young Saudis, is for a valid reason. To be sure, our country is at a moment of history where its reformist leadership wants to make a difference both at home and abroad. Rather than being ostracized on a frivolous basis, as happened recently, it needs sustainable global support to ensure economic diversification and social liberalization at home. Mr. President, your administration has set clear goals for decarbonizing the global economy and reviving liberal values across the world, which hardly clash with the current policy priorities of Saudi Arabia.
In the international sphere, the Saudi Government is artful enough to adapt its policies to evolving political dynamics, including in the United States—but certainly not at the cost of its national security or territorial integrity. Thus, well before your assumption of presidency, Mr. President, the blockade of Qatar was lifted through diplomatic negotiations, barring the resolution of remaining issues. Afterwards, heeding your human rights agenda, Saudi women rights activist Loujain Hathloul and several US citizens were released from prison. Moreover, despite the end of U.S. military support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen and the reversal of the executive order that classified the Houthi militia as a terrorist group, Saudi authorities have assured due cooperation to your envoy Tim Lenderking for securing a diplomatic settlement in Yemen. As expected, the Houthis are in no mood to end this by accepting the Saudi plea for declaration of ceasefire. Instead, what they have done this month is launch drones and missiles at the heart of Saudi oil industry, attacking the Aramco facility at Ras Tanura, followed by another drone and missile attack on oil refineries in the capital city of Riyadh.
This surely reminds us of the JCPOA, which has emboldened Iran to wreak havoc in Arab lands until this day. Yet, I have no doubt that Saudi Arabia will be willing to participate in a diplomatic process that renegotiates the terms of a new nuclear treaty with Iran, provided that the lifting of economic sanctions on its expansionist regime is made conditional to not just curbing its nuclear enrichment potential but also addressing the other two serious matters: Iran’s precision-guided missile capacity and its malign behaviour in the region. Saudi Arabia’s principled stand on containing Iranian militarism in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon is quite logical. Mr. President, you may remember the article in Foreign Affairs magazine published last year, in which you have endorsed the same stance by saying “I’m under no illusions about the Iranian regime, which has engaged in destabilizing behavior across the Middle East, brutally cracked down on protestors at home, and unjustly detained Americans.”
I am glad that your cautious instincts have once again prevailed to prevent the downhill slide of Saudi-U.S. relations beyond the recent tirade from our two governments. As they say, domestic politics and foreign policy are often intertwined. We understand the current cleavages in American politics, but this is an internal matter. The Saudi issue seems to be with the partisan political interests at the U.S. Capitol, especially the Democratic Left and its unholy alliance with the rights groups, who have spared no effort to castigate MBS in a bad light due to his personal bond with Mr. Kushner. In doing so, they have done a great disservice to our longstanding relationship, which normally transcends domestic politics or leadership choices. These very forces will do even greater harm, if not checkmated in a timely manner.