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History Rhymes: Comparing the Kennedy and Biden Policies toward Riyadh

History does not always repeat itself but in some cases it comes close. Examining the U.S.-Saudi relationship from a historical perspective, one is struck by how Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Joe Biden initially viewed Saudi Arabia as a problematic partner, only to reassess their stances as their time in office went on and countervailing pressures gradually drove to pursue closer ties with Riyadh. These examples highlight the enduring nature of the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship, despite open criticism of the Kingdom expressed by some high-level American officials.

The United States, the Republicans, and the Royals

Six decades have passed since the presidency of John F. Kennedy and the Middle East is a much different place than it was in the early 1960s, but similarities persist. In the early 1960s, Kennedy believed that the forces of Arab nationalism, as represented by Egypt’s charismatic president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, represented the future of Middle Eastern politics, and that the United States had better cultivate this leader and his ideology to maintain its influence in the region—otherwise, the Soviets would be the chief beneficiaries of pan-Arabism. The problem for Kennedy was that this effort at rapprochement with Nasser, which arrived after the tumultuous years of the Eisenhower administration, ran into sharp opposition from the Saudis, who saw Nasser as their main regional adversary.

By the fall of 1962, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were locked in a bitter struggle over Yemen, which had descended into a nasty civil war. Egypt lent its political and military support to Yemeni republican forces who declared the “Yemen Arab Republic” (YAR), while the Saudis supported the forces of the old Yemeni monarchy, the Imamate. In December of that year, Kennedy recognized the YAR not only to stay in Nasser’s good graces, but also because he believed the YAR represented the future of Yemeni government. Kennedy’s decision also allowed the United States to keep pace with the Soviets, who had already recognized the YAR as the legitimate government of Yemen. Kennedy’s decision infuriated the Saudis, especially as Egyptian military aircraft had recently bombed Saudi territory near the Yemeni border. Later, in 1963, Kennedy had to reassure the Saudis that Washington still had their back, and he dispatched a squadron of U.S. military aircraft to Saudi Arabia to patrol the Saudi airspace and deter attacks.

What accounted for this reversal in American policy? Since taking office, Kennedy had grown increasingly disillusioned with Nasser, who did not reduce his ties to the Soviet Union. The Egyptian president had also bolstered—rather than reduced—Egypt’s military involvement in Yemen. Kennedy also faced growing opposition to his pro-Egypt policies from the Jordanians, the Israelis, and the British. But perhaps most importantly, the Saudis began to put pressure on ARAMCO, then an American-owned oil consortium, to reduce its large concession acreage in the Kingdom. Consequently, American oil executives urged the White House to favor Riyadh over Cairo.

According to the historian Douglas Little, Kennedy, despite his assurances to Saudi Arabia, believed the kingdom’s main problem was not the threat of Nasserism but its “unwillingness to undertake badly needed reforms.” Little also noted that Kennedy complained to an aide, Robert Komer, that the Saudis “represented yesterday rather than tomorrow.” Nonetheless, Kennedy’s aide recalled that Kennedy was “willing to overcome these moral scruples” because of the large American oil investment in the kingdom.

Repeating Past Reversals

Fast forward to today, and American policy toward Saudi Arabia has taken a familiar U-turn. President Biden, after labelling Saudi Arabia a “pariah” during his presidential campaign for its human rights abuses and for its role in another Yemeni civil war in which the Saudi bombing campaign has led to thousands of civilian casualties, appears now poised to put the U.S.-Saudi relationship on a different keel.

Responding to widespread criticism of his pending visit to Saudi Arabia from the human rights community, (as well as some of his fellow Democrats) Biden emphasized in a July 10, 2022 Washington Post opinion piece that “my views on human rights are clear and longstanding, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad.” He also stated he has placed sanctions on the Saudi team involved in the murder of Saudi dissident and writer, Jamal Khashoggi, and that he would continue to “not tolerate extraterritorial threats and harassment against dissidents and activists by any government.”

Nevertheless, Biden, in the same opinion piece, referred to Saudi Arabia as a “strategic partner for 80 years” and went on to note that Riyadh “has helped restore unity” among the GCC countries, has “fully supported” the current truce in Yemen, and is “now working with my experts to help stabilize oil markets with other OPEC producers.”

In other words, like Kennedy, Biden recognizes that Saudi Arabia requires fundamental political reforms, but like his predecessor remains unwilling to jeopardize a critical bilateral relationship. Indeed, it appears that economic factors—not unlike those that influenced Kennedy before him—have again trumped the president’s personal beliefs in the uniform applicability of universal human rights.

Today, ARAMCO is a Saudi-owned entity, and the Kingdom maintains enormous influence on the world oil market because of its ability to quickly ramp up production. So far, the Saudi leadership has refused to meet American demands for lower oil prices, in part to show displeasure with Biden’s past criticism of the Kingdom and a growing belief that the current U.S. administration has not expressed enough support for Riyadh. As in the early 1960s, the Saudis have shown that they can still play the oil card to their advantage. Biden’s trip to the Kingdom seems to be the price the Saudis will ask before increasing oil production.

To be fair to the Biden administration, its recent outreach to the Saudis has contributed to the ongoing truce in Yemen’s terrible civil war; that in itself should be considered a significant foreign policy accomplishment. But as Kennedy discovered, criticizing the Saudi kingdom and its political system as a relic of the past clearly has its limitations as a foreign policy framework. Instead, strategic and economic considerations seem to have won the day, yet again.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Professor Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, and a Senior Professorial Lecturer at American University where he teaches courses on U.S. foreign policy. Professor Aftandilian is also an adjunct faculty member at Boston University and George Mason University, teaching courses on Middle East politics. Previously, he worked for the U.S. government for over 20 years in such capacities as Professional Staff Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Middle East Analyst at the U.S. Department of State. He holds B.A. in History from Dartmouth College, M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from University of Chicago, and M.Sc. in International Relations from London School of Economics.

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