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Partner, Not Pariah

On October 2, 2018, a foreign citizen was assassinated by a foreign government in a foreign city. The United States has signaled strong disapproval of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Should that event be allowed to destroy a relationship which continues to benefit American citizens? The President must defend both our interests and our values. His upcoming travel to Riyadh indicates that he is getting that balance right. He deserves credit for not bowing to those who regard the promotion of human rights as the sole objective of American foreign policy.


The Saudi American relationship is more fragile today than at any other point in the past fifty years. Certainly, the relationship has faced difficulties in the past, but they have always remained within a band defined by shared interests and mutual confidence. For example, while the Saudis had initially sought to avoid the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, they eventually joined the Arab consensus to punish nations supporting Israel in the October War. That decision did great damage to the American economy, but surprisingly little damage to the Saudi American relationship. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of the Treasury William Simon recognized the need to avoid this sort of disruption in the future. They very deliberately set out to strengthen the relationship and make Saudi Arabia a stakeholder in American prosperity. Likewise, while the 911 Commission found no evidence that the Saudi Government had supported al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington, the fact that many of the hijackers were Saudi sent the Saudi-American relationship into a tailspin. Yet within 18 months, widespread al-Qaeda attacks on Saudi Arabia itself brought Riyadh and Washington together again with a War on Terror replacing the Cold War as the focus of their cooperation.


Today things look very different. The young generation of leaders emerging in Riyadh do not share their fathers’ commitment to the Saudi American relationship. They recognize that China, not the United States, is now their largest trading partner and Saudi Arabia’s biggest customer for both oil and petrochemicals. They appreciate that cooperation with Russia, not the United States, has reinvigorated OPEC’s ability to move energy markets. They have come to doubt America’s commitment to Saudi security. They recognize that Moscow and Beijing now have more influence in Tehran than Washington. The Saudi American relationship has always been vulnerable to public opinion and domestic politics in both countries. It has been maintained not through formal institutions, but through high-level personal relationships. Not now. Never before has the White House referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state, openly called for “recalibrating” the relationship or refused, very publicly, to speak to a Saudi Crown Prince.


None of this would matter if the benefits of a strong Saudi American relationship had disappeared. They have not. Saudi Arabia remains the only nation on earth that can quickly bring large volumes of oil into the market by government fiat. Substantial Saudi financial support remains crucial to the stability of Western-aligned nations like Egypt, Pakistan Bahrain and Jordan; all countries where instability would create even more refugees headed for Europe. The Arab-Israeli dispute will not be resolved without cooperation from the guardians of Mecca. The social reforms now taking place in Saudi Arabia, especially those related to women’s rights and religious tolerance are providing an example for others in the Islamic World. Above all Saudi Arabia continues to share America’s interest in a stable and peaceful Middle East.


Improving Saudi American relations will take more than a handshake and a smile. It will require commitment, time and confidence-building measures on both sides. The Saudis will want to see more American focus on Riyadh’s security concerns, particularly as they relate to Yemen and Iran. That could include greater co-operation on air defense, cyber security, and intelligence sharing as well as more vigorous American efforts to interdict Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis. This should then facilitate Riyadh’s efforts to extricate itself from the Yemeni quagmire as quickly as possible; the current cease-fire seems to be a very good first step. Washington would naturally expect to see increased Saudi oil production reduce the price of gasoline as well as an end to the OPEC+ arrangements with Russia. Both sides would like to see a resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute. A Saudi recommitment to allowing overflights by Israeli commercial aircraft and to elements of the Camp David Accords relating to Red Sea islands would be helpful as would an American acknowledgement that the Abraham Accords were a meaningful achievement.


Rebuilding the relationship will require an unambiguous American recognition of the social reforms taking place in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women are driving, taking off their veils, sitting where the choose in restaurants and traveling abroad without their husband’s permission. The Saudi government has significantly restrained the activities of the religious police and sent a message that Saudi Islam has become more tolerant. The Saudis have done all of this on their own without our military or financial involvement. When compared with the reactionary course of events unfolding in Afghanistan where the West invested a great deal of blood and treasure, the Saudi reforms are worthy of recognition.


Saudi Arabia is trying to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons by developing its mining, petrochemical, transportation and tourism sectors. The United States should try to support these efforts. Unlike Chairman Xi, President Biden cannot produce foreign direct investment by fiat. He could however recommit the United States to a range of bilateral trade agreements and commit to sending a high-level delegation to the next Future of Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. That would send a clear signal to American business that boycotting Saudi Arabia is no longer the policy de jour.


President Biden’s travel to Riyadh is a necessary first step in rebuilding a mutually beneficial relationship. Indeed, the most significant aspect of his trip is that it is happening at all. Yes, we cannot ignore the outrage in the U.S. when Saudi intelligence agents murdered one of their own citizens, who was also an American-based journalist. On the other hand, we should remember that the same Saudi intelligence agencies have also saved dozens of American lives. Excessive attention to the agenda of single-issue, special-interests groups has frequently undermined American foreign policy. Fortunately, President Biden recognizes that he is responsible for protecting the totality of American interests and we should applaud him for the great political risks he takes exposing himself to attacks from political foes and friends alike.

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

David Rundell is widely regarded as one of America’s foremost experts on Saudi Arabia. After studying Arabic at Oxford, he served as an American diplomat for thirty years in Washington, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. Over those three decades he spent fifteen years in Saudi Arabia working at the Embassy in Riyadh as well as the Consulates in Jeddah and Dhahran. His assignments in Saudi Arabia included the Chief of Mission, Charge d’Affaires, Deputy Chief of Mission, Political Counselor, Economic Counselor, Commercial Counselor and Commercial Attaché. This is an unrivaled record of single-country concentration for an American diplomat, not only in Saudi Arabia, but in any country.

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