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U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia has unleashed a gusher of chatter in the American foreign policy community. Some reactions, including from influential Democratic politicians, have been unreservedly negative. Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff said, “Until Saudi Arabia makes a radical change in terms of human rights, I wouldn’t want anything to do with him,” referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. But defenders of Biden’s decision to visit argue that U.S. interests and the realities of power in the Middle East require a strategic relationship with the Saudis, despite their poor record on human rights and democracy.
This level of disagreement and controversy is striking and unusual because American presidents have been meeting with Saudi leaders regularly since the 1970s—and on occasion before that. But the Biden administration had signaled, in no uncertain terms, that it would treat Saudi Arabia differently than did previous administrations. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden said he would make the Saudis “pay the price” for the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the Saudi participation in the war in Yemen and would treat them as “the pariah that they are.” Once in office, Biden authorized the release of a U.S. intelligence report holding that MBS was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi operatives in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Biden refused to deal directly with the crown prince and took policy steps that aggravated the Saudis, including lifting the official designation of the Houthis (the Saudis’ opponents in Yemen) as terrorists, removing U.S. air defense batteries from Saudi Arabia, and restarting nuclear talks with Iran. So the upcoming visit to Riyadh represents a reversal—and a climb-down for a president who is facing an increasing number of political problems at home.
Earlier this year, I wrote in Foreign Affairs that American policy in the Middle East should privilege order over other goals, and that meant dealing with regimes and leaders that have blood on their hands if it serves U.S. interests. Reengagement with Saudi Arabia fits this agenda. Although Biden’s visit may sit uneasily with his earlier rhetoric and stated values, it will help to right a relationship that can, if played correctly, help to stabilize world oil markets, extend the truce in the Yemeni civil war, and contain Iranian ambitions.
Since taking office, Biden has been at least partly open to prioritizing order in the Middle East over other aims, such as the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy. After all, Biden reopened talks with Iran (mediated by the Europeans) about restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which had succeeded during the administration of President Barack Obama in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. When President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA, Iran renewed its nuclear program and has since grown closer to potential weaponization. The Biden administration has been willing to put aside a long list of issues with Tehran—including its support for terrorist organizations and the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and its growing ballistic missile arsenal—to try to halt or slow the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. Nothing would be more likely to lead to increased conflict and instability in the region than the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.
Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia is another step toward order and stability. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine disrupting world energy markets, Riyadh’s role as the largest oil exporter takes on renewed importance. Order in the oil market requires the Saudis to use their idle production capacity to make up for at least some of the Russian supply lost through sanctions. Spurred in part by the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords, which brokered the normalization of relations between Israel and a number of Arab countries, Saudi Arabia has begun to tentatively reach out to Israel, a development that will also contribute to a more orderly and predictable Middle East.
Achieving these concrete American interests justifies de-emphasizing Biden’s objections to Saudi human rights abuses and reducing tensions in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The shift is already paying dividends. The cease-fire in the Yemeni civil war, a result in part of American diplomacy with Saudi Arabia, was extended for another two months in June. And the Saudis have already agreed to accelerate planned oil production increases over the summer.
It is not only the Biden administration that is putting aside more ideological goals in search of a more orderly Middle East: so, too, are governments in the region. In recent months, Saudi Arabia and Iran have conducted a series of bilateral talks mediated by the Iraqi government. The United Arab Emirates has also reengaged directly with Iran. In recent years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly berated MBS over the killing of Khashoggi and has more broadly sought to challenge Saudi Arabian leadership of the Sunni Arab states of the Middle East. But at the end of June, Erdogan received the crown prince in Ankara. In a more controversial step, at least from a U.S. perspective, the UAE government hosted a visit by the Syrian president in March, after supporting the revolt against him for a number of years. It was Assad’s first trip to an Arab country since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.
None of these developments means that peace is about to break out in the region. The chances for conflict on several axes—Iranian-Israeli, Iranian-Saudi, Israeli-Lebanese, Syrian-Turkish, and Saudi-Yemeni, among others—remain high. But the steps toward rapprochement do indicate that regional leaders are beginning to reconsider the costs of instability and the benefits of order. U.S. diplomacy should encourage this trend and participate in it.
The foundations of the sometimes difficult, clearly transactional, but mutually beneficial U.S.-Saudi relationship have eroded during the last three U.S. presidencies. The combination of increased U.S. energy production, low oil prices in the second half of the 2010s, and concern for climate change led many in the United States to conclude that Saudi Arabia and its oil were no longer that important. Obama, Trump, and Biden all campaigned on redirecting U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East. The Saudi leadership’s fear of American “withdrawal” from the Middle East is exaggerated, given the continuing U.S. military and political presence in the region, but the feelings are real.
On the U.S. side, Trump’s tight public embrace of MBS dragged the relationship into polarized partisan politics; Democrats now increasingly see the Saudis as taking the Republican side. Trump’s involvement in Saudi domestic politics, encouraging the rise of the crown prince, was unseemly and unnecessary. When Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and key policy adviser, and Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s secretary of the treasury, solicited Saudi investments in their hedge funds soon after leaving public service, it created the appearance of a quid pro quo. The Saudis deserve a substantial part of the blame for this and need to alter their approach to Washington to put the relationship back on a more solid, bipartisan footing.
Biden’s move to bury the hatchet with the Saudi crown prince is a necessary and understandable reaction to the world as it is: not just the broken politics of the Middle East but also the global disruptions caused by the Russian war in Ukraine. It is an acknowledgment that working for some amount of order in the messy Middle East requires dealing with rulers who preside over relatively stable states and who exercise influence outside their borders. Such rulers might be found in Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and even Syria. They can certainly be found in Saudi Arabia.
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