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For the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, Saudi Arabia got a free pass from the United States. Trump not only praised Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, but refused to punish him after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that he had played a direct role in the 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “I saved his —,” the U.S. president later said of MBS on a taped phone call with the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, using a word I would rather not repeat.
On the campaign trail, candidate Joe Biden signaled that he would pursue a very different approach to Saudi Arabia. And his administration’s decision last month to release a two-year-old redacted report from the director of national intelligence (DNI) naming MBS as the main culprit in Khashoggi’s murder was a welcome step toward justice. So was the decision to impose sanctions on 76 unnamed Saudis, including the country’s deputy intelligence chief. Yet Biden stopped short of holding the mastermind of the murder responsible, declining to sanction MBS directly and declaring a “recalibration” rather than a rupture of U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia.
The Biden administration justified its decision not to go the last half mile with MBS on the grounds that the United States has only rarely sanctioned leaders with whom it maintains diplomatic relations. That may be true, but it is not the whole story. American reticence to push Saudi Arabia on democracy and human rights—whether under Biden or Trump—stems from the Gulf monarchy’s status as an important partner of the United States and other Western democracies. Riyadh shares valuable intelligence in the fight against terrorism, stabilizes global energy markets, guards against further Iranian expansion in the Middle East, and offers a lucrative market for financial investments and arms sales.
Should the Saudi crown be destabilized, many U.S. officials fear the loss of valuable intelligence cooperation or that the country’s leaders might pursue partnerships with China and Russia, whose like-minded autocrats would not hector them about human rights. Some even fear that radical revolutionary Islamist forces would seize the state and its resources, threatening not just the Saudis but their close Gulf neighbors. Biden’s cautious approach to MBS reflects the false choice that American officials have long understood to be at stake in Saudi Arabia: between a stable albeit repressive monarchy and an unpredictable and potentially radical Islamist state.
But there has always been a viable middle way, a sustainable path to democratic reform that protects against all excesses, monarchical and jihadi alike. Leveraging its close historical relationship with Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration should pressure the royal family to undertake a gradual reform process that eventually replaces the country’s Consultative Council, the appointed legislative body that advises the king, with an elected government similar to that of Jordan or Morocco. Some members of the royal family will no doubt be loath to voluntarily relinquish power. But Saudi Arabia’s monarchy is more vulnerable today than many of the royals would like to admit, and Biden should frame a push for reform as the only way to save the monarchy after the Khashoggi scandal.
If Americans have utterly failed to imagine such a middle path, Saudis have not. Saudi Arabia’s infamous jails are full of prisoners of conscience. True, some of those incarcerated are al Qaeda or Islamic State (ISIS) supporters, but most are not. The names are too many to list. From the feminist Loujain al-Hathloul and the Islamic religious reformer Sheikh Salman al-Awdah to the civil society activist Mohammad al-Qahtani and the economist Issam al-Zamil, there is one common thread: the ability to imagine a new Saudi Arabia that retains the royal family and its alleged stabilizing role but allows certain political and civil rights, including an elected national assembly, the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and freedom of speech and assembly. In other words, all these figures want a path toward rudimentary democracy that honors the royal princes but shares power with the people. Call it a constitutional monarchy.
We want the people to choose their future political system, using democratic means, elections, and free speech.
Other critics fled Saudi Arabia not to join imagined Islamist utopias such as ISIS but to live in the democracies of the West. Canada, the United States, and various European countries now host hundreds of Saudi exiles and asylum seekers, who continue to push for change in Saudi Arabia. The regime in Riyadh considers them to be Western stooges, tarnishing the reputation of the princes with their online activism. Many of these critics live in fear of ending up as Khashoggi did, a victim of the regime’s far-reaching brutality.
In September 2020, a group of exiles including myself announced the formation of the National Assembly Party, a pro-democracy movement that wants neither an Islamic state nor a republic. We want the people to choose their future political system, using democratic means, elections, and free speech. The National Assembly Party provides an alternative to the excessive repression of the monarchy and the frightening prospects of a Saudi Arabia more closely allied with China and Russia or led by radical zealots.
With the recent release of the DNI report, the Biden administration had an historic opportunity to distance itself from its repressive partner in Riyadh and sanction its criminal leadership. But there is still time to pursue a third way—namely, a more durable transition to a constitutional monarchy. Biden could start by pushing Riyadh to form a Saudi Council for Political Reform composed of Saudi and American members of civil society, activists, diplomats, and members of the judiciary. The reform council’s main mandate should be to prepare Saudi Arabia for general elections that replace the appointed Consultative Council with an elected parliament and to oversee the lifting of restrictions on speech, assembly, and political and civil society organizing. Riyadh should pledge that the royal family will not dominate important ministries in any government elected by this parliament—in other words, that it will put Saudi Arabia on a path to a Jordanian- or Moroccan-style constitutional monarchy.
The United States is the only power capable of pushing the Saudi royal family to undertake such reforms. Since 1945, the U.S. government has provided Saudi Arabia with diplomatic and military support and even defended the kingdom’s borders against foreign aggression. U.S companies discovered Saudi Arabia’s oil and have sold it around the world. And the United States continues to transfer arms and technology to Riyadh and to educate thousands of professionals and technocrats on Saudi government scholarships.
In the past, such U.S. support came without demands for political reform, mainly because of the perceived tradeoff between stability and democracy. But this was always a false choice, and in any case, Saudi Arabia is not as stable as it once was. Several years of falling oil prices, a year of COVID-19, rising unemployment, and vanishing foreign direct investment have weakened the kingdom’s economic position and fanned popular discontent. Political repression, including the jailing of dissidents, has put further pressure on the monarchy—as, of course, has the international fallout from the Khashoggi murder.
Some in Riyadh will no doubt see any effort to tie the ongoing U.S. commitment to Saudi security to political reforms as an infringement on the country’s sovereignty. But Biden and his team should emphasize that a road map away from the ticking time bomb of absolute monarchy is the only way to ensure both the stability of Saudi Arabia and the survival of its royal family. The king, MBS, and other top royals should be persuaded to accept limitations on their power in order to avoid being swept away by a tide of grassroots change. The loudest voices calling for reform in Saudi Arabia right now are those of moderates, but that could easily change. The masses could seek to overthrow and abolish the monarchy.
Fears that Washington could end up pushing Riyadh into the arms of China or Russia if it presses too hard for political reform should not dissuade the Biden administration from pursuing this middle way. Riyadh will not suddenly go in search of new alliances, both for practical and ideological reasons. From a logistical standpoint, it is nearly impossible to change arms providers overnight, and the Saudi security apparatus, especially its air force, is deeply enmeshed with that of the United States. Historical, cultural, and linguistic links with the United States also militate against a sudden departure to the east. King Abdullah, who reigned from 2005 to 2015, initiated closer financial relations with China and Russia. But neither Beijing nor Moscow came close to displacing Washington as Riyadh’s primary partner, and Saudi Arabia is even more structurally dependent on the United States today.
The need for substantive political reform—as opposed to cosmetic changes, such as allowing women to drive—is urgent. The saga of Khashoggi will not simply fade away, and eventually, the will of the people will triumph over the power of the monarchy and the realpolitik of its most important partner. In 1979, an important U.S. ally in the Middle East, Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was toppled by revolutionaries who humiliated Washington by holding dozens of U.S. citizens hostage in their embassy for more than 400 days. Forty-two years later, the United States risks repeating the same mistake with another Middle Eastern ally, unless it can convince the Saudi royals to embark on a path toward constitutional monarchy.