A mission destined to fail? Not quite

A change in Biden’s attitude toward Prince Mohammed will undoubtedly generate some good will with the Saudi leadership. The question is: What will Biden choose to make of this renewed opportunity to reset the relationship?
A mission destined to fail? Not quite

YASMINE FAROUK

CHENNAI: Bashing Saudi Arabia during a presidential election season is almost a tradition in the United States, and President Biden was no exception. Emboldened by domestic outrage over the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, Biden went further than his predecessors by calling Saudi Arabia a “outcast” state. That was miscalculated. With the war in Ukraine sending energy prices higher and China cementing more alliances in the Middle East, Biden is traveling thousands of miles to attempt to repair a relationship that has reached a nadir in its 80-year history — arguably even worse than after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Biden sought to justify his visit to Saudi Arabia this week in a Washington Post opinion essay, saying his aim was to “reorient,” not “rupture,” relations. Yet no justification for his visit to the kingdom this week can erase the truth: It is a defeat for Biden and a personal and political triumph for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as he is popularly known. But it does not have to be a defeat for the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

A change in Biden’s attitude toward Prince Mohammed will undoubtedly generate some good will with the Saudi leadership. The question is: What will Biden choose to make of this renewed opportunity to reset the relationship?

The United States needs Saudi Arabia: The kingdom remains the oil market’s major swing producer and is the main buyer of U.S. arms globally. By virtue of geopolitics and economics, Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the United States is consequential when it comes to Washington’s efforts to counter Iran, end the war in Yemen and normalise Israel’s relations with the Arab world, as well as limit Russia’s and China’s influence in the region. All of this was true before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended global oil markets and sent gasoline prices skyrocketing in the United States and Europe.

Biden’s posture — turning a tense relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia into a personal duel with Prince Mohammed — was always going to be short-lived, especially as world events intervened. This became evident over the past six months as the

Biden administration suffered snub after snub, culminating in Prince Mohammed’s rebuffing U.S. demands to explicitly and actively side with the United States after Russia invaded Ukraine.

So the Biden administration had to come up with a solution to its Saudi problem, especially in a critical election year, as Biden’s job approval ratings have dropped and gas prices have soared. The Biden administration has shied away from previewing desired results for this meeting. But returning home with only vague pledges on oil and Israel — and no concrete concessions from Saudi Arabia on human rights — would be a defeat not just for Biden but for the United States. Realpolitik policymakers like to wave away human rights as having any place in pragmatic policymaking, but there is an opportunity for Biden to make human rights part of a revamped strategy with Saudi Arabia that the kingdom could accept, even if not enthusiastically.

Saudi Arabia will not become a democracy soon. But the United States can still engage with the monarchy constructively to make some gains on human rights, defend against authoritarianism and promote regional integration.

The United States needs to demonstrate consistency in support of its values alongside its strategic goals. The United States should push for normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia only if it can guarantee that the Saudi government won’t suppress Saudi voices opposed to normalisation. And the United States must voice its support for Palestinians’ rights as much as it supports the Israelis’. If and when normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Israel happens, it shouldn’t be used to erase the human rights violations of both governments.

Farouk is a non-resident scholar in the Middle East program at Carnegie

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