The new Biden administration will encounter a Middle East that is very different from the one President Trump inherited from President Obama in 2017, and nowhere is the change more obvious than in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is undergoing a dramatic process of transformation that includes the unprecedented consolidation of power in the hands of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), the adoption of policies of social liberalization focused primarily on youth and women, and the implementation of a plan for economic diversification to lessen dependence on oil revenue. In addition, Saudi Arabia is asserting itself as a regional power and is no longer hyper cautious as it once was about making its influence felt. For example, it is leading an anti-Islamist and an anti-Iranian alliance of Arab states, is on the verge of normalizing relations with Israel, and is deeply involved in Yemen’s civil war, which has turned into a quagmire.
In trying to achieve its ambitious goals, the kingdom has scored some notable accomplishments such as expanding freedoms for women, curbing corruption, increasing government efficiency, cutting the royal family down to size while containing the reactionary and militant religious forces in society. Yet, it has also overreached by engaging in repression of dissenting voices and adopting bellicose policies with some of its neighbors such as Yemen and Qatar. Some of this can be attributed to MBS’s personality and his view that the transformation can only be accomplished by authoritarian and sharp methods. The country’s policy implementation shortcomings, however, are also due to its limited capabilities in terms of human capital and military competence. Here the US can play a constructive role in helping Riyadh find a balance between its means and ends and by trying to restrain its excesses.
The Saudi leadership remains committed to maintaining a strong strategic alliance with the US and to being a responsible steward of its unrivaled oil production capacity, a role that is important for the global economy, as the world witnessed during the last energy market crisis in March 2020. The kingdom’s stability and prosperity will depend on the success or failure of MBS’s policies, and the US has a vested interest in their outcome. Furthermore, in the background to all these transformational changes lies a more assertive China that is carefully nurturing ties with the Gulf countries, through joint economic ventures and increasingly through sale of military hardware. And while China is not likely to become Saudi Arabia’s strategic ally anytime soon, the kingdom’s relationship with Beijing is rapidly strengthening. More important, perhaps, is China’s model of authoritarian governance, in which legitimacy is derived from regime performance through the provision of security, stability and economic opportunity. This model offers an attractive template for the rulers in the Gulf, not least because it is less messy than the increasingly polarized politics of representative democracy.
There is a lot of baggage and misapprehensions that have to be overcome between the Biden administration and the leadership in Riyadh for the relationship to be mutually beneficial. On the one hand, the Saudis are resentful that the Obama administration did not take the kingdom’s national security concerns sufficiently into account and are fearful that the same will happen again under Biden. Like the Israelis, the Saudis feel that America deliberately excluded them from the nuclear deal with Iran (JCPOA). Because of this, they want to have a say in any new agreement with Tehran. The Saudis are just as interested in containing Iranian nuclear technology development as they are in impeding Iran’s precision missile arsenal and drone capabilities as well as its force projection through non-state actors in a geographical arc that runs from Iraq to Yemen via Syria and Lebanon. In the Saudi narrative of the Obama period, they ignore that President Obama helped them with the war in Yemen whereas President Trump did not immediately come to the kingdom’s defense when its oil facilities came under attack from Iran in September 2019.
On the other hand, Biden and the Democrats are resentful that MBS was able to cultivate a special relationship with President Trump, and in so doing helped advance his agenda. Moreover, they see this as also having given the Saudis carte blanche to act with impunity by, for example, trampling on human rights, creating tensions between the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and waging a brutal war in Yemen that has helped create the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. In addition, the Saudis are perceived to have strongly encouraged the US to withdraw from the JCPOA thereby helping end one of President Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishments. Here the Democrats need to remind themselves that, whatever his shortcomings, MBS has been a supporter of normalization of relations with Israel, has ended all Saudi sponsorship of Islamism, both domestically and around the world, and is revising the kingdom’s school curricula and religious discourse to be more accepting and tolerant of other religions, especially of Jews and Christians. All these have been longstanding demands of the United States.
Each side in the relationship must accept some realities and offer the other certain concessions. The Biden administration has to realize that MBS is very likely to be the absolute monarch of Saudi Arabia for many decades to come and its relationship with him is therefore about America’s long-term interests and engagement with this country. MBS has a keen sense of Saudi history, his family’s role in it as well as its unique character in terms of its centrality for the Muslim faith and its unrivaled conventional oil reserves and production capacities. Saudi Arabia’s history is older than that of the United States by three decades and, unlike most other countries of the Middle East, it does not directly owe its existence to European colonialism.
What this means in practice is that MBS will perceive any external call to change his domestic policies as an infringement on the country’s sovereignty and he will surely dig in his heels. As such, publicly calling for the release of political prisoners, as a group of US senators recently did in an open letter, will backfire. This is why Loujain al-Hathloul, a woman’s rights activist, was unfortunately transferred to a special court for terrorism and national security crimes, an ominous development in her case. Most political prisoners in the kingdom are Islamists and most of them are non-violent. However, MBS perceives the release of the women and politically liberal prisoners, if done as a result of foreign pressure, to be a sign of regime weakness and a harbinger of having to release the Islamists as well. For MBS, the Islamists represent a mortal threat to his regime because they can galvanize and mobilize reactionary social forces who are against the policies of social liberalization and the authoritarian concentration of power in his hands. Given this perception, it would be better for President Biden to engage MBS directly and privately about the release of political prisoners. And in so doing to frame their release in terms not of weakness but rather as a sign of regime strength and confidence.
On the war in Yemen, the Biden administration will find Riyadh willing to explore a number of ideas to see an end to Saudi participation in this conflict. MBS is exhausted by this conflict and has reached out repeatedly to the Houthis to find a mutually acceptable solution. Thus far, the Houthis have refused to compromise because they do not want to share power in the northern parts of the country that they control. At the same time, MBS does not want to leave the Houthis in exclusive power and with a capability of attacking the kingdom at will and with an arsenal of missiles and drones provided by Iran. In short, Saudi Arabia does not want to find itself in the same situation as Israel with an Iranian proxy force (i.e., Hezbollah) on its border capable of raining precision-guided missiles on its cities and vital infrastructure. The Biden administration will find ending the Yemeni conflict to be more complicated than simply curbing or terminating Saudi involvement, even if this were possible. The war involves various Yemeni actors in what is an internecine civil war and, of course, Iran is also deeply involved both materially and ideologically. Without Tehran’s consent, and it exerting direct pressure on the Houthis, we are unlikely to see an end to this tragic war. This is one more reason to include Yemen as an item in the renegotiation with Iran of the JCPOA.
The most promising and historical achievement for the Biden administration with respect to Saudi Arabia is the prospect of a peace agreement between the kingdom and Israel. This is another important reason why the relationship with Saudi Arabia needs to be managed carefully. Engaging forcefully or menacingly with the kingdom, as candidate Biden claimed he would do during the presidential campaign, will backfire and will push Saudi Arabia further toward other global powers such as China and Russia. With respect to Saudi normalization with Israel, if the US is to exert pressure, this should be on Israel to offer concessions to the Palestinians so they can create a viable state. Only this will help guarantee a durable end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while also helping Saudi Arabia sell its peace with Israel to its own people and to the wider Arab and Muslim worlds.
More immediately there is a gesture the Saudis can make to the Biden administration that will not only show goodwill but also underscore that the relationship is about mutual interests and respect. Saudi Arabia can take 30 of the 40 remaining prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, leaving only those who were actually involved in the planning of the 9/11 attacks. This will then allow the Biden administration to try the culprits and finally to shut down this shameful facility. The 30 prisoners in question are persons for whom the US has been trying to find host countries and none were involved in the attacks. Of these only two are Saudi citizens and all can be put through the kingdom’s terrorism rehabilitation program.
Moving away from highly personalized and transactional relationships between the two countries--as has been the case under President Trump--and toward policies that are rooted in institutional exchanges and mutual appreciation of the other country’s interests and constraints will be a positive development. The Biden administration should be guided by pragmatism and realpolitik and not by dogmatism and ideology, nor by some grand values-based narrative about how the Middle East ought to be and of America’s role in it. If these pragmatic guidelines do indeed prevail, as seems to be the case judging from President-elect Biden’s recent foreign policy picks, then the Saudi-US relationship is likely to be on solid footing for a few more years.
Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Director of the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, Princeton University.