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Biden’s Saudi dilemma

The pros and cons of dealing with the Middle East’s most influential Arab nation

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Associated Press/Photo by Burhan Ozbilici

Biden’s Saudi dilemma

Rarely has a U.S. president been less eager to visit a foreign country than Joe Biden will be as he arrives in Saudi Arabia this weekend. During his presidential campaign, Biden vowed to make the kingdom a “pariah” and claimed there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” Yet now, just 18 months into his presidency, Biden seems to have reconsidered his assessment, or at least set it aside.

Why the reversal? Because, if there is one thing that seemingly disparate challenges such as skyrocketing prices at the gasoline pump, rampant inflation, Russia’s war on Ukraine, Iran’s threats to Israel and the United States, and China’s growing aggression all have in common, it is this: Saudi Arabia’s cooperation is vital in addressing them.

Saudi Arabia possesses some of the world’s largest petroleum reserves and (just as important) wields the most agile capacity to boost oil production on short notice. It sits athwart two of the world’s most important and valuable shipping lanes, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz. It has displaced Egypt as the most influential Arab country in the Middle East. It is the largest purchaser of American military equipment in the world. It boasts a capable intelligence service that has helped thwart multiple lethal terrorist plots against the United States.

However—and such are the challenges of foreign policy in a fallen world—there are good reasons for President Biden’s earlier fulminations against Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is a repressive Islamic theocracy. It persecutes Christians and other religious minorities, including other Muslims who do not share the kingdom’s embrace of strict Sunni Wahhabism. It has devoted billions of dollars in funding to export militant versions of Islam throughout the Muslim world.

More particularly, there is much to dislike about de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known colloquially by his initials “MBS”). The list of his misdeeds is long and disturbing. The crown prince launched an ill-conceived war in Yemen that contributed to mass starvation and humanitarian calamity. He engineered a reckless blockade of Qatar that, among other things, hindered the operations of the large U.S. Air Force base there. He contrived a foolish kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister that further destabilized that troubled country. Most notoriously, he ordered the gruesome butchery of Saudi dissident and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. (The murder of Khashoggi had a personal dimension for me, as I had dinner with him in Riyadh some years ago and found him to be a courageous and principled voice for reform—including the rights of Christians—in his native land.)

A nation with much to loathe is also a nation with much to offer.

Such is the Saudi dilemma: A nation with much to loathe is also a nation with much to offer. Meanwhile, as the White House’s domestic and foreign policy crises mount, the Biden administration belatedly realized they cannot be managed without Riyadh’s help. Particularly as Europe and the United States face escalating oil and gas prices amid dwindling supplies. Saudi Arabia is the country best positioned to increase production—and lean on its fellow OPEC nations to do the same. Not to mention that Russia and China have been deepening their outreach to Saudi Arabia, and U.S. policies to thwart Moscow and Beijing’s malevolent designs depend in part on keeping Riyadh on Washington’s side.

Then there is Iran. Despite—or perhaps in part because of—the Biden administration’s ill-advised diplomatic outreach to Tehran and efforts to reenter the Obama administration’s erstwhile nuclear deal, Iran seems to have redoubled its program to develop a nuclear weapon capability. Iran also continues sponsoring terrorist efforts against the United States and our allies. News broke earlier this week that Iran is preparing to ship several hundred armed drones to Russia to support its vicious war on Ukraine.

The United States cannot counter Iran alone, and Saudi Arabia is one of our two most important partners against the Islamic Republic. The other is Israel. Notably, in flying to the region earlier this week, President Biden first stopped in Jerusalem. His visit there helps codify a quiet bipartisan continuation of two of the Trump administration’s signature foreign policy achievements: the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and Arab states Morocco, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Riyadh has yet to extend official diplomatic recognition to Jerusalem, but unofficial Saudi-Israeli military and intelligence cooperation is potent and growing.

Like almost every other U.S. president since World War II, Biden took office not planning to focus much on the Middle East only to find himself doing otherwise once in the White House. This is because, to borrow a phrase, what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East.

William Inboden

William Inboden is professor and director of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. He previously served as executive director and William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.

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