Biden's superficial reset with Saudi Arabia
He campaigned on holding the kingdom accountable. So far he hasn't delivered.
We were told there would be a reset.
While former President Donald Trump was determined to stay chummy with the Saudi Arabian government no matter how oppressive its domestic policy, criminal its foreign policy, or grotesque its assassinations, President Biden promised his administration would fundamentally change U.S.-Saudi relations.
"I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to [Riyadh]," he said at a Democratic primary debate in 2019. "We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are. There's very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia," Biden continued. "I would end subsidies that we have, end the sale of material to the Saudis where they're going in and murdering children [with U.S. facilitation in Yemen], and they're murdering innocent people. And so they have to be held accountable."
These were strong and welcome words, a clear point of distinction in a policy arena where Biden and Trump often overlapped. But Biden has yet to deliver on this pledge — not only because he's had just a few weeks in office, but because he is apparently content to leave much of the status quo intact.
To his credit, Biden has made some changes. Most importantly, he promptly shuttered U.S. support for Saudi-led coalition offensive operations in the Yemeni civil war. This isn't a total end to U.S. military intervention in Yemen — counterterror operations against the local al Qaeda branch will continue — but it is a step toward bringing peace to a nation which has suffered, as Biden observed, "unendurable devastation." (How large of a step remains to be seen; the devil may be in the as-yet unrevealed details of what "offensive" includes and, crucially, excludes.)
Part of that retraction of U.S. backing was a freeze on "relevant arms sales" to Riyadh, Biden said, which National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan specified extended to "two arms sales of precision-guided munitions" previously approved by the Trump administration. And, to further "recalibrate" U.S.-Saudi engagement, Biden will deal with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud instead of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), White House Press Secretary Jenn Psaki said Tuesday. She left unspoken the probable rationale: that U.S. intelligence agencies concluded MBS, once feted as a reformer who would lead his kingdom into a new era of modernity, had personally ordered the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi and otherwise approved brutal suppression of dissent.
These latter two moves mean much less than the Biden administration suggests. The symbolism of icing out MBS relies for effect on distinctions within the royal house that probably do not exist: If the king disapproves of the prince's behavior in the Khashoggi episode and beyond, it is clearly not enough to oust him as heir to the throne or revoke his de facto status as head of government.
The freeze on weapons deals is likewise smaller than it sounds: Biden's "relevant" qualifier has yet, to my knowledge, to be fully explained, but it likely means only undeniably offensive weaponry will no longer be transferred, and even that ban could prove short-lived. "Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries," Biden said immediately after mentioning the sales suspension. "We're going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people."
That support evidently includes maintaining or perhaps increasing the U.S. military footprint in Saudi Arabia, which Trump also grew. Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, traveled to Saudi Arabia in January "to announce a new basing agreement that expands military cooperation between" the United States and Saudi Arabia. While there, he inspected facilities at three Saudi sites where the U.S. military may establish a new presence. (Notably, two of the three locations — airfields in Taif and port facilities in Yanbu — are in close proximity to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, respectively. Putting U.S. troops there would replicate conditions Osama bin Laden specifically cited as a rationale for the 9/11 attacks.)
In that context, cutting off conversation with MBS and pausing arms sales doesn't sound like much at all. It's superficial, temporary. Yemen excepted, what's meaningfully different here? No "pariah" state gets the protection of the American military. The U.S.-Saudi military partnership communicates volumes about Washington's view of Riyadh, far more than the president's choice of conversation partner ever can. And, under Biden, that partnership is presently set to deepen.
It shouldn't. Saudi Arabia is not a treaty ally and has made no promise of mutual defense with the United States. Though we should certainly maintain normal trade and diplomacy, staying on good terms with Riyadh is not necessary for our energy security, as the U.S. achieved energy independence (in the sense of being a net petroleum exporter) in 2019 and, in any case, only acquires about 7 percent of our oil imports from Saudi sources. Moreover, as Biden himself said, there is "very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia." Riyadh is tyrannical and cruel, responsible for gross human rights abuses at home and the world's most acute humanitarian crisis in Yemen. It is a source of instability in the Middle East, and our close relationship needlessly involves the United States in regional and religious rivalries.
If Biden is serious about a reset, he should end the arms sales for good, withdraw all U.S. troops from Saudi territory, and stop pretending personal slights to MBS counterbalance implicit endorsement of a theocratic dictatorship.