US President Joe Biden’s decision to publish the US intelligence report on the murder of the Saudi dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, at his consulate in Istanbul in 2018, hints at a new direction for US-Saudi relations. The US State Department has imposed sanctions on 76 Saudi officials ‒ including those involved in the Khashoggi killing and others ‒ for threatening Saudi dissidents abroad, including visa restrictions.
The Treasury Department also imposed additional penalties on some of them. The Biden administration’s decision allowing the report to be published indicates a shift in the approach to dealing with Saudi Arabia since taking over from the Trump administration. Trump rejected a congressional resolution in 2019 requiring his administration to publish the report under the Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the United States to impose sanctions on foreign officials for serious human rights violations. The current US administration has made clear its intention to reset relations between the two countries. The debate in the US focuses on whether these relations are sustainable or whether they require a complete overhaul as well as the balance between values and interests in US foreign policy.
The General Framework for Relations between the Two Countries
Since 1945, US-Saudi relations have been based on what has been inaccurately dubbed the oil-for-security formula. There were geostrategic considerations (for example, the Cold War and later Nasserism, post-revolution Iran, Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990). This did not prevent shocks in the relationship: The Saudi/Arab oil embargo on Western countries that supported the Israeli aggression of 1967 and 1973, the aftermath of 9/11, disagreements regarding the response to the Arab Spring revolutions, and the nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015.
But the relationship significantly warmed under the Trump presidency, with his indifference to the nature of the ruling Arab regimes and his emphasis on US economic interests, following his participation in the Riyadh 2017 summit. It was further strengthened by Trump's stance against the nuclear agreement with Iran, and then his administration's withdrawal from it in 2018. Saudi Arabia doubled its investments in the United States and its purchases of American weapons, which had a major role in increasing White House support for the war in Yemen, despite the opposition of Congress. Despite Khashoggi's assassination in October 2018, the former US president refused to review the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and even vetoed the Summer 2019 Congressional decision to impose an embargo on the sale of offensive weapons to Riyadh.
During the Trump era, Saudi Arabia fell into the trap of reducing the relationship with the United States to the president and the small circle surrounding him, leading to discontent in the circles of American institutions, with unprecedented criticism from the two main parties. Joe Biden, who was the Democratic Party’s candidate at that time, had pledged to “reset” the relationship with the kingdom and hold it accountable for the war in Yemen, killing Khashoggi, and its human rights record if he was elected. In early February, Biden announced his decision to end US support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including related arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and announced his administration's endeavour to find a diplomatic solution to the 6-year conflict that has spawned humanitarian and strategic catastrophe. The Biden administration previously announced a suspension and review of arms deals for the two Gulf countries approved by the Trump administration. However, Biden’s decision regarding the US role in the Yemen war included two main exceptions: protecting Saudi Arabia from “missile attacks, drone strikes, and other threats from factions armed by Iran in several countries,” stressing that his administration will continue “to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.” The second exception is for terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, which the United States will continue to target in order to protect its domestic security, US interests in the region and the interests of its allies and partners. So, there are still foundations for partnership and issues on which countries meet.
On 16 February, the White House spokeswoman, Jane Sacchi, announced that the United States would “re-evaluate” the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and that one of the expressions of that is for the president to speak with his counterpart, King Salman. On the 25th of the same month, that is, one day before the publication of the CIA report, Biden spoke with Saudi King, Salman bin Abdulaziz. It was noteworthy in the White House statement that it described the relationship with the Kingdom as a “long-term partnership,” not an alliance. At the same time, it was evident that the White House was keen to set the foundations of the new relationship in efforts to reset it. The conversation centred on regional security, including renewed diplomatic efforts led by the UN and the US to end the war in Yemen, and the commitment of the US to assist Saudi Arabia in defending its territories from attacks from groups allied with Iran. He also stressed the president’s satisfaction with the decision to release some Saudi activists who hold US citizenship and activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, stressing the importance of universal human rights and the rule of law.
Balancing Values and Interests
Like previous US administrations, the Biden administration is fighting two conflicting approaches as it seeks to reset the relationship with Saudi Arabia. The first calls for political realism to preserve US regional and international interests and calls for preserving the US-Saudi alliance. The second is concerned with rights and calls for adherence to the values (such as human rights) that the US embodies. Hence, it prompts an evaluation of the US-Saudi relationship on this basis.
The Realist Approach
Supporters of this approach argue that Saudi Arabia's strategic position in the Middle East, its huge wealth, oil resources, and its position in the global energy market are all factors necessitating the strategic alliance with it. Based on this approach, the United States and Saudi Arabia have a set of common interests. These include preserving the stability of the oil market, combating terrorism and extremism, especially as the Saudi government has promoted what the US deems to be a more moderate Islam and more open societal values, as well as confronting Iran and containing its regional influence. They also suggest that Saudi Arabia can contribute to regional stability, pushing for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, returning Iran to the nuclear negotiating table, and ending the Yemen war.
Proponents of this trend warn against being deceived by the United States’ independence from the reliance on oil imports, as the current largest global oil producer. They stress the importance of the same foundations, as Saudi Arabia remains the largest exporter of oil in the world, with great influence over price stability, as the largest exporter of oil to China, the main US competitor, arguing that any vacuum in the region will lead to profound geostrategic shifts. China and Russia will try to fill this potential vacuum, evidenced by both the Russian role in Syria and the increasing Chinese influence in Iran. They add that global leadership requires strong partnerships in every region, regardless of the presence or absence of shared values. They say that Saudi Arabia is an ideal ally, as it has great financial potential and is not dependent on US aid, unlike other countries in the region, such as Jordan and Egypt, for example. It is also able to pay for US arms and military protection.
The Rights Based Approach
Supporters of this approach argue that Saudi Arabia's interests often conflict with those of the United States, just as the two systems of values rarely coincide. Especially in the field of human rights, and that the Saudis - instead of contributing to the push for US priorities in the Middle East region - have often worked to complicate the situation and impede those priorities. They stress that Saudi policies, especially in recent years, have strengthened Iran's influence rather than reducing it, such as the blockade of Qatar, for example. Moreover, the military campaign it launched in Yemen in 2015 did not defeat Iran's Houthis allies, but rather caused a humanitarian catastrophe and entrenched Iranian influence, just as Saudi Arabia failed to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. They argue that the United States no longer needs Saudi oil and that that Riyadh no longer trusts Washington to ensure its security, despite the fact that it spends billions of dollars annually on US weapons. They also believe that even if Saudi Arabia remains important to US interests in the region, this matter should not immunize it from criticism, especially regarding human rights violations. They conclude that the current US-Saudi alliance has become a costly burden for the United States.
The Biden administration is aware of all these nuances and is seeking to achieve a kind of balance between the values it claims to represent and US interests in the region. Hence, it allowed the publication of the US intelligence report on the assassination of Khashoggi, and imposed marginal sanctions, to a large extent, on several Saudi officials, without including those the report found directly responsible for the crime, under the pretext that the US does not punish the leaders of countries that it has diplomatic relations with it. Accordingly, the Biden administration is attempting to reset the relationship with Saudi Arabia, not dismantle it. In other words, the US continues to advance its geostrategic interests even if the Biden administration attaches greater importance to democracy and human rights.
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