To Biden: Don't Leave Saudi Arabia Out in The Cold!

Published March 14th, 2021 - 08:36 GMT
Crown Prince Mohammed and President Joe Biden
A composite image of Crown Prince Mohammed and President Joe Biden. AP Photo/Susan Walsh/Sputnik via AFP

The Middle East has seen a drastic reshuffling in the recent period. Much of these developments over the past several years have been toward bettering the entire region. But since entering Washington, the new Biden administration has been well at work attempting to undermine America’s traditional allies and, indeed, reverse much of the progress that has been attained.

Joe Biden’s attitude toward the Middle East is markedly different than that of his predecessor. Both Donald Trump’s detractors and supporters could agree that the former president’s approach was a strategy never seen in Washington. The maximum pressure policy on Iran was a reversal of the appeasement position taken up by much of the West and recognized Iran for the destabilizing actor that it is. Along with targeting Iran and its wide spectrum of proxies, the Trump administration also initiated the most impactful series of normalization treaties ever to take place in modern history.

The new president and his team, however, are taking calculated steps to drastically redirect the trend of the Middle East. As a presidential candidate, one of Joe Biden’s central foreign policy points was undoing many of Trump’s policies.

Regarding Iran, Biden vowed to re-enter nuclear talks with the Ayatollahs and carve out a new deal to replace the one nixed by his predecessor, taking up again the appeasement model supported by Europe and the old Washington establishment. Equally disturbing is Biden’s strategy of sidelining major U.S. allies in an attempt to redefine America’s involvement in the region.     

Less than three months into his term, the danger of Biden’s Middle East strategy has already begun to draw criticism. Recently, former White House Envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt spoke out on what he sees as destabilizing actions taken by Biden in recent weeks that will ultimately serve to undermine U.S. interests in the long term. Biden’s “approach is extremely dangerous to Middle East stability,” said the former diplomat. According to Greenblatt, Biden’s strategy is a clear path to both embolden the most aggressive actors in the region while shunning one of America’s most important allies in the region: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

One of his first acts as president was to end American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, putting an abrupt halt to years of U.S. involvement in that conflict. This move has pretty drastic consequences for the Saudis. Not only does it undermine their efforts to put down rebel forces in the country, but it also endangers the Saudi homeland and critical infrastructure. For years, the Iranian-backed Houthi militias that control much of Yemen today, have launched dozens of attacks on Saudi assets on land and sea. The most recent was reported on 8 March when an explosive-laden drone and a ballistic missile launched by the rebels targeted Saudi Arabian oil facilities in two separate locations.

Sending a clear antagonistic message to Riyadh, Biden authorized the release of a classified intelligence report that blamed the kingdom’s crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, for the murder of a journalist in 2018. In a scathing condemnation of the kingdom’s de facto leader, the report gave the assessment that the Crown Prince “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

The pattern Greenblatt is pointing to goes back further than Biden’s entering the White House.

Biden has called the Saudis a “pariah” state, with “very little social redeeming value.” As many observers have noted, Biden’s attitude toward the Kingdom is now following through in foreign policy. Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki made this explicit in late February when she stated that the intention of the president was to “calibrate” America’s “engagement with Saudi Arabia.”

Sidelining the Saudis has become increasingly advocated among Washington elites. Some have advanced the argument that the traditional relationship between Washington and Riyadh is antiquated and that America should stop viewing the Kingdom as an ally. With the old incentives solidifying the U.S.-Saudi ties (i.e. oil) now no longer relevant for the most part, and Saudi interests only “complicating” U.S. strategy, many in this circle of veteran diplomats see the Saudis as more a liability than an asset. It is this line of thinking that underpins Biden’s stance of rapprochement toward the Saudi’s while simultaneously advocating Iran reconciliation.

The logic of this strategy, however, simply misses the fact on the ground. Approaching the Saudis as the “pariah of the Middle East” ignores the decades-long efforts of the Ayatollahs to spread militantism throughout the Middle East and around the world. In recent years, regional countries have felt the brunt of Iran’s aggression in the form of its “Shia Crescent”, the strategy to secure its influence by funding and training armed proxies, from militias in Iraq to Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

Pointing the finger at Riyadh for “repressive behavior” side steps Iran’s egregious record on human rights and backward social policies especially regarding the status of women. Furthermore, accusing the Saudis of being “socially irredeemable” and incommensurate with “American values'' ignores the unprecedented progress made in the country under Prince Muhamad’s leadership in every facet of Saudi national life, from the social to the economic.

These considerations must be front and center in Biden’s strategy in the Middle East. Only by taking the reality of contemporary Middle East into firm consideration can America hope to be a force for actual progress in the region. As Greenblatt put it in his recent interview 'the relationship between our two countries has much more breadth, depth and scope. I believe that today’s Saudi Arabia is more important to us than ever.'

Noor Abadi is a journalist specializing in Middle East, Gulf, and African politics and human rights. She is also a contributor to Modern Diplomacy.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.

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