There is no love lost between U.S. President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It’s clear the two men don’t respect each other and don’t have much of a desire to collaborate with one another.
Biden, who has been a relative hardliner on Saudi Arabia throughout his decades in public life (check out this C-SPAN clip from the mid-1980s), looks at MBS and sees a brash, Machiavellian individual who is willing to lock up his own family members (like Mohammed Bin Nayef, MBS’ cousin, who was once in line to become king), if it means preserving his power. During the presidential campaign, Biden all but put Saudi Arabia in the same category as Syria and North Korea. “I would make it very clear [to Saudi Arabia] we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them,” then-candidate Biden said during a November 2019 debate. “We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.”
The feeling is mutual. While senior Saudi officials claim the U.S.-Saudi relationship “is historic and remains strong,” there isn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that ties are rocky. MBS reportedly snapped at U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan during a meeting in Riyadh last September, and the crown prince doesn’t seem desperate to attain Biden’s stamp of approval. Asked by The Atlantic‘s Graeme Wood whether he thought Biden misunderstood him, MBS replied with a curt, “I do not care.”
Bad blood notwithstanding, there is an acknowledgement on both sides that a full rupture of U.S.-Saudi ties wouldn’t be prudent for either country. CIA Director William Burns, the administration’s most experienced foreign policy hand, traveled to Riyadh last month to meet with MBS on a variety of subjects, from the general state of their relationship to the kingdom’s possible purchase of Chinese ballistic missiles. Khalid bin Salman, MBS’ younger brother and Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister, was in Washington this week to talk with White House and Pentagon officials. And the White House is preparing for an ice-breaker meeting between Biden and MBS, who could be shaking hands for the first time as soon as next month.
If the Biden-MBS confab does happen, many of the president’s own supporters will be disappointed about the White House backtracking on its promise of making the kingdom a pariah. The chairmen of the House foreign affairs and intelligence committees sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in April urging the administration to “rebalance” the U.S.-Saudi relationship in light of Riyadh’s muted criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The word “rebalance” was very similar to Biden’s own commitment to “recalibrate” ties.
To the administration’s credit, ties have been recalibrated—to a point. Washington is no longer sending offensive weapons systems and air-to-ground munitions to the Saudis, who have used them indiscriminately in Yemen for years (killing thousands in the process). Early last year, despite Riyadh’s objections, the State Department removed the Houthis from the department’s foreign terrorist organization list to ensure humanitarian organizations could continue to operate in what the U.N. calls one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. At the same time, the Biden administration continues to sell defensive weapons and support services to the kingdom, totaling nearly $1.2 billion since September 2021.
The question was never about whether President Biden would give Saudi Arabia the silent treatment. Nobody seriously believed this would be the case. Campaign rhetoric is campaign rhetoric; history is full of examples where candidates say one thing on the trail, only to act differently when the world throws a glass of cold water in their face. Icing out Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s top oil producers and a country that has a stranglehold over the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a cartel with 33 percent of the world’s oil market share, was never really an option. While it’s true the U.S. is now a net energy exporter and no longer needs Saudi crude as it once did (U.S. imports of Saudi crude have decreased by over 70 percent from February 1992 to February 2022), oil is still a global commodity. The Saudis could single-handedly impact the global price based on their production decisions, one reason why the State Department’s special envoy for energy has engaged with Saudi officials throughout the year.
A full diplomatic cutoff from Saudi Arabia would also be bad foreign policy. To brand a country a pariah is to marginalize it and nullify an entire relationship. Common-sense discussions on common interests would no longer occur. Opportunities for dialogue would be washed away in a sea of antagonism. And the internal politics of resurrecting dialogue at some time in the future would be further hardened, complicating the mere possibility of pragmatic engagement.
The main problem with Washington’s relations with Riyadh isn’t the fact that the U.S. is engaging with the kingdom—it’s that Washington too often makes the mistake of equating U.S. interests with Saudi interests. This is a fundamental mistake, and it can have embarrassing reputational consequences for the United States. A case in point is the war in Yemen, where the Obama administration agreed to support Riyadh’s military campaign with very little internal debate regardless of U.S. equities in the conflict. The decision was a disaster for Washington, sullying its image in the eyes of millions of Yemenis, contributing to the proxy war and providing the kingdom with a virtual blank-check on how it conducted the war.
If Biden and MBS do get the opportunity to meet, they shouldn’t hesitate to do so. But the president should use the opportunity to set the record straight, effectively communicating when his administration is willing to collaborate and just as importantly, when and where U.S. and Saudi interests diverge.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
The views expressed in this article are the writer‘s own.