The visit by President Joe Biden to Saudi Arabia provides a royal opportunity for the US to repair strained relations with an important ally and other regional partners at a time of shared global threats.
Historically, the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have enjoyed an important, strategic and mostly warm relationship for more than 70 years. While there have been challenges, each time cracks in the friendship appeared, the sides ultimately sought reconciliation while maintaining behind the scenes engagement to preserve our strategic interests.
A wide fissure in the relationship has lingered since the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s Consulate in Istanbul. Four years after this regrettable incident, a strain between the allies is producing dangerous repercussions far beyond Washington and Riyadh.
Biden will reportedly seek to address these matters in a bilateral meeting with the ruling family this month on the sidelines of the Gulf Cooperation Council-plus-three meetings. Neither side is without blame for the present situation, but the US has made a series of strategic errors that should be addressed and corrected during the visit.
Shortly after being sworn in, the US de-listed the Houthis as a terrorist organization, a decision that caused profound shock within Saudi Arabia and across the region. The US further insulted the kingdom when Biden declared Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and said, “There’s very little social, redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” Biden further stated that he only speaks to Mohammed bin Salman’s father, King Salman, not the crown prince.
After these cumulative humiliations, it came as little surprise that when the president placed a call to MBS in March, he reportedly declined to take his call.
Unfortunately, the partisan nature of American domestic politics has spilled over into our foreign policy. Some find it all too easy to demonize non-democratic countries, insisting that those with very different cultures and histories adopt political beliefs similar to our own. But that is precisely what we must stop doing today. Certainly, the US should defend and promote our values, but we cannot overlook that some countries’ paths to achieving change will follow a very different route and timeline than our own.
Put simply, the kingdom is an economic powerhouse and bulwark of stability in the Middle East. It is also uniquely positioned as home to Islam’s holiest sites, and 85% of the world’s Muslims share Saudi Arabia’s Sunni identity. As the de facto leader of the overwhelming majority of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, Saudi Arabia can play a critical role in our common fight against radical Islam.
They have already made their intentions clear by pivoting away from radical Islam and prosecuting supporters of groups ranging from al-Qaeda to Hamas and Hezbollah. It is up to the US to welcome those gestures, and to show support as the kingdom pursues even more positive policies.
The kingdom's role
The kingdom’s role as the leading voice in OPEC is well known, but we also rely on Riyadh to partner with us to maintain the flow of international trade through three of the world’s most important transportation choke points: the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. If any of these shipping routes were disrupted, the global food supply and energy market could be thrown into sharp disarray.
It comes as no surprise that China, and more recently Russia, have established military bases in this strategic area. A reinvigorated US-Saudi alliance would also act as a hedge against this emerging Russia-China axis aimed at exerting more global influence.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine leading to grotesque loss of life and destabilization of the global economy, Saudi Arabia has a very important role to play. Embraced again as an ally of the United States, it can use its control of nearly 20% of the world’s crude oil reserves to provide an alternative option to countries that previously relied upon Russia for its energy needs.
Increased Saudi oil production and partnership with the US on green energy initiatives would help to isolate Putin’s Russia. The murder of Khashoggi was a terrible thing, but we should not allow the murder of one person four years ago to stand in the way of preventing the unjustifiable killing of countless more in Ukraine today.
Brought along and treated as a valued partner, Saudi Arabia could not only help bring about an end to the bloody war, but also reduce the price spikes impacting Americans at the pump.
The US requested help from Saudi Arabia in supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces, as well as other Lebanese institutions, and the kingdom obliged. The Biden administration also asked Saudi Arabia to take in Afghan refugees after its disastrous pullout last year, and once again the Saudis obliged.
The kingdom has proven its worth as our ally and it is time for the United States to once again treat them appropriately. Furthermore, it does not behoove the US to treat Saudi Arabia poorly and potentially force it to turn to China, Russia or other US adversaries to help meet its national defense needs.
In short, demonizing and demeaning Saudi Arabia is actually destructive to the cause of peace across the world. Saudi Arabia is uniquely positioned to aid the fight against terrorism, prevent regional hegemony by Iran, secure global trade and promote progress on human rights across the globe.Moving forward, the US should measure Saudi Arabia’s worth as an ally by progress it is making in areas of concern, not by its failure to achieve perfection – an impossible standard for any country, including our own.
Disproportionate attention, public scolding and the unnecessary prolonging of outrage for past mistakes is a failed strategy, especially when it harms America’s national interests and damages the possibility of curtailing atrocities on a global scale. It is also no way to treat a friend and historical ally.
While we should not forget, we must find a way to forgive and to re-engage Saudi Arabia as a key ally in advancing America’s economic and national security goals.
The writer is a board member of USAID’s Partnership for Peace Fund.