When King Abdulaziz Al-Saud met US President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in 1945, Saudi Arabia’s founder was surprised to learn how much he had in common with his American counterpart.
The most notable similarity was that both heads of state were determined to make sure that their physical infirmities did not prevent them from confronting the challenges that were facing their countries. The King even went as far as to refer to FDR as a “twin” of sorts. The president responded with a twin wheelchair as a gift to the Saudi monarch, which the King referred to as his “most precious possession.”
This warm relationship served as the basis for a strategic relationship that has weathered nearly eight decades’ worth of geopolitical turmoil. While there were certainly times when the relationship was strained, it has paid off in major dividends for the international community. In fact, if I were to use a table analogy, then the stabilization of the global energy market, the containment of communism, the thwarting of terrorism, and the facilitation of global trade routes would constitute the four pillars to this historic partnership. When Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud assumed her position as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, she described Saudi-US relations as a “cornerstone of global stability.”
Before Joe Biden makes his first visit to Saudi Arabia as president, it is very likely that he has been briefed by his administration about Saudi Arabia’s significance in the region, such as being America’s largest trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the Biden administration would do itself a favor if it were to recognize oneincontrovertible fact: That Saudi Arabia is the only heavyweight in the region that can act as a stalwart ally in deterring Iran and its expansionism.
Iran's hostility toward Saudi Arabia has several reasons. For the sake of brevity, we will stick with two. The first reason is ideological, as the Islamic Republic’s theocratic interventionist policies are antithetical to the Kingdom’s nonnegotiable adherence to regional stability. The second reason is because of Riyadh's close relationship with Washington.
Saudi Arabia's options
It is especially important for the Biden administration to know that Saudi Arabia has unconventional regional strategic options; one of which is to get closer and reach a great deal of understanding with Iran if America fails to deter the Iranian regime. This is something I do not want, given that I know appeasement with the Iranian regime would be the wrong path, together with my experience of being targeted, together with hundreds of others in a failed terrorist plan by the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Paris. Furthermore, I believe in the great importance of a good Saudi-US relationship.
However, Riyadh will not entertain any of those options until it is absolutely certain that Washington chooses to remain frustratingly hesitant to deter Iran, its militias and its nuclear ambitions. As has been stated by Saudi officials including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Kingdom would obtain nuclear weapons as soon as it could if Iran acquired it. This may trigger a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race, with regional powers such as Egypt and Turkey following suit.
If this were to happen, then Washington can disband with the notion that it has any remaining influence in the entire Middle East. The reputation of America as a reliable ally in the region would be eroded beyond repair, as losing the respect of the Arab and Muslim world is a diplomatic blunder so grave and irreversible, it would not be anunderstatement to call it the mistake of the century.
If the US were to consciously choose to abandon its allies in the region, then Saudi Arabia will do everything in its power to pursue and protect its interests. One way of doing so would be to seek deeper strategic relations with its largest economic partner, China, especially when it comes to containing Iran.
While it is true that Saudi Arabia was one of the most ardent opponents of communist regimes during the Cold War, it assumed this political position from a purely pragmatic standpoint. In other words, Riyadh has a problem with revolutionary regimes that want to export their influence to others through coercive means. When it comes to China, the situation has changed dramatically, as the Chinese brand of communism is now narrowly confined to the upper echelons of its political system. I can assure you that Beijing is more capitalist in its dealings with other countries than the capital of the world economy itself, New York City.
Riyadh watched the American missteps in the region closely and carefully, warning the US against invading Afghanistan and Iraq. The late Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal said that toppling Saddam Hussein would solve one problem, but it would create even bigger problems, specifying sectarianism and terrorism. True to his prophetic warnings, this is precisely what the region is witnessing so far. What exacerbated the problem was that Iraq ended up being inadvertently handed to Iran on a silver platter. America went from being the region’s security guarantor to a direct, however unwilling, contributor to regional destabilization.
Another notable diplomatic mistake was when the Obama administration failed to support the Iranian people against their theocratic regime in 2009 with the so-called Green Revolution. However, a mere two years later, Washington contributed to the overthrow of their 30-year-old ally, Hosni Mubarak, leading to the rapid rise and empowerment of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. It was only later that Obama’s Presidential Study Directive-11 (PSD-11) was leaked by Wikileaks and subsequently discussed in the US Congress, which brought Washington's plan to overthrow regimes in the Arab world through Islamist organizations to light.
These catastrophic mistakes are seared into the minds of politicians in the region, and nothing short of a complete, tangible overhaul of American policy in the region would get them to have a change of heart. Personally, I am afraid that the only people willing to put any warmth to Saudi-American relations are the blood-thirsty extremists who only believe in the fire of war. A fire that demands terrorists as firewood, and their sponsors as their fuel.
Speaking of fuel, it has been speculated that Biden’s trip to the Kingdom is necessitated by the need to bring down gas prices at home. This basic recognition of the power of the petrodollar that President Richard Nixon established after doing away with the gold standard is further proof that Riyadh and the globally recognized strength of the USdollar cannot be separated. This recognition may have been delayed due to the Biden administration’s willingness to blindly follow the latest mainstream media narratives regarding Saudi Arabia, as if it is their only access to information about a time-tested ally.
While it may be too much to ask for the sense of warmth and camaraderie that King Abdulaziz and FDR enjoyed, Biden’s forthcoming visit to the Kingdom should not be a labyrinthine political maze to navigate. All he has to do is look at the 77-year track record the Saudi-US relationship has left. He will find that this partnership withstood aworld war, innumerable regional conflicts, and economic turmoil that has reshaped the global political landscape. The Kingdom has remained steadfast through it all, helping the US keep the global community safe and prosperous.
Saudi Arabia is currently on a transformative journey, as it is far from reaching its economic, cultural and geopolitical potential. The president would be wise to keep the historic Saudi-US relationship a part of that journey.
Salman Al-Ansari is a Saudi political researcher and founder of the Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee – SAPRAC.