David H. Rundell and Michael Gfoeller
The Biden administration faces a dilemma in Saudi Arabia, which the president will visit later this month. Our primary foreign policy goal remains protecting the security and prosperity of the American people, but we are also a strong advocate for human rights and the rule of law. If we abandon our values, we have nothing to defend. If we abandon our interests, we have no way to defend our values. How this dilemma is resolved will affect us all.
During our years in the foreign service, we were taught the importance of developing international partnerships, not when suddenly needed, but well in advance. This maxim is truer today than it was in 1945 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz launched the Saudi-American partnership. America is no longer the global hegemon it was in the closing days of World War II or even in 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Today, we face already powerful competitors and growing rivals that threaten our security and prosperity. The Biden administration will need to strengthen, not dismantle, the partnerships that have served us well in the past and can remain strong.
Saudi Arabia has been a reliable partner for over seventy-five years. Very substantial Saudi foreign aid, often several times greater than that provided by the United States, supports pro-Western Arab governments, including Egypt, Jordan, Oman and Bahrain. As global food and energy prices rise, this aid will be essential to prevent another Arab Spring debacle. Saudi counterterrorism cooperation has saved many American lives. In recent years, Riyadh has promoted an increasingly tolerant version of Islam and worked quietly but actively to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. Saudi purchases and investments provide well-paying jobs for thousands of American workers. Despite the potential for US energy independence, the stability of Saudi oil production remains essential to the global economy. Moreover, it was largely Saudi spare capacity that allowed the United States to sanction other producers without creating price inflationary spikes. These examples all reflect the fundamental fact that Saudi Arabia is a status quo power. Like the United States, Saudi Arabia has a lot to lose. Like the United States, Saudi Arabia sees its interests aligned with peace and stability in the Middle East.
Yet, unlike many of our rivals, the United States has moral values to uphold as well as strategic interests to protect. Our support for human rights and the rule of law are not only fundamental American principles, but also enduring sources of American influence. Here, our partnership with Riyadh has become problematic. Washington cannot simply ignore the detention of Saudi political activists or the human cost of the war in Yemen. The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi has created serious tensions in Saudi-American relations that need to be resolved. The challenge for President Joe Biden is then to find a balance between justified concern about these painful events and support for the very important social and economic reforms underway in Saudi Arabia. The recent empowerment of women and youth in Saudi Arabia is real, as are efforts to diversify the oil-dependent economy and reduce corruption. Far more successful than the Arab Spring, it constitutes the most dramatic reshaping of an Arab nation in the past decade, and it has been largely peaceful. This development is fully consistent with our core values. This is something we should recognize and support. The failure of these reforms would undoubtedly increase Saudi instability; and it should be remembered that political stability is a human right that is too often absent in the Middle East.
It is only through continued engagement with the people and leaders of Saudi Arabia that we can hope to resolve the pervasive tension between our own values and interests. The ostracism of the leader of the largest economy in the Arab world will not eliminate our own need for allies. Resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict or promoting more moderate interpretations of Islam will be difficult without the cooperation of the rulers in Mecca. Just as was the case in Iran, a foreign policy resolutely centered on human rights could encourage Saudi instability. A collapse of the Saudi monarchy is far more likely to result in a regressive Islamist government like the Taliban than a secular, liberal democracy. The Islamic Republic of Arabia would share neither the values nor the interests of America.
The United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia should focus on future choices rather than past mistakes. Understanding that all international relations are multi-faceted, Biden is wise to reconnect with Riyadh. It will succeed to the extent that it can both promote ongoing reforms and discourage authoritarian behavior.
David H. Rundell is the author of “Vision or Mirage, Saudi Arabia at a Crossroads” and former Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Michael Gfoeller is a former political adviser to US Central Command. Both are partners of Arabia Analytica.