The World

Why the U.S. Still Needs Saudi Arabia

Mohammed bin Salman claps at an F1 race.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in December. Andrej Isakovic/Pool/Getty Images

Next month, President Joe Biden will get on Air Force One to do something that would have been anathema to candidate Biden. He’s going to visit Saudi Arabia. I asked Gregory Gause, who is an expert on the Saudi-U.S. relationship and teaches at Texas A&M, how he would describe that relationship. Are the countries frenemies? “Well, there’s no good translation of frenemy into Arabic.” Gause said. “I wouldn’t use frenemy, but I also think it’s a mistake to use the word ally because allies are people that you will fight for, reflexively. We were never that.”

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The U.S. and Saudi Arabia were especially “not allies” over the past few years, in the wake of the killing of Saudi dissident and U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. At a presidential debate, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and promised to treat the country that way. It turns out, things look a little different from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., which is why, come July, Biden will be going to visit with the pariahs themselves.

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On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Gause about that upcoming trip and how Biden changed his mind on Saudi Arabia. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: The relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has always been complicated. The Saudis opposed Israel from the beginning and used their supply of petroleum as a diplomatic weapon, cutting off oil to the United States in the 1970s, after the U.S. supported Israel militarily. The relationship was rocked again when many of the 9/11 hijackers were revealed to be Saudi nationals. And the kingdom’s approach to human rights has always been a source of tension.

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Donald Trump sought to smooth out this relationship, making Saudi Arabia his first trip abroad once he took office. But Trump’s embrace of the Saudi royal family made many observers uncomfortable. And that discomfort turned into outrage after the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Gregory Gause: Jamal had worked for years in the Saudi-owned press. He had been the editor of a Saudi newspaper. He was an insider in the regime. And when MBS came to power, he became disenchanted with the consolidation of power in MBS’s hands.

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Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince.

Yes, so Jamal left the country, came to the U.S., started writing for the Washington Post, was critical—but mildly critical. He wasn’t calling for the overthrow of the government or anything like that. He was just saying that there should be broader democratic change in Saudi Arabia. And while Mohammed bin Salman has instituted a number of changes in Saudi Arabia, he’s not a political reformer. And in fact, he was consolidating power in his own hands and locking up his opponents. And so Jamal Khashoggi was critical of the crown prince and critical in a venue that was important to the crown prince, which was the Washington Post. Jamal had a number of contacts among the think tank crowd and on Capitol Hill. He was a respected figure among Washington elites, and people listened to him.

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Can you explain for those who may not remember what happened to Jamal Khashoggi?

It’s a lurid and horrible story. Jamal was looking to get married, and he had to go to a Saudi Consulate in order to get the documents that would allow him to marry his fiancée. And he was lured to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to get these particular documents. And while there, he was kidnapped, and then the story becomes cloudy. There’s some speculation that they wanted to put him on an airplane, take him back to Saudi Arabia. But if that was the intention, that didn’t work, and he was killed and his body dismembered and never been found.

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There was a pretty instantaneous political reaction to Jamal Khashoggi’s death, not from Trump, who was the president at the time of his murder, but from a lot of other people on both sides of the aisle. Can you characterize how his death was responded to politically at the time?

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The reason it was so shocking is that many people in the United States looked at the crown prince as a reformer because of what he was doing on women’s issues—the famous women’s driving ban was lifted by him—and the opening up of the country to more social freedom and the curbing of the power of the religious police to discipline public displays of entertainment. So the killing of Jamal Khashoggi really blotted his copybook. Americans always, in every country, have this dream that there’s going to be somebody who takes over who’s going to be just like us and turn their country into a little America. So there was a real sense not just of revulsion at what had been done—and that revulsion was personal because a lot of these people knew Jamal—but also the sense of disappointment. Oh, we thought this guy was one of us.

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Do you remember the moment on the campaign trail when Joe Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah?

Oh, yeah. I thought it was a huge mistake. It was in one of the debates in the Democratic primaries. And Joe Biden was in many ways the most experienced foreign policy hand on the stage. But the other thing about Joe Biden is that he’s always been a reliable indicator of where the center of the Democratic Party is. And he knew that the four years of Trump and Trump’s relationship with Saudi Arabia had really soured a lot of Democrats, especially elite Democrats in the foreign policy community, on Saudi Arabia. And I think that his use of the term pariah was really a reflection of him reading the room.

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I wonder if you heard that pledge’s bluster or worried that it was too harsh to just be bluster.

I thought it was more than bluster in that I don’t think it was necessary. Most people don’t vote on what a candidate’s position on Saudi Arabia is. And so maybe he didn’t reflect too much in the moment as to what the longer-term consequences for policy would be on this.

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Once President Biden got into office, he had to figure out how his campaign rhetoric would translate into real-world policy. He basically tried to split the baby. Biden maintained contact with the Saudi regime but never visited, making U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin the main point of contact.

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Last year, Biden declassified and publicized an intelligence report about Jamal Khashoggi’s death. The report specifically accuses MBS of ordering the murder. While many observers were glad to see the Biden administration saying the quiet part out loud, some were disappointed with the lack of follow-through.

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I don’t think that there was any doubt in anybody’s mind who paid attention to this that the crown prince would have had to have approved this operation. The way Saudi politics works, big decisions aren’t made without the OK of the top guy. And this was a big decision. So, yeah, this could only have been done with the approval of the crown prince. The release of the intelligence report was not a surprise. But it added to the seriousness of the breach. We also have to remember that this was at a time when oil prices were pretty low. We were in the midst of COVID. The demand for oil was low and thus prices were low. And there might have been a sense that we don’t need the Saudis that much. Oil is not that important anymore. With climate change, we’re trying to deemphasize oil in our energy portfolio. And, look, the United States is producing a lot of oil, which kind of goes against the climate change imperatives. But, maybe the Saudis aren’t as important as they used to be. There might have been some thinking about that in the administration as well.

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After this intelligence report came out, some argued that sanctioning MBS would have compelled some kind of action from Saudi Arabia. Like, the whole country would have had to reckon with what he did here, and the king would have had to remove MBS from the line of succession, even if he didn’t want to. What do you make of an assessment like that?

I think it’s a misreading of Saudi politics. We should keep in mind that even when we had 150,000 troops in Iraq, we couldn’t dictate everything that happened politically in Iraq—while we were occupying it militarily. It would thus be a mistake for us to think that American sanctions are immediately going to lead the countries that we put them on to change their behavior. Not true with Russia. Not true with Venezuela. Not true with Iran. And I don’t think it would have been true with Saudi Arabia. People don’t give up power because America sanctioned them.

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When I was thinking about the complicated position President Biden was in when it comes to Saudi Arabia, I read about this one moment that crystallized things for me: After Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, there was a meeting of the G-20 and the gang was all there, including Saudi Arabia and the U.S. And the world leaders were all trying to ignore MBS because they didn’t know what else to do, so they were shutting him out. And then Vladimir Putin walked up and gave MBS a high-five. And it makes you realize when you shut someone out, you don’t know where they’re going to go. And that may be problematic in other ways.

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It’s interesting Putin and MBS, because one of MBS’s real mistakes when he became the executive in Saudi Arabia is that he thought Saudi Arabia was a superpower. He thought they could act like Russia or China—or Iran, for that matter, a regional power. Who do kill their dissidents abroad and basically get away with it. And he didn’t realize, because he was pretty young and inexperienced, the limitations of the country’s own power. MBS really did think he was like Putin. He could get away with stuff. And maybe there’s been some learning there. One can only hope.

Even as that intelligence report was released, which basically said Saudi Arabia was responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s death, we now know that there were all kinds of backchannel negotiations going on between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which isn’t particularly surprising. What have these talks leading up to Joe Biden’s upcoming trip been like as the U.S. tries to reset their relationship here?

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They’ve clearly been difficult. There was a report—which has been denied, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire on these things, probably—that the crown prince refused to take a phone call from President Biden some months ago, after the Ukraine invasion. And so to some extent, it’s the Saudis realizing after Ukraine that they had a bit more leverage.

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By leverage, you means surplus oil, right? As the war in Ukraine drives gas prices through the roof , the president is looking to find some way to up the global oil supply.

Of course, Saudi leaders will want something in return. Biden is hoping to satisfy their top priority—international recognition of the crown prince—just by showing up. Beyond that, the Saudis want reassurance that the U.S. is dedicated to stopping Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and that Washington is still committed to the Middle East at large.

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If gas prices or oil production are the real motivation here, how much will talks there actually influence any of those things in the coming months?

We’ve already seen the Saudis say that they’re willing to increase their oil production at a faster rate than what the OPEC Plus agreement, which had been governing Saudi oil production decisions, allowed. We’re not talking about huge quantities, but we are talking about signals that the Saudis are willing to open the taps a bit, and that could put some downward pressure on prices.

If you’re Joe Biden, do you bring up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at all?

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So I’m not Joe Biden, and I don’t think I would. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the president, in a one-on-one meeting with the crown prince away from the press, says to him, “Look, you can’t be a full partner of the United States and do things like this. Our political system won’t sustain it, and I personally won’t accept it.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the president says something like that.

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It’s clear these guys think pragmatism is the correct choice here. But I wonder if there’s still room for accountability for Jamal Khashoggi’s death in a pragmatic framework?

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There’s not room for accountability in a way that would satisfy most Americans who are concerned about this issue. Rulers get away with all sorts of things because in foreign policy you have goals that you want to achieve. And you have to deal with people who have blood on their hands. This is the way of the world. Changing that is beyond the power of any particular country. And even at the height of American power, at the end of the Cold War, we couldn’t institute an international regime of perfect human rights observance. We still dealt with a China that violated human rights in all sorts of ways. We dealt with numerous countries that did. And it’s really unrealistic and irresponsible for the United States to waste its time, effort, and power on things that it just cannot achieve.

I mean, I knew Jamal pretty well. And I wrote one of the letters for him to get his green card.

Oh, wow. What a strange situation for you to be in to see things the way you do, which is very practical, but also know Jamal very well. Among his friends, is there a divide about how to see Saudi Arabia right now?

Particularly on the American side, there are a number of his friends that have just cut the cord and are campaigning against Saudi Arabia, basically. And there’s folks like me that basically say, “Well, this was horrible, but politics is a brutal sport in that part of the world.”

It all comes down to what you think foreign policy is about. If foreign policy is about making yourself feel good, then, yeah, don’t deal with Saudi Arabia, don’t deal with Putin, don’t deal with the Chinese, don’t deal with Venezuela, and don’t deal with a whole range of countries. But if foreign policy is achieving more specific political and economic goals, then you keep your eyes on what you want to achieve and you deal with the people you have to deal with. That’s a philosophical stance. And I respect the people who would say, “Well, these goals that we have, who cares if gas prices are high? Who cares if we don’t achieve these goals? We’ll at least have our self-respect and our purity of motive.” I just disagree with them.

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