Why Biden Can’t Ice Out Saudi Arabia
Mary Harris: Next month, President Biden will get on Air Force One and do something that would have been anathema to candidate Biden. He’s going to visit Saudi Arabia. When I think about the U.S. Saudi relationship. I tend to use this word of my head. Frenemy. Is that fair?
Speaker 2: There’s no good translation of frenemy into Arabic.
Mary Harris: Gregory Gause is an expert on the Saudi U.S. relationship. He teaches at Texas A&M.
Speaker 2: 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 kind of reflexively. You’re committed to it, right? Naito Article five. We were never that.
Mary Harris: The U.S. and Saudi Arabia were especially not allies over the last few years. In the wake of the killing of the Saudi dissident and US based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Joe Biden: Showed he was in fact murdered and dismembered. And I believe in the order of the Crown Prince and I would make it very clear.
Mary Harris: At a presidential debate. Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah and promised to treat the country that way.
Joe Biden: There’s very little social redeeming value of the in the present government in Saudi Arabia. And I would also, as.
Mary Harris: It turns out, things look a little different from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which is why come July, Biden is going to visit the pariahs themselves.
Speaker 2: Every detail is choreographed, and in this case, what the Biden administration is getting is, well, this isn’t a direct bilateral summit with with Mohammed bin Salman.
Mary Harris: The crown prince. Yeah, the crown prince.
Speaker 2: We’re there for a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is the Saudis and the smaller Persian Gulf Arab states. The Saudis will get that that picture of the president and the crown prince and the Biden administration will say, well, we’re just dealing in a multilateral framework.
Mary Harris: I love that. It’s like they’re we’re not going on a one on one date. We’re going on a group thing with a bunch of other people.
Speaker 2: Yeah, it’s the prom. But you’re going with your posse.
Mary Harris: I mean, what’s the formal etiquette for shaking hands with a leader? You’re formally accused of sanctioning murder.
Speaker 2: You stick out your hand and say, how do you do?
Mary Harris: And, like, grit your teeth, I guess.
Speaker 2: Oh, no. Joe Biden will smile. He has a great smile.
Mary Harris: Today on the show, how President Biden changed his mind on Saudi Arabia. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around.
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 U.S. in the 1970s, after the United States supported Israel militarily, the relationship was rocked again when many of the 911 hijackers were revealed to be Saudi nationals. And the kingdom’s approach to human rights has always been a source of tension. 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 to outrage after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Speaker 2: 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 NBC came to power, he he became disenchanted with with the consolidation of power and mbes his hands.
Mary Harris: Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince.
Speaker 2: Mohammed bin Salman. So Jamal left the country, came to the US, started writing for the Washington Post was was critical but mildly critical. I would say he wasn’t he wasn’t calling for the overthrow 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.
Speaker 2: And and 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, the Washington League. Jamal had a number of contacts among the think tank crowd. And on Capitol Hill, he was a respected figure and people listened to him.
Mary Harris: Can you explain for those who may not remember what happened to Jamal Khashoggi?
Speaker 2: Well, it’s a 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 fiancee. And he was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in Turkey, to get these particular documents. And and while there, he was kidnapped. And then the story kind of becomes cloudy. There’s there’s, you know, some speculation that they wanted to to literally kidnap him, 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 then and never been found.
Speaker 2: Right now, we’re following the mysterious disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi amid reports from Reuters and The Washington Post that he may have been murdered.
Mary Harris: There’s a pretty instantaneous political reaction to Jamal Khashoggi death, not from President Trump, who is the president at the time of his murder, but from a lot of other people on both sides of the aisle. Can you characterize that, how his death, you know, was responded to politically at the time?
Speaker 2: Sure. I mean, the I think 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 especially on women’s issues. The famous women’s driving ban was lifted by him and 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.
Speaker 2: And and so the killing of Jamal Khashoggi really blotted his copybook from somebody that I think Americans who have 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. And so there was there was a real sense not just of 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.
Mary Harris: Do you remember the moment on the campaign trail when Joe Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah?
Speaker 2: Oh, yeah. I thought it was a huge mistake.
Joe Biden: And I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are. There’s very little.
Speaker 2: So 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. Right. He’d been on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for decades and had been vice president and knew all these rulers and and kind of put himself forward. As, you know, I’m the I’m the steady hand on the tiller of foreign policy. But I think that 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 and he knew, you know, 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, if you will, reading the Room Arabia.
Joe Biden: And I would also, as pointed out, I would end and the subsidies that we have and the sale of materials to the Saudis who are there going in and murdering children and they’re murdering innocent people. And so they have to be held accountable. And with regard.
Mary Harris: To I wonder if you heard that pledges, bluster or are worried that it just it was too harsh to just be bluster.
Speaker 2: I thought it was was more than bluster in that I don’t think it was necessary in most 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.
Mary Harris: 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. He maintained contact with the Saudi regime but never visited, making U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin the main point of contact. Last year, Biden declassified and publicized an intelligence report about Jamal Khashoggi death. The report specifically accuses the Saudi crown prince and boss 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.
Speaker 2: 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 okay of the top guy. And this was a big decision. So, yeah, this had to have been done. All this could only have been done with the approval of the of the crown prince. And so the release of the intelligence report, I think, was was not a surprise. But yeah, I think it added to the seriousness of the breach. But I think we also have to remember that this was at a time when oil prices were were pretty low.
Speaker 2: Right. We were in the midst of COVID. The demand for oil was low and thus prices were low. And and I think there might have been a sense that, you know, we don’t need the Saudis that much. Oil’s not that important anymore. Climate change. We’re not we’re not we’re trying to deemphasize oil in our energy portfolio. And, look, the you know, the United States is producing a lot of oil, which kind of goes against the climate change imperatives. But, you know, maybe the Saudis aren’t as important as as they used to be. And I think there might have been some thinking about that in the administration as well.
Mary Harris: After this intelligence report came out, some argued that sanctioning NBC would have compelled some kind of action from Saudi Arabia, like the whole country would have had to have reckoned with what he did here, and the king would have had to have removed NBC from the line of succession, even if he didn’t want to. What do you make of an assessment like that?
Speaker 2: I think it’s a misreading of Saudi politics. I think that we should keep in mind that even when we had 150,000 troops in Iraq and were occupying the country, we couldn’t dictate everything that happened politically in Iraq while we were occupying it militarily. And I think it would be a mistake for us to think that. American sanctions because that’s what we’re talking about, right? Sanctions. And we’re a sanctions happy country these days. That’s that’s our main our main tool of foreign policy is sanctions 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 with 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.
Mary Harris: Yeah. I mean, when I was thinking about the complicated position President Biden is in when it comes to Saudi Arabia, I read about this one moment that sort of crystallized things for me how after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, there was a meeting of the G20 and the gang was all there, including Saudi Arabia and the U.S. and the world leaders were all trying to ignore members because they they didn’t know what else to do. So they were sort of shutting him out. And then Vladimir Putin walked up and gave me a high five. Have you seen this video? Stand by and we’ll play it for you. Boom! What is that? A high five. All smiles and laughter like long lost buddies. But this video is and to me, it just sort of makes you realize, like when you shut someone out, you don’t know where they’re going to go. And that may be problematic in other ways.
Speaker 2: Yeah, I think that it’s interesting, Putin and NBC, because I think one of NBC’s real mistakes when he became the, you know, the executive. In Saudi Arabia in the name of his father, because he thought Saudi Arabia was a superpower. He thought they could act like Russia and China or Iran, for that matter, a regional power. Who who do kill their dissidents abroad and basically get away with it. And he didn’t realize because he was pretty young and inexperienced, he hadn’t lived through the experiences of his uncles and his father in terms of the Saudi Arabia dealing with all sorts of crises in the Middle East and and trying to keep its head down in those crises, realizing the limitations of their own power. I think I think NBS really did think he was like Putin. He could get away with stuff. And maybe there’s been some learning there. I mean, one can only hope.
Mary Harris: After the break, what to expect when Biden touches down in Saudi Arabia. Even as that intelligence report was released, which basically said Saudi Arabia was responsible for Jamal Khashoggi 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 are these talks leading up to Joe Biden’s upcoming trip? What have they been like as the U.S. tries to reset their relationship here?
Speaker 2: Well, they’ve clearly been difficult. I mean, there was a report which has been denied. But but, you know, 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, you know, after the Ukraine invasion. And so to some extent, I think it’s it’s the Saudis realizing after Ukraine that they had a bit more leverage.
Mary Harris: By leverage, Greg, means surplus oil as the war in Ukraine drives gas prices through the roof. The president is looking to find some kind of way to up the global oil supply. Of course, Saudi leaders will want something in return. Biden is hoping to satisfy their top priority just by showing up. That’s international recognition of the crown prince. Beyond that, the Saudis want reassurances 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. If gas prices or oil production are the real motivation here and the reason why President Biden is going to Saudi Arabia, how much will talks there actually influence any of those things in the coming months?
Speaker 2: Well, we’ve already seen the Saudis say that they’re willing to increase their oil production at a faster rate than what the Opec+ agreement, which had been governing Saudi oil production decisions allowed. So they’re going to be increasing oil production by 400,000 barrels a day over the next couple of months instead of 200,000 barrels a day, roughly. Now, that’s a tiny percentage of the world oil market rate, which is, you know, roughly 100 million barrels a day. And the Saudis are going to go up, right, about 400,000 barrels a day. So 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.
Mary Harris: If you’re Joe Biden, do you bring up the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at all?
Speaker 2: 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, which I’m sure at some point will happen, although outside of the outside of the press lights says to him, look, you 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. And so those are the guardrails for the relationship. I wouldn’t be surprised if the president says something like that.
Mary Harris: It’s clear that you 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.
Speaker 2: Well, 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 and you have to deal with people who have blood on their hands, who govern their countries in ways that you find repugnant.
Speaker 2: I think that this is the way of the world changing. That is, I think, 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 I think 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 know Jamal. I knew Jamal pretty well. And I wrote one of the letters for him to get his green card.
Mary Harris: Oh, wow.
Speaker 2: One of these special green cards you got because you have special skills. He asked me to write one of the letters when he was getting the green card.
Mary Harris: So what a strange situation for you to be in to kind of see things the way you do, which is very practical, but also know Jamal very well. I just wonder among his friends, I don’t know, is there a divide about like how to see Saudi Arabia right now? I mean, I know he he came from a prominent family. It’s not like his family was not involved in royal affairs. So I’m sort of curious about that for you personally.
Speaker 2: Yeah. I mean, particularly on the American side there, there are a number of his friends that have just kind of cut the cord and and are campaigning against Saudi Arabia, basically. And there’s folks like me that basically say, well, this is horrible, but, you know, politics is a brutal sport in that part of the world.
Speaker 2: It all comes down to what you think foreign policy is about. The foreign policy is about making yourself feel good. Then yeah, don’t deal with Saudi Arabia, don’t you, Putin? Don’t deal with the Chinese and don’t deal with Venezuela and don’t deal with a whole range of countries. But a foreign policy is achieving kind of more specific political and economic goals. Then, you know, 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 who would say, well, you know, these goals that we have, who cares if gas prices are high? Who cares if we don’t achieve these goals will at least have our our self-respect and our purity of motive. I just disagree with them.
Mary Harris: Gary Gause, thank you so much for joining me.
Speaker 2: That was a great pleasure.
Mary Harris: Gregory Gause is the head of the Department of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He specializes in Middle East politics. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Alena Schwartz, Mary Wilson and Carmel Delshad. We are led by Joanne Levine and Alisha Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter, say hello. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.