President Joe Biden is preparing to head to Saudi Arabia, or so goes the chatter in Washington. He wants to repair relations with Riyadh, which means groveling before rulers even more bloodstained than Vladimir Putin. Observed the Atlantic Council’s Daniel Shapiro: “I think it is fair to say, there is an internal discussion about how to approach the Saudis and particularly whether Biden should travel there.”
One of America’s great embarrassments always has been its close relationship with the medieval Saudi monarchy. At least for most of its existence that government was a weirdly collegial autocracy, with the kingship passed among brothers, the 45 (!) sons of King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman. Power was closely held, though the matrilineal rivalries were complex. With the passing of that generation the system is turning into a more conventional dictatorship, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman kidnaps, detains, tortures, murders, and even dismembers his critics.
During the Cold War Washington’s concern over a stable oil supply and fear of Soviet influence over the Middle East led America to embrace the totalitarian Islamist state. Ironically MbS, as the crown prince is known, has intensified political repression as he has relaxed social controls. Saudi citizens now can enjoy the movies — but not criticize their political masters or worship a god other than Allah.
Freedom House rates the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as not just unfree, but among the ten worst territories and countries. With just seven out of a possible 200 points, the KSA languishes alongside North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, Tajikistan, and other bottom feeders. Explained Freedom House:
Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy restricts almost all political rights and civil liberties. No officials at the national level are elected. The regime relies on pervasive surveillance, the criminalization of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power. Women and religious minorities face extensive discrimination in law and in practice. Working conditions for the large expatriate labor force are often exploitative.
Despite appealing to credulous evangelicals, the Saudi regime remains a one-religion state. And “incremental improvements,” including improved treatment of women, did not change the overall assessment by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: “Saudi Arabia continued to violate religious freedom egregiously, targeting religious minorities in particular.” Not one church, synagogue, or temple exists in the Kingdom.
According to the Commission, persecution is pervasive:
The government also persecuted those who published dissenting religious views on social media. In October, a court sentenced Yemeni journalist Ali Abulohoom to 15 years in prison on apostasy charges for posts on his Twitter account. Throughout the year, the government also continued to forbid any public non-Muslim worship or the construction of non-Muslim houses of worship. It also delayed trials for several religious prisoners of conscience, including Hassan Farhan al-Maliki and Salman al-Ouda. Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh remains in prison on an eight-year sentence on charges of blasphemy and promoting atheist thought.
Yet successive administrations proclaimed their fealty to the Saudi royal family. The Bush family was especially friendly with the Kingdom; the relationship was symbolized by ostentatious handholding at the Bush ranch in Texas. The downside of this familiarity was serious: President George W. Bush declared war on terrorism but conveniently allowed the KSA to airlift its nationals from America after 9/11, in which most of the terrorists were Saudis. As a result, many questions about the al-Qaeda network and activities went unasked.
The worst U.S. pander to Riyadh was the Obama administration’s decision to back the Saudi/Emirati invasion of Yemen. The latter has been in an almost constant state of conflict throughout its modern existence, during which the Kingdom has often intervened. Ansar Allah, popularly known as the Houthis, is a purely indigenous force that arose a couple decades ago, in opposition to then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, before joining with him against his successor.
In 2015 MbS, defense minister but not yet crown prince, sought to establish his bona fides for a royal power grab by restoring the previous regime to power in neighboring Yemen. He insisted that the campaign, launched with great patriotic fervor, would take weeks. Alas, the time stretched into years, as Iran took advantage of the Allah-sent opportunity to bleed the overconfident yet incompetent Saudi forces. Despite U.S. support — providing, servicing, arming, and for a time refueling Saudi warplanes, as well as providing targeting intelligence — the “coalition” lost ground to the insurgents.
The humanitarian consequences were horrific, akin to the disaster resulting from the Iraq War. The Saudis and Emiratis were careless at best, murderous at worst, with their air attacks. Detailed the United Nations Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen: “Since March 2015, over 23,000 airstrikes have been launched by the coalition in Yemen, killing or injuring over 18,000 civilians. Living in a country subjected to an average of 10 airstrikes per day has left millions feeling far from safe.” Victims included “civilians shopping at markets, receiving care in hospitals, or attending weddings and funerals; children on buses; fishers in boats; migrants seeking a better life; individuals strolling through their neighborhoods; and people who were at home.”
Even worse have been the broader consequences of the conflict and the Saudi/Emirati blockade: mass disease and malnutrition. Nearly 400,000 Yemenis have died while 21 million need humanitarian assistance to survive. The insurgents obviously share the blame, but for reasons of pure power politics Riyadh dramatically expanded what otherwise was merely another phase in Yemen’s perpetual political unrest. Humanitarian groups unanimously ascribe the vast bulk of the harm to the Gulf royals — which inevitably implicates the U.S.
The situation has gotten no better under the Biden administration. According to the Yemen Data Project:
January 2022 was the most violent month in the Saudi-led air war in Yemen in more than five years. Yemen Data Project recorded 139 civilian deaths and 287 civilians injured in Saudi coalition airstrikes in January, taking the casualty toll to over 19,000 civilians killed and injured since Saudi Arabia launched its bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015. Not since October 2016 have more civilian casualties been recorded in a single month in the air war. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes caused more civilian harm in the first month of 2022 than in the two previous years combined.
Yemen is merely the worst example of the Kingdom undermining U.S. foreign policy interests. In fact, Riyadh long has promoted conflict and oppression in the Middle East, even more so with the rise of MbS. Riyadh tolerated public financial support for al-Qaeda until it challenged the royal family at home. The Kingdom subsidized Islamist insurgents (Libya, Syria), aided ruthless dictatorships (Bahrain, Egypt), kidnapped the head of government of the one state in which Christians enjoy equal rights (Lebanon), and blockaded (while threatening to invade) an American friend (Qatar). Even Iran must work to match such a malign, disruptive record.
However, Washington’s complicity in war crimes did not satisfy MbS, aka Crown Prince “Slice ’n Dice,” with whom Biden refused to meet. Having spent wildly, inflamed inflation, discouraged domestic energy production, and sought to drive Russian supplies from the international marketplace, the president worried about the political impact come November. So he called the Saudi king, seeking to bypass the crown prince, but the former reportedly refused to take his call. The Emiratis were no more forthcoming.
The monarchies’ complaints were simple. The Biden administration had not acted quickly and submissively enough when the royals rang. In their mind, the U.S. is just another foreign supplicant, tasked with providing various services, including de facto mercenaries to protect their betters. Surely those with royal blood should not be expected to protect themselves! Defense Secretary Robert Gates captured the Saudi mindset when he observed that Riyadh was ever ready to “fight the Iranians to the last American.”
And then there was all that insulting “pariah” talk! The Hudson Institute’s Mohammed Khalid Alyahya complained about “an American government that seeks to stigmatize Saudi Arabia through childish name-calling.” Consider the many terrible indignities afflicting the long-suffering Saudis in recent years:
[T]he administration’s restrictions on arms sales; what [MbS] saw as its insufficient response to attacks on Saudi Arabia by Houthi forces in Yemen; its publication of a report into the Saudi regime’s 2018 murder of the dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi; and Biden’s prior refusal to deal in person with the crown prince.
So the Gulf royals are using rising prices to rein in the Biden administration. And the tactic appears to be working.
Of late there has been much talk of a grand bargain, treating political repression, barbaric human rights practices, and murderous aggression as minor matters. In the real world Washington must deal with even terrible regimes, including the KSA. However, there should be no doubt which country is the superpower. America, not the Kingdom, is the dominant party. The U.S. should not allow a premodern dictatorship afraid of its own people to set the terms of the relationship.
Which should be the natural result of the fact that Saudi Arabia needs America more than America needs Saudi Arabia. Oil markets are much more diverse than years past and in normal circumstances the Kingdom would not matter as much as it once did. Indeed, the current run-up in prices reflects not Saudi power but U.S. decisions — the willingness to use energy as a weapon, attempting to shut down petroleum production by Iran, Venezuela, and now Russia. Even if justified, that policy will inevitably be costly. Even a more pliable Riyadh is not going to sacrifice its opportunity replenish its treasury after recent lean years.
Moreover, the overt rapprochement between several Arab states and Israel has created growing power balance against Iran. At the same time, the Saudi royals’ concern over the U.S. commitment has promoted a dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh, which is the best mechanism to ultimately diminish Shia-Sunni tensions. Both sides are to blame, and Americans should not be in the middle of such a struggle.
Finally, U.S. officials should not be scared by the Kingdom’s flirtation with Beijing and Moscow. Chinese economic investment is inevitable and is not the harbinger of a major military role; in that regard Beijing remains focused on countering America in its own neighborhood. Russia is unlikely to step into a role as regime guarantor and Riyadh would be reluctant to accept such a protector. Moscow’s military wares look less attractive these days and the Kingdom is deeply invested in American weapons, which require continuing servicing and spare parts.
If MbS is willing to diss America, let him pay the price for doing so. Washington should stop opposing domestic lawsuits against the Saudis for complicity in al-Qaeda’s attacks. There should be no more munition sales to Riyadh. U.S. contractors servicing Saudi aircraft should be brought home. The State Department should consider labeling the Kingdom a state sponsor of terrorism. Congress should investigate Saudi Arabia’s costly effort to buy influence in America. Washington should politely inform the royals that they need to rely on their own people for their security in the future. Then Crown Prince Slice n’ Dice would understand what happens when America’s friends turn rogue.
Should Biden visit the Middle East? Sure. But he shouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia until the royals offer to moderate oil prices and temper repression at home. And treat the U.S. with more respect. Maybe then the next time the president calls, the king will answer the phone.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.