Karin Kneissl: The US and Saudi Arabia have always had a messy alliance. How much is Biden prepared to shake it up?
The intelligence report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is straining relations between the US and Saudi Arabia to a point not seen since September 11, 2001 – but Riyadh was never the first-choice Middle East ally for Washington.
Most of the terrorists who piloted the planes on September 11, 2001, had Saudi passports, among them neither Afghans nor Iraqis. Nevertheless, there were military operations by the US and its allies in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003. One of the many reasons for the war was to make Iraq, with its important as yet undeveloped oil fields of better quality than those on the Arabian Peninsula, an alternative to the supposedly unreliable Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Advisers to then US president George W. Bush were of one mind: the Saudis were not the solution to the problem, they were the problem.
The terrorist organization Al-Qaeda was the answer to the deployment of US troops in 1990 for that war against Iraq. Advocacy for the next generation of terrorism is particularly widespread among young Saudis. Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS, and also known by the Arabic abbreviation Daesh), has been fought since 2014, but its attractiveness as a utopian social model for a ‘homo novus islamicus’ is still supported by many young people. The motives range from boredom to convinced piety, especially among young Saudis.
The reforms since 2016 under the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known by the abbreviation MBS – are in the spirit of ‘bread and circuses’, and include the building of stadiums and cinemas. King Abdullah, who died in January 2015, created a solid legal basis for building a real labor market and, thus, a renewed attempt to ‘Saudiize’ the economy, i.e. to reduce dependence on millions of foreign workers in all areas. Since then, a lot of the reforms never went beyond loud announcements. I studied the Vision 2030, written by the consulting firm McKinsey, several times when it was published, but it contains only vague marketing promises and lacks essence. In addition, massive investments are required for the planned diversification – the exit from the oil age the media are pushing for. This cannot be achieved easily, because 90 percent of the country lives off oil exports. The money for Vision 2030 is lacking, not only due to a drop in the oil price since 2014, but also due to many wrong decisions, such as the stock market listing of Saudi Aramco at the wrong time. But MBS continues to make frequent announcements and the international press picks up every report.
The time of informal family ties
When then US president Donald Trump made his first trip abroad four years ago to Saudi Arabia, of all places, people were amazed. The country had never played such a role on the foreign policy stage. For many years, America’s real allies in the Middle East were elsewhere. Until 1979, Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the ‘US gendarme in the Gulf’. With his fall, or more precisely with the hostage-taking at the US embassy in November 1979, the US changed its focus. The overthrown shah was quickly dropped, like many other US allies before and after him. Egypt and Saudi Arabia were supposed to replace Iran, which was lost to the Islamic revolution. Cairo was by far the most important recipient of US aid, after Israel. Much of it, like wheat and arms deliveries, were ultimately businesses of indirect profitability for Washington. Saudi Arabia has long been a US partner as an important oil exporter, but has actually been even more important as a sales market for US armaments.
Trump praised Riyadh as an investor in the US and an arms buyer. Above all, he made the fight against terrorism and the isolation of Iran a top priority. He must also have liked the Crown Prince’s pro-Israel stance. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, then took care of the details of the relationship in its new form, which was no longer carried out via the State Department, weighing national interests, but rather via a ‘short official channel’ via WhatsApp with MBS. Ultimately, it was also Trump who defended MBS in the case of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. He did so despite a lot of circumstantial evidence in the fall of 2018 and a subsequent CIA report that apparently contains clear references to the Crown Prince as the paymaster.
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Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, meanwhile, is acting on many of his campaign declarations, changing course in regard to Riyadh quite radically: the suspension of arms deliveries for the Yemen war, new offers of talks with Tehran to reactivate the JCPOA nuclear agreement of July 14, 2015 (the ‘Iran deal’), and further steps to ‘recalibrate’ relations with Riyadh. What is diplomatically interesting is that Biden speaks directly to the actual head of state, King Salman. He leaves his son MBS to senior officials in the State Department. Formally speaking, it is the right way. Salman is not the sick old man he is often portrayed as. The king had to take intensive efforts in the spring of 2018 to restore peace among the tribal leaders, and traveled across the country after his son arrested hundreds of Saudis at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. It was about blackmail, travel bans, and not a few vendettas. MBS had already used this method against the first Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, former minister of the interior and valued partner of the CIA. In March 2020, rumors of the king’s death were spread again, and turned out to be false.
“Making Saudi Arabia a Pariah”
During the election campaign, Biden formulated the change in the US approach to Saudi Arabia when he announced he would “make Saudi Arabia the pariah that they are.” In any case, the new Middle East team in Washington set a very clear tone in the first few days after taking office.
With the release of the intelligence report, I think the White House could even stir up the internal intrigue of the Saudi royal family. In another wave of arrests a year ago, MBS eliminated all of the cousins and uncles he considered potential rivals. There was even the rumored danger of a coup. It was a sort of déjà vu, because family feuds with murder and manslaughter recur. Former oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani died a few days ago, at the age of 90. He had survived several attacks. In 1975, he was standing next to King Faisal when the latter was shot by his nephew. Yamani soon fell out of favor, as is currently the case with others who are hired and fired in Riyadh. Above all looms the fear of who will be chased out of office next.
Some high-ranking members of the Saudi royal family and former ministers have fled into exile in North America, and the family members they left behind have been placed under house arrest as hostages. Current assessments in Washington are now less based on the rather messy relationships from the Trump era, when much of it was just a matter of personal chemistry and calls from Israel. It seems that sober analyses are becoming more important again. The CIA, as well as the State Department, have well-established channels of communication with those members of the Saudi royal family who can be called adults. The group around MBS is characterized by a teenage mentality with a tendency to be bullish that takes some getting used to. If the adults are in the driver’s seat again, this might be a gain for the subjects – they can hardly be called citizens. However, MBS undoubtedly has many followers among young people who are ready for anything and advocate for their idol on the social networks with a lot of verbal violence.
The old adage applies: “The greatest threat to the Saudi royal family is the Saudi royal family.” How the Biden government deals with it, how far the US interference in Saudi throne issues extends, what this means for a resurgent Iran, and what will ultimately become of the peace treaties between some Arab states and Israel may still cause surprises. With the exception of the armaments section from the trade balance, the People’s Republic of China has been Saudi Arabia’s most important trading partner for more than a decade. Beijing, like many others, will be watching closely how quickly the current monarchs may lose US affection. As a reminder, when the CIA chief announced the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the former ‘best friend’ was swiftly dropped, two people in the Middle East in particular were deeply concerned: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi King Abdullah.
Much is possible in the context of the current ‘recalibration’ by US President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as the announcements made during the election campaign have already been followed by very clear steps. The publication of the secret CIA report on the murder of Khashoggi and the role of MBS is an interesting measure among many.
When British prime minister Winston Churchill and US president Franklin D. Roosevelt vied for the favor of the Saudi tribal leader Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, the American prevailed. A strategic alliance between the US and the Saudis emerged, and, for many decades, it was about cheap Arab oil for the US. The realpolitik reason for the Bedouin prince’s decision to go with America was his deep contempt for the British, who already ruled the entire region as far as India as part of the Empire. In addition, there is an anecdote about the deal having involved a personal gift. Roosevelt gave the frail king a wheelchair that he had previously admired when he saw a similar one used by the paralyzed American. The old man didn’t take the same shine to Churchill’s Rolls-Royce, for why should a king sit behind a chauffeur? Politics consists of many large and small developments, of converging interests and also of personal chemistry and gestures. It will therefore be of interest far beyond the region to see how Biden and King Salman rearrange the rather untidy alliance via phone or video conferences.
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