During U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, the U.S.-Saudi relationship was one of few Middle East–related topics on the administration’s list of priorities. After some suspense on the timing and who would be engaged, Biden called King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on February 25, making him the fourteenth world leader—and the third in the Middle East—that Biden spoke with after taking office on January 20.
The call came after the United States had already ushered an end to the Saudi crown prince’s privileged access to the president’s office. Washington had announced ending “all American support for offensive operations” that Saudi Arabia leads in Yemen, imposed a temporary freeze on offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and appointed a special envoy to Yemen with the clear objective of ending the Saudi-led war. The call also came on the eve of both the State Department’s press release announcing its adoption of the “Khashoggi Ban” policy—named after journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allowing the department to restrict the visas of people persecuting journalists and dissidents on behalf of a foreign government—and the Treasury Department’s sanctions on the Saudi team and individuals implicated in Khashoggi’s killing.
Yet for better or for worse, Saudi Arabia still matters to the United States, as the Biden administration’s focus on the relationship with Riyadh shows. The president mentioned the kingdom in his first major foreign policy speech, despite an intended downgrade in the strategic importance of the Middle East. Biden’s appointed foreign policy and Middle East team leaders in the National Security Council, the State Department, as well as the CIA have all previously indicated that Saudi Arabia will continue to be seen as a partner, even a friend, no matter who is ruling it—at least for now.
A Saudi Recalibration?
The kingdom got the message. Publicly, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud stated that the relationship is “robust” and that “the [Biden] administration understands that working with the kingdom requires working with our leadership,” referring to the administration’s decision not to directly sanction Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman for his role in the killing of Khashoggi.
Yet Riyadh has taken actions to accommodate the Biden administration’s so-called recalibration policy. Even before the U.S. administration officially took office, Riyadh started responding to a number of bipartisan demands regarding its human rights violations. It released several prominent political prisoners, including two dual Saudi-U.S. citizens; reconciled with Qatar; coordinated a ceasefire initiative in Yemen with the United States and the UN; and allowed the docking of four fuel ships at the Yemeni port of Hodeidah. Additionally, Saudi Arabia indicated it might embrace a more realistic approach toward nuclear negotiations with Iran by surprisingly announcing its acceptance of the Vienna negotiations and by conducting its own round of talks with Iran.
How Far Can Biden’s Recalibration Go?
The U.S. administration is, however, facing pressure from Congress, media, and civil society to live up to Biden’s campaign promise to “make them [the Saudis], in fact, the pariah that they are.” Congress has already started approving pieces of legislation in response to the administration’s perceived insufficient actions to punish Saudi Arabia’s top leadership, namely the crown prince, for human rights violations. U.S. representatives are also reviewing a bill seeking to prevent Saudi Arabia from the “pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.” The bills come in addition to direct letters from lawmakers to Biden administration officials—asking them to pressure Saudi Arabia to end its air and sea blockades on Yemen, to clarify the administration’s broad yet systematic statements of U.S. support to Saudi Arabia’s defense, and to take further actions to implement a “meaningful adjustment” of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Congress is right to keep the pressure up, but the Biden administration is also correct to recognize the limits of its power over Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leadership’s mistrust of its U.S. partner has grown since Biden’s election. In the past, such episodes of mistrust drove the kingdom to adopt a more militarized and interventionist regional policy as well as a friendlier stance toward China and Russia. Saudi Arabia is indeed courted by America’s allies as well as its foes—all of whom aim to expand economic and strategic relations with the kingdom. The United States should mostly worry about its designated competitor, China, that not only doesn’t care about democracy and human rights in Saudi Arabia but also supports its authoritarianism. And despite the president’s commitment to U.S. values, America’s credibility in this department is still suffering from U.S. violations during the Iraq war, which Biden voted for as a senator. U.S. power is further limited by the fact that Saudi Arabia is highly influential in a region that is critical to international security and to the stability of the international economy; Riyadh also has global financial, political, and religious outreach that America benefits from. Most significantly, access and overflight rights in the kingdom are still important for the U.S. military to achieve its strategic goals and face global challenges.
The administration’s attempt to recalibrate the relationship is also facing a military-diplomacy dilemma. The United States wants to lead with diplomacy supported by America’s military footprint—and not the other way around, especially in the Middle East—while Riyadh sees the United states first as a defense and hard power broker and second as a force for soft power and diplomacy. In fact, today, the Saudi regime is more inclined toward Chinese rather than American soft power, whether in regard to technology, state-controlled economic development, or international diplomacy. At a time when Riyadh is facing increasing and expanding Houthi attacks and the United States is reengaging with Saudi Arabia’s perceived nemesis, Iran, Washington’s renewed pressure can work only as long as it gives Riyadh at least part of the military protection it wants.
But the Biden administration shouldn’t underestimate the fact that it is still Riyadh’s most influential political and strategic partner and its first partner of choice. The kingdom’s land, aerial, cyber, and maritime defense—in addition to advancements in its infrastructure, access to international financial markets, status in international organizations, economic and social development, and even its potential for diversifying its international relations—all depend a great deal on cooperation, or at least averting collision, with the United States. And all these areas are crucial to achieve the goals of the kingdom’s Vision 2030, the key to the Saudi crown prince’s legitimacy and stable rule and to the country’s economic transformation and sustainability. Moreover, whether true or not, there is a conviction in Riyadh that the United States has the power to interfere in palace politics and meddle with the stability of the regime through various state and nonstate tools. This makes Riyadh take Washington’s statements, actions, and requests very seriously.
The Next 100 Days
So far, the Saudi and U.S. governments have proven that they want to continue making their strategic partnership work. They are both using their respective leverage to define the contours of what the Biden administration calls recalibration of the relationship, amid new American and Saudi national and foreign policy priorities. In the case of this relationship, the phrase “America Is Back” may have to simply mean a return to the traditional parameters that governed most of their almost eighty-year-old partnership. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.