The Real Price of Political Compromise

President Joe Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia might signal the beginning of a comprehensive US recommitment to the region, and a new approach to Saudi Arabia in particular.
Published by
Central Office
on July 15, 2022
on July 15, 2022
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The Atlantic
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US President Joe Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman can bring the United States back to the Middle East.

What is the price of a political compromise? This seems to be the question Joe Biden will answer after his first visit as president of the United States to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for an official meeting with none other than the one he wanted to avoid from the very beginning, the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). When it comes to US relations with Saudi Arabia, Joe Biden seems to be a president like no other before him. In recent decades, US presidents have frequented Saudi leaders for various bilateral contacts, either economically (stability of the global energy market) or security (resuming the traditional American commitment to the security of the Saudi kingdom). If it took his predecessor, Donald Trump, only four months to land in Saudi Arabia on his first overseas visit since coming to the White House, it took Joe Biden more than a year and a half since inauguration to set foot in the arid Saudi desert on an official visit to Jeddah. His motives for the delay were flawless: a foreign policy in which human rights will play a central role (as opposed to Donald Trump who formed a personal relationship with MBS). The negative human rights record in Saudi Arabia in general and the curious murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in particular, was expected to set a grey future between the White House under Joe Biden and MBS. And whoever bet on it in the short term was right. Joe Biden gave the green light to the release of a classified information linking the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to MBS. It took the Yemeni group Houthi out of the US-designated terrorist list (reversing Trump's decision), withdrew two Patriot missile battery systems from Saudi Arabia, began indirect negotiations with Iran to restore the Trump-dissolved Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and pledged to talk only to King Salman bypassing MBS. Joe Biden was straightforward: never compromise our principles for undemocratic traditional allies. But how long do principles last in politics? Not very much following the Russian decision to break with international norms and re-invade Ukraine, staging not only a political intrusion but an economic shock on energy markets.


The Era of Geoeconomics

There is nothing more volatile on the market than energy prices. Gas and oil prices go up and down every time as demand and supply are very sensitive to political adventures and miscalculations. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the energy market was fairly stable despite explosive demand for energy and unexpected political circumstances such as the British embargo on Iranian energy exports following Tehran's nationalization of the British-operated oil industry in Iran. But every time solutions were found to keep prices under control. The US as the largest oil producer has adjusted its production so that the quantity supplied matched a growing demand. Western companies (Exxon, Mobile, Shell and BP) that operated the vast oil fields of the Middle East also functioned as an oligopoly bringing stability to the market. But this western-induced stability was to end in the 1970s when Arab governments took control of domestic energy production, and the US was found unable to keep the supply-demand gap sufficient to keep prices under control. This is when regional geopolitics became relevant in economic affairs. Whether it is the Arab energy embargo on the US as a result of American support for Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Iranian military coup and the 1979 Revolution when the US-backed Shah was removed and replaced by a theocratic Islamist regime, or the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the energy market would be disturbed enough to produce a recessionary wave among major energy importers (especially the US and Europe).


The Oil-For-Stability Pact

The relevance of Saudi Arabia as the world's third largest oil producer has grown considerably. Out of this unstable geopolitical environment, Washington would become a guarantor of security for the kingdom in exchange for the latter supplying the market long enough to keep global energy prices under control. This would become all the more important as the second largest producer, Russia, was easily unreliable in partnership with the US. But this oil-for-stability pact has shown its shortcomings. American ignorance of the Saudi security concerns, especially when the Iranian-backed Houthi attacked Saudi territory, led Riyadh to reorient itself to other security partners: China and Russia. On the other hand, Saudi`s refusal to pump more oil on the market to minimize the effect of Western sanctions on the Russian energy industry following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, showed Washington that providing security guarantees and looking the other way when Saudi Arabia has often been accused of human rights violations, was never a win-win solution in the long run.

President Joe Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia might be perceived as a reassurance of this decades-old pact since the already tight energy market has become even tighter, and Iran's nuclear program is advancing rapidly to the break-up point of building a nuclear bomb. Joe Biden does not seem to be as different from his predecessors as previously thought. After all, the importance of Saudi Arabia both economically in stabilizing prices, and politically in contributing to building a regional order in the Middle East baptised by Washington and working in favour of American security interests (especially with regard to Russia and Iran), is difficult to be ignored. Joe Biden began to learn that these days, moral principles are submissive to realpolitik.


Realpolitik Might Not Sound That Bad

Even if President Biden is negatively perceived as compromising his principles by landing in Saudi Arabia, this visit might not end that bad after all. Yes, Saudi Arabia is very bad on human rights. Whether it is women's rights in society, the unfair treatment of any critic of the regime, or the execution of 81 prisoners accused of disturbing the social order, the kingdom hardly looks like a US natural ally. But Saudi Arabia can still -arguably- be the most important pillar in regional stability, and its behaviour altered if its roots are understood. Just think about US-Saudi relations as such. As in any family, there is a rebellious child and his rebellion is often justified by the parent' treatment of him (US ignorance to Saudi security concerns), the tense environment in which he finds himself (Yemeni missiles launched to the Saudi territory and a more assertive and potentially nuclear Iran), but also frustration with the favourable treatment shown by the parent to another child (US military assistance to Ukraine following the Russian invasion but the withdrew of US Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia following the Houthi missile attacks). This is of course not the reason why Saudi Arabia hold such a bad record on human rights, but it is the reason why the region is still the way it is. The neighbourhood effect is very important in political and social change. For justice and human rights to flourish in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh needs a sense of stability towards its regime, something that the US missmanaged in the past but can change now. Riyadh's lack of support for US sanctions on Russia though its refusal to increase oil production to supplement Russia's energy supplies comes on the back of the Saudi leadership's perception that Russia can one day provide better when it comes to security guarantees. After all, Russia secured the survival of its regional ally, Bashar al-Assad in his darkest hour and helped turn the fate of the Syrian Civil War in his favour following the Russian intervention, something the US did not provide when Saudi territory has been targeted by Houthi ballistic missile. Saudi closeness with China might result from the Saudi perception that one day the People`s Republic might provide the necessary weapons for Saudi Arabia to defend itself in the absence of the US-retained arms supplies. Joe Biden can of course help change the course on several dimensions. To begin with, it is important to highlight that his visit to Saudi Arabia is not about energy prices solely, but about the establishment of a new contract with the Saudi leadership (and yes, including with MBS).

Firstly, it is about Israel. The time has come for the Trump-era Abraham Accords (the name given to the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan) to be less economic and business, and more geopolitical, including the establishment of a new-era type of US security guarantees towards the Middle East. The US draft presented to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the establishment of a formal defense agreement might become a security breakthrough. In March, Saudi Arabia and the UAE pushed for an institutionalized defense arrangement between the Gulf and the US. Israel showed its support for the issue in Washington. Even though the agreement with the UAE will be the first of its kind in the Gulf, it could set a precedent in the region. It might bring a new, more nuanced US recommitment to the region with the Abraham Accords as the steppingstone to building a future security network in the Middle East. The signs of such an institutional framework have already appeared. Israel is pushing for a regional air defense alliance in contacts with the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. Known as MEADA (Middle East Air Defense Alliance), the mechanism is a turning point for the Abraham Accords, from a more business relationship between the members towards the establishment of common provisions on security. Security provisions were also the scope of a recent meeting in Manama (Bahrain) with officials from the US, Israel, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco for the establishment of a forum on common security cooperation. Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest missing piece from this new framework. There can be no viable security alliance at the regional level without the region`s biggest player. Saudi participation in MEADA for instance followed by its presence in a bigger future regional framework on security should be among the most important points in the bilateral contact between US and Saudi officials these days in Jeddah along with a future normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia as an extension of the Abraham Accords.

Secondly, it is about Yemen. The current UN-sponsored truce in Yemen between the Houthi and the internationally recognized Yemeni government is encouraging but still very fragile in the absence of a solid agreement to secure the borders between Houthi and Saudi Arabia. The Houthi are demanding the cessation of Saudi airstrikes and the withdrawal of all foreign forces but without a ceasefire on the ground. This in turn might prove insufficient for Saudi Arabia and its demands for more security guarantees. An important point on the US list in discussions with Saudi Arabia should be about how the US can do better to contribute to a more trustful and solid Saudi-Houthi direct negotiation talks. The truce in Yemen cannot survive too long without the direct involvement of Saudi Arabia, and a stable Yemen cannot exist without a truce followed by the initiation of a political dialogue aimed at ending the civil war after 10 years of violence. Moreover, Joe Biden should negotiate with the Saudi leadership about the kingdom providing humanitarian assistance in Yemen.


The Risks Of Stability

Dealing with Saudi Arabia in building a more stable Middle East which in turn might shape the current Saudi behaviour does however have obstacles. An immediate outcome will not come easily The normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel is still a hard nut to crack. MBS is not repulsive to the Abraham Accords and a strategic approach to Israel, especially given their shared concern over the Iranian nuclear program and the Vienna and Doha negotiations on the revival of the JCPOA 2.0 nuclear agreement. But there is still a difference between how a country`s leadership perceives a potential ally and how that country`s population views such a rapprochement. The Saudi people have a majority in favour of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative which conditions any normalization of relations with the State of Israel of the latter's endorsement of the establishment of a future Palestinian state. Joe Biden is willing to forge the ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel and bring the kingdom into a future security network based on the Abraham Accords, but cannot do much if an overwhelmed MBS by the people`s opposing reaction to any such deal with Israel is not giving a chance.

In Yemen, the situation is much more sensitive. Unlike relations with Israel that depend on Saudi public opinion, the Saudi rapprochement with the Iran-sponsored Houthi group has direct national security considerations. Joe Biden is willing to extend the truce in Yemen beyond July between the Houthi and the Saudi-backed government forces but cannot push too hard for a truce that might not be seen as advantageous to border security by Riyadh leadership. The problem with the current truce is that it does not address cross-border security between the Houthi`s Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Houthi are requesting Saudi Arabia to halt the airstrikes and the withdrawal off all foreign forces from the country as a precondition for the ending of Houthi`s own cross-border missile attacks. This cassation of all cross-border attacks is also a precondition for initiating a peace process in Yemen as pushed forward by the Houthi themselves. But the devil was in details within the current truce and that detail is what is going on in Yemen on the ground. The current agreement is seen by anti-Houthi forces in Yemen as advantageous to the Islamist group in its internal struggle for control of larger portions of Yemen. By ending the airstrikes against the Houthi, Saudi Arabia is seen as ceding ground to a rival group controlled by Iran. A Yemen fully controlled by the Houthi in the absence of a comprehensive agreement on border security provisions would be a political and security disaster for Riyadh and a considerable gain for Iran. In Riyadh, Joe Biden cannot push too much for an extension of a truce that might end in bad terms for Saudi Arabia. The most Biden can do is to help address the necessity of a comprehensive dialogue between Sanaa and Riyadh on border security provisions. In their absence, the truce is itself fragile and short-lived until Saudi Arabia resumes bombing campaigns in Houthi-controlled Yemeni areas.


One Visit, One Doctrine, No Political Shortcomings, Only Gains

With potential shortcomings on improving the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and extending the truce in Yemen, Joe Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia might be perceived as a diplomatic failure and a bad image by compromising his principles on a more human rights-cantered foreign policy. In turn, MBS might end up in maintaining the status quo with an official handshake from the US president legitimizing his rule. But this image should not be commented on as such. Instead, the picture of Joe Biden meeting MBS could be presented as ``The Biden Doctrine for the Middle East begins in Saudi Arabia``. Joe Biden could build up a new `Carter Doctrine` for the Middle East where human rights are central to any US commitment in the region and Saudi Arabia in particular. In turn, Saudi Arabia will learn that the rebellious child must change his behaviour in order to be treated properly by his parent. Joe Biden might try to stage a normalization of relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv and urge Saudi Arabia to address the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and start negotiations with the Houthi over cross-border security provisions. Without any success on these issues, Biden's visit might end up linking future US security commitments to the region by how regimes improve their human rights situation. This in turn will present Joe Biden as keeping his promises on a more human rights-based foreign policy just before the US Mid-term elections this fall. There is no better way to present a new doctrine for the region than through an official visit to the region. And there is no better place to present it than in the region`s most important Arab country. There are no diplomatic and political shortcomings in this visit, only gains.



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