The Biden administration has announced the U.S. bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia is undergoing a “recalibration.” It’s just not clear exactly what that means for one of this country’s most important and complex partnerships.
Having “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law” during his first phone call with Saudi King Salman, President Biden halted material support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, released a U.S. intelligence summary report implicating Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman — widely known as MBS — in approving the operation “to capture or kill” Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, imposed visa restrictions on 76 Saudis who were involved in targeting dissidents overseas and sanctioned the prince’s own security detail.
But the U.S.-Saudi relationship, a driving force for stability in the Persian Gulf and a counter to Iranian and growing Chinese and Russian regional designs, deserves more than a set of perfunctory sanctions and a declassified CIA report, whose analytical conclusions were well known two years ago when the Trump administration placed travel bans on 16 Saudi officials tied to the Khashoggi assassination, including alleged mastermind Saad al Qatani.
Washington and Riyadh have enjoyed decades of close cooperation — through the Cold War, the first and second Gulf wars, and the global war on terror.
But there have also been periods of severe strain, most recently when a radicalized Saudi military aviation student shot and killed three U.S. sailors at Pensacola Naval Base in 2019. Saudi Arabia has faced intense criticism over its human rights record, including the targeting of dissidents and the refusal to provide full accountability for Khashoggi’s murder. Saudi Arabia also allegedly sent so-called tiger teams to kill dissident Iyad al Baghdadi in Norway and former Minister of Interior senior counterterrorism adviser Saad al Jabri in Canada.
Beyond a statement rejecting a complete rupture of relations, the Biden team has yet to explain how its Saudi “recalibration” fits into the larger national security strategy.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship, like so many others, resembles an overlapping Venn diagram, with a shaded space of shared interests, an unshaded space where our interests will never intersect and a gray area where diplomacy can achieve mutually beneficial results. Key to any recalibration thus will be the gray area, where American diplomacy should focus on three key areas.
First, the U.S. should seek to build on the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords, an extraordinary diplomatic achievement, which has the potential to transform the region by ending Israel’s isolation, stimulating economic growth and countering Iran. As the center of Islam, Saudi Arabia remains the key to Middle East peace, which would turbo-boost MBS’s signature “Vision 2030” plan to overhaul both the Saudi economy and Saudi society.
Second, the U.S. should lay out the potential costs to Riyadh of tarnishing its image and investment potential by its ruthless, violent attacks on dissenters domestic and abroad. That may mean limiting Saudi access to sensitive technology and intelligence, which no one would want to see diverted to support the hunting down of regime opponents overseas.
Third, while recognizing Saudi Arabia’s right to manage its own domestic affairs, the U.S. should push for fair and lawful treatment of Mohammed bin Nayef (MBN), displaced as crown prince by MBS in 2017 and reportedly under house arrest. After 9/11 — an operation carried out largely by a group of Saudi nationals — it was MBN as interior minister who transformed Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism capability. His ministry, including Mr. al Jabri and many officials still on the job, took the fight to al Qaeda and saved countless Saudi and American lives. Theirs was the model for an extraordinarily effective U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism partnership, one on which we will need to rely for decades to come.
The approach of Ramadan offers a great opportunity for the Saudi government to demonstrate its respect for human rights by allowing Mr. al Jabri’s two children, who have been detained to compel their father’s return to face charges of corruption, to leave the country. Better for Saudi Arabia and Mr. al Jabri to argue their case in international court without unseemly pressure hanging over innocent children.
The Middle East remains a Petri dish enabling the growth of ISIS, Iranian and al Qaeda terror threats. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia will need to detect and preempt those threats. Let’s hope Mr. Biden’s recalibration brings a diplomatic full-court press to repair and expand the Saudi alliance, rather than break it.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the CIA. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.
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