April 16, 2021 | Commentary Magazine

Diplomatic Arson in the Middle East

The Biden administration’s torching of U.S.-Saudi relations
April 16, 2021 | Commentary Magazine

Diplomatic Arson in the Middle East

The Biden administration’s torching of U.S.-Saudi relations

The Biden administration says it intends to engage less in the Middle East. Several senior officials and surrogates repeated this point during the new presidency’s first 100 days. Yet the administration went out of its way in its first few weeks to make three consequential moves in the Middle East that may backfire on America for years to come.

On February 4, the White House announced that the Pentagon would cease its support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign against the Iran-backed Houthi militia that has terrorized Yemenis and Saudis for the better part of a decade. Two weeks later, on February 16, the State Department rescinded the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation of the Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah). Ten days after that, the Biden administration instructed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to release a report that confirmed the Saudi government’s responsibility for the brutal 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

Democrats have criticized the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen for years, pointing to air strikes that have killed large numbers of civilians, including children. They steadfastly opposed, ostensibly on humanitarian grounds, the Trump administration’s January 11 FTO designation of the Houthis only days before Biden was set to take office. And since Khashoggi’s killing, they have sought to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the horrific assassination and mutilation of a U.S. resident because it was approved by the Saudi government at the highest levels.

Nonetheless, these three moves were surprising because of their close proximity in time and just how quickly they happened. Taken together with announcements that the U.S. is removing military assets from the Kingdom and re-entering diplomacy with Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival Iran, Riyadh today must feel a frigid wind blowing from Washington.

Now, the Saudis undoubtedly have made terrible mistakes in recent years. But the long-term impact of the Biden administration’s actions could be wide-reaching and deleterious to American interests, especially given the extraordinary changes the region has seen in just the past year.

On August 13, 2020, Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates made history and peace at the same time with the signing of the Abraham Accords. The Accords marked the culmination of years of quiet cooperation and diplomacy between Israel and the Gulf States that was steadily drawn out of the shadows by the Trump administration. Shortly after the White House ceremony, Sudan and Morocco followed suit. Other Arab League states such as Oman and Mauritania could still follow.

It is no secret that these states found common cause with Israel not out of a deep commitment to Zionism but rather because they all believe in the necessity of opposing Iranian and Sunni extremism. They also want a politically stable and prosperous Middle East, with a prominent role for the region’s traditional monarchies and nondemocratic regimes that increasingly view Palestinian nationalism as less than a core national interest.

It is crucial to note that these countries would not have made peace without Saudi encouragement. In fact, they took risks for peace as part of a calculated Saudi strategy. By testing the political waters with their allies, the Saudis watched to see whether the political fallout was enough to dissuade them from peacemaking, themselves.

To be sure, a formal Saudi-Israel peace is still possible. But the Saudis are reassessing their options now that America is no longer cheering from the sidelines. It’s also fair to wonder whether the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco will remain committed to peace deals given the changes in the political winds.

The Abraham Accords may not be the only strategic gains to suffer. The Eastern Mediterranean countries also wonder what their future holds. The Saudis, with significant assistance from the UAE, have invested heavily to counter Qatar- and Turkey-backed Islamist violence in Libya, to help stabilize Egypt, and to deter Turkey from wreaking havoc with illegal drilling for gas.

Israel, Greece, and Cyprus eagerly welcomed the inclusion of the Gulf Arab states into their budding strategic alliance. Following Iran-backed attacks on Saudi oil facilities in 2019, Greece deployed Patriot missile-defense systems to the kingdom, along with 130 troops. And the Saudis were remarkably vocal in their support of Cyprus amid illegal Turkish drilling in the Cypriot exclusive economic zone. The UAE, responding to Greece’s maritime disputes with Turkey last year, dispatched four F-16s to Crete. The UAE even suggested it might sell fighter jets to Greece.

But Hellenic and Israeli diplomats are now quietly wondering whether the Saudi-led Arab states will remain committed to their Mediterranean outreach after America’s dramatic and undiplomatic rebuke of Riyadh. To their relief, Saudi jet fighters arrived in Greece in March for joint drills. Delegations from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE also attended the Philia Forum, dubbed a “bridge” between Europe and the Middle East, in Athens at the end of February.

For now, Saudi Arabia appears committed to the Eastern Mediterranean. But without American encouragement and involvement, the region could lose a prominent and unlikely advocate for a greater Eastern Mediterranean that reaches from the Persian Gulf to the Balkans. Should the Saudis walk, it will be Russia, Turkey, and perhaps China that gain.

Similarly, the Saudi role in the Red Sea region is now an open question. The importance of this region cannot be overstated. According to one estimate, the undersea fiber-optic cables beneath the Red Sea carry up to 30 percent of the world’s Internet traffic. Millions of barrels per day of crude oil and other petroleum products pass through the waterway, not to mention food and other agricultural products. While the U.S. Navy is the ultimate guarantor of this traffic, Saudi Arabia has done its part to help secure this vital area. Admittedly, this is all in the Saudi national interest. Still, its contributions can’t be ignored.

In 2018, the Saudis (with significant behind-the-scenes assistance from the UAE) hosted the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea in the signing of a peace agreement that ended decades of discord. Shortly thereafter, Eritrea and Djibouti inked a similar agreement, with Saudi Arabia and its partners pledging economic assistance. The Saudis also held a summit with leaders from seven Red Sea nations, including Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, and Jordan, to deal with issues such as piracy and smuggling. The region is far from stable (particularly amid the Tigray crisis in Ethiopia and water disputes between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt) but the Saudis have become unlikely stewards of a more reasonable future.

The Saudis have also recently become reluctant leaders in the effort to shape the future of Iraq. After years of shunning Baghdad because of perceived Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia in 2015 reopened its embassy in Iraq after a 30-year hiatus. This was followed by the opening of a consulate in Basra in 2019—which came with $1 billion in aid.

Saudi Arabia not only serves as a bulwark against Islamic State and Iranian-regime influence in Iraq. It is stepping in more and more for Washington, where politicians on both left and right increasingly look to escape the turmoil of the Middle East. In other words, the Saudis have—perhaps against their own interests—enabled some American isolationist impulses.

The same may be said for what Saudi Arabia has been doing—admittedly poorly—in Yemen. Following Yemen’s political collapse and the eruption of internecine conflict in 2015, the Saudis led a coalition to counter the Houthi militia. A debate rages about the extent of Iranian support to the group in the early years of this conflict. Indeed, some argue that Saudi Arabia pushed the Houthis into the arms of Iran. Regardless of how it happened, Iran now enjoys significant influence in Yemen through the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia seeks to challenge that.

In private briefings, Saudi and Israeli officials independently confirm that Iranian arms are flowing to the Houthis at an astounding clip. With insufficient maritime interdictions by the international community, and given Oman’s failure to halt overland smuggling, the weapons have increased in lethality and sophistication. Drones, missiles, and other advanced weapons are deployed against the Yemeni population with horrific results, as well as on Saudi oil facilities, not to mention Saudi civilian areas.

The Saudi military headquarters for Yemen operations is an impressive-looking war room. I visited it in 2018. Multiple screens and high-tech communications gave the impression that the Saudis were operating on the cutting edge. A small U.S. intelligence annex abutted the room for a time. But none of this prevented errant Saudi air strikes. Bombs intended for Iran-backed Houthi targets instead repeatedly killed many innocent Yemenis. This officially explains the recent U.S. decision to halt its support for the war effort. And it also likely explains the new emphasis on aid provision in Yemen over counterterrorism sanctions against the Houthis.

But the recent U.S. decisions only exacerbate Saudi Arabia’s Yemen problem. Riyadh’s rationale for war in Yemen is legitimate, even if its warfighting is decidedly subpar. The mission, if executed properly, can help bring stability to the Persian Gulf region and also serve American interests, such as preventing spikes in the price of oil because of Houthi attacks. More broadly, should Yemen succumb to the Houthis, it would become a heavily armed and more lawless version of Lebanon, but with a stranglehold on the Bab al-Mandeb Strait—the narrow maritime chokepoint between the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

The Biden administration’s policy of relative indifference to Iran-backed terrorism in Yemen is deeply troubling to Riyadh. Equally troubling is the U.S. decision to re-engage in nuclear diplomacy with Iran. The Saudis are thus grappling with two big questions: Will Washington ignore Saudi red lines and make key non-nuclear concessions to Iran in areas such as Yemen in order to seal a deal? And in the process, will Iran out-negotiate its American counterparts again, as it did in 2015?

Should the Saudis see both outcomes as likely, they may give up trying to shape their region. Riyadh would instead intensify consideration for its own nuclear program. Indeed, the country’s leaders have vowed that if Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia will, too. A nuclear arms race would soon consume the Middle East. And if Saudi Arabia no longer sees America as a partner to counter Iranian malign activity across the region, Riyadh could revert to old security paradigms that have proved disastrous in the past—namely, the export of violent ideologies abroad.

There was a time, not long ago, when Saudi Arabia deserved to be jettisoned from the American orbit. After the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, the American public got a crash course in Wahhabism, the backward Islamist ideology that the Saudis exported worldwide, radicalizing Muslims against the United States, Israel, Christians, Jews, and Western society, writ large. That 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis didn’t help matters.

The George W. Bush administration had every reason to turn its back on the Saudis, or to even make it a target in the War on Terror. Despite its outsized importance in global energy markets, the country had every appearance of an American enemy. I was among those calling for an American shift away from Saudi Arabia at the time. And many in Washington who today are publicly spurning the Saudis were the kingdom’s defenders.

The kingdom’s detractors today embrace the idea of empowering Iran at the expense of its Sunni neighbors. The kingdom’s defenders, by contrast, see Saudi Arabia as an important bulwark against Iran. This is the simplified version of the story. But a better argument for giving Saudi Arabia an opportunity to earn its place in the American alliance system stems from its ambitious reform plan, launched in 2016, known as “Vision 2030.”

Simply put, the goal of Vision 2030 is to drag Saudi Arabia out of its antiquated oil economy and to shed its ascetic Wahhabi ideology in the process. Under the leadership of the kingdom’s impulsive crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (commonly referred to as MBS), the country set its sights on improved education, a shift away from the economic model in which the state rains money on the populace, and a raft of reforms that would better serve its own people, who are skewing younger each year and are hungry for change.

The process has been profoundly imperfect, but nonetheless astounding. Radical clerics who for years dominated public opinion in the kingdom have become marginalizedWomen are driving. The country’s ubiquitous religious police, the mutawa, has been de-fanged. And the export of Wahhabi ideology is down, with madrassas and other traditional Saudi-funded hotbeds of extremist education shuttering across the Muslim world.

The effort is far from complete. Women still lack the same rights as men. Citizens are jailed for political reasons. And there is no free press to cover it. The country is still a monarchy in every meaningful sense. But the changes are nonetheless jaw-dropping to those familiar with the country’s history of backwardness. The Saudis invited me to see it for myself, and while much work remains, I can attest to the change.

My greatest skepticism related to how the Saudis view Jews. If they couldn’t cease to vilify adherents of other faiths, then their reforms would be short-lived and insignificant. The Saudis seem to understand this. The government-funded Muslim World League was for years a loathsome NGO that promoted vile anti-Semitism. But in recent years, under the leadership of cleric Mohammed al-Issa, the NGO has conducted pointed outreach to Jews, signaling major shifts in its views. The Muslim World League has even launched a campaign decrying Holocaust denial, representing a remarkable shift from its pre-9/11 platform.

Admittedly, much of this is driven by geopolitics. As the Gulf Arab states, with Saudi encouragement, drew closer to Israel, the Saudis set the stage for their own pivot. The kingdom’s leaders thus prepared their people, who for years had feasted upon a steady diet of Islamic extremism, anti-Israel venom, and vitriolic anti-Semitism, to view Israel and Jews in a different light. It’s not at all clear that the Saudi public has actually changed. After all, these beliefs were drilled into their heads for decades. But they have also not rejected this “new” perspective on monotheistic faiths, at least not that we can see.

But Vision 2030 and the accompanying Saudi reform process is not an interfaith issue. Indeed, the real impact of Saudi reform is likely to be seen in Sunni-majority countries that take their cues from the custodian of Islam’s two holiest mosques and the leader of the Sunni Islamic world. This could lead to greater respect for women’s rights in Afghanistan. It could help pave the way for more moderate Islamic policies in Pakistan. It could give greater voice to moderates in Indonesia and Malaysia. Two decades into the war on terrorism, at long last, the Saudis may be on the verge of helping America win the hearts and minds of the extremists they incubated through their Wahhabi project.

The transformation of Saudi society from a wealthy but backward Bedouin kingdom to a modern Middle East power was the brainchild of one man: Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Vision 2030 is his vision. The implementation, however imperfect, has also been his. Of course, the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi is his responsibility, too. This was made abundantly clear by the declassified report released in February.

MBS is, in short, a deeply flawed reformer. Indeed, some dispute that he is one at all. But if more Saudi reforms are to be implemented, MBS is the man who will see to them. The brash and ambitious royal designed it that way. His plan was to draw closer to Washington with reforms that he oversaw. It was to be managed and incremental, but nonetheless meaningful change. And it would take place over the course of his lifetime. Remember, he is only 35.

Today, U.S. policy is to shun him. Admittedly, the Biden White House stopped short of sanctions against him or imposing a visa ban. But he is persona non grata in this White House. And it is unclear whether that will change during this administration. It’s also unclear whether MBS himself wishes to engage with the Biden White House after its resurrection of the sordid two-year-old story of murder. Yes, all fingers point to him. But this was already known in 2018 when Turkey leaked the story. The Biden administration released the report for no clear or tangible gain. The goal was to placate the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. And their goal was nothing less than humiliation.

America’s Saudi foreign policy thus sits at a peculiar crossroads. Donald Trump’s policy was transactional. He sought out the Saudis for arms deals and regional peace pacts, and seemed content to sweep the Khashoggi affair under the rug. Apart from designating the Houthis, he largely sidestepped the Saudi war in Yemen. The policy of many other presidents was similarly transactional, with the goal of maintaining a steady and affordable supply of oil. It’s easy to forget how the Saudis can still wield their oil wealth to America’s advantage or disadvantage, as they have done many times in the past.

George W. Bush understood this, but he charted a policy of reform nonetheless. He pushed the Saudis to join America in the ideological battle against Islamic extremism. Bush could easily have banished the kingdom from the U.S. alliance structure. But he didn’t. He envisioned transformation for this desert kingdom that holds such importance for the region. Oil may have been part of his calculus, but his goals were loftier than energy.

The Biden policy is neither transactional nor transformational. It is punitive. It provides no path for reform and no path to please. Only a Saudi acquiescence to an American-brokered Iran nuclear deal, which would likely include a nod to Iranian hegemonic ambitions, might reset relations under the current circumstances. This is anathema to Riyadh’s vision of its own future.

With bilateral ties at their all-time nadir, Saudi Arabia must now consider its next moves. Four or even eight years of the new status quo is too long to be out in the cold. Should the kingdom find itself repeatedly shunned in the American-led order, the Saudis may need to look elsewhere. The Saudis will not find another patron and protector that will encourage transformation. But they can rather easily find a new patron, one that is hungry for oil and who will be content with transactional ties. Indeed, amid an escalating great-power competition between Washington and Beijing, the Middle Kingdom is eyeing a huge win in the Middle East. This would be a huge loss for Washington, and an unforced one, at that.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues. 

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Issues:

Arab Politics Gulf States Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Turkey