White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced yesterday that President Joe Biden will “recalibrate” diplomacy with Saudi Arabia. In effect, this means the White House will demote engagement with Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) who, after the murder of dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi, has become a bête noire for his progressive base. “The President’s counterpart is King Salman, and I expect that, in appropriate time, he would have a conversation with him,” Psaki explained.
Psaki’s statement suggests that within the Biden administration, ignorance trumps reality. MBS’ alleged order to kill Khashoggi was inexcusable but the main reason why President Donald Trump dealt with the crown prince was not because he sought to excuse MBS’ actions, but rather because King Salman reportedly has Alzheimer’s disease or dementia and is increasingly incapacitated. That Psaki appears not to know this suggests that Biden’s team is talking amongst themselves to the exclusion of those in the Middle East. In effect, Biden risks creating what handicaps so many regimes in the Middle East: a circle of sycophancy and ideological conformity that hastens a retreat from realism.
Biden’s team is sincere in their concern for human rights, but targeting MBS alone does not make sense if Biden believes such rights are universal: Iranian extraterritorial assassinations are more frequent and numerous than Saudi Arabia’s, yet Biden and Blinken appear ready to give Tehran a free pass. Iran’s recent execution of star athletes was as odious as Khashoggi’s murder, for example; the biggest difference between the two cases was that Saudi Arabia had shame and tried to cover up its crime, while the Iranian leadership appeared proud of its actions.
Within Washington, Saudi Arabia has become a political football. Inherent in the Democrats’ desire to punish the Kingdom, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding: While MBS promised reform, a reformed absolute monarchy is not a democracy; rather, it is just a reformed absolute monarchy. MBS should not get a free pass on his actions and his imprisonment of dissidents like Raif Badawi and Loujain al-Hathloul, but he has sought to modernize Saudi Arabia by loosening social restrictions and the traditional powers of the clergy and religious police. He knows well that vested conservative interests have their knives out for him. Much palace intrigue marked MBS’ rise but, should he fall, the result might be re-empowerment of reactionary elements. Contrary to Biden’s assumption, the most contentious aspects of Saudi policy—its involvement in Yemen, for example—will not change if the White House successfully marginalizes MBS. After all, MBS was not responsible for Saudi Arabia’s 2009 incursion into Yemen, and he was just ten years old during the 1995 border skirmishes. A new crown prince, however, may reverse the rights MBS has granted women and young Saudis and lead to a generational retrenchment of reactionary, anti-modern elements.
Further, if MBS believes Biden seeks to downgrade or even end a 75-year partnership between the United States and the Saudi kingdom, he is more likely to look elsewhere for support than forfeit his own aspirations to power. MBS can be confident that neither China nor Russia will harp on his human rights record. It is this dynamic that is most dangerous: While Biden essentially acts as if the United States and Saudi Arabia are alone in the sandbox, MBS recognizes that he has alternatives. Should the White House push Saudi Arabia away, progressives who prioritize human rights will have thrown the baby out with the bathwater: Not only will they have less leverage to affect change in the Kingdom, but they also will have ended a security partnership that the United States has repeatedly relied upon at times of unexpected crises.
Trump’s approach to foreign policy was erratic. He despised alliances and treated partners with disrespect. During his campaign, Biden promised to restore America’s place in the world. He may abuse different American allies and he may have more polish, but his lack of professionalism and his tendency to engage in personal spats suggests he has more in common with Trump than he may care to admit.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. He also regularly teaches classes at sea about Middle East conflicts, culture, terrorism, and the Horn of Africa to deployed US Navy and Marine units.