Multilateralism is the Key to the Biden Administration’s Saudi Relationship
Prior to his election, US President Joe Biden promised a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia, calling the Middle Eastern country a pariah over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Canceling pending arms sales to the Saudis suggested that Biden would make good on his promise to reorient relations with Riyadh. However, the release of a report by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) directly implicating Saudi Arabian Crown Prince (and alleged de facto leader) Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, and President Biden’s subsequent refusal to act on it, seems to have dashed these hopes. The Biden-Harris Administration insists that the US-Saudi relationship is a tightrope worth walking. But Saudi Arabia should be held to account and President Biden and his team still have tools they can use to pressure the Kingdom to change its behavior.
At the moment, the United States cannot afford to completely alienate the Saudi government and indeed it shouldn’t; Saudi intelligence cooperation with the United States and Israel on regional terror threats and its leadership of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are both crucial to US regional and global security concerns. Some experts have largely conceded that there isn’t much President Biden can do; walking the thin line of promoting US values in the Middle East while simultaneously defending US strategic interests often requires partnering with Saudi Arabia. The administration itself reportedly never even seriously entertained the notion of sanctioning or otherwise punishing MBS, calling it ‘’too complicated’’ as the United States tries to maintain its influence over the Saudi government in regional affairs.
But American and Saudi interests have been diverging as of late, and publication of the DNI report is a prime opportunity to show the Saudis that the United States is acknowledging this reality. On human rights, Saudi efforts to crush dissent at home and abroad run counter to the values America seeks to promote. Not responding directly to these violations, especially when its own residents and workers are the victims, sends the perverse signal that Mohammed bin Salman can pursue and murder Saudi dissidents abroad with impunity. US efforts to promote freedom of dissent and the press look hollow when the best Washington can muster is some passport bans.
President Biden has repeatedly stated the importance of multilateralism to his foreign policy; it‘s here where he can effectively punish MBS without damaging the core US-Saudi relationship. The Biden Administration should work with countries with closely aligned human rights values to mimic US passport bans and sanctions on Saudi Arabian officials while passively refusing to receive MBS. These countries, most likely Western European and East Asian nations, can retain their working relationships with Saudi Arabia, but don’t have to entertain its leaders until they’ve stopped hunting down dissidents. Biden’s approach has already extracted some minor concessions from Saudi Arabia, but they’re worth little unless the United States and its allies can pressure the Kingdom further.
The pressure shouldn’t be restricted to travel bans. Saudi Arabia relies on foreign arms purchases for both its national defense and its role in the devastating Yemen conflict. While the United States has halted current weapons sales aiding Saudi Arabia in Yemen, it has not halted other arms sales unrelated to the Yemen conflict. To completely sever without question its culpability in that conflict, the United States should refuse to sell any arms that could possibly be used in the Yemen conflict and, using a multilateral approach, urge the United Kingdom, France, and other allies to halt its arms exports to Saudi Arabia. The United States could even take the drastic measure of removing Patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia – systems meant to defend against Houthi rockets – if Riyadh isn’t making a good faith effort to end the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Given its importance, the United States doesn’t have a lot of room to completely reorient the US-Saudi relationship. However, it’s clear that the Biden Administration isn’t using its full toolkit to appropriately pressure Saudi Arabia in the area of human rights. President Biden contrasted his foreign policy sharply with his predecessor by stressing multilateral solutions to global issues. He needs to practice what he preaches in order to effect valuable change from Saudi Arabia to support American values and interests.